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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reformed Theology of T.F. Torrance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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), p.154.

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.

The Evangelical Calvin: Natural Theology Edition

The following excerpt is taken from John Calvin’s Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010, pp.62-64

Now, in describing the world as a mirror in which we ought to behold God, I would not be understood to assert, either that our eyes are sufficiently clear-sighted to discern what the fabric of heaven and earth represents, or that the knowledge to be hence attained is sufficient for salvation. And whereas the Lord invites us to himself by the means of created things, with no other effect than that of thereby rendering us inexcusable, he has added (as was necessary) a new remedy, or at least by a new aid, he has assisted the ignorance of our mind. For by the Scripture as our guide and teacher, he not only makes 20110615-johncalvinthose things plain which would otherwise escape our notice, but almost compels us to behold them; as if he had assisted our dull sight with spectacles. On this point, (as we have already observed,) Moses insists. For if the mute instruction of the heaven and the earth were sufficient, the teaching of Moses would have been superfluous.

This herald therefore approaches, who excites our attention, in order that we may perceive ourselves to be placed in this scene, for the purpose of beholding the glory of God; not indeed to observe them as mere witnesses, but to enjoy all the riches which are here exhibited, as the Lord has ordained and subjected them to our use. And he not only declares generally that God is the architect of the world, but through the whole chain of the history he shows how admirable is His power, His wisdom, His goodness, and especially His tender solicitude for the human race. Besides, since the eternal Word of God is the lively and express image of Himself, he recalls us to this point. And thus, the assertion of the Apostle is verified, that through no other means than faith can it be understood that the worlds were made by the word of God, (Heb. 11:3.) For faith properly proceeds from this, that we being taught by the ministry of Moses, do not now wander in foolish and trifling speculations, but contemplate the true and only God in his genuine image.

It may, however, be objected, that this seems at variance with what Paul declares: “After that, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom knew not God, it seemed right to God, through the foolishness of preaching, to save them who believe,” (1 Cor. 1:21.) For he thus intimates, that God is sought in vain under the guidance of visible things; and that nothing remains for us but to betake ourselves immediately to Christ; and that we must not therefore commence with the elements of this world, but with the Gospel, which sets Christ alone before us with his cross, and holds us to this one point.

I answer, It is in vain for any to reason as philosophers on the workmanship of the world, except those who, having been first humbled by the preaching of the Gospel, have learned to submit the whole of their intellectual wisdom (as Paul expresses it) to the foolishness of the cross, (1 Cor. 1:21.) Nothing shall we find, I say, above or below, which can raise us up to God, until Christ shall have instructed us in his own school. Yet this cannot be done, unless we, having emerged out of the lowest depths, are borne up above all heavens, in the chariot of his cross, that there by faith we may apprehend those things which the eye has never seen, the ear never heard, and which far surpass our hearts and minds. For the earth, with its supply of fruits for our daily nourishment, is not there set before us; but Christ offers himself to us unto life eternal. Nor does heaven, by the shining of the sun and stars, enlighten our bodily eyes, but the same Christ, the Light of the World and the Sun of Righteousness, shines into our souls; neither does the air stretch out its empty space for us to breathe in, but the Spirit of God himself quickens us and causes us to live. There, in short, the invisible kingdom of Christ fills all things, and his spiritual grace is diffused through all.

Yet this does not prevent us from applying our senses to the consideration of heaven and earth, that we may thence seek confirmation in the true knowledge of God. For Christ is that image in which God presents to our view, not only his heart, but also his hands and his feet. I give the name of his heart to that secret love with which he embraces us in Christ: by his hands and feet I understand those works of his which are displayed before our eyes. As soon as ever we depart from Christ, there is nothing, be it ever so gross or insignificant in itself, respecting which we are not necessarily deceived.

