Reforming Calvinism, pt. 21: Irresistible Grace (The Logic of Hell)

In this final post on reforming Calvinism’s doctrine of irresistible grace, I arrive at a burning question—perhaps the burning question—that constitutes for many the deal-breaker when it comes to an evangelical reworking of Reformed soteriology. With its emphasis on the “one-for-all” dynamic of Christ’s person and work (i.e. in Christ all people are represented in his election, incarnation, and atonement), it seems to imply, if not downright demand, the heresy of final universal salvation. Is this indeed the ultimate defeater of the revised form of Calvinism that I have been advocating throughout this series?

I can think of no better response to this question than the one that T.F. Torrance gives in his introduction the Reformed confessions and catechisms in The School of Faith (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 1996, pp.cxiii-cxvi). Torrance writes (and I quote at length):

If Christ had not come, if the Incarnation had not taken place, and things between man and God had been and are allowed to take their course as a result of man’s estrangement from God and God’s judgement upon man, man would disappear into nothing. It belongs to the nature of sin that it is alienation from God, and therefore that it is alienation from the source of all being in the Creator. There is nothing that the rebel or the sinner wants less than to be laid hold of by God in spite of his sin and be restrained from his sinful movement away from God, but that is precisely what happened in the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that God refused to hold back his love, and His loving affirmation of His creation, that He refused to let man go the way of his sin, from alienation to alienation, and so ultimately into non-being. The Incarnation means that God Himself condescended to enter into our alienated human existence, to lay hold of it, to bind it in union with Himself; and the consummation of the Incarnation in the death and resurrection means that the Son of God died for all men, and so once and for all constituted men as men upon whom God had poured out His life and love, so that men are for ever laid hold of by God and affirmed in their being as His creatures. They can no more escape from His love and sink into non-being than they can constitute themselves men for whom Christ has not died. How can God go back upon the death of His dear Son? How can God undo the Incarnation crucified5and go back upon Himself? How can God who is Love go back upon the pouring out of His love once and for all and so cease to be Himself?

That is the decisive, final thing about the whole Incarnation including the death of Christ, that it affects all men, indeed the whole of creation, for the whole of creation is now put on a new basis with God, the basis of a Love that does not withhold itself but only overflows in pure unending Love. That is why creation still continues in being, and that is why man still exists, for God has not given him up, but on the contrary poured out His love upon him unreservedly once and for ever, decidedly and finally affirming man as His child, eternally confirming the creation as His own handiwork. God does not say Yes, and No, for all that He has done is Yes and Amen in Christ. That applies to every man, whether he will or no. He owes his very being to Christ and belongs to Christ, and in that he belongs to Christ he has his being only from Him and in relation to Him.

All this is not to say that a man may not suffer damnation, for he may in spite of all reject Christ and refuse God’s grace. How that is possible, we simply cannot understand; that a sinner face to face with the infinite love of God should yet rebel against it and choose to take his own way, isolating himself from that love—that is the bottomless mystery of evil before which we can only stand aghast, the surd which we cannot rationalise, the enigma of Judas. But it happens. Just as it is by the very breath God gives us that we sin against Him, so it is by the very being that a man is given in and through Christ that he may yet turn his back upon Christ and deny Him, and so shatter himself against the love of God that will not let him go just because it does not cease to love. But this does mean that if a man irrevocably chooses the way of his sinful self-will and suffers damnation, he does not and cannot go into non-being, disappearing into annihilation, for the Incarnation and death of Christ cannot be undone. The sinner cannot undo the fact that Christ has gathered him into a relation of being with Him, and has once and for all laid hold of him in His life and death and resurrection.

This may be stated in another way. The sinner cannot isolate himself from God by escaping into an area where God’s love does not love and where he can be left to himself. Even in hell he cannot be left to himself for there he is still apprehended by the fact that God loves, that His love negates all that is not love just by being love, that His love refuses to allow the sinner to escape being loved and therefore resists the sinner’s will to isolate himself from that love. His being in hell is not the result of God’s decision to damn him, but the result of his own decision to choose himself against the love of God and therefore of the negative decision of God’s love to oppose his refusal of God’s love just by being Love. This negative decision of God’s love is the wrath of the Lamb, that is to say, the once and for all fact that Christ has died for the sins of the world, the finalising of the love in an eternally decisive deed, which just because it cannot be undone stands irresolutely opposed to all that is not love, or that resists it. Just because the love of God has once and for all drawn all men into the circle of its own loving, it has thereby rejected all that rejects God’s love. It does not reject by ceasing to love but precisely by continuing to love and therein rejecting all that rejects love. Therefore the sinner in hell cannot escape the fact that he is loved, cannot escape into being left to himself, and therefore even in choosing himself so as for ever to be himself, he cannot escape from himself as one loved, so that he is for ever imprisoned in his own refusal of being loved and indeed that is the very hell of it.

Words and thoughts fail us when we try to think like this. We can only stammer for we hardly know what we say, but must we not ask what is the relation of Christ of those who ultimately refuse Him? And since we cannot think it out to the end, if only because the end, the eschaton, is still to come, must we not yet say, that ultimate refusal of Christ cannot undo the fact that the sinner was made brother to Christ by His Incarnation, and bought with the blood of Christ, and in that He died for him and even rose again for him, must we not also say that when he stands before God at the final judgement it is what Christ has done for him that raises him to judgement? Such implications may baffle us until we clap our hands upon our mouth, but whichever way we turn we are still faced with the inescapable fact that the Incarnation and the Cross involve the being of all men, so that they have their humanity only from Him.

This is certainly a dense offering from Torrance, one that alone warrants a book-length treatment to expound all of its underpinnings, nuances, and implications. Nevertheless, I only want to add a couple of comments in conclusion. First, Torrance helps us to see that far from leading to universalism, the universal scope of the incarnation and the atonement is actually the only way to make sense of the stark reality of an eternal hell. Most other explanations either seem to make God out to be cruel and unjust, or they elevate God’s justice to the point of stripping him of his other essential perfections such as mercy, grace, compassion, and love. Torrance’s account, on the other hand, provides a compelling logic for hell’s reality and eternality. It is precisely because God has bound himself to all humanity in virtue of his loving assumption of that humanity in the incarnation of his Son that none can simply slip into non-existence (or be annihilated). The Word became flesh so that this could never happen! Therefore, God could no more permit the dissolution or effect the annihilation of anyone than he could, as Torrance says, undo the incarnation itself. What is more, the atonement that Christ carried out in his state of incarnation (thus implying its universal scope) demonstrates the infinite measure of the love of the God who pledged his very self in death for the sake of humanity. Those who reject this omnipotent love can only, as Torrance states, “shatter themselves” against the love that will not let them go. In rejecting the love of God in Christ, they find themselves on the shadow side of the cross where they are rejected by the love that opposes all that is opposed to it.

Second, Torrance dislodges the mystery of damnation from some mysterious, hidden pretemporal decree and relocates it to its proper place: in the mystery of sin. This is “the enigma of Judas”, an incomprehensible rejection of the love of God that was first displayed in the choice of Adam and Eve to rebel in Eden. There is no satisfying way to explain how or why Adam and Eve rebelled, and likewise there is no satisfying way to explain how or why anyone else would, or will forever, reject the love of God in Christ. Sin is by nature irrational, and thus it is by definition impossible to find a rationale for it. If we could rationally explain sin, then we would empty sin of the very thing that makes it what it is. We can only, as Torrance cautions, “stand aghast” and “clap our hands upon our mouth”. While this will certainly not satisfy those who press for tidy logical systems, it is the only answer that can be given when we peer into the bottomless pit of evil, of what Paul calls in 2 Thessalonians 2 the “mystery of iniquity”. What we must not do is strip the incarnation and the atonement from its full range and power in the attempt to rationalize that which is ultimately irrational.

All this to say, the question of universalism should not stand in the way of reforming Calvinism!

