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!


The Impossible Possibility: Karl Barth on the Paradoxical Relation between Grace and Unbelief

In talking with someone about my recent post on why a commitment to universal atonement, at least as articulated by T.F. Torrance, does not entail a corresponding commitment to universal salvation, I was reminded of how counterintuitive this seems, especially to those coming from a background in traditional Reformed soteriology. Although not stating it in quite these terms, I explained that far from necessitating universalism, Torrance’s understanding of universal atonement actually necessitates the very opposite! To many, such as the person with whom I was conversing, this statement appears to be highly paradoxical, if not utterly incoherent. It seems that if we affirm universal atonement, then we are either forced to affirm universalism or fall back into a libertarian notion of free will. If we reject both of these options, then, so the reasoning goes, we are left only with the possibility of affirming limited atonement and its corresponding view of limited predestination.

While this post may not clear up all of the confusion, I would like to offer what I hope will be a further clarification of this issue. This time, my point of reference will be Karl Barth who, in the first half volume of his Church Dogmatics writes:

[It is not] faith that puts in effect all that the Word of God tells us. Faith too, and faith especially, is faith in Jesus Christ. It is thus the recognition and confirmation that God’s Word was already in effect even before we believed and quite apart from our believing. Faith particularly—and this is the element of truth in the older Lutheran 6a00d83451cfe769e201310fb8506c970cdoctrine of the [efficacy of the Word apart from its appropriation]—lives by the power which is power before faith and without faith. It lives by the power which gives faith itself its object, and in virtue of this object its very existence.

Baptism was instituted for this reason, as a sign of this true and supreme power of God’s Word. As a real act on man, as an act of sovereign disposition, it proclaims for its part that man belongs to the sphere of Christ’s lordship prior to all his experiences and decisions. Even before he can take up an attitude to God, God has taken up an attitude to him. Whatever attitude he may adopt, it will be done within and on the ground of the attitude that God has adopted to him. If he believes, this will be just a confirmation of the fact that he has God’s promise and is claimed, judged and blessed by God. If he does not believe, this again will not be a possibility he can freely choose. He will sin against God’s Word. He will not show himself to be free, but unfree. He will not choose, but will be rejected. He will grasp, not a possibility, but an impossibility. In a Word, in his very unbelief he will be measured by the Word of God and smitten by its power. The preceding attitude of God to him will make his unbelief unbelief, his sin sin. Only in the sphere of grace is there faith and unbelief, righteousness and sin. Only through the power of God’s Word are there the two categories, those who are saved and those who are lost.[1]

Let me try and unpack Barth’s reasoning. First, Barth asserts that when the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, comes to us whether in written or spoken form, it is not our act of faith that “activates” its power so as to make it true. What the gospel proclaims is true, apart from and prior to our act of faith. As Paul argued in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, the fact that many people are blind to the light shining in the face of Christ does nothing to detract from that light’s brilliance. Just like the sun, the light of Christ revealed in the gospel shines on us, whether we are able to see it or not. Another way of saying this is that Jesus is, as Peter told Cornelius in Acts 10:36, the Lord of all, whether or not they acknowledge him as such. The fact that not every knee bows and not every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord in the present does not mean that Jesus is not actually the Lord, even their Lord, the one to whom has been given all power in heaven and on earth.

Now, Barth continues, if the gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord of all people independent of their awareness or submission to him, then this means that they are implicated in the sovereign decision that God has made concerning the final destination toward which all of human history is directed. That is to say, the decisive event that took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is determinative for all human beings. As Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31:

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.

The gospel is God’s command that “all people everywhere repent”, a command that, in contrast with the “times of ignorance” characterizing history prior to the coming of Christ, now confronts every human being precisely on account of the death and resurrection of Christ. Leading up to the final judgment, this gospel is a “fragrance from life to life” for those who are saved is the same gospel that is also “a fragrance from death to death” for those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15-16). Note well: the destiny of the latter is not determined by a power different from the one that determines the destiny of the former; both result from an encounter with the objective reality of the lordship of Christ which the gospel proclaims to all. Jesus is Lord of all people, and thus the destiny of all people is inextricably bound up with him, whether they acknowledge it or not.

With this understanding in place, Barth moves on to describe the actual moment of decision: what then accounts for the division between those who are saved and those who are perishing? It is not that God has decided positively for some and negatively for the rest, for the gospel’s proclamation of the universal lordship of Christ means that the same decision has been rendered for all: every knee will bow and every tongue will confess in one way or another. Rather, Barth offers an asymmetric account of the point of division between the two groups: those who hear the gospel and believe simply confirm the reality of the decision that God has made concerning them. This is not a “free” choice in the sense that it can ultimately be traced to an autonomous decision on the human side; it is simply what we would normally expect when those who are under God’s decision in Christ are confronted with this fact through the preaching of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is no corresponding explanation for why the rest refuse to acknowledge Christ’s lordship over them. It is a mystery because in Christ God has negated sin, condemning it in the flesh of the one who was made in likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). There is no rational, logical explanation for why Christ’s subjects do not subject themselves to him but rather resist and rebel. When this occurs, therefore, their refusal to repent cannot be described as a “free” choice either, in the sense that they have simply chosen between two equal possibilities. Because the gospel comes as a command with the infinite weight of the authority of God, there is only one conceivable option when it confronts us: repent and believe as God has commanded. The “choice” to do the opposite is not truly a possibility that exists on the same level; hence it is asymmetric. Thus when people make this incomprehensible choice, they do not show that they are free but only unfree, enslaved to the sin that has been negated at the cross, having their minds blinded by the god of this world to keep them from seeing the glory of Christ in the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3).

