A Cornerstone Chosen and Precious: The Connection Between Election and Mission in 1 Peter 2:4-10

1 Peter 2:4 As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

[The following interpretation of 1 Peter 2:4-10 which explicates the connection between election and mission, and thus sheds light on the nature of election itself, is excerpted from C.G. Seed, The missional nature of divine-human communion: Thomas F. Torrance and the Chinese church (Unpublished PhD thesis, May 2016), 99-103.]

[T]he theological emphasis of 1 Pet 2:6 is that those who believe in Christ should never be ashamed. Indeed, if God himself has appointed Christ as the “chosen” and “precious” cornerstone promised in the Old Testament Scriptures, then belief in him will bring value and preciousness to the believers as well. This is picked up again in 1 Pet 2:9 where the blessings of the covenant people of God are applied to those who believe in Christ using the epithets of Exod 19:5-6.

However, at this stage the author brings into play, using Psa 118:22, the contrasting state of those who do not believe that Christ is God‟s appointed “cornerstone” (2:7). The fact remains that whether Christ is accepted or not (2:7b), he remains the “cornerstone”. When he is not received by faith, then the author shows from Isa 8:14 that the act of rejection of Christ will bring appointed judgement on unbelievers, leaving them in the state of spiritual darkness in which they have lived since the Fall (2:9). The reason for athis is disobedience to the word of God, previously designated as the “good news” of Jesus Christ, God’s salvation (1:25).

Thus, the question of acceptance or rejection of God’s chosen cornerstone is at the heart of the argument of 1 Pet 2:4-12. Indeed, the question of a right response to God’s word is one that concerns Isa 28 and the question of a right response to God’s salvation is one that also concerns Psa 118. The choice is one of either building through faith in the crucified and resurrected Christ, God‟s “chosen and precious” one, or rejecting him through a response of disbelief (2:7). This marks the crucial dividing line between those who receive the blessings of God through Christ and those who remain outside the blessings of his grace….

However, being in communion with God through Christ is not an end in itself…. The purpose of the “honour” afforded to the people of the covenant is to proclaim God’s praise. The source for this theology is again Isa 43:20-21 where the Lord delivers his chosen people “that they might declare my praise”…. The purpose for which God has brought people into communion with himself through Christ is for them to make known to others both what he has done for them in his Son (cf. 1:3-9) as well as who his is in his holiness (1:15-16).

Thus, the proclamation of the marvellous character and deeds of God is declared to be the purpose of the salvation which the believers have received, giving their witness a missional purpose … because the context of the passage in Isa 43 is one in which the Lord declares to Israel that “you are my witnesses” (Is 43:10, 12) among the nations. Although Israel failed in this task, Christ as the “servant” (Isa 43:10) bears perfect witness to the world. The only fitting response of the people of God to its calling, election and blessing through union with Christ is one of praise. However, as praise is exercised in the face of the nations, by its very nature, it draws people to Christ….

The missional nature of divine-human communion has been seen in this text in several ways. Firstly, divine-human communion is a result of a response to God’s word as revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus, commonly referred to as the gospel. Those who, by his mercy (1:3; 2:10), believe and are born into a “living hope” have put their trust in the one chosen by God to be the “cornerstone”. As a result, they receive the “honour” accorded to the Old Testament people of God, which the author designates in terms of an elaboration of and teaching on the “programmatic” declaration of YHWH in Exod 19:5-6. This includes being built as “living stones” into the spiritual temple that is the church of Christ, becoming a “holy priesthood” offering sacrifices pleasing to him in Jesus Christ, becoming a “chosen race” in him, a “holy nation”, God’s own possession which is in fact the covenant people of God (“God‟s people”)….

On the contrary, those who do not obey or believe the word proclaimed about Christ the “cornerstone” remain in the spiritual darkness, which is their natural state. Their rejection of God‟s means of salvation, which is Christ the cornerstone (and by implication his people), is evidence of their natural or destined state of judgement. However, not all is lost. Those who are in communion with God through Christ, by the Spirit, have been saved to proclaim his character and his acts of salvation in the exodus and return from exile. As they declare what God has done, their message reaches out to those still in darkness and opposition to God‟s “chosen and precious” one. Moreover, as they live out their lives as a “holy priesthood” their holy conduct will bring glory to God among those who reject his way of salvation and lead them to praise him in the eschatological future, perhaps leading them to receive his mercy too.

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The Limitless Many of the Elect: Karl Barth on Grasping the Multi-Dimensional Nature of Election

The following section taken from Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics II/2 sets forth a layered, multi-dimensional understanding of the contentious doctrine of election. Many, if not most, of the critiques levelled against Barth’s view tend to flatten it out into two-dimensional straw man, whereas Barth’s actual articulation of election is highly nuanced and prismatic. As we can see below, it is not true that Barth simply believed that all human beings are elect, full stop. Rather, he spoke of the “limitless many” of the elect in Jesus Christ. To grasp what this means, as well as Barth’s insistence that we define election not merely in terms of the New Testament but also of the Old Testament, we turn to a lengthy yet critical section from CD II/2. Although it really could benefit from some concluding comments, I will, given the length of what follows, just let Barth speak for himself. It bears careful, thoughtful reading:

In the Old Testament, of course, as well as in the New, election certainly does not mean merely the distinction or differentiation of the elect, but his concurrent determination to a life-content which corresponds to this distinction and differentiation. Yet if we confine ourselves to the Old Testament, we cannot characterise this life-content precisely. The question of the Whither? of the election of the individual cannot be answered more clearly than by the affirmation—which is, of course, valuable, but needs further elucidation—that every such man is elected in his own way and place in order that God Himself, the God of Israel, the Founder and Ruler of the special history of this people, and therefore the will of God for this people in any particular modification of the course of its history, should be the direction and aim of his life. But the Old Testament itself does not disclose the intention of Israel’s God in Israel’s history. On the contrary, by its witness it envelops it in renewed darkness, by reason of the seeming contradiction in which it barthcontinually speaks of the love of God and the wrath of God, of future salvation and future judgment, of the life and the death of this people of God—with the emphasis, all in all, more on the latter than on the former.

It is because of this that it is difficult, if not impossible, to derive from the Old Testament itself the answer to the question of the meaning of the election of the individual to be a friend and servant and child of God, sanctified by and for Him in distinction from those who are not so. According to the witness of the Old Testament, the wrath of God apparently opposes His love as an independent and apparently even the definitive direction of the divine will for the people of Israel. Every promise stands from the outset in the shadow of the much more impressive menace, every consolation in the shadow of the much more powerful judgment. And as the purpose of God can be affirmed only as we acknowledge its twofold direction, so the Old Testament elect and the meaning and function of their existence are inconceivable without the opposing fact of the non-elect, indeed the rejected….

This means, however, that we cannot see in the Old Testament any unambiguous picture of the life-content of the man elected by God. That there actually is this man in the Old Testament sphere, we can gather from its witness only when we come to know it—as is right—in the light of its revealed fulfilment in Jesus Christ, and in the reality of His Church. Necessarily then—but only then! The will of God for His people Israel, from the beginning and at every stage of its history, is revealed in the fact that according to the New Testament Jesus Christ is born, suffers, dies, rises from the dead and takes His place at the right hand of God, assuming His earthly form in His Church for the time that remains. As the witness of the Old Testament is proved true in this fulfilment, it is comprehensible, emerging from the obscurity which lay upon it and in which we should still have to see it if we could separate it from Jesus Christ.

But in view of the frontier set to this sphere, we can no longer say that according to the Old Testament the will of God is really a will which in its love and wrath, grace and judgment, life-giving and destruction, is self-contradictory and self-cancelling, and therefore not unambiguously recognisable or definable. On the contrary, in view of the frontier set to this sphere, we see and understand that what we have in the Old Testament is a wrathful love which burns even in its wrath; the necessary judgment of the grace of God; a death which does not take place on its own account, but for the sake of the life-giving; a will of God for Israel which is the will of almighty lovingkindness. On the one hand we are not surprised, nor on the other hand are we confused, by the fact that light and shadow are so unevenly distributed in this sphere, that the faint light seems to be no more than the fringe of an immense realm of shadow. This is inevitable. For in this whole area Jesus Christ has to be indicated as the One in whom the whole concentrated darkness of the world is to be overcome by the light of its Creator and Lord. And, again, He can be only intimated and not yet named.

What we have called the aim and direction of the life of the elect man, and the clear reply to the question of the purpose of his election, is disclosed only in the revelation of the will of the God of Israel as we have it in the New Testament, only in the bordering of the Old Testament sphere by this revelation. The blurred double-picture of the love and wrath, the grace and judgment of God is brought into focus when it is seen from this frontier. And because of this the corresponding and equally blurred doublepicture of the elect and the rejected is also brought into focus. The fence is removed which, according to the Old Testament, seemed to separate the one from the other—Israel from the heathen, accepted from rejected Israel, Abel from Cain, Isaac from Ishmael. Jacob from Esau, David from Saul, Jerusalem from Samaria. Their connexion, which is so puzzling in the Old Testament, is now explained as the damnation of all mankind is now revealed in all its unbounded severity, but in subordination to the almighty loving-kindness of God towards this same mankind.

This is how it stands with the one Elect, Jesus Christ, who, according to the New Testament witness, sets a frontier to the Old Testament sphere, and lifts the veil which lay over its witness as such.

1. Jesus Christ is not accompanied by any Cain, Ishmael, Esau or Saul. He does not need any such opponents. God’s will for His elect, the purpose of a man’s election, the direction and aim of his life as an elect, are all real and recognisable in Him without such opponents, and therefore unambiguously.

2. Jesus Christ does not need them because it is His own concern as the Elect to bear the necessary divine rejection, the suffering of eternal damnation which is God’s answer to human sin. No one outside or alongside Him is elected. All who are elected are elected in Him. And similarly—since no one outside or alongside Him is elected as the bearer of divine rejection—no one outside or alongside Him is rejected. Where else can we seek and find the rejection which others have merited except in the rejection which has come on Him and which He has borne for them? This rejection cannot, then, fall on others or be their concern. There is, therefore, no place outside or alongside Him for Cain, Ishmael, Esau or Saul.