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 20: Irresistible Grace (Conversion as Onto-Relationality)

In part 19 of my series on Reforming Calvinism, I argued that a better way to formulate the traditional Reformed doctrine of “irresistible grace” would be to ground it in Christ’s own vicarious reception of and victorious life in the Holy Spirit. That is to say, the grace of the Holy Spirit that brings sinners to conversion is not a quality that is granted to or infused in the human soul but the “irresistible” action of Christ himself in receiving the Spirit at his baptism, in living out a life of perfect holiness under the conditions of fallen humanity
through dependence on the Spirit, and in rising to an indestructible life by the power of the Spirit. Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARQuestions remain, of course, for while this may be set forth as the primary meaning of “irresistible grace”, it still does not explain how individuals come to partake of Christ’s Spirit-filled vicarious humanity through union with him. Asked simply: how does the conversion of sinners actually take place?

Instead of the typical Reformed answer that resorts to logico-causal, mechanistic, or quasi-sacramental frameworks (for this, see my previous posts in this series), I think that a more promising way forward is that which Torrance outlines in terms of “onto-relationality”. Onto-relationality is simply a fancy way of saying that we are who we are only in our relations with others. In other words, we do not exist as isolated individuals who can be considered apart from our personal relations with those other than ourselves; rather, our very existence as persons is dependent on the personal relations in which we are enmeshed from the very beginning. For Torrance, onto-relationality is a concept rooted ultimately in the Trinity: God the Father is not “Father” without the Son, and God the Son is not “Son” without the Father. A father is not a father who has not a son, and a son is not a son who has not a father. Inasmuch as we human beings possess personhood as image-bearers of God, we should not expect that our own existence would be any less onto-relational. This is, in fact, what we learn from the opening chapters of Genesis: God creates human beings to live in dependent communion with himself, and their attempt to forge for themselves an autonomous existence only leads to their destruction.

This concept of onto-relationality provides a fruitful way of understanding what occurs in the conversion of sinners through the work of the Holy Spirit. Gary Deddo helps us to connect the dots when he writes:

For Torrance the Holy Spirit is the ontological connection between the Father and Son in their Trinitarian life, between the Son and his human nature in the incarnation, and between us and the incarnate Son. These relations each in their proper way are all onto-relations, that is, they are all being constituting relations. Thus the atoning exchange which took place in Jesus renewed the very being of human nature. Torrance provides a profoundly ontological and so real, actual, personal, and relational grasp of the work of the Spirit. Torrance’s realistic and ontological interpretation makes intelligible the reality and actuality of our relationship to God which demands a real and actual response of praise and worship.

Through consideration of a number of ever more comprehensive themes Torrance further discovers the intensely personal nature of the relationship established with humanity in Christ. Union with Christ, understood in an onto-relation way, encapsulates his grasp of the reality of relationship. For Torrance salvation is the perfection and completion of our union and communion with the Father through the Son and in the Spirit. That union with God actualizes a reconciling exchange which affects us at the very core of our being, so that we become in relationship to God other than what we were on our own. For in that exchange we receive not some divine stuff or something external to us, but are united in person to Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit which was in Christ…

In the West, Torrance suggests, there has been a growing tendency to identify the Spirit with the human spirit and creativity. He insists that the Holy Spirit can in no way be identified with the human spirit or its experiences. The Spirit, although united to human subjectivity, can never be confused with it. The Spirit retains its sovereign lordship over and independent personhood within humanity…The Holy Spirit always belongs to God and not to us. We may be possessed by the Spirit but the Spirit is never in our possession.

It might seem that this view jeopardizes the integrity of humanity. But if humanity is constituted by its relation with its Creator and Redeemer, such that there is no such thing as human autonomy, then for Torrance such union and communion in the Holy Spirit is no threat to humanity but is its fulfillment. For the Spirit is mediated to us in and through the perfected humanity of Jesus Christ. The only thing threatened is a claim to human autonomy which leads to alienation from God and death. In the Spirit God does not overwhelm us. Rather than the loss of self the Spirit provides its completion…The Spirit perfects our humanity in our humanity on the basis of the humanity of Jesus Christ.[1]

Deddo’s elucidation of onto-relationality à la T.F. Torrance offers a way of conceiving the Spirit’s work in conversion that avoids, on the one hand, facile (and unbiblical!) recourse to some notion of libertarian free will and, on the other hand, the equally unbiblical idea of grace as a substance or quality imparted to human soul that “irresistibly” enables the decision and subsequent life of faith. In Deddo’s (and Torrance’s) estimation, no one is able to choose to believe the gospel through some innate capacity of their own, nor does the objective work of the Holy Spirit become subjectivized as the property of those who do believe. The Spirit is and ever remains, as the Nicene Creed states, “the Lord and Giver of life” who can never become the possession of those in whom he operates. Rather, it is the personal presence and action of the Spirit that, through the preaching of the gospel, mediates to us the presence and action of Christ in whom we become fully and finally personalized as human beings.

When the gospel is proclaimed to us, the Spirit brings us into a direct, personal relation with Christ himself, an act that renders us, for the first time, truly human, and that sets us free (free indeed!) to believe. This freedom, however, is not that which is usually intended by the phrase “free will”, for it is not a freedom to choose between two possible alternatives — either for or against Christ — but only a freedom to choose Christ! To be human — truly, fully, authentically, beautifully human as God originally intended when he created us in his image — does not involve the freedom to live in rebellion against him but only to live in communion with him! This is what the Spirit accomplishes through the preaching of the gospel: he establishes an onto-relation between Christ and ourselves through which the dehumanizing effects of sin are undone and the humanizing power of Christ’s vicarious humanity re-personalizes us so that we are freed to become the human beings that God created us to be in life-giving fellowship with himself.

Precisely how this occurs is a mystery, as mysterious as the Spirit’s conceiving of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. Yet that it occurs is something that we can surely affirm, just as surely as we can (and must!) affirm that Jesus was conceived of the Spirit in Mary’s womb. Ultimately, when it comes to the Spirit’s work in the conversion of sinners, we are brought to the edge of a fathomless chasm into whose bottomless depths we can peer but cannot plumb. In the final analysis, the conversion of sinners should be a cause for wonder and adoration rather than logic and speculation. May we praise God for his indescribable gift!

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[1] Gary W. Deddo, “The Holy Spirit in T.F. Torrance’s Theology”, in The Promise of Trinitarian Theology: Theologians in Dialogue with T.F. Torrance, ed. Elmer M. Colyer. (Lanham; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), pp. 93, 95.

The Reformed Theology of T.F. Torrance

Last week, Bobby Grow offered some thoughts on his blog The Evangelical Calvinist about his experiences in the infamous “Reformed Pub” discussion group on Facebook after he had been permanently expelled. I can empathize, not because I myself have been banned from the Pub (though I have been warned!), but because back when I was advocating specifically for Evangelical Calvinism, I too had been summarily dismissed from a number of Reformed/Calvinist groups for reasons similar to those recounted by Bobby. One of those reasons is that T.F. Torrance (like Karl Barth) is often considered in such circles as decidedly not Reformed, if not downright heretical. This saddens me, not only because it betrays a profound ignorance of the rich diversity present within the Reformed tradition (something capably demonstrated by Bobby on his blog), but also because it fails to grasp the deep connection that Torrance manifested throughout his life with his Reformed, and particularly Scottish Reformed, heritage. This, in turn, robs many Reformed Christians of the incalculable benefit (both critical and constructive) that Torrance’s theology brings to their shared tradition.

In light of this, I would like to quote (at length) from an article written by Robert J. Palma for the Reformed Review entitled “Thomas F. Torrance’s Reformed Theology”. As can be expected from an article with a title such as this, Palma begins by locating Torrance squarely within the distinguishable confines of the historic Reformed faith:

On the Christian theological landscape, Torrance’s theology is clearly situated within the Reformed tradition, very much bearing the imprint of the sixteenth century Reformation theology which gave birth to this tradition. Variations within the latter do, of course, demand a more exact fixing of his position. Ecclesiastically speaking, Torrance is a Reformed theologian in that he is a minister in the Kirk of Scotland, which he has also served as Moderator of the General Assembly (1976-77). However, torrance_2-1he would add that such does not insure that one is indeed a Reformed theologian, for “there is scarcely a Church that claims to be ecclesia reformata that can truthfully claim to be semper reformanda.”