Thus, whether we consider those who are saved or those who are perishing, in neither case do we have a situation in which the determinative factor is either that 1) God has positively decided for the salvation of one group while deciding for the damnation (or at least passing over) the rest, or that 2) the people confronted by the gospel have simply exercised their free will. Rather, both those who are saved and those who are perishing respond, for reasons that cannot be correlated, on the basis of the prior decision of God in Christ. Those who respond in faith have merely done that which corresponds to God’s prior decision for them, whereas those who respond in rebellion have merely done that which a mind blinded and enslaved by the god of this world are capable of doing. Undergirding all of this is the gospel’s proclamation that the destiny of every single human being has been decisively determined in the death and resurrection of Christ, an objective fact that lays upon every human being the necessity to repent and believe. Thus, however paradoxical it may seem, it is the universal scope of that which the gospel proclaims that creates the crisis of decision to which all people are called, giving rise to the “impossible possibility” that many will refuse and thus consign themselves to eternal damnation.


[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1. (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), p.154.

No Rational Sin: T.F. Torrance on the Error of Universalism

Anyone who has read T.F. Torrance to any extent knows that he was an ardent exponent of universal atonement and of Christ-conditioned election which vicariously includes all humanity. The common objection to these doctrines is that they inevitably lead to the notion of final universal salvation. Torrance, however, was just as ardently opposed to universal salvation as he was in favor of universal atonement and election. How could this be? Doesn’t his position seem logically incoherent, as indeed many have alleged?

In 1949 Torrance wrote an article in response to one “Dr. Robinson” who was at the time advocating the doctrine of universal salvation. It is instructive to see how Torrance critiqued Robinson’s position while at the same time maintaining his own firm commitment to the universal scope of Christ’s atoning and electing work. This is what Torrance had to say to Robinson:

All that Dr. Robinson’s argument succeeds in doing is to point to the possibility that all might be saved in as much as God loves all to the utmost, but it does not and cannot carry as a corollary the impossibility of being eternally lost. The fallacy of every universalist argument lies not in proving the love of God to be universal and omnipotent but in laying down the impossibility of ultimate damnation. Dr. Robinson has cited passages from the New Testament which would seem to him to point in the direction of universalism, but what of those many other passages which declare in no uncertain terms that at the last judgment there will be a final division between t-f-torrance-1946the children of light and the children of darkness ? What of the shuddering horror of the words: “It were better for that man had he never been born”, which came from the lips of Omnipotent Love ? There is not a shred of Biblical witness that can be adduced to support the impossibility of ultimate damnation. All the weight of Biblical teaching is on the other side.

Universalism is always and inevitably inconsistent for two reasons, (a) It commits the logical fallacy of transmuting movement into necessity. At the very best universalism could only be concerned with a hope, with a possibility, and could only be expressed apocalyptically. But to turn it into a dogmatic statement, which is what the doctrine of universalism does, is to destroy the possibility in the necessity. This is precisely what Dr. Robinson has done. He started off in the second part of his essay, with a personal analogy and a personal truth, but immediately he proceeded to universalise it. In such a procedure the actual historical particularity of every choice as a free movement disappears, and necessity takes its place—no matter how hard one may try to avoid it, and Dr. Robinson has tried very hard. Apparently he has not realised that thinking in terms of universals in point of fact destroys the free decision of faith; that when personal Christian truths are turned into general truths they become necessary truths. Every free personal choice is rooted in historical existence. To think it sub specie aeterni is to abrogate it. Universalism inevitably becomes shipwreck upon the stubborn particularity of the personal event.

(b) It commits the dogmatic fallacy of systematising the illogical. Sin has a fundamentally surd-like character. Somehow evil posits itself and cannot be rationalised. The New Testament teaches that when it speaks of the mystery of iniquity, and of the bottomless pit (abyssos). Evil is fundamentally discontinuity. No explanation involving only continuity or coherence can ever approach the problem, for that would be to draw the line of continuity dialectically over discontinuity. The doctrine of the atonement teaches us that no matter how much we think about it, here our reason reaches its limit. It cannot bridge the contradiction between God and man in guilt. The contradiction is resolved only by an act of God in which man in contradiction to God is reconciled and yet the terrible bottomless reality of sin is not denied. That act of God is ultimately eschatological so that just how the contradiction is dealt with in atonement is yet to be revealed at the Parousia. That is the relevance of apocalyptic, but apocalyptic is the antithesis of universalism.