3. Jesus Christ is in His person the reality and revelation of the reconciliation of the world rejected by God because of its sin. But this means that in His person He is the utter superiority of the electing will of God over His rejecting will, the absolute subordination of the rejecting to the electing will. It is to be noted that it is a matter of superiority and subordination. The fact that the will of God is also the will which rejects the world because of its sin cannot possibly be ignored or denied by Jesus Christ. On the contrary, it is only in Him that it is taken seriously, that it is genuinely real and revealed as God in His humanity makes Himself the object and sacrifice of this rejection. But this is not the end in Jesus Christ. On the contrary, in the same man who bears His rejection God has glorified Himself and this man with Him. God has willed to awaken from the dead the very One who on the cross atones for the sins of the whole world. The will of God triumphs in Jesus Christ because He is the way from the heights to the depths, and back again to the heights; the fulfilment but also the limitation of the divine No by the divine Yes. God presents this man in omnipotent loving-kindness as His Elect, and Himself as the God who elects this man. Jesus Christ is this irreversible way; and therefore He is also the truth and the life.

4. Jesus Christ in His person—and this brings us to the particular purpose of our discussion—is the reality and revelation of the life-content of the elect man. For everything that He is—in His humiliation as in His exaltation, in the execution of divine rejection as in its limitation and subordination—He is not for Himself, or for His own sake, but as the reality and the revelation of the will of God on behalf of an unlimited number of other men. He is elected as the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God towards these many. He is elected to bear their rejection, but also to overcome and therefore to complete in Himself their own eternal election in time. He is elected, therefore, to be for them the promise and proclamation of their own election. Jesus Christ is, therefore, what He is—the Elect—for these many.

For what many? If we cannot simply say for all, but can speak only of an unlimited many, this is not because of any weakness or limitation of the real and revealed divine will in Jesus Christ. This will of God, as is continually and rightly said in harmony with 1 Tim. 2:4, is directed to the salvation of all men in intention, and sufficient for the salvation of all men in power, It agrees with 1 Cor. 5:13 that Jesus Christ is called the light of the world in Jn. 8:12, 9:5, 11:9, 12:46; “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” in Jn. 1:29; the Son in whose offering God “loved the world” in Jn. 3:16, and who was sent “that the world through him might be saved” in Jn. 3:17; “the Saviour of the world” in Jn. 4:42; “the bread of God which cometh down from heaven, and giveth life unto the world” in Jn. 6:33 (cf. v. 51); “the propitiation for our sins: and not for our’s only, but also for the sins of the whole world” in 1 Jn. 2:2; and the light “which lighteth every man” in Jn. 1:9.

When we remember this, we cannot follow the classical doctrine and make the open number of those who are elect in Jesus Christ into a closed number to which all other men are opposed as if they were rejected. Such an assumption is shattered by the unity of the real and revealed will of God in Jesus Christ. It is shattered by the impossibility of reckoning with another divine rejection than the rejection whose subject was Jesus Christ, who bore it and triumphantly bore it away. It is shattered by the fact that Jesus Christ is the irreversible way from the depths to the heights, from death to life; and that as this way He is also the truth, the declaration of the heart of God, beside which there is no other and beside which we have no right to ask for any other. It is shattered by the fact that Jesus Christ will not reject any who come to Him, according to Jn. 6:37.

And yet it is not legitimate to make the limitless many of the elect in Jesus Christ the totality of all men. For in Jesus Christ we have to do with the living and personal and therefore the free will of God in relation to the world and every man. In Him we must not and may not take account of any freedom of God which is not that of His real and revealed love in Jesus Christ. But, again, we must not and may not take account of any love of God other than that which is a concern of the freedom realised and revealed in Jesus Christ, which, according to John’s Gospel, finds expression in the fact that only those who are given to the Son by the Father, and drawn to the Son by the Father, come to Jesus Christ and are received by Him. This means, however, that the intention and power of God in relation to the whole world and all men are always His intention and power—an intention and power which we cannot control and the limits of which we cannot arbitrarily restrict or enlarge. It is always the concern of God to decide what is the world and the human totality for which the man Jesus Christ is elected, and which is itself elected in and with Him.

It is enough for us to know and remember that at all events it is the omnipotent loving-kindness of God which continually decides this. For the fact that Jesus Christ is the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God towards the whole world and every man is an enduring event which is continually fulfilled in new encounters and transactions, in which God the Father lives and works through the Son, in which the Son of God Himself, and the Holy Spirit of the Father and the Son, lives and works at this or that place or time, in which He rouses and finds faith in this or that man, in which He is recognised and apprehended by this and that man in the promise and in their election—by one here and one there, and therefore by many men! We cannot consider their number as closed, for we can never find any reason for such a limitation in Jesus Christ. As the reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God, He is not dead, but lives and reigns to all eternity. This event in and for the world, and therefore its movement and direction at any given moment, its dimension and the number of those whom the event affects at any moment, are all matters of His sovereign control.

For the very same reason, however, we cannot equate their number with the totality of all men. With the most important of those Johannine texts (3:16), we must be content to say that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This event always concerns those who believe in Him. It is always they who are the actual object of the sovereign control of God, of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, over the world. The reality and revelation of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God in Jesus Christ is always so directed to them that they may recognise, apprehend and receive the promise of their own election in Him. Those who believe in Him, however, are not all men, nor mankind as such in its totality. They are always distinct from this totality. They live in the world as elected [out of the world] (Jn. 15:10). They are the many … for whom He gives His life as [ransom] (Mt. 20:28), And as the many they are always, in fact, few, … according to Mt. 22:14—few in relation to the total number of the rest, few also in relation to those who could believe, to whom He is also sent, for whom His call is also objectively valid, and whom He still does not reach, who do not yet believe.