Speaking historically and in terms of pedigree, and therefore more definitively, Torrance’s theology is to be called Reformed by virtue of its great indebtedness to John Calvin, to a lesser but significant extent to the Scottish Reformers, John Knox, John Craig, and Robert Bruce, and to the Swiss Reformed theologian, Karl Barth, called by Torrance “the one theological giant of the modern era.” But lest it be thought that he draws only upon Reformed theologians, it should be noted that he also makes considerable appeal to other major figures such as the Greek fathers, St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Athanasius the Great, his “favourite theologian,” and also the great mediaeval theologians, St. Anselm, with whom “scientific theology in the modern sense began,” and John Duns Scotus.

Speaking more substantively, and as a consequence of the above indebtedness, Torrance’s theology is distinctly Reformed in terms of the great weight he gives to classical Reformed doctrines. These doctrines include the primacy of God’s grace and the Covenant of Grace, election, justification by Christ atones and the supremacy of the Word of God. Although major components of the Reformed nature of Torrance’s theology have already been noted, to stop here would be to leave out what for Torrance is the sine qua non of a theology that is genuinely Reformed.

It is in terms of theological method that Torrance is so emphatically Reformed. Methodologically speaking, Torrance would have us above all attend to his striving to form and re-form theological formulations and conceptions out of obedience to the triune God, “the basic grammar of theology,” and to the “ruthless questioning of the Word of God.” He states that the “Reformers gave primacy to the Word, to hearing, and to the obedient response of the mind to God speaking personally through the Scriptures.” In keeping with the Reformers’ posture, “a true Reformed Church is subject only to the Word and is therefore the lord over its tradition because the Word is lord over its tradition.” The Reformed theologizing at which Professor Torrance has worked for many years was expressed in the 1981 Payton Lectures, given at Fuller Theological Seminary, as a “fluid dogmatics,” which he describes as follows:

Rather it is the kind of theology that develops under the compelling claims of the Word and Truth of God’s self-revelation and their demand for unceasing renewal and reform so that it may be a theology that serves the Word and Truth of God beyond itself with increasing fidelity and appropriateness.

What a Reformed method really and finally calls for then is that Reformation “passion for the truth from the side of the object which inculcated a repentant readiness to rethink all preconceptions and presuppositions, to put all traditional ideas to the test face to face with the object, and therefore a readiness to submit to radical testing and clarification.” Torrance states that “Reformed theology adopted as its systematic principle consistent obedience to Jesus Christ.” This is the primary sense in which Torrance would have his theology taken as a theology reformed.[1]

As Palma makes clear, Torrance evidenced a strong fidelity to the historic convictions of the Reformed tradition. Even when he seemed to push the boundaries of that tradition, he always did so in a way that embodied the central commitments that those boundaries were originally intended to safeguard. To be sure, he was not afraid to criticize aspects of confessional Reformed theology (especially when it came to the Westminster Confession), but his purpose in doing so was always to push further and deeper into the very essence of what made Reformed theology truly reformed. That is to say, whenever Torrance critiqued Reformed theology, it was in the name and for the good of Reformed theology. If the heart of the Reformed tradition is an unswerving commitment to the supreme authority of the Word of God, then, as Palma points out, Reformed theology can never harden itself into an immutable form without surrendering the very thing that makes it what it is – always reforming according to the Word of God. In this sense, Torrance was a Reformed theologian of Reformed theologians.

However, ultimately what matters is not whether Torrance was Reformed, but whether he was faithful to the Word of God. In the last day, we will not be required to give an account of our faithfulness to Reformed theology but of our faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, this was Torrance’s own primary objective, and it should be ours as well, even if it means critiquing and reconstructing aspects of the historic tradition to which we belong.

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[1] Robert J. Palma, “Thomas F. Torrance’s Reformed Theology” in Reformed Review, 38(1), 1984, pp.1-2. See Palma’s article for bibliographic information on the works of Torrance that he cites.

Reforming Calvinism: Why Universal Atonement Does Not Entail Universal Salvation

In a post in which I explained T.F. Torrance’s contention that the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement implies a heretical Christology, specifically that of Nestorianism. Following Torrance, I argued that a fully orthodox Christology, resting on the twofold concept of anhypostasia (the Word assumed the flesh and nature common to all humanity) and enhypostasia (the Word become a particular human, Jesus of Nazareth), requires us to affirm that what Christ did on the cross he did for everyone who shares the humanity that he assumed in the incarnation, meaning that he made atonement for all people.

Usually one of the first questions (and objections!) that arises in response is this: will then all people be saved and, if not, why? I have heard this rejoinder countless times, and it was once again expressed in a comment on the aforementioned post. From the perspective of a traditional Reformed soteriology, it seems illogical, unless one falls back on the notion of libertarian free will, to affirm universal atonement but deny, as Torrance adamantly does, final universal salvation. If Christ died efficaciously for all, then why are not all saved? I am sympathetic to those who respond this way because it is precisely how I would have reacted myself a few years ago! So I think it would be beneficial to sketch out an answer to this question (which is the purpose of this post), but with the caveat that I can only torrance_2-1address, given the constraints of a blog post, one particular part of what could (and perhaps should) be a much longer answer.

I would like to quote a section from the introduction to Torrance’s book Atonement written by his nephew Robert Walker. Walker, who edited the lectures that comprise the book, helpfully summarizes Torrance’s resolution to this seeming conundrum:

The fact that God has become man and that the whole life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a real act of man, means that God has not come half way to humanity as it were, leaving humanity to go the other half, but that he has so come to humanity that in time and in human flesh he has actually completed for humanity their whole salvation. In the humanity of Jesus, the word of God has become truth in the heart of man, the covenant has been fulfilled from the side of God and from the side of man, and the kingdom of God has begun on earth…

It is the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ which makes his entry into times even more decisive and eschatological. If Jesus has acted on behalf of all humanity and completed the salvation of all inside his person, then whether they will or not he has made it a fait accompli and something they are confronted with in his person. If by contrast salvation is simply on offer in his person, then there is a sense in which people can take it or leave it and pass by on the other side. But if Jesus has actually taken the place of each and every single human being before God, and in their place and on their behalf has achieved salvation for them, then they are inescapably involved. The radically substitutionary and representative nature of Jesus’ action for each and every person means that they have been set aside and something has been done in their name. They have been signed up for salvation by the action of God and of man in Christ while they were still enemies. The ground has been taken from under their feet and in the person of Christ they are confronted with their own salvation, inescapably involving them in decision.

If is the fact Jesus is not only God but God acting as man for humanity, and not only as man but as individual man, achieving salvation for us in the reality and individuality of his person and meeting us individually in personal encounter, that involves us in existential decision and in eschatological tension between reality of what-and-who he is for us and what we still are in ourselves. It is the fact that Jesus has done something in our name and in our place for each person individually that means we are inescapably involved in decision as he meets each person individually in personal encounter, in the reality of what he is for us in his love and grace and in his calling us to follow him in faith.[1]

If we pay close attention to what Walker says, we can begin to see why Torrance’s understanding of the atonement, far from logically terminating in universalism, actually grounds the stark reality of eternal damnation and intensifies the evangelistic call to faith and repentance. While this may seem like a paradoxical statement, Walker shows us why it is the necessary correlate to “the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ”. It is only because in Christ a divine decision has been irrevocably made regarding every single human being – a decision not ultimately for damnation but salvation – that every single human being is called to make a decision for Christ. Had Christ not vicariously substituted himself in the place of all humanity, then it would not be true that all humanity bears the responsibility of repenting of sin and trusting in Christ.

Why is this? Because, as Torrance himself reminds us numerous times in his works, the cross was just as much judgment on sin as it was salvation from sin. As Paul affirms in Romans 8:3, God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” and thereby “condemned sin in the flesh”. In Christ, God has passed his divine sentence once for all on human sin, pouring out upon it the full measure of his judgment and wrath. It is precisely for this reason, and only for this reason, that Paul, two verses prior (Rom. 8:1), can exclaim that in Christ condemnation for sin now no longer exists. That is to say, the atonement must first pass judgment on sin before it can save from sin. Better still, the atonement must pass judgment on sin in order that it might save from sin.