Universalism is the doctrine that rationalises sin, that refuses to admit in its dark fathomless mystery a limit to reason. Universalism means that the contradiction can be bridged by reason after all, and constitutes therefore the denial of atonement and the anguished action of Calvary. The Christian faith which has looked into the limitless depth of the Eli, Eli lama sabachthani, and considered the great weight of sin to discover that only by act of God can man get across the gulf, will accept the way of humility where the Cross makes foolish the wisdom of this world. It will learn the discipline of suspending judgment in order to avoid foisting a false and abortive unity or a closed system of thought upon the actual facts of existence. The irrational mystery of evil is the other rock upon which universalism as a unitary interpretation of existence inevitably suffers shipwreck. True dogmatic procedure at this point is to suspend judgment, for here that is the most rational thing reason can do. Whether all men will as a matter of fact be saved or not, in the nature of the case, cannot be known.[1]

As can be seen, Torrance staunchly refused to give in to the allure of universalism, despite the direction that logic supposedly should have pulled him. Whether we fully agree with him or not, what we see here is Torrance’s effort to maintain the full scope of the biblical witness, giving due weight to both its universal and particular elements, without sacrificing either one for the sake of logical coherency. That is not to say that Scripture is illogical, but simply that it forces us to reconsider what exactly it is that should constitute what is “logical” or not.

As Torrance argues, universalism is the attempt to rationalize the irrational, to find a reason for the unreasonable, to explain the inexplicable. If we could find a way to rationally come to terms with sin and why some reject Christ, then we would have effectively emptied sin of its sinfulness, of the very thing that makes it so heinous and abominable. Sin is a “bottomless pit” of darkness and absurdity, and any way in which we try to come to terms with its operations in the human heart will only lead us to distort biblical teaching. Either we will fall, like Dr. Robinson, into the quagmire of universalism, or we will rigidly logicalize the atonement in terms of limited intent and effect, or we will reduce Christ’s work to the provision of a mere possibility. I believe that Torrance is correct in identifying each one of these options as flawed and ultimately unfaithful to the full range of the biblical testimony.


[1] Torrance, T.F., 1949. ‘Universalism or Election?’ in Scottish Journal of Theology 2(3), pp.312-314.

All That Glimmers Isn’t Gold: Faith and Reason in Reformed Orthodoxy vs. Karl Barth

Inspired by R. Scott Clark’s recent post over at the Heidelblog in which he offered a quote from Cornelius Van Til on the importance of Aristotle for Reformed theology, I wrote a post of my own in which I corroborated his point with reference to Protestant historian Richard Muller but, unlike Clark and Van Til, I argued that the Protestant and Reformed appropriation of Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy was not an improvement on but a defection from the trajectory initiated by the original Reformers, especially Martin 200px-cornelius_van_tilLuther and John Calvin. In this post, I would like to follow up by going a little deeper, this time examining the underlying assumption that made recourse to and appropriation of Aristotelian thought not only legitimate but also desirable in the eyes of the Protestant scholastics. As we will see, this will also shed light on the famous debate between Cornelius Van Til and the theologian whom he considered to be an arch-heretic: Karl Barth.

To begin, I would like to return to Richard Muller who emphasizes and then helpfully explains the rationale behind the Protestant marriage of theology and philosophy:

[W]e must also stress the genuine and positive relationship between Protestant scholasticism and the Christian Aristotelianism of earlier centuries. This relationship, as manifest in the Protestant scholastic use of medieval paradigms for the discussion of the genus and object of theology and, to a lesser or at least less explicit extent, for the establishment of a theological epistemology in which faith and reason both had a place, and in fact provided a barrier to the use of seventeenth-century rationalist philosophy in Protestant orthodox system. Protestant scholasticism was no more conducive to a truly rationalistic philosophy than were the Augustinian, Thomist and Scotist theologies of the later Middle Ages. In the words of one historian of philosophy,

Scholasticism itself had been the result of a yearning for rational insight, of a desire to understand and to find reasons for what it believed.… the goal of its search was fixed by faith: philosophy served as its handmaiden.… They did not study the world as we study it, they did not pursue truth in the independent manner of the Greeks, but that was because they were so firmly convinced of the absolute truth of their premises, the doctrines of the faith. These were their facts, with these they whetted their intellects, these they sought to weld into a system.

Although these sentences were written as a description of medieval scholasticism, they apply with little modification to the systematizing efforts of the Protestant scholastics, particularly in terms of the relation of faith and reason, world view and independent investigation.[1]

According to Muller, the “positive relationship between Protestant scholasticism and…Christian Aristotelianism” stemmed from the correspondingly positive relationship between “faith and reason”. In the context of medieval and post-Reformation theology, this conjunction of faith and reason did not correlate merely with the quest for logical coherency in the theological system; rather it involved the assumption that, to a certain extent, human reason could, even in its fallen state, acquire true, albeit limited, knowledge of God. This assumption had earlier received axiomatic expression from Thomas Aquinas who held that ‘grace perfects nature’ and that God can be known on the basis of inferential reasoning from analogies in the created order (e.g. Thomas’ five proofs of the existence of God). This notion, also designated by the phrase analogia entis (analogy of being), underwrote the cautious but optimistic confidence of the scholastics in natural reason’s inherent capacity to begin a journey to knowing God that could be completed and perfected by grace and faith.