T.F. Torrance’s Doctrine of Election in 250 Words

In an article dating back to 1949, T.F. Torrance succinctly described the doctrine of election in the following way:

Election means nothing more and nothing less than the complete action of God’s eternal love, that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish but have everlasting life”. It is the eternal decision of God who will not be without us entering time as grace, choosing us Thomas_F._Torranceand appropriating us for Himself, and who will not let us go. Election is the love of God enacted and inserted into history in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so that in the strictest sense Jesus Christ is the election of God…There is therefore no decree of predestination which precedes this act of grace or goes behind the back of Jesus Christ, for that would be to split the act of God into two, and to divide Christ from God…

The great fact of the Gospel then is this:…God has chosen all men, in as much as Christ died for all men, and because that is once and for all no one can ever elude the election of His love. Inasmuch as no one exists except by the Word of God by whom all things were made and in whom all things consist, and in as much as this is the Word that has once and for all enacted the eternal election of grace to embrace all men, the existence of every man whether he will or no is bound up inextricably with that election—with the Cross of Jesus Christ.[1]

What Torrance articulates here in these few sentences is a distillation of all that Scripture teaches about the eternal will and counsel of God that, according to the apostle Paul is “to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10). It is the fruit of Torrance’s conviction that all Scripture ultimately points to Christ – the Word of God made flesh – who is in himself not only the Way and the Life but also the Truth of God embodied. As such, this understanding of election stems from Torrance’s commitment to not interpret Scripture and formulate theology by going, as it were, behind the back of Christ, looking for a will or a work of God that is somehow different, or even contradictory, to that which is clearly revealed in Jesus. To do so would be to make again the foolish request of Philip in John 14:8: “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Like Philip, do we think that we need something other than or apart from Christ himself whereby we can see and know the Father? The response of Jesus to Philip would be the same to us: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:9-10a).

Since the Father is in Jesus and Jesus in the Father, to see Jesus is to see the Father. To hear Jesus is to hear the Father. To know Jesus and his will is to know the Father and his will. Without distortion. Without remainder. Without differentiation. Without contradiction.

Thus, when we realize that Christ assumed the flesh shared by all human beings (John 1:14; Rom. 8:2; Phil. 2:7; Heb. 2:14) and died an atoning death in that same flesh, we are left with only one possible conclusion: inasmuch as Christ, who is the perfect revelation of the Father, died for all (John 3:16), none can be excluded from the sphere of God’s saving will. Does this mean that all will be saved? No, for although the light of Christ shines on all (John 1:9), not all will come into the light because they love the darkness (John 3:19-20).

As strange as it may sound, Torrance actually wrote this summary of his understanding of election in article with which he aimed to refute the notion of universal salvation! While it may not be immediately evident how this is so (perhaps a topic fit for another post!), it is important to recognize that for Torrance, as should be for us as well, it is more important to be faithful to Scripture and its witness to Christ, whatever may be the paradoxes that result, than to construct a logically-airtight theological system.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, 1947. ‘Universalism or Election?’ in Scottish Journal of Theology, 2(3), pp.314-315.

Barth’s Doctrine of Election in 100 Words

Since I started blogging a few months ago, I have interacted with various people who have expressed appreciation for my articles but have noted that at times their content can be somewhat technical or complex and thus difficult to fully understand. Although most of my reading and writing lives on a more academic level, my ultimate desire is to make these things – especially what pertains to Evangelical Calvinism – accessible to the average person. I know that Bobby Grow has written some posts with this intention over
on his blog, and I hope to do the same here as well. So with this post I begin a series of sorts, in no particular order and with no definite end in mind other than to put the cookies, so to speak, on the bottom shelf.