This, in turn, has significant ramifications for how we construe the relation of the atonement to the final destiny of humanity. If atonement is inextricably bound up with judgment, then, in order to affirm the universality of judgment, we must also affirm the universality of the atonement. If Christ died efficaciously for only a limited number of human beings, then judgment has likewise only been passed on a limited number of human beings. But this would contradict, among other biblical passages, Paul’s exhortation to the Athenians in Acts 17:3o-31:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Notice the logic of Paul’s discourse. Prior to the coming of Christ – “the times of ignorance” – there was a sense in which God “overlooked” the sin of the nations of the world. The coming of Christ, however, changed all that. The coming of Christ means that now God is commanding “all people everywhere to repent” through the preaching of the gospel. What accounts for this change? It is because, as Paul makes clear, God will “judge the world in righteousness” in Jesus Christ, a reality attested publicly by his resurrection from the dead after his shameful execution at the hands of the Romans. In other words, Paul draws a direct correlation between the person and work of Christ, the final judgment, and the necessity laid upon every single human being to repent. Yet this correlation would atonement-torrancemake little sense if that which Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection had been intended to have ultimate validity only for a select number of humanity. It is only because Christ represented and substituted himself for “all people everywhere” that all now stand under the divine judgment manifested in the cross and thus bear the responsibility to obey God’s command to repent and believe. As illustrated by the Athenians’ reaction to Paul’s sermon, not everyone will, however, repent and believe, and for such people there remains nothing but the consummation of that very judgment at the end of the age.

Again, as indicated by Walker’s introduction, this is only one piece of a much longer and more nuanced answer that the question to which it responds requires (involving, among other things, the positive role of the salvation Christ achieved in himself and the implications of his vicarious humanity), but hopefully this much allows to see better why Torrance’s view of universal atonement does not lead to universal salvation. Before it ever means salvation, atonement means judgment. Hence, only universal atonement means universal judgment. Because in Christ all are judged, all are commanded to repent and believe the gospel. Tragically, not all will repent and believe, and thus not all will be saved.

One final point: If we press Torrance as to why not all will repent and believe, he will not respond with the typical answer given by those who hold to an Arminian soteriology (which is one reason why we cannot accuse him of Arminianism!), namely, that such is the result of libertarian free will. Torrance will have nothing of that, precisely because he knows that the will that we suppose is free is merely self-will, a will curved in on itself intent on sinfully usurping the place of God. Free will is a mirage that upon close inspection dissolves into a rebellious will hell-bent on its own destruction. Rather, the refusal to repent and believe can only be attributed to the irrational and absurd nature of sin before which, Torrance says, we can only stand aghast and tremble. Were we able to explain the sin that lies at the root of humanity’s rejection of the gospel, then sin would no longer be sin, for sin is by nature inexplicable. However unsatisfying an answer this may be, it is the only one that can be given in the face of the “mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:7).

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[1] Robert T. Walker, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. lxvi-lxvii. Emphasis mine.

Reforming Calvinism: Why the Doctrine of Limited Atonement Implies a Heretical Christology

T.F. Torrance is known to have criticized the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement (i.e. that Christ died in an efficacious way only for the elect) on the basis of its implicit Nestorianism, the early Christological heresy, condemned by the council of Ephesus in 431, that separated Christ’s divine nature from his human nature in such a way that he essentially came to be thought of as two distinct persons held together (in a single body, as it were) by a union of will. Now, at first blush, it may not be immediately apparent to the casual reader why Torrance would make this claim. What has Nestorianism (which atonement-torrancerelates to Christology) to do with limited atonement (which relates to soteriology)? A critic (though not an unappreciative one) of Torrance, Kevin Chiarot, argues that Torrance’s “continual application of Nestorianism to limited atonement seems overdone. The view is traditionally held by people who repudiate Nestorianism…[T]o accuse them of splitting incarnation and atonement, or the divine and human natures of Christ, is an exercise in question begging.”[1] In response to critics like Chiarot, is anything to be said in Torrance’s defense?

Although I am sympathetic with those who struggle to see the connection that Torrance makes here (because it was not readily obvious to me at first), I am persuaded that he is fundamentally correct, and it is partly for this reason that I have personally advocated on this blog the need for traditional Calvinism to be reformed. To help explain why this is so, I would like to quote a section from Adam Neder’s excellent essay on Karl Barth’s view of the hypostatic union (i.e. the orthodox way of understanding Christ as having two natures united in one person). Neder writes:

When the Word became flesh, he did not cease to be God, but as the unfolding of election, and in accordance with the will of the Father, he became also a man. In an act of pure mercy and grace, God in his mode of being as the Son became flesh. But what, Barth asks, does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? It certainly cannot mean that he adopted into unity with himself one man among other human beings, nor can can it mean that he exists “in a duality” along side an individual man. For were that the case, the Son would not really have become flesh at all, and atonement would have been impossible, since that which occurs in the humanity of Jesus Christ is relevant for the rest of humanity only because Jesus Christ’s humanity is the humanity of God. Thus, Barth rejects adoptionism and Nestorianism because neither can support Jesus Christ’s work of reconciliation. In Barth’s parlance, the Nestorian Christ would simply be man, not the man.

To underscore this point, he affirms the anhypostasis or impersonalitas of the human nature Christ. Jesus Christ exists as a man only as and because the Son of God exists as a man. The man Jesus “exists directly in and with the one God in the mode of existence of His eternal Son and Logos – not otherwise or apart from this mode.” Rather than uniting himself with a homo – an autonomously existing human being – “What God the Son assumed into unity with Himself and His divine being was and is – in a specific individual form elected and prepared for this purpose – not merely ‘a man’ but the humanum, the being and essence, the nature and kind, which is that of all men, which characterizes them as men, and distinguishes them from other creatures.” Barth defines this humanum (elsewhere he refers to it as humanitas) as the “concrete possibility of the existence of one man in a specific form.” Thus Jesus Christ is “a man” – a truly human being – who does not exist independently (anhypostasis), but exists only in the Word (enhypostasis).[2]

Neder here employs some technical terms utilized by both Barth and Torrance to explicate the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures. Basically, “enhypostasis” refers to the fact that when the Word became flesh, he did so by becoming a specific individual in a particular time and place: Jesus of Nazareth born of the virgin Mary. So far so good. But what Neder highlights is that an orthodox doctrine of the incarnation must go beyond a mere affirmation of enhypostasis. Why? It is because there is a serious error lurking in the background. On the basis of enhypostasis alone, would it not be conceivable that when Scripture affirms that the Word became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, it simply means that the Word chose a man named Jesus of Nazareth who was already alive and then came to dwell in him? Indeed, the doctrine of enhypostasis alone does not guard against this possibility, which is nothing other than another heresy condemned by the early church as “adoptionism”. Even though Nestorianism was a bit more conservative in its approach (because it didn’t consider Jesus karl_barth_profileto have lived for some time prior to the Word coming to dwell in him), it essentially boiled down to the same error: it made it possible to think of Jesus of Nazareth in some measure as a distinct person with a theoretically independent existence apart from the divine Word. This is what Neder means when he says that, according to adoptionism and Nestorianism, Christ “exists ‘in a duality’ along side an individual man”.

Why is this so problematic? It is because, as Neder points out, it would mean that the Word did not actually himself become flesh. That is, the Word, the Son of God, would not have been himself the sole Subject of the incarnation, but would have shared that role with the man Jesus. In this view, the flesh that the Word assumed would not have become the flesh in which God was acting as the operative agent. But this would mean, then, that Paul was wrong in claiming that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, emphasis mine). And if Paul was wrong, and it was not God himself who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, then there would be no hope for salvation, because it is only God who can save!