Contrast this with Muller’s account of the rejection, evidenced in both Luther and Calvin, of the analogia entis and their corresponding insistence on the singular authority of biblical revelation:

One of the elements of late medieval Scotist and nominalist theology that had a profound impact on Luther was its denial of any analogy between God and man and its consequent recognition of the impossibility of formulating a rational metaphysic concerning God. All knowledge of God must rest on authoritative testimony, primarily on that of Scripture. Luther not only denied any recourse of theology to an analogia entis between God and man and insisted on the necessity of scriptural revelation, but also argued, in the light of his denial of human merit and his sense of the immediacy of Christ as revealer and savior, against any rational theologia gloriae that claimed to describe God as he is in himself and proposed that our earthly theology be a theologia crucis, conformed to the pattern of God’s revelation in Christ. Calvin, similarly, allows a glorious revelation of God in creation that ought to be understood by reason—but argues that human beings are so corrupted by sin that apart from salvation in Christ and the saving form of revelation given in Scripture, knowledge of God remains inaccessible to them.[2]

Interesting, no? Once again we see how Muller, despite his overall thesis of continuity between the Reformers and the Protestant orthodox after them, admits to a certain amount of discontinuity that, in my view, amounts to a much more significant divergence than Muller wants to allow. To put it starkly, the difference between the analogia entis of Thomas Aquinas and the approach of Luther and Calvin (what can be called the analogia fidei, or ‘analogy of faith’) constituted one of the key issues that marked the Reformers’ contention against medieval Catholicism. The tantalizing question that this raises, of course, is this: what does this imply about the Protestant orthodox conjunction of faith and reason and the analogia entis as its underlying presupposition?

To suggest an answer, I would like to quote (at length) a section from Keith Johnson’s magnificent study Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis in which Johnson traces, as the title indicates, the course of Barth’s lifelong interaction with Roman Catholic theology on this very point. Concluding his analysis of Barth’s famous debate with Erich Przywara over what the latter considered to be “‘the fundamental thought form’ of all Roman Catholic theology”, Johnson writes:

Barth’s motivation for his rejection of the analogia entis…goes to the heart of the difference between Protestant and Catholic theology. It is a boldly Protestant affirmation of God’s grace…

Przywara’s analogia entis is built upon the notion that there is something ‘given’ in God’s act in creation – namely, the shape and structure of human existence itself – erichprzywaraand that human reflection upon this ‘given’ can lead to knowledge of God. On the ground of this claim, he holds that the knowledge of God available as a result of God’s act in creation stands in continuity with God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, and consequently, he believes that the knowledge of God available through philosophical reflection stands in continuity with the knowledge of God given in and through revelation found in the Catholic Church. Lying behind these affirmations is Przywara’s conviction that what humans know by reason on the basis of their nature can be perfected and fulfilled by what they know by faith on the basis of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. This belief, in turn, is grounded in the notion that humans are, by nature, fit for God’s justifying grace in Jesus Christ because they stand in an intrinsic relationship to God by virtue of their creation by God, and this relationship remains intact even after the Fall and apart from the reconciling work of Christ.

Barth rejects the analogia entis because he rejects this line of thought and the theology behind it. The dividing line is Barth’s account of the doctrine of justification. Barth believes that the Fall has left humans incapable of acquiring knowledge about God, or having a right relationship with God, apart from a second act in addition to creation: the miracle of our justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ…This rules out the notion that what humans know by reason stands in continuity with what they know by faith, and it also means that what they know by nature cannot stand in continuity with what they know by grace. Indeed, Barth thinks that if this were the case, then human action would stand in continuity with divine action in a way that contradicts the Protestant sola gratia, because what the human accomplishes by nature would contribute to what God accomplishes by grace…

The rejection of these doctrines is neither the result of a ‘demented’ point of view nor an irrational opposition to Roman Catholicism, Przywara, or the analogia entis itself…Rather, the 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. They feared that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification allowed for a continuity between God’s saving act and human moral action, and that such continuity undermined a proper account of God’s grace. Barth correctly discerns that the same kind of continuity exists in Przywara’s analogia entis, because Przywara’s doctrine is predicated upon the notion that God’s revelation can be read directly off of creaturely realities. Barth had rejected this same error 15 years earlier when he turned away from the theology of his former teachers. Doing so now was nothing out of the ordinary for him, nor was it the result of a misunderstanding or a mistake: it was the fulfilment of the convictions that had governed his theology since 1914 and would continue to govern his theology for the rest of his life.[3]

The implications of this should be clear by now. If indeed the Protestant appropriation of Aristotelian philosophy was funded, as Muller states, by a conjunction of faith and reason similar to that espoused by Aquinas on the basis of the analogia entis, and if Barth, following Luther and Calvin, rejected this approach precisely due to the primal Protestant commitment to the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone, then it would seem that the Aristotelian-influenced theological systems of the later Protestant and Reformed orthodox constituted a reversal of the trajectory undertaken by the Reformers back toward the analogia entis and thus, ironically, back toward Rome itself. This largely substantiates the suggestion made by Ron Frost (cited in my previous post) that post-Reformation developments within Protestant theology turned the birth of the Reformation into a “miscarriage”[4].