With this inaugural post, I would simply like to quote Robert Price who provides a helpful summary, around only 100 words, of Barth’s doctrine of election. While I (or other ECs) may not follow Barth down to every jot and tittle, I think that Price’s synopsis well Printcaptures the main contours that delineate the shape of election in EC. Here’s Price:

According to Barth, it is Christ himself, that is, God the Son as already determined to be incarnate, who is both the subject and the object of election. As the electing God, the subject of election, Christ himself already constitutes God’s reconciling will toward humanity and so elects himself and all of humanity to salvation. And as the elect man, the object not only of election but also of reprobation, Christ himself and Christ alone endures God’s absolute rejection of sinful humanity. Barth thus radically reconfigures the concept of double predestination around Christ himself, rather than around two separate groups of humanity.[1]

Anyone who has read Barth’s treatment of election in Church Dogmatics II/2 will know, of course, that this summary leaves out his extensive development of election in terms of the community of God (Israel and the church) and individuals (the elect and the reprobate). What Price does offer, however, helps us to understand in a concise manner the key insight that underwrites Barth’s (and EC’s) view of election. In a word, it’s all about Jesus Christ who, as the Word made flesh, is both the God who elects and the human who is elected. Since Christ is, according to Colossians 1:15-17, the “firstborn of creation” through whom and for whom “all things were created” and in whom “all things hold together”, we can’t start thinking about election as something that simply happens between God and all humanity. This approach leaves out Christ as the one for whom and in whom all humanity exists in the first place!

Rather, God’s decision to be the God revealed in Jesus Christ as the beginning of all of his ways and works means that election is primarily about God’s choice to be this kind of God, the God who will pursue sinful humanity to the point of the death of his Son. According to Ephesians 1:4, God didn’t elect us to be in Christ, he elected us in Christ. That is to say, in his electing of Christ, God elected us all! It is no wonder that Barth believed that election was simply good news, the best news in fact! God does not will to be God without us but only “Emmanuel”, God with us, in the person of Jesus Christ through whom we have access by the Spirit to the Father. For this reason, we will never understand election unless we firmly fix our eyes on Christ and Christ alone.

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[1] Price, R.B., 2011. Letters of the Divine Word: The Perfections of God in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. p.6.

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.

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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.

Pagan Riches for God’s Temple?: Clark, Van Til, and Muller on Aristotle’s Influence on Protestant/Reformed Orthodoxy

One of the things that I have mentioned in the past here on Reformissio (and about which I have learned much from Bobby Grow) is the influence of Aristotle on Protestant, and specifically Reformed orthodox theology. Recently I interacted with a dyed-in-the-wool classic Calvinist on this point, but I was staunchly opposed and subsequently banned from the Facebook group he runs. According to this individual, Reformed orthodox theology – such as that set forth by the Westminster Standards – is, pure and simple, what the Bible teaches in an unadulterated form. The problem is that what this person, and a number of aristotle-faceothers like him deny in knee-jerk-reaction-like form is simply a point of historical fact, as evidenced by R. Scott Clark who posted the following quote from Cornelius Van Til (who we will remember as the fiercest critic of Karl Barth) over at the Heidelblog:

It should be carefully noted that our criticism of this procedure does not imply that we hold it to be wrong for the Christian church to make formal use of the categories of thought discovered by Aristotle or any other thinker. On the contrary, we believe that in the Providence of God, Aristotle was raised up of God so that he might serve the church of God by laying at its feet the measures of his brilliant intellect. When Solomon built the temple of God he was instructed to make use of the peculiar skill and the peculiar gifts of the pagan nation that was his neighbor. But this was something quite different than to build together with pagan nations. The Samaritans wanted to help the Jews construct the city and the temple. Hence they were rejected by the true Jews. The Phoenicians merely wanted to bring their treasures to Solomon and let him construct the way he saw fit. Hence they were gladly received by Solomon.