For this reason, Barth (and Torrance, following the historic line of orthodox Christology) laid great emphasis on the fact that the man Jesus had no independent existence prior to or apart from the Word assuming flesh. This is the meaning of the word “anhypostasis”. Simply stated, anhypostasis means that there would have been no Jesus of Nazareth except that the Word had become flesh. It was the Word, and the Word alone, who was the Subject of the incarnation. This is, of course, not to take away anything from the full humanity of Jesus, which is what the concept of enhypostasis protects. Yet, without the Word’s assumption of human nature, there would have been no Jesus of Nazareth.

The upshot of affirming anhypostasis along with enhypostasis is that it means that Christ was not, as Neder explains, simply man but also the man. In other words, since the Word did not, in the incarnation, assume an independent human person into union with himself, he must have assumed what Barth calls “humanum“, the “being and essence, the nature and kind, which is that of all men, which characterizes them as men, and distinguishes them from other creatures”. By assuming the nature that is common to and shared by all humanity, the Word entered into solidarity and union with all humanity. Yes, the Word became a man – Jesus of Nazareth (enhypostasis). But orthodox Christology demands that we also hold that the Word became the man, the new Adam, the one in whose humanity all people, without exception, are represented.

With these important concepts in place, we are in a position to see why Torrance can legitimately claim that limited atonement implies a Nestorian Christology. First he describes the fundamental problem with Nestorianism in the following way:

If Christ acted only in his human nature on the cross and God remained utterly apart and utterly transcendent, except that he agreed in will with Christ whom he sent to die, then all that Christ does is not necessarily what God does or accepts.[3]

This is, in fact, the view of the atonement that logically follows from a Christ whose human flesh is not of God himself but of an independent human person, for if this is true, then we cannot affirm that it was God in Christ reconciling the world to himself on the cross Thomas_F._Torrancebecause of the split between the divine and human natures of Christ. It is on this basis, and only on this basis, that we could then say that…

…the sacrifice of Christ may be accepted as satisfaction only for the number of the elect that God has previously chosen or determined. [For] if God himself came among us in Christ his beloved Son, and assumed upon himself our whole burden of guilt and judgment, then such an arbitrary view would be impossible. And we must hold the view that it is indeed God himself who bears our sins, God become man and taking man’s place, standing with humanity under the divine judgment, God the judge becoming himself the man judged and bearing his own judgment upon the sin of humanity, so that we cannot divorce the action of Christ from the action of God. The concept of a limited atonement thus rests upon a basic Nestorian heresy.[4]

I hope the connection between limited atonement and Nestorianism is now more clear. Basically, if Christ died effectually only for a limited number of persons chosen from among all humanity in general, then the atonement must be understood only in terms of enhypostasis, that is, as the death of a Christ who was simply man in union with the Son of God. If, on the other hand, we hold enhypostasis firmly together with anhypostasis (and we must do so in order to avoid the specter of Nestorianism), then we cannot say that Christ was simply man but also man – the new Adam, the representative of all humanity – because only in this way can we maintain that Christ was truly the Word become flesh such that in Christ it was God reconciling the world to himself. But if this is true, and if the flesh that the Word assumed was not that of another distinct, independent person but that which came into being only in virtue of the incarnation, then his flesh was the humanum that is common to all humanity, and thus the reconciliation that he accomplished “in his body of flesh by his death” (Col. 1:22) must be said to avail for all. To say otherwise would be to drive a wedge between Christ’s divinity and humanity, and that, quite simply, is Nestorianism.

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[1] Kevin Chiarot, The Unassumed is the Unhealed: The Humanity of Christ in the Christology of T.F. Torrance. (Eugene: Pickwick, 2013), p.221.

[2] Adam Neder, ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), pp.157-158. Quotations from Barth taken from Church Dogmatics IV/2.

[3] T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. 184-185.

[4] Ibid.

To Give Thanks: Francis Turretin vs. Karl Barth on God’s Sovereignty vis-à-vis the Problem of Evil

I found Christopher Green’s comparison between the views of the two theological giants that were Francis Turretin and Karl Barth regarding God’s sovereignty vis-à-vis evil very illuminating, so I thought I would share it. Green writes:

In the traditional teaching, the orthodox make a hamartiological distinction in order to accommodate the providentia circa malum [providence in relation to evil], between an “order of being” and an “order of morals.” The order of being is the proper object of the voluntas beneplaciti [God’s decretive will] in the providential disposing of all created things. That is, as God orders all events according to his will, these events are arranged to align with his will according to their being. Since opposition against God’s will is impossible, he reveals the sin which opposes him through a different will, that is the voluntas signi [God’s prescriptive will]. It is in this domain that the will of God may be resisted. Sin may take place, then, in the context of an order of morals, and the creature’s being may still be secure beneath God’s sovereignty. The francisturretinportraitethical domain must be kept separate for the orthodox, as God providentially allows the creature to choose sin but does not condone it in the sense of his actio. With another reversal, Barth asserts that the creature’s acknowledgment that all of creation is one order is a matter of thankful obedience to Christ.

Francis Turretin, as an example of an orthodox thinker, finds that the order of morals is the arena where God reveals his opposition against sin. Turretin states: “In every moral action we must necessarily distinguish the substance of the act in the genus of being from the goodness and wickedness of the same in the genus of morals.” It is on the basis of this distinction that God can be said to change his mind in the biblical narratives, as the voluntas signi does not univocally echo the will of God ad intra. Turretin continues:

Thus the volition of stealing reduplicatively and circumstantiated here and now, is indeed essentially evil with regard to another’s property; but the volition, to which that circumstance happens by which it is a volition to steal, is not essentially evil in like manner […] God was unwilling that the brethren of Joseph should sell him and that the Jews should crucify Christ, since they were most heinous crimes against the law. Yet he is said to have willed, yea, even to have done these things. (Gen. 45:7; Acts 4:28) [Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, p.510-511]

Importantly, this position leads Turretin to make statements similar to those belonging to Barth during the Göttingen period. In some sense, God must be said to be the “cause” of sin. In this manner, Turretin’s explication of the providentia circa malum describes the situation that originally causes Barth to suspect a difficulty with the orthodox position with respect to divine holiness. When this same strain begins to show in Turretin’s writing, he reiterates the distinction between an order of being and of morals. Turretin states:

God is the cause of the human will; therefore he is the cause of sin—for when the created will sins, it turns aside and fails from the order of the first cause. And God who is the cause of the will per se, cannot be called the cause of the evil action, which is from the will not simply in the genus of being (as it is from God), but from the will failing as to the law in the genus of morals. [Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, p.525]

Barth’s repudiation of the orthodox position on the will of God has implications for all of creaturely life, life that undergoes both moral and immoral action. Consistent with Barth’s position on the voluntas beneplaciti and signi, he invests both the being of the creature and her ethical life in her response to the self-revelation of God in Jesus 6a00d83451cfe769e201310fb8506c970cChrist. Since the dual-order structure in the life of God has been merged in Christ, the very essence of the creature must also be said to be equivalent with his own act of praise: “Gratitude is to be understood not only as a quality and an activity but as the very being and essence of this creature.” Barth’s position comes full circle in this way: praise is the realization of God’s will not only for the creature’s moral life, but for his physical being as well. Sin can never be a power in the hands of the creature, enabling it to establish a secondary order outside the sovereign Creator’s will: “Thus we must not focus our attention on the sinner, as though by his sin he had founded a new order of things which had an independent meaning.” Rather, “by doing this and this alone does he distinguish himself as being from non-being […] ‘To be or not to be? that is the question’ and it is decided by the way in which we answer the question: To give thanks or not to give thanks?”[1]

I wish to make no other comment on this than to simply reiterate the final question posed by Barth via Green: which of these ways of conceiving God’s relationship to the ever-present problem of evil provide us with this greatest grounds for living life doxologically, in praise and gratitude for all of the ways and works of God?

I leave it to you to ponder this question.

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[1] Green, C.C., 2011. Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.33-35.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bruce McCormack on Limited Atonement vs. Universal Salvation

Typically when we encounter passages in Scripture that seem to stand in tension, we instinctively try to find a way to alleviate that tension. Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the tension we feel between the texts of Scripture that seem to indicate the universal extent of God’s saving will and those that assert the sobering reality of the eternal damnation of all who, for whatever reason, die without placing their faith in Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Usually attempts to resolve this difficulty end up affirming a version of limited atonement (Christ died ultimately to save the elect alone) or universal possibility (Christ died to save all but not all will freely believe) or universalism (Christ died for all and so all will be saved).