By way of conclusion, I would simply like to draw out a further implication regarding Van Til’s fierce opposition to Karl Barth. Bruce McCormack rightly pinpoints the crux of the debate when he says:

These differences are rooted finally in the fact that Barth’s doctrine of God is Christologically controlled while Van Til’s doctrine of God controls his Christology – though this is just the tip of the iceberg. Van Til had a pre-modernist sense of young-barth-1confidence that the rationality that is proper to God’s eternal counsel and plan was somehow embedded in the natural order as well as in the flow of history. Barth regarded such confidence as belonging to a world which no longer existed; hence, his massive assault on natural theology and the need to ground knowledge of God differently than in the past.[5]

The theological approach that McCormack attributes to Van Til is essentially the same as that of Aquinas, Pryzwara, and Roman Catholic theology in general. It presumes the capacity of human reason to, when used rightly, acquire true knowledge of God by extrapolating from “the natural order” and “the flow of history”, resulting in a knowledge that is not contradicted but confirmed and perfected by grace and faith. This is evidenced in Van Til’s claim (in the aforementioned quote posted by Clark) that Aristotle’s intellect was, in addition to Scripture, God’s gift to the church. This is the approach that subsequently led Van Til to his understanding of Christology, on the basis of which he harshly condemned Barth’s as heretical. By contrast, Barth (and, I might add, T.F. Torrance and Evangelical Calvinists) rejected the knowledge of God to be gained through application of the analogia entis and vigorously advocated a return to the primal Protestant impulse toward seeing the revelation of the Word of God as the only reliable basis for true knowledge of God. As Johnson argues, this was motivated by Barth’s unflinching commitment to the deep implications of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace alone which entailed a judgment upon any and all human attempts to contribute to God’s sovereign acts of revelation and reconciliation. Is this not perhaps why the Roman Catholic luminary Hans Urs von Balthasar claimed that in Barth “Protestantism has for the first time found its most completely consistent representative. He embodies a Protestantism that can be reached only by going back its roots, its deepest source: to Calvin and Luther”?[6]

It would seem necessary to conclude, therefore, that in terms of the Van Til vs. Barth debate, not only was Barth not the heretic that Van Til believed, but he was actually far more Protestant and Reformed than Van Til himself. At least on this point, Van Til appears far closer to Rome, indicating that all that glimmers in what can be found in natural reason surely is not the gold of faith.


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. p.142. In-text citation from Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt, 1941), pp. 221–222, emphasis added.

[2] Ibid., p.223.

[3] Johnson, K.L., 2010. Karl Barth and the Analogia Entis. London/New York: T&T Clark, pp.2, 119-121.

[4] Frost, R.N., 1997. ‘Aristotle’s Ethics: The Real Reason for Luther’s Reformation?’. Trinity Journal 18NS, p.225.

[5] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘Afterword: Reflections on Van Til’s Critique of Barth’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.380.

[6] von Balthasar, H.U., 1992. The Theology of Karl Barth. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, pp.22-23.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 12: Limited Atonement (Incarnation and Ontology)

In the previous entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I proposed that the traditional understanding of ‘limited atonement’ would be better served by, in one sense, ‘limiting’ the atonement even further, from a select group of human beings to a single human being: Jesus Christ himself. Rather than conceiving the atonement exclusively or primarily as a transaction or merit provided external to Christ, I believe that, in accordance with Scripture and the inner logic of the incarnation, we should think of the atonement in terms of what Christ Limited-Atonement-AVATARaccomplished within his own incarnate person as the divine-human mediator. Following the language of T.F. Torrance, then, we could call this revised view ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ atonement.

These terms are helpful because this view holds together, as does Scripture, who Christ is ontologically in his incarnation with what he did redemptively in his atoning work. When we do so, we discover that the atonement was not merely a form of payment that Christ offered an a way external to himself, as though that payment could have been paid by another, but that it was primarily an act that he vicariously accomplished in the depths of our humanity within his own incarnate constitution as the Son of God and Son of Man.

This is what we find clearly taught by many of the church fathers such as Athanasius whose classic work On the Incarnation has served generations of Christians as a powerful explication of orthodox Christian faith. In this work, Athanasius labored to articulate and defend the meaning of Christ’s incarnation against various dissenters who in some form or another tried to undermine this central gospel truth. Near the beginning of his treatise, Athanasius asks us to imagine, from God’s point of view, the situation presented by human sin:

…what possible course was God to take? To demand repentance of men for their transgression?..Now, if there were merely a misdemeanour in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed? or what was required for such grace and such recall, but the Word of God, which had also at the beginning made everything out of nought?…

And thus taking from our bodies one of like nature, because all were under penalty of the corruption of death [the Word] gave it over to death in the stead of all, and offered it to the Father—doing this, moreover, of His loving-kindness, to the end that, firstly, all being held to have died in Him, the law involving the ruin of men might be undone (inasmuch as its power was fully spent in the Lord’s body, and had no longer holding-ground against men, his peers), and that, secondly, whereas men had turned toward corruption, He might turn them again toward incorruption, and quicken them from death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of the Resurrection, banishing death from them like straw from the fire.