Nowhere does the New Testament say that the world is saved, nor can we say that it is without doing violence to the New Testament. We can say only that the election of Jesus Christ has taken place on behalf of the world, i.e., in order that there may be this event in and to the world through Him. And this, of course, we do have to say with the strongest possible emphasis and with no qualifications. If we ask about the meaning and direction of the life of the elect, in the light of this centre of all the reality and revelation of election, in the light of the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, promised according to the Old Testament in Israel’s history, and actually born, crucified and risen according to the New Testament, we have to reply that the elect lives as such in so far as he is there on behalf of others, i.e., in so far as it is grounded in him and happens through him that the omnipotent loving-kindness of God is at all events directed and opened up to the world, i.e., to others among those who do not yet recognise it and are not yet grateful for it.

If the person of Jesus Christ had been consistently and decisively kept in mind when this aspect of predestination was under consideration, it would necessarily have been perceived that the content of the life of the individual elect cannot possibly be exhausted by the regulation of his personal salvation and blessedness, and everything belonging to it, understood as a private matter. On the contrary, he is saved and blessed on the basis of his election, and is therefore already elected, in order that he may share actively, and not merely passively, in the work and way of the omnipotent loving-kindness of God. This loving-kindness, which saves and blesses man, is so great and good that it wills to use him. He can serve it. He himself can help to direct and reveal it to others and therefore to these others. That is what the elect man Jesus Christ did and does. How can any elect man—for they are all elect in Him—do otherwise?

This is the difference between the biblical view of elect men and the view which has unfortunately been basic to the Church’s doctrine of predestination from its first beginnings. The New Testament does, of course, also know and describe the life of this man as that of one who is saved and sanctified, expecting and ultimately receiving eternal life. But whereas the Church’s doctrine of predestination ends and halts with this definition as in a cul-de-sac, and whereas its last word is to the effect that the elect finally “go to heaven” as distinct from the rejected, the biblical view—in a deeper understanding of what is meant by the clothing of men with God’s eternal glory—opens at this point another door. For as those who expect and finally receive eternal life, as the heirs in faith of eternal glory, the elect are accepted for this employment and placed in this service. They are made witnesses.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 419-423.

The Exegetical Barth

For many people, especially for those who have never actually read him for themselves, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth can seem to be something of a pariah due to many places in his dogmatics where he appears to depart from traditional Protestant, Reformed, evangelical, or even orthodox theology. Putting aside the question of the merit of these sentiments, it is ironic that Barth would be criticized in this way, particularly by those who claim Scripture as their highest authority, given Barth’s explicitly and frequently affirmed commitment to say nothing of God except that which he himself has revealed in his Word. There may be legitimate criticisms to be made of Barth (and I believe there are), but we cannot simply write him off as an eccentric thinker or a logic-chopper who formulated his theology apart from or contrary to the biblical witness. Indeed, it was precisely his relentless commitment to the supreme authority of the Word of God in Holy Scripture that led him to diverge from tradition where, from his perspective, tradition diverged from the Word.

Consider, for instance, Barth’s famous revision of the Reformed doctrine of election which he summarized as follows:

The election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ God in His free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participation in His own glory.[1]

At first glance, this way of stating the doctrine of election might seem, at least to some, a far cry from the biblical text. It is important to keep in mind, however, how Barth himself characterized the process by which he arrived at this view in his introductory comments to Church Dogmatics II/2:

To think of the contents of this volume gives me much pleasure, but even greater anxiety. The work has this peculiarity, that in it I have had to leave the framework of theological tradition to a far greater extent than in the first part on the doctrine of God. I would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination much more closely, instead of carlBarth2009departing from it so radically. I would have preferred, too, to keep to the beaten tracks when considering the basis of ethics. But I could not and cannot do so. As I let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters, as I meditated upon what I seemed to hear, I was driven irresistibly to reconstruction. And now I cannot but be anxious to see whether I shall be alone in this work, or whether there will be others who will find enlightenment in the basis and scope suggested. It is because of the rather critical nature of the case that I have had to introduce into this half-volume such long expositions of some Old and New Testament passages. For the rest, I have grounds for thinking that to some my meaning will be clearer in these passages than in the main body of the text.[2]

These are revealing words indeed. It is fascinating to note that Barth “would have preferred to follow Calvin’s doctrine of predestination”. It certainly would have been much easier, and safer, to do so. Yet Barth, in good Protestant fashion, was determined to “let the Bible itself speak to me on these matters”. In the end, it was Scripture, and Scripture alone (sola Scriptura!) that drove him “irresistibly to reconstruction”. For this reason, Barth anticipated that the arguments for his reconstruction would be clearer and more convincing in the extensive sections of biblical exegesis (inserted into the text as excurses) than in his explanation of the doctrine itself. After examining Barth’s view, we may still disagree with him, but we cannot fault him for betraying the fundamental principle, so central to the Protestant and evangelical tradition, of the supreme authority of Holy Scripture.