While they are all logically coherent, it seems to me that each of these positions, in one way or another, downplays certain texts at the expense of others. To all of us who wrestle with these issues, Bruce McCormack offers some wise words of counsel in an essay he contributed to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Although McCormack does not offer us a tidy solution, he does encourage us to stay rigorously faithful to the whole range of biblical teaching, giving equal weight to all of its parts. He writes:

Conspicuous by its absence from Paul’s theology is any mention of “hell.” One might well think that the talk of the wrath and fury, tribulation and distress which awaits those who do evil in Rom. 2:8-9 is equivalent to “hell” but Paul never uses that word. The concept of “hell” does play a sizable role in the teaching of Jesus and in the Book of Revelation, of course. Taken by itself, this difference between Jesus and Paul would not be a problem. The two views could easily be harmonized simply by regarding what Jesus has to say as a 410vuZc5y-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_further expansion upon what Paul knows to say. The problem, however, is that Paul is committed to a universal atonement [e.g. 1 Tim. 2:3-6] – as well as the understanding that faith in Jesus Christ is effected in human beings by God’s grace alone. And the combination of these two elements creates a difficulty of no small proportions. For if grace is irresistible, if faith is God’s to give as He wills and Christ died for all, then, logically, God’s will ought to be to give the gift to all and universal salvation should be the result. Alternatively, we could take up our starting point in the “two-group” eschatologies of Jesus and the Seer and look back through the lens provided by the Pauline understanding of the relation of grace and faith and the only logical option would be to affirm a limited atonement. Universal salvation on the one side and limited atonement on the other; those are the only two logical possibilities which arise on the soil of the Pauline understanding of faith as a sovereign work of God. And because Jesus’ teaching on hell, especially, was taken to be the fixed pole, Reformed theology in its orthodox expressions always concluded to a limited atonement. The net effect of that decision was, of course, that Paul’s commitment to a universal atonement had to be negotiated out of existence.

I would suggest that there is a better way of dealing with this, the most profound and important of the tensions found in the New Testament. I am certainly conservative enough in my understanding of biblical inspiration to believe that if something appears in the New Testament, it is there because God wanted it there. So if a tension exists, there must be a reason for it. And if I had to guess, I would say that the reason has to do with the fact that those awakened to faith in Jesus Christ in this world are still sinners. If God told us the answer to the problem in advance of the eschaton, we would harm ourselves on one side or the other. If He were to tell us that a universal salvation will be the final outcome, we would very likely become lax, antinomian even. The sense of urgency that is pervasive in Paul’s Christian existentialism would be lost. If, on the other hand, God told us that limited atonement is the true resolution of the tension, we would very likely despair of our salvation. How could anyone be certain that the atoning death of Christ was really intended for him or her? And so I would venture to guess that the tension I have described is divinely intended – in order to protect us from ourselves.

In short, I think it was a mistake for the Westminster Assembly to seek to resolve this question on the side of limited atonement in advance of the return of Christ in glory – just as I think that it would be a mistake for any church today to teach universalism. Again, these are simply the logical possibilities that arise on the soil of the Reformed understanding of the relation of grace and faith. As such, they constitute the walls within which we are to live in this world. All of us will tilt more to one side than the other. And if individual theologians wish to conclude to one or the other – for the sake of exploring implications and relationships among the various Christian doctrines, they should be allowed to do so. That belongs to their unique calling. But churches need to be responsible for all the faithful. And for that reason, I would say, neither limited atonement nor universalism should ever be made church dogma.[1]

As I mentioned before, McCormack does not offer any simple solutions or clean ways of reducing certain tensions in the full scope of biblical teaching, especially those in relation to human salvation. But he does offer sage advice, namely, that however difficult or uncomfortable, we must allow Scripture to dictate to us how we should think, reason, theologize, preach, and evangelize, even when we cannot understand how all of the pieces fit together. Indeed, we see in a glass darkly, and we must walk by faith rather than by sight. Therefore, let God’s Word be God’s Word, and may we bow all of our logic and systematic categories in humble submission to it.

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[1] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.239-241.

Horton vs. Barth on Law vs. Grace

In a critical essay of Karl Barth’s Christology, Michael Horton writes the following:

It seems to me that the main reason that Barth resists talk of “before” and “after” in [redemptive history] is that this would open up a space for the God-world relationship that is logically prior to grace. As we have seen, it is a basic 410vuZc5y-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_presupposition of Barth’s revised supralapsarianism that law cannot come before gospel. This follows from the correlative assimilations of creation to redemption, and nature to grace. Even at the expense of calling into question a state of original integrity, law cannot precede gospel. Rather, the law is in the gospel, God’s holiness is in his grace, his wrath is in his love…

There can be no law prior to or apart from gospel because there is nothing prior to or apart from gospel. There is no “law of nature” alongside God’s “word of grace.”…”This priority of the law to the gospel which comes to such clear expression in Question 9 of the Heidelberg Catechism,” says Berkouwer, “is wholly wanting in Barth’s view of the law. . . . There is therefore also no room in Barth’s conception for the view that man was placed under the law of the good Creator before the fall into sin and unrighteousness” (The Triumph of Grace, p.257).[1]

The essence of Horton’s critique here, following Berkouwer, is one that goes back to Cornelius Van Til. Succinctly stated, it is that “in [Barth’s] dogmatics there is no real historical transition from wrath to grace.”[2] Given the evident persistence of this particular accusation, I would like to dedicate this post to providing a response. I can in no way provide an exhaustive rebuttal in a blog post, so I simply intend to make a single point that, in my opinion, constitutes a substantial rejoinder, not because it makes Barth immune to critique but because it undermines the foundation upon which Horton’s (and Van Til’s) critique is based.

To begin, it is important to understand the underlying theological commitments of that fund this critique. As one author demonstrates in an earlier essay in the same volume, the objections of Van Til were formulated within the confessional stance of the Dutch Reformed tradition.[3] In other words, such critiques are only possible if one presupposes the type of federal-covenantal theology characteristic of those theologians. This point should not be overlooked by many non-Reformed evangelicals who cite Van Til as their David against Barth’s Goliath, for they cannot coherently reiterate the bulk of Van Til’s critique without adopting his federal approach.

This, however, is a fairly minor point in that it does nothing to mitigate the force of what Van Til and Horton argue concerning Barth’s alleged conflation of law/wrath and gospel/grace. So to offer a more substantial response, I would like to quote a passage from Peter Leithart’s excellent work on Athanasius in which he compares the theology of the great patristic defender of orthodoxy with the federal framework upon which Horton’s criticism of Barth hangs. Leithart writes:

Michael Horton projects a particular version of the law-gospel distinction back into Eden, and this produces a Reformed version of the nature/grace dichotomy [found in Roman Catholic theology]. According to Horton, Adam was not a recipient of grace at his creation. God’s creation of Adam was an expression of “divine goodness,” but Horton refuses to call it “divine grace.” Horton criticizes other Reformed theologians for suggesting that “grace is fundamental to any divine-human relationship,” arguing that grace cannot “retain its force as divine clemency toward those who deserve condemnation” if the Adamic covenant is described as gracious. Adam was created under law, not under grace. Law is “natural” and human beings are “simply ‘wired’ for it.” Grace, however, is not natural and comes onto the stage only after Adam’s sin. It is not surprising that Horton claims that “Adam is created in a state of integrity with the ability to render God complete obedience,” by which he could earn what Horton describes as his “right” to receive the tree of life. Defending the proposition that the Adamic arrangements are rightly described as “covenantal,” Horton says,

Every covenant in Scripture is constituted by a series of formulae, most notably, oaths taken by both parties with stipulations and sanctions (blessings and curses). These elements appear to be present, albeit implicitly, in the creation narrative. Adam is created in a state of integrity with the ability to render God complete obedience, thus qualifying as a suitable human partner. Further, God commands such complete obedience, and he promises, upon that condition, the right (not the gift) to eat from the Tree of Life. While creation itself is a gift, the entrance into God’s Sabbath rest was held out as the promise for loyal obedience in the period of testing.