For the Word, perceiving that no otherwise could the corruption of men be undone save by death as a necessary condition, while it was impossible for the Word to suffer death, being immortal, and Son of the Father; to this end He takes to Himself a body capable of death, that it, by partaking of the Word Who is above all, might be worthy to die in the stead of all, and might, because of the Word which was come to dwell in it, remain incorruptible, and that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection.[1]

Putting aside the question of Athanasius’ conception of Christ’s human nature, it is important to note that while Athanasius acknowledges that the guilt of sin entails condemnation, he also recognizes that the corruption of sin involves death, and thus a merely ‘transactional’ work of atonement or satisfaction of divine justice would not fully suffice to save sinners. For this reason, Athanasius highlights two corresponding aspects of Christ’s atoning work. First, corresponding to the condemnation of sin, Athanasius refers to the moral/forensic aspect of the atonement according to which Christ ‘undid’ the law thereby delivered sinners its penalty. Second, corresponding to the corruption of sin, Athanasius underscores the ontological aspect of the atonement according to which Christ also dealt with the inherent corruption to which all have become subject by “banishing death from them like straw from the fire”.

This, in other words, bespeaks a decidedly internal view of the atonement. Christ did not simply pay a penalty external to his person; he also penetrated into the ontological depths of humanity in virtue of his incarnation, and there he purged our sin and corruption from the inside. This leads to a very realistic view of the atonement, one that avoids any sense of it creating a mere ‘legal fiction’ and that stresses the atonement’s sanctifying power. As Louis Markos explains:

Athanasius immediately shakes us out of our doctrinal stupor by allowing us to view the incarnation from God’s point of view. Imagine you’re God, he seems to say, and you’ve created a whole world out of nothing (ex nihilo). Imagine further that you’ve created a special type of creature (mankind), on whom you have bestowed reason, purpose, and desire. What do you do when these rational creatures reject your direction and, as a result, fall into corruption?…

Sin is not a thing that stands alongside man; it is buried deep within him, interwoven in his very being. If you are to stay this corruption, you must do a work not of creation but of re-creation. You can’t simply make again as you made in the beginning; you must remake, restore, renew. And that renewal must be effected from the inside out. Yes, you must enter, yourself, into the body of man and realign it: take that nature that was once interwoven with sin, death, and corruption and weave it instead around virtue, life, and immortality…For Athanasius, this divine restorative work is brought to completion only through the crucifixion and resurrection, but it begins with Christmas.[2]

This, I would argue, is the truly orthodox view of salvation which recognizes the interlocking nature of Christ’s person and work, of his incarnation and atonement, of his ontological constitution and redemptive action. Contrary to many theologians who view Christ’s atoning work almost exclusively in terms of the cross, Athanasius argues that Christ’s atoning death would be ineffectual were it not intrinsically related to his incarnate person, just as his incarnation would not likewise not be salvific apart from the atonement. Unless the atonement took place within Christ’s person rather than as a payment offered, as it were, ‘over his head’, then the inherent corruption of humanity remains untouched. A payment might satisfy the demands of God’s justice, but it certainly could not deal with human corruption or deliver from death.

For this reason, Athanasius rightly perceives that the atonement occurred within Christ himself whereby he not only absolved us from our guilt but also purged us from our corruption and raised us from death. He did this not by remaining distant from us; rather he vicariously penetrated in the depths of our humanity through his incarnation and cleansed and healed us from within. Thus, his atonement was ‘incarnational’ and ‘ontological’ in that he actualized in himself our complete and utter redemption from sin and recreation in the image of God. There is literally no aspect of human redemption that he has not fully accomplished in himself. Christ has not only freed us from condemnation but has also, as the book of Hebrews insists, destroyed sin, purged all corruption, and raised humanity to the indestructible life of the new creation.

From this, we can see how the traditional Reformed view was constructed on a key insight: the atonement’s efficacy and power increase when its extent is limited. It committed a fatal error, however, when it failed to take this insight with utmost seriousness and stopped short of limiting the atonement to only one human being, Jesus Christ himself. Had it done so, it may perhaps have realized that not only has Christ’s atonement actually removed condemnation in a forensic sense, but it has also accomplished redemption to the uttermost degree. This is why Paul can, in 1 Corinthians 1:20, say that Christ in his resurrection is the ‘firstfruits’ of our salvation. He is, in the most literal sense possible, the one in whom human salvation has been actualized to its fullest degree. He alone has passed through death, condeming and putting sin to death in his own flesh, and has been raised to the eternal resurrection life of the new creation, and therefore the full extent of his atoning and redemptive work can be properly said to have occurred only in him.

Paradoxically, however, such a drastic limitation not only maximizes the atonement’s power to the greatest degree, but it also has a universalizing effect. When we understand that the atonement took place in Christ himself because of the indissoluble connection between his incarnate being and salvific work, we come to understand that the atonement is likewise unlimited in its extent. Why is this so? Stay tuned to my next post to find out.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 39–41.

[2] Markos, L.A., 2005. ‘An Evening with Athanasius: Meditations on the Incarnation’, in Theology Today, 62(2), pp.241-242.