This is how Adam Neder puts it in his contribution to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism:

…while fully conversant with and significantly indebted to the vast resources of the church’s reflection on the person and work of Christ, Barth regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture, not church dogma, and thus asked his Christology be judged, above all, by its faithfulness to the New Testament presentation of the living Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, one regularly finds Barth justifying Christological innovation with the argument that the New Testament depiction of Christ requires it (or something like it) and that the older categories are inadequate to bear witness to this or that aspect of his existence. In other words, and quite simply, Barth understood himself to be free to do evangelical theology – free, as he put it, to begin again at the beginning. And this approach, it seems to me, is one that evangelicals have every reason to regard with sympathy rather than suspicion.[3]

Although Neder’s specific focus here is on Christology (something that in Barth is in no way disconnected from his doctrine of election), his fundamental point still applies. As much respect as Barth had for church tradition, he “regarded himself primarily accountable to Holy Scripture”. As Neder rightly points out, this commitment lies at the very heart of what constitutes a truly evangelical theology, one that unswervingly aims to submit all thought and speech about God to what God says of himself in Scripture. Sharing this common ground, I believe that we as evangelicals should consider Barth primarily as an ally rather than as an enemy, even though we may at times strongly disagree with him. If nothing else, reading Barth seriously forces us to examine whether it is actually Scripture to which we are submitted or some other concept of God derived from another source. For this, we can thank God for the gift that Karl Barth was and continues to be to the church.

_____________________________________________________________

[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics II/2 (London; New York: T&T Clark), p.94.

[2] Ibid., p.x.

[3] Neder, A. 2011. ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. pp.149-150.

Christ As Savior Before Creator: H.R. Mackintosh on the Significance of the Post-Resurrection Perspective of the Apostolic Witness

As I work my way through Scottish theologian H.R. Mackintosh’s magisterial work on The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ, I continue to be illuminated and blessed by the riches that he was able to mine from the depths of the biblical witness. In the excerpt that I would like to share in this post, Mackintosh offers a brief but powerful reflection on the significance of the post-resurrection perspective that we find in the apostolic witness to Jesus Christ. In this specific instance, Mackintosh exposits the beautiful hymn of Colossians 1:15-20. Let’s look first at the passage in consideration and then listen to Mackintosh’s comments:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

In this picture of Christ…the apostle moves onward from historical to cosmic modes of interpretation. We may single out the three main statements: first, Christ is the organ of creation, absolute in function and eternal in existence; secondly, in Him all things are held together, cohering in that unity and solidarity which make a cosmos; thirdly, as all things took rise in Him, so they move on to Him as final goal. The aorist tense is used to affirm that Christ created all things, for the writer is thinking of the pre-existent One; but the fact that he lapses into perfects and presents is a suggestive hint that he contemplates this pre-existence through the medium, so to speak, of the st-paul-conversionexalted Life. Or to put it otherwise, Christ is conceived as creator of the world qua the Person in whom the universe was in due time to find its organic centre in virtue of His work of reconciliation; He was the initial cause of all things, as being destined to be their final end. His function as Creator is proleptically conditioned by His achievement as Saviour.

The apostle’s mind, here as everywhere, starts from the risen Lord… It is interesting to compare an earlier form of the same idea. This is in 1 Co 8:6: “To us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we unto Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we through Him.” Christ is the agent in creation, yet He is here designated not as Son, but by the title usually applied to the risen Saviour. As in Colossians, the ideas of creation and redemption are united—redemption being the present fact from which thought begins, and in the light of which alone creation can be interpreted. The Son before all time is visible through Christ’s historic work in grace…In the Colossian passage, therefore, we can discern also this inferential counter-movement of thought redemption is a fruit of, and has its basis in, Christ’s place and work in nature.[1]

Mackintosh packs so much substance in so few words that it would take far more than a mere blog post to explain it while doing it justice! I think that we can grasp the essence of his argument, however, if we take careful note of the first sentence of the second paragraph: “The apostle’s mind, here as everywhere, starts from the risen Lord”. This is, in other words, the post-resurrection perspective of Jesus Christ that is evident throughout all of Paul’s writings (and arguably the New Testament as well). That is to say, the apostles did not begin their preaching and teaching about Christ by identifying him as a mere man (as he may have appeared to many people prior to his resurrection) or by expounding his pre-existent, un-incarnate state as the second person of the Trinity. Rather, their perspective throughout their witness is, as exemplified by Paul in Colossians 1, of Jesus as the exalted God-man, forever clothed in our humanity yet inextricably bound up with the identity of the one God of Israel. It is from the point of view of Jesus resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the Father on high that the apostles articulated the meaning of the person and work of Christ.

While this observation may seem a bit obvious from a casual reading of this passage, it carries with it, as Mackintosh understood, a host of astonishing implications. The person of whom Paul speaks here as the one through and for whom all things were created is not simply the Son of God simpliciter, but Jesus Christ, the very same who was crucified, risen, and is coming again! This is stunning. It seems that Paul was not able to think of Christ as merely the pre-existent Son of God in abstraction from his incarnate humanity any more than he was able to think of Christ as a mere historical figure in abstraction from his pre-existent divine being. In other words, for Paul, the one through whom and for whom all things came into being was the God-man Jesus Christ!