Lest anyone think that Adam’s obedience was itself a gift of God, Horton insists that Adam’s ability to obey comes from himself alone: “Created for obedience, he was entirely capable of maintaining himself in a state of integrity”; “Adam … was in a state of rectitude, perfectly capable of acceding to the divine mandate.” Adam was not created with free access to life but had all he needed to earn this access, working from his own natural capacities, apparently without any reliance on God’s continuing assistance. His obedience was not the obedience of faith but the obedience of nature. For Horton, we might say that humanity begins Pelagian and falls into Augustinianism.

Among the ironies here is the fact that Horton is a strongly anti—Roman Catholic Protestant who formulates his views of the Adamic order in order to protect the gratuity of grace, against, so he thinks, a Catholic subversion of grace. Yet in the very act of maintaining an anti-Catholic view of the covenant, Horton offers a view of Adamic nature that separates nature and grace in a way that the Catholic Church has only recently questioned. In fact, Horton goes much further than many Catholics, for whom creation is a gift of grace and for whom a state of natura pura is hypothetical rather than actual. Horton’s Adam existed in an actual state of pure nature, running on his own fuel and earning his access to the tree of life. Horton considers any deviation from this formulation a betrayal of the Reformation.[4]

The problem that Leithart identifies here is not insignificant, and it is one that runs rampant in Reformed federalism and even among other evangelicals who adopt a classic Calvinist soteriology. Briefly stated, Horton and other federal theologians prioritize the law over the gospel in God’s dealings with the world. That is to say, the primary way in which God relates to creation, and in particular to humanity, is law-based rather than grace-based. This can be seen from Horton’s belief that the creation of human beings established a “period of testing” in which favor with God and the acquisition of eternal life were contingent upon humanity’s ability to perfectly fulfill the legal conditions of this ‘covenant of works’.

In this federal scheme, the subsequent introduction of the ‘covenant of grace’ (fulfilled by Christ and proclaimed in the gospel) to remedy the situation created by Adam’s transgression (resulting in condemnation and wrath) does nothing to change this fundamentally law-based relationship, for the covenant of grace comes in merely to supplement humanity’s consequent inability to fulfill the original legal requirements that remain forever binding. Grace, in this view, becomes subservient to law in that it is introduced only after the fall and hypothetically would not have been had humanity not fallen into sin. After the fall, human beings can return to God’s favor and gain the original promise of eternal life only if they (or, as the gospel proclaims, One who does so on their behalf), perfectly fulfill all of the covenant’s stipulations. Thus, whether pre-fall or post-fall and even into eternity, humanity’s relationship with God always, ultimately, and fundamentally depends on law-keeping. As Richard Muller summarizes:

The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical.[5]

In light of this, I would suggest that the critique of Horton (following that of Van Til), can be turned on its head. We could say that in the federal scheme represented by Horton there is no real historical transition from law to grace inasmuch as the foundation of all of God’s dealings with humanity consistently remains the covenant of works that the law expresses. Again, an appeal to the covenant of grace here will not help, because in the federal scheme, the covenant of grace is purely contingent in that it intends to meet a need that hypothetically could have never even existed. It is, for all intents and purposes, a mere stopgap until the most basic relationship between God and humanity based on law can be rectified. Even with the institution of the covenant of grace, humanity can receive the hope of salvation only on condition of faith in Christ’s vicarious fulfillment of the eternally binding covenant of works. Therefore, beginning with the pre-temporal pactum salutis and extending into all eternity, humanity can only be loved by God if his legal demands have been satisfied.

For this reason, I think that it is warranted to redirect Horton’s critique back to him. Whereas he objects to Barth for his absorption of law and wrath into gospel and grace, I (and Barth would probably agree) object to his absorption of gospel and grace into law and wrath. If Horton insists on being a consistent federal theologian, then the two-edged nature of this problem seems unavoidable. I would suggest, therefore, that it is disingenuous for Horton (or any other federal theologian for that matter) to launch this particular attack against Barth inasmuch as it is precisely what he himself does. In terms of this particular dispute, I would have to side with Barth, because I believe that Scripture, and especially God’s self-revelation in Christ culminating in the cross and resurrection, clearly accords primacy to grace and gospel rather than law. Although addressing a period after the fall, Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:17-19a:

This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.

I think that what Paul articulates here regarding the relationship of God’s covenant with Abraham to the subsequent covenant enacted at Sinai is indicative of the overall nature of God’s dealings with humanity. This is not an unwarranted move even in federal theology that views the Abrahamic promise as reflective of the covenant of grace and the Mosaic law as recapitulating the covenant of works. Thus, as in redemptive history after the fall, so also in creational history prior to the fall: it is the promise of grace that precedes law and which cannot be annulled or modified by a law added later because of transgressions. In this sense, Horton has it completely backwards: grace does not follow law on condition of obedience; rather law follows grace as a temporary economy until the fulfillment of grace’s promise.

Although I would not follow Barth on every point, I would argue that he rightly discerned from Scripture that the foundational reality that defines God’s relationship to humanity throughout all time is not one of law and judgment but of grace and love. Barth understood that the God-world relation is ultimately given shape not by an impersonal contract of legal stipulations but by the overflow of infinite love that inheres in God’s own eternal intratrinitarian life. This is not to dispense with the law or God’s judgment upon sin; rather it is to maintain, along with Paul, that the law can never be said to displace grace but only serves grace until the fulfilment and consummation of the promise of grace in Christ.

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring the critique of federal theology in this post.

[1] Horton, M.S., 2011. ‘Covenant, Election, and Incarnation: Evaluating Karl Barth’s Actualist Christology’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.142-143.

[2] Ibid., p.144.

[3] Harinck, G. 2011. ‘”How Can an Elephant Understand a Whale and Vice Versa?”: The Dutch Origins of Cornelius Van Til’s Appraisal of Karl Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

[4] Leithart, P.J., 2011. Athanasius H. Boersma & M. Levering, eds., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.100-101. Horton’s statements cited by Leithart come from his book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).

[5] Muller, R.A., 2003. After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, pp.188-189.

Crossing the Tiber in a Boat Called ‘Analogy of Being’

In recent posts I have suggested that rather than carry forward the trajectory initiated by the Reformation, the Protestant ‘orthodox’ who came later actually reversed direction in many ways, one of which was their return to the synthesis of faith and reason (and the corresponding analogia entis, i.e. ‘analogy of being’) which allowed for the integration of ‘Christian Aristotelianism’ in their theological systems. One of the key sources from which I have drawn in making this argument (although he would no doubt disagree with some of my conclusions!) is the brilliant historian Richard Muller whose knowledge of the medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods is unparalleled. Recently I came across an article of Muller’s that, even more than anything else of his that I have read, drives this point home with unmistakable clarity. In fact, the title of the article in many ways says it all: ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’. Here st-thomas-aqhow Muller expresses (without missing the opportunity to take a jab at Barth) his appreciation for Thomas Aquinas and, as a result, the analogia entis and the synthesis of faith and reason that post-Reformation Protestant theology inherited from medieval Catholicism:

We now have a clear picture of the intellectual road traveled by Thomas in his approach, via the proofs to the doctrine of God. As Gilson has pointed out on many occasions, Thomas recognized two distinct but complementary orders of knowing, faith and reason. Faith provides us with truth inaccessible to reason but nonetheless not unreasonable. Reason serves the elaboration and argumentative defense of the faith. In order for this alliance to occur, faith and reason must be shown to have the same goal and to be capable of cooperation in seeking it. Thus Thomas first sets forth (q. 1) the basis of theology in faith and then poses the problem of the alliance with reason (q. 1, a. 8). Then, second Thomas presents the grounds for the use of reason in theology by way of the proofs (q. 2). He has now shown that both faith and reason point toward the God who is the proper object of sacra doctrina. He has also prepared the way for the presentation of a doctrine of God and, indeed, of a whole theological system, that is at once biblical and rational. The two initial questions of the Summa, therefore, the discussion of “the nature and domain of sacred doctrine” and the discussion of rational knowledge of God, together constitute a demonstration of the possibility of theological discourse…

This perspective on the dogmatic function of the [Thomas Aquinas’ five] proofs also provides us with a keen critique of the neo-orthodox theological enterprise. The neo-orthodox claim that the self-revelation of God excludes all rational proofs of God’s existence, far from manifesting a problem in traditional theism actually demonstrates a fatal flaw in neo-orthodoxy. It is the capacity for rational discourse that moves theology from mere confession of faith to the systematic elaboration of the articles of faith into a genuine body of doctrine. When the demonstration of the instrumental function of reason is excluded, theology cannot justify its own systematic elaboration: the fideism of Barth’s neo-othodoxy negates the very discourse designed to present neo-orthodox theology as a systematic alternative to earlier forms of Protestant dogmatics.