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.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 5: Total Depravity

This is the second post in my effort to recast the first of the five points of Calvinism, ‘Total depravity’ in an Evangelical Calvinist way. If you have not done so already, I would recommend that before proceeding you read the previous entries in this series here: Reforming Calvinism.Totaly-Depravity-AVATAR

In my last post, I suggested that ‘Total depravity’ should be reformulated by beginning with Jesus Christ as the archetypal imago Dei rather than with who we are as fallen human beings. The reason, as we discovered, is that we will never be able to truly discern the depths of our depravity until we are confronted by the grace and truth of God embodied in Jesus Christ, just as we can never see clearly in the darkness until the light breaks in and dispels it. Now I would like to describe what I see as the second modification, flowing from and building on the first, that should be made to the traditional doctrine. What I am about to propose may not seem particularly new or radical (or maybe it will?), but it will have significant ramifications when we arrive at later points, especially the atonement.

I would like to begin by quoting Athanasius from his famous treatise On the Incarnation of the Word. Athansius was a fourth century theologian remembered as the foremost champion and exponent of pro-Nicene theology over against the so-called ‘Arians’ who in various ways denied the fully equality of Jesus Christ with God the Father. Here is Athanasius as he begins to explain the reason why it was necessary for God himself in the person of the Son to assume human flesh in order to redeem humanity:

For in speaking of the appearance of the Saviour amongst us, we must needs speak also of the origin of men, that you may know that the reason of His coming down was because of us, and that our transgression called forth the loving-kindness of the Word, that the Lord should both make haste to help us and appear among men. For of His becoming Incarnate we were the object, and for our salvation He dealt so lovingly as to appear and be born even in a human body. Thus, then, God has made man, and willed that he should abide in incorruption; but men, having despised and rejected the contemplation of God, and devised and contrived evil for themselves (as was said in the former treatise), received the condemnation of death with which they had been threatened; and from thenceforth no longer remained as they were made, but were being corrupted according to their devices; and death had the mastery over them as king. For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time.

For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back to what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption…

Now, if there were merely a misdemeanour in question, and not a consequent corruption, repentance were well enough. But if, when transgression had once gained a start, men became involved in that corruption which was their nature, and were deprived of the grace which they had, being in the image of God, what further step was needed? or what was required for such grace and such recall, but the Word of God, which had also at the beginning made everything out of nought? For His it was once more both to bring the corruptible to incorruption, and to maintain intact the just claim of the Father upon all. For being Word of the Father, and above all, He alone of natural fitness was both able to recreate everything, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be ambassador for all with the Father. [1]

Let me highlight a couple of important points. First, Athanasius underscores the ontological effects that sin has on humanity. In contrast to the ways in which Latin or Western Christianity has tended to emphasize the moral/legal aspects of sin (sin as transgression of law that accrues a debt which must be paid in order to satisfy the demands of God’s justice), Greek or Eastern Christianity tended to emphasize, as is evidenced here, the ontological consequences of sin. It is not that Athanasius overlooks the legal element, for he recognizes that sin involves “transgression of the commandment”. But he goes further, stressing that sin corrupts the very being of humanity itself and that it leads ultimately to dissolution and nothingness. Human beings were created from nothing (ex nihilo) and continue to exist only because they are upheld by his Word. Sin, however, entails a turning away from God, the only source of life, and this can only mean a turning back toward nothingness (Gen. 3:19: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return”). For Athanasius, the fall into sin is essentially a fall into ‘de-creation’ and can only be fully reversed and rectified by the Creator himself who takes on human nature and recreates it from within.

Second, Athanasius derives this view not from philosophical speculation but from the concrete fact that the Word became incarnate (John 1:14). According to John Behr’s excellent work The Formation of Christian Theology, vol. 2: The Nicene Faith (pp.181-182), Athanasius arrived at this conclusion not by reflecting on human existence and sin per se so much as by rethinking them in light of the saving work of Christ. In other words, rather than starting with the question: ‘What is the nature of creation and of human sin?’, Athanasius began by inquiring: ‘What must be the nature of creation and of human sin in light of the gospel’s proclamation that none other than God himself had to become man in order to bring about salvation?’ If it was necessary for the Creator to personally unite himself to humanity in order to save it from within, then humanity must have been in danger of returning to the ex nihilo from whence it came. Similar to Paul who in Galatians 2:21 argued that “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose”, we might say that if sin had not thoroughly twisted and corrupted human nature to its ontological roots, then Christ became incarnate for no purpose.

This was Athanasius’ Christocentric view of human beings after the fall, and it is what I propose should be included in a re-formed understanding of total depravity.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, p. 38, 40.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 4: Total Depravity

After having laid the necessary foundation in previous parts of the series Reforming Calvinism, I now want to begin to recast the actual five points of TULIP in an Evangelical Calvinist light. In this post I will consider the first of these points, typically designated as “Total depravity”. Before I do, however, I need to preface what follows with two introductory remarks.

Totaly-Depravity-AVATARFirst, as with subsequent posts in this series, I will include a brief description of how each point is classically construed for the sake of clarifying the position that I am seeking to revise. I will borrow these descriptions from R.C. Sproul who has written about them over at the Ligonier blog, for I find Sproul to be clear and concise, not to mention the fact that he is one of the foremost exponents of Reformed theology today.