Now this is not to deny the incarnation as a particular event both in history and in the life of God himself; rather it is to emphasize that God brought creation into being through the his Son for the purpose of providing a theater, as it were, in which to enact the glorious drama of incarnation, atonement, and redemption. As Mackintosh puts it, Christ’s “function as Creator is proleptically conditioned by His achievement as Saviour”. This does not mean, of course, that Christ’s achievement as Saviour actually occurred prior to creation; rather it was in view of his redemptive achievement that he exercised his function as Creator. Simply stated, the Son of God was our Savior before he was our Creator. It was in view of the saving history of Christ’s incarnate life that the history of the universe was given its beginning.

Mackintosh’s student T.F. Torrance often referred to this foundational insight in his own theological work. In one of his later publications on the Trinity, Torrance echoed his esteemed teacher’s interpretation of Colossians 1 in a particularly eloquent way:

In virtue of his intrinsic and eternal Fatherhood God always had the power to create, and did actually create because he was and is the Father of the Son. Expressed otherwise, since God is Father in himself, as Father of the Son, he is essentially generative or fruitful in his own Being, and it is because he is inherently productive as Father that God could and did freely become Creator or Source of all being beyond himself. Creation arises, then, out of the Father’s eternal love of the Son, and is activated through the free ungrudging movement of that Fatherly love in sheer grace which continues to flow freely and unceasingly toward what God has brought into being in complete differentiation from himself.

This is a truth which we have come to grasp only through the incarnation of his Love in Jesus Christ, God’s beloved Son whom he did not spare but delivered him up for us all. The utterly astonishing truth revealed in the fact that God did not spare his beloved Son but freely gave him up for us on the Cross is that ‘God loves us better than he loves himself, and that, with the gift of his dear Son in atoning sacrifice for our sin, God the Father will continue freely to give us all things. This is why it may be said, not only that our understanding of creation is proleptically conditioned by redemption, but that the actual creation of the universe in the outward movement of the Father’s love was proleptically conditioned by the incarnation of that love within it in order to redeem the creation and to reconcile all things, things visible and invisible alike, to himself. This is another way of expressing what the New Testament Scriptures refer to as the divine act of ‘predestination’ before the foundation of the world, but of course an act of predestination in which we may not and cannot rightly interpret that ‘pre’ in terms of the kind of temporal priority, or indeed causal and logical priority, with which we have to do in the universe of created space and time.[2]

This certainly provides much food for thought. The implications of this are far-reaching, as Torrance illustrates when he mentions the doctrine of predestination (i.e. the impossibility of dividing the scope of creation from the scope of redemption), but I must stop here. May God continue to grant us, as he did to these faithful servants, an ever-deepening understanding of and passionate love for our great God as he revealed himself in Jesus Christ!

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[1] H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.70-1.

[2] T.F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons (Edinburgh, Scotland: T&T Clark, 1996), pp.209-10.

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!

John Calvin on the “In-Christness” of Predestination

Sermon excerpt from John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians. (London; Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), pp.32-33:

How then do we come to God? How do we obey him? How do we have a quiet mind that yields itself in accordance with faith? All these things come from him, and so it follows that he must do all himself. Wherefore let us observe that in saying God elected us before the creation of the world, St. Paul presupposes that which is true, namely, that God could not see anything in us save the evil that was there, for there was not one drop of goodnesscalvin-farewell-sermon_wileman_john-calvin_p96_300dpi for him to find. So then, seeing he has elected us, regard it as a very clear token of his free grace…

He confirms the thing in better fashion still by saying that the same was done in Jesus Christ. If we had been elected in ourselves it might be said that God had found in us some secret virtue unknown to men. But seeing that he has elected us outside of ourselves, that is to say, loved us outside of ourselves, what shall we reply to that? If I do a man good, it is because I love him. And if the cause of my love is sought, it will be because we are alike in character, or else for some other good reason.

But we must not imagine anything similar to this in God. And also it is expressly told us here, for St. Paul says that we have been elected in Jesus Christ. Did God, then, have an eye to us when he vouchsafed to love us? No! No! for then he would have utterly abhorred us. It is true that in regarding our miseries he had pity and compassion on us to relieve us, but that was because he had already loved us in our Lord Jesus Christ. God, then, must have had before him his pattern and mirror in which to see us, that is to say, he must have first looked on our Lord Jesus Christ before he could choose and call us.

And so, to be brief, after St. Paul had showed that we could not bring anything to God, but that he acted beforehand of his own free grace in electing us before the creation of the world, he adds an even more certain proof, namely, that he did it in our Lord Jesus Christ, who is, as it were, the true register. For God’s vouchsafing to elect us, that is to say, his vouchsafing to do it from all eternity, was, as it were, a registering of us in writing. And the holy Scripture calls God’s election the book of life. As I said before, Jesus Christ serves as a register. It is in him that we are written down and acknowledged by God as his children. Seeing, then, that God had an eye to us in the person of Jesus Christ, it follows that he did not find anything in us which we might lay before him to cause him to elect us. This, in sum, is what we must always remember.