In other words, the Barthian denial of the analogia entis, with its radical and virtually nominalist contention that there is no analogy between God and the created order, not only rids theology of the magisterial function of reason typical of the rational supernaturalism of the eighteenth century, but also rids theology of the instrumental function of reason that balthasarThomas outlined so carefully in the eighth article of Question 1 and in Question 2 of the Summa—and that the Protestant dogmaticians of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries assumed in their construction of theological system. The analogy of being and the proofs provided Thomas, in the Summa, not with “prior knowledge of something which resembles creation” but with a limited rational knowing set into the context of faith and sacra doctrina of a necessary being—a “something,” if you will, not so much resembling creation as set over and above it, and because of its being set over and above creation, capable of being identified as God. This is not “a prior knowledge” either in the sense of a knowledge prior to the inchoate apprehension of the divine or to the confession of faith in the divine or in the sense of a knowledge upon which faith can be grounded. Rather it is a knowledge arising from our nature and capable of serving faith in an instrumental capacity even as it is being perfected by grace.

By way of conclusion, we may simply recognize that the proofs of God’s existence occupy an important position in dogmatic theology distinct from their function in apologetics because the rational demonstration of the existence of a “something” the name of which is one of the names of God is also the demonstra­tion of the proper function of reason in theological discourse. This demonstration neither replaces nor subverts faith but rather shows us that faith is capable of sustaining itself in argument. Traditional Protestant dogmatics, as written between the Reformation and the Enlightenment, recognized the need to define the relationship of faith and reason, theology and philosophy and occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors. That synthesis is still necessary to the construction of a consistently stated and convincingly argued dogmatic theology. To the extent that Protestant theology has allowed a misunderstanding of the proofs to confuse its view of the function of reason it has also erected a barrier in the way of its own theological development.[1]

In my view, this is a massively revealing statement on the part of Muller. It shows that his ‘Protestant appreciation’ for Aquinas and his dictum that ‘grace perfects nature’, for the analogia entis, and for the medieval synthesis of faith and reason ultimately consists in his recognition that these are not ancillary but essential elements of post-Reformation Protestant dogmatics without which they could not be constructed, “consistently stated”, nor “convincingly argued”. It also brings to light one of the main reasons for which Muller opposes Barth and so-called neo-orthodoxy. As Muller rightly discerns, Barth’s denial of the analogia entis was inimical to the Protestant theological systems of the 16th and 17th centuries. That is to say, without the analogia entis and its corresponding synthesis of faith and reason, Protestant orthodox theology (e.g. the Westminster Standards) would either fall apart or require significant revision.

So this leaves us with a provocative question: if it is true, as Keith Johnson has so convincingly argued, that Barth’s “reasons for his rejection of the analogia entis stand directly in line with the reasons Luther and the Reformers gave for turning away from Roman Catholicism centuries earlier”[2], then what can this mean for the later Protestant reappropriation of the analogia entis except that it constituted a fundamental reversal away from Luther and the Reformers and back to Roman Catholicism? Does not Muller concede as much when he notes that “[t]raditional Protestant dogmatics … occasionally, somewhat grudgingly, admitted that despite its intense polemic against Roman Catholicism it had learned the technique of constructing a synthesis of the ways of knowing from the great medieval doctors”?

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 1992. ‘The Dogmatic Function of St. Thomas’ “Proofs”: A Protestant Appreciation’ in Fides et Historia 24, pp.24, 28-29, emphasis added.

[2] Johnson, K.L., 2010. Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. London/New York: T&T Clark, p.121.

Nein! to the Metaphysical God: Torrance on Van Til on Barth

In the last couple of posts (here and here), I have been considering the metaphysical and broader philosophical underpinnings of much Protestant and Reformed theology. As illustrative of this, I have engaged somewhat with the most vehement critic and opponent of Karl Barth, Cornelius Van Til. In my last post, I suggested that upon close examination, it is ironically Barth, rather than Van Til, who appears far more Protestant and Reformed, contrary to what would no doubt be the latter’s strenuous objections. To extend this argument a bit further, I would like to quote a section from T.F. abb_086-3Torrance’s incisive review of The New Modernism, Van Til’s first work against Barth (and, in this case, Emil Brunner as well). Torrance observes the following:

The two major criticisms that Dr. Van Til directs against the theology of Barth and Brunner are that it is activistic and anti-metaphysical. But surely these are criticisms that may be directed more truly and with greater force against the theology of John Calvin, and with greater force still against the Bible itself! Nowhere does the Bible make as its presupposition a metaphysic of being, but always in answer to the question “Who is God?” give [sic] the activistic answer: “I am the Lord thy God that brought thee out of the land of Egypt . . .” etc. And the same is true of the New Testament. The God of the Christian faith is the God who has come to us in Christ, and who has redeemed us in the death of His Son. The Reality of God, as Barth says, is always the reality of the God who acts in love and holiness. And there can be no doubt that John Calvin reacted against the scholastic tradition of a metaphysical doctrine of God and returned to this God of the Bible. There is nothing that John Calvin fumes against more than a metaphysical doctrine of God. It seems perfectly clear that the Calvinism with which Dr. Van Til operates is not the Calvinism of John Calvin himself, but a spurious Calvinism amalgamated with the same Aristotelian logic that cursed the theology of the Middle Ages, and of the seventeenth century – only Dr. Van Til’s Calvinism is not so logical. But this immediately throws new light upon men like Barth and Brunner, for we see in their revolt against what Dr. Van Til calls “orthodoxy” a serious effort to cut adrift from the dead god of the metaphysicians, and to get back to the living God of the Bible. However much we may criticise them, that is surely their great merit.[1]

Whatever may be the necessary tweaks to be made to this critique ‘after-Muller’, so to speak, I think that Torrance is absolutely correct in his contention that Calvin, and Luther before him, initiated a trajectory for the Reformation by attempting to escape from the metaphysical quagmire of medieval theology and plant themselves firmly onto the solid ground of God’s self-revelation in his Word. Whether Calvin and Luther were always consistent in this effort is beside the point. The path laid out by Calvin was clear:

But God also designates himself by another special mark to distinguish himself more precisely from idols. For he so proclaims himself the sole God as to offer himself to be contemplated clearly in three persons. Unless we grasp these, only the bare and empty name of God flits about in our brains, to the exclusion of the true God.[2]

As Calvin famously said, the human heart is an idol factory, and unless we derive our knowledge of God solely from his Word, we will always conceive a god of our own making and in our own image. It seems to me that in attacking Barth’s anti-metaphysicalism in the name of ‘orthodoxy’, Van Til was profoundly mistaken, not only about the primal Protestant impulse to an exclusively Word-governed doctrine of God, but also about the God of Scripture who, as Torrance rightly notes, does not self-identify with metaphysical or philosophical concepts and terminology but only on the basis of who he has revealed himself to be in his mighty, saving acts, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Until that is firmly settled in our minds, I’m afraid that people like Van Til will continue, in the name of ‘orthodoxy’, to criticize and oppose not only truly Protestant theologians like Barth, but also those who chasten and discipline their minds to know God in strict accordance with the manner in which he has revealed and communicated himself in his Word.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1947. ‘Review of The New Modernism‘ in The Evangelical Quarterly 19, p.148.

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