Second, it is important to remember that the five points were not originally intended to be a comprehensive explication of what ‘Calvinism’ or Reformed theology as such entailed. Rather they are the product of the seventeenth-century controversy in which the Synod of Dort sought to defend in particular these five issues against the Arminian Remonstrants. It must be said, therefore, that ‘Total depravity’ does not provide an ideal starting point for constructing any theological system. This is why I endeavored in the previous three posts to fill in some of the missing preparatory material. Nevertheless, this is where TULIP usually starts, and so it is where I will begin myself. So without further delay, here is an excerpt from what Sproul has written about ‘Total depravity’ classically conceived:

In the Reformed tradition, total depravity does not mean utter depravity…It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person. The fallenness that captures and grips our human nature affects our bodies; that’s why we become ill and die. It affects our minds and our thinking; we still have the capacity to think, but the Bible says the mind has become darkened and weakened. The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.

There is much to commend in this definition. As an Evangelical Calvinist, I find myself to be more or less in general agreement with the view articulated here. Total depravity, as I understand it, does not mean that people are as evil as they possibly can be. It means that all human beings post lapsus – after the fall narrated in Genesis 3 – have been corrupted by sin in every facet of their being and existence. Nothing about humanity remains untouched by the destructive effects of sin. We are dust, and to dust we shall return (Gen. 3:19). The radical consequences of sin do not involve a subordination of the human intellect (somewhat less affected) to the passions, neither do they consist in a wounding of nature that can simply be healed and perfected by grace (contra Thomist/Roman Catholic thought). Paul says in Ephesians 2:1 that we were dead in trespasses and sins. We are not imperfect people needing assistance or moral improvement. We are dead people in need of resurrection. This is important, for how we diagnose humanity’s fundamental problem will largely determine how we will define the necessary solution.

I do not, however, want to leave this exactly as it stands. I am attempting, after all, to reform all five points of Calvinism. There are, in fact, two modifications that I would like to propose that may seem to be somewhat inconsequential, but as we will see moving forward in this series, they will have significant ramifications, especially for how I will reconstruct limited atonement. I will provide the first of these modifications here but will postpone the second to the next post for the sake of space.

The first modification has to do with the means by which we arrive at our understanding of total depravity. I argued in previous posts that our knowledge of who God is and who we are as human beings made in his image must be grounded primarily in who Jesus Christ is. Jesus is the revelation of who God is antecedently and eternally in himself, but he is also the revelation of who human beings were originally created to be as well as who they will ultimately be in the consummation of redemption (1 John 3:2). This means that our knowledge of who we are as humans must derive from the knowledge of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself said, we can only truly find ourselves when we lose ourselves in him (Matt. 16:25). He is the true imago Dei and as such, he is the brilliant light that reveals how great is the darkness that presently pervades us down to the roots of our being. As John 3:19-20 states: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed”. In other words, those who live in utter darkness and in whom darkness utterly lives do not realize the depth of that darkness until they are confronted with the resplendence of the light that shines in the face of Christ.

Why is this way of recasting the doctrine of total depravity so important? Can we not simply read off the pages of Scripture that our condition is such? Karl Barth clearly explains the reason when he writes:

[O]nly when we know Jesus Christ do we really know that man is the man of sin, and what sin is, and what it means for man…It is irrelevant and superfluous to seek for a normative concept by which to measure sin, to construct such a concept from biblical or extra-biblical materials, to learn about it either openly or secretly in our own self-communing. More than that, it is misleading and futile to do so. It is indeed a form of sin (perhaps the main form). Why? Not because we can find and produce another and better method, the christological, but because Jesus Christ Himself is present, living and speaking and attesting and convincing; because in this matter we need not and cannot and should not speak to ourselves; because the man of sin and his existence and nature, his why and whence and whither, are all set before us in Jesus Christ, are all spoken to us directly and clearly and incontrovertibly: Thou art the man! This is what thou doest! This is what thou art! This is the result!

We hear Him and we hear this verdict. We see Him, and in this mirror we see ourselves, ourselves as those who commit sin and are sinners. We are here inescapably accused and irrevocably condemned. There is nothing that we can bring in our favour. We have to acknowledge that we are wholly unrighteous. We have to see that we not only do unrighteously and are in unrighteousness, but that we are unrighteous. We find our competence to work out the standard by which to measure ourselves denied. We are no longer permitted to parley and come to terms with ourselves about ourselves. We have simply no room or breath for fine distinctions between evil deed and evil being, proper and improper sinfulness, the feeling of guilt and all the rest, let alone for the even finer syntheses between creatureliness and sin on the one side and sin and redemption on the other. We are arrested, marched away and locked up. There can be no pardon attained by our own devices, no explanation and interpretation of sin and the man of sin, when we are confronted by Jesus Christ and hear the Word spoken in His existence. We are simply there as this man…There can be no question of any thought of redemption which we can manipulate, any capacity for redemption which we can put into effect. There is no stay or comfort in the idea of a freedom and capacity (which are finally and effectively ours) to look at ourselves as the man of sin from without, to take ourselves by the hand and to re-interpret and change ourselves. Knowledge of sin at this point consists in the knowledge: I am this man. To this extent it is the knowledge of real sin. [1]

In short, Barth says that only in Christ can we truly understand the depths of our depravity, for all other sources of knowledge will ultimately concede us a measure of wiggle room for some form of denial or self-justification. Only in Christ can we see our hopeless condition for what it truly is, and only in this way can truly begin to appreciate the utter graciousness of his grace.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark, pp.389-390