Not By Bread Alone: Karl Barth on the Word of God as the Divine Determination of All Humanity

Sometimes when presenting the gospel, it is all too easy to speak as though an act of faith or an existential decision play some sort of determinative role in altering the reality of the individuals in question. Appeals are made to “make” or “accept Jesus as personal Lord and Savior”, as though our acceptance of Christ could create a new situation that did not previously exist, as though Christ were not already our Lord and Savior, whether we acknowledge him or not! Now I realize that there is a kernel of truth here, for there is a fundamental change that occurs in the conversion of sinners under the preaching of the gospel, but overall this kind of approach fails in that it comes across more as suggestion than declaration, more as counsel than command. As Pope Francis recently stated (full text here):

The Word of God cannot be given as a proposal – ‘well, if you like it…’ – or like good philosophical or moral idea – ‘well, you can live this way…’ No! It’s something else. It needs to be proposed with this frankness, with this force, so that the Word penetrates, as Paul says, ‘to the bone.’ The Word of God must be proclaimed with this frankness, with this force… with courage… you will say, yes, something interesting, something moral, something that will do you good, a good philanthropy, but this is not the Word of God.

How very true. The gospel is not a proposal, not a good idea, not self-help advice or a “try it and if you don’t like it then return it for a full refund” bargain. Rather, it is the declaration of what is already true of all people, regardless of whether they realize it or not. It is then a command to submit this new reality as the already-determined basis of human life under the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ. When Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31, he did not offer them Jesus Christ as simply a better option among the pantheon of their other gods; rather he solemnly asserted:

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.

According to Paul, the advent of Jesus Christ has set all of reality on an entirely new basis. In Christ, a whole new order – a new creation, a new kingdom – have come into being, and this is something which has irrevocably determined the destiny of every single human being, whether they realize it or not. As Karl Barth explains:

As God’s Word itself is revelation, i.e., a new word for me, so the situation in which it sets me as it is spoken to me is an absolutely new situation which cannot be seen or understood in advance, which cannot be compared with any other, which is grounded in the Word of God and in this alone. It is, of course, a situation of decision. But this barth-lecturing1is not the decision of my own particular resolve and choice (though there is a place for these too). It is a decision of being judged and accepted. And because the particular judgment and acceptance are God’s, it is a decision of my particular reality, of the particular meaning of my resolve and choice.

Just because the Word of God means “God with us,” just because it is the Word of the Lord, of our Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, it obviously pronounces our judgment to us. In it, it is decided who we are. We are what we are on the basis of this judgment, what we are as its hearers, i.e., we are believers or unbelievers, obedient or disobedient. Previously and per se we are neither the one nor the other. Previously and per se we do not even have the possibility of being either the one or the other. Faith and unbelief, obedience and disobedience, are possible only to the extent that, as our act, they are our particular reply to the judgment of God pronounced to us in His Word.

In faith and obedience my resolve and choice is truly good before God. Whatever else may have to be said about me, I exist in correspondence to God’s Word. I have received and accepted His grace. In unbelief and disobedience my own resolve and choice, whatever else may have to be said about me, is truly bad before God. I exist in contradiction to God’s Word. I have not accepted His grace. Either way it is I—this is really my own supremely responsible decision. But it is not in my decision that it acquires the character of being a good choice on the one hand or a bad one on the other. The implication of this decision of mine taken with my own free will, namely, the step either to the right hand or to the left, the choice to believe and obey or the refusal to do either—this qualification of my decision is the truth within it of the divine decision concerning me.

In speaking to me God has chosen me, as the man I am, to be the man I am. The new quality I acquire through the Word of God is my true and essential quality. I cannot give myself this true and essential quality. Only God can judge me. I am wholly and altogether the man I am in virtue of the divine decision. In virtue of the divine decision I am a believer or an unbeliever in my own decision. In this decision whereby it is decided who I am in my own decision and whereby it is decided what my own decision really means—in this realisation of my reality, this bringing of our works to light (Jn. 3:20f.; Eph. 5:12f.), the Word of God is consummated as the act of God. It is always the act of the inscrutable judgment of God.[1]

Whoever we are, wherever we are, we are what we are because of the Word of God. In Deuteronomy 8:3, Moses reminded the people of Israel that God had allowed them to hunger in order to teach them that “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. As Barth helps us to understand, this is not a metaphorical statement, neither is it expressing an existential truth related only to our religious or spiritual experience. At bottom, it is ontological fact: it is by the Word of God that we were created, it is by the Word of God that we are sustained in existence, and it is by the Word of God that we are reconciled and redeemed, and it is by the Word of God that we will be judged. The reality to which this Word attests is the reality of every human being, prior to and independent of any recognition of it.

This is what makes missions and evangelism so desperately urgent: the church must proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God that undergirds and enfolds their existence and summons them to live in accordance with it. This is also what makes missions and evangelism possible: the church can proclaim to every creature under heaven the new reality of the Word of God because it is already true for them, irrespective of whether or not they accept it or reject it. Certainly, the moment of decision when the Word of God confronts us is massively important, and it will bear decisively on whether we will be judged as obedient or disobedient, as believers or unbelievers, as sheep or goats. But the salient point, as Barth makes clear, is that even before our decision to believe or to disbelieve in the Word of God, that Word has already made a decision regarding us, and it is ultimately on that basis that our eternal existence has been decisively determined, and it is precisely for this reason that we must make known that decision to every human being and call them to respond with their own decision of repentance and faith.

Therefore, let us, with the apostle Paul, boldly proclaim as far and as wide as we can the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ accomplished once for all and for all, confronting all people with the reality to which they are commanded to submit, the reality of God’s judgment of the world in righteousness through the man Jesus Christ, died, resurrected, ascended, and coming again.

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[1] Karl Barth Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), pp.161-162.

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.

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.

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

The Apostles’ Creed and the Election of Jesus Christ: Karl Barth on the Christ-Conditioned Nature of Divine Providence

To begin this post, I would simply like to quote a section from Christopher Green’s book Doxological Theology in which he examines Karl Barth’s formulation of the doctrine of divine providence in strict accordance with the inner theo-logic of the Apostles’ Creed (after which I will conclude with a few comments of my own):

It is germane to Barth’s doctrine of providence that he should argue that the first article of the creed must be read in the light of the second, and so he states this criterion for his doctrine in a number of key places in III/3…

In the second article of the creed one finds the true meaning of the first, that God the Father of Jesus Christ is the “Almighty.” This correction of the creed is the “climax of the whole doctrine of creation.” For Barth, the previous generations that recited the creed in full should have, so to speak, “known better” than to accept a philosophical barthversion of simplicity, as the second article puts Christ’s face on the first. This makes the God of providence, that is, the God of the first article, identifiable as noncapricious. Barth consistently argues in 1949 that, despite the creed, the God of Western theology on the whole is unfortunately a philosophical monad, “the absolute, the general, the digit 1.” In this volume, he states that the most common cause for this dogmatic distortion is confusion between divine unity and simplicity. The default Western position on simplicity, he says, is grounded in an analogia entis which contrasts God with the world by identifying him as a philosophically “simple” being. Barth often raises this complaint about the Western view, which is implicit in his critique of J. P. Sartre, whose concept of man, he says, is a displaced version of the generic god of the West:

It is as man that man assumes the functions of deity, and in spite of the strangeness of his form is clotted with the attributes of at least the conventional Western conception of God, existing of and by and for himself, constituting his own beginning and end as absolute actuality without potentiality, unique, omnipotent, and certainly omniscient […] All that is lacking is the slightest trace of the biblical concept of God. [CD III/3, pp.342-343]

It is the Apostles’ Creed that points to God’s election in Jesus Christ in its summary of the whole of Scripture, safeguarding the God of providence as the triune God. According to Barth, the doctrine is commonly obscured when God’s power as “Father” is abstracted from his revealed work in Christ. Thus, the God who reveals himself in an undivided way is slighted, severing the One who is the Son from his constitutive relation with the Father. Against this, Barth states at the beginning and end of his writing the Church Dogmatics that “the theological rule with respect to the Trinity [… is] opera trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa.” For Barth, his commitment to the unity of the triune God means an approach to divine providence will not be grounded in a metaphysical concept of the simple. Rather, he apprehends the work appropriated to the second person of the Trinity (i.e., election, reconciliation) as a context for understanding the variegated unity of the triune Subject who acts providentially. It is not hard to see, then, why Barth chides his opponents in III/3 for not “deducing” providence from the doctrine of the Trinity. As Barth sees it, his predecessors lost the programmatic role that should be played by the triunity of God because they failed to understand the doctrine of predestination in the context of the person and work of Christ. This is the purpose of the second article of the creed, which should have been sufficient for pointing to the centrality of Christ, and consequently, to the triunity of God. It is in the second article that the hidden God becomes manifest.[1]

What I find immensely helpful about this is the way in which Barth, via Green, uncovers the fundamental “theo-logic” (i.e. the unique logic that accords with the way of God’s self-revelation in Christ) that underlies the various affirmations of the Apostles’ (and one could say the same of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan) Creed. This underlying theo-logic is signalled in the very first words of the Creed that recognize God as “Father” before identifying him as “Creator”. This is highly significant in that it gives a distinctly trinitarian and christological shape to the Creed’s reading of Scripture. The Creed interprets the “God” who “in the beginning…created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1) not as, in Green’s words, a “philosophical monad” but rather as God already existing as the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. On this basis, Barth rightly discerns that a proper understanding of the Creed, and through it a proper interpretation of the biblical witness, is that the first article – that affirms God as Creator and Sustainer of creation – must be read strictly in accordance with the second article concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ. Another way of saying this would be that the Creed affirms the trinitarian election of Jesus Christ – the divine determination to not be the Father of the Son and the Son of the Father through the Spirit apart from enlarging that communion to include, through the incarnation of the Son, human creatures in the overflow of the triune life, love, and light – as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.

Thus, if we are to remain (apart from compelling reasons not to do so) faithful to the universal consent of the early church, set forth in the Creed, regarding the essential content of the Christian faith, we must learn, as Barth did, a rigorously Christ-centered hermeneutic that does justice to the election of Christ as the ground, means, and goal of all that Scripture teaches. In relation to the doctrine of providence, this means that we do not merely have a God as Creator who rules over creation and governs it according to his will, but a triune God who relates to his creation and exercises his providence over it primarily as loving and gracious Father who orders all things by his Spirit towards their intended summation in Christ (Eph. 1:10). To know this is to rest secure, as question 26 of the Heidelberg Catechism states:

That the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by his eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ the Son. I trust God so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends upon me in this sad world. God is able to do this because he is almighty God and desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.

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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.36-38.