Van Til, and Clark who quotes him approvingly, are not alone in acknowledging the critical role that Aristotelian thought has played in shaping Reformed orthodox theology. Reformed historian extraordinaire Richard Muller likewise notes that “much of the orthodox theology of the time had developed” along “the more or less Christian Aristotelian or modified Thomistic trajectory”[1] on account of “the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic world-view it presupposed”.[2] He goes on to illustrate this by offering the following account of the development of Reformed scholasticism’s doctrine of God:

The decade following 1590 was as crucial for the development of the scholastic Protestant doctrine of God as it was for the development of theological prolegomena—and for much the same reason. The rise of prolegomena, as evidenced by Junius’ magisterial treatise De vera theologia, signaled an interest among Protestants in the clear and precise definition of theology and in the identification of specifically Protestant theology as a legitimate scientia in the classic Aristotelian sense, in and for its study in the universities. Directly related to this development was the beginning of a Protestant interest in prolegomena, the enunciation of principia, and specifically in some of the preliminary questions of the nature of the discipline itself—notably as found in an earlier form in the older scholasticism and, indeed, in the tradition of Christian Aristotelianism. By way of example, we now see discussion of theology as a scientia or study of first principles and of the conclusions that can be drawn from them. We also see the establishment of a Protestant, indeed a Reformed, discussion of metaphysics, as evidenced by the appearance of the first Protestant textbooks on the subject. Indeed, the Protestant theologians and philosophers of this generation viewed Aristotelian metaphysics as a crucial source for definitions and arguments needed in the construction and defense of their theological systems.[3]

Elsewhere Muller makes the significant observation that so great was the dependency of Protestant orthodox theology on Aristotelian philosophy that the loss of the latter (as occurred during the inbreaking of Cartesian thought) necessarily implied a drastic change in the former:

It should also be clear that the shift in philosophical perspective that took place in the latter half of the seventeenth century, as the older Aristotelianism gave way before various forms of rationalism was a shift that was recognized at the time as having a massive impact on thinker2Christian theology. As Verbeek has noted, Voetius recognized that the Cartesian view of reason and its abilities “would imply a complete revision of theological method.” We also have the significant testimony of the English writer, Simon Patrick, that “philosophy and divinity are so interwoven by the schoolmen, that it cannot be safe to separate them; new philosophy will bring in new divinity.” Of course, as the Cartesian inclinations of a fair number of the Reformed thinkers of the era demonstrate, there is no immediate correlation between alteration of philosophical perspective and heterodoxy or, indeed, the loss of scholastic method. Nonetheless, the decline of Protestant orthodoxy and the decline of the traditional Christian Aristotelianism (one might also add, the decline of traditional, so-called, “precritical” exegesis) occurred in the same era and for many of the same reasons and that, with the alteration of philosophical perspective at the close of the seventeenth century, there was also a fundamental alteration of theology and of the exegesis that underlay its formulations.[4]

According to Clark, Van Til, and Muller, the fact that Protestant and Reformed orthodox theology was highly dependent on Aristotelian metaphysics, philosophy, and language should be fairly uncontroversial. Apart from those who will nevertheless continue in their denials, I’ve heard another kind of reaction to all of this: “So what?” This is not a skeleton in the Reformed closet that Clark, Van Til, and Muller are trying to hide; quite the contrary! For Van Til, the riches of pagan Aristotle are crucial for building the temple of God! So what’s the problem?

Let me quote Muller one more time as he highlights one substantial difference between the Reformed orthodox and the Reformers themselves:

Whereas there is considerable explicit agreement between the Reformed orthodox perspectives on religion and natural theology and the views of the Reformers on those subjects, when it comes to the use of philosophy in theology there is a certain degree of discontinuity. Some distinction, of course, must be made between declarations made in polemic and the actual use of philosophical concepts. The Reformers, typically, had little good to say about philosophy, particularly about the pagan philosophy of antiquity and the philosophical speculations of the later medieval scholastics. Aristotle in particular was the target of polemic, inasmuch as the philosophical development of the later Middle Ages could be traced to the varied appropriations of Aristotelian philosophy by the medieval doctors. Still, the Reformers themselves did not remove all philosophical issues from their theology or fail to use traditional understandings of such basic categories as substance and attributes, cause and effect, relation, or disposition.

The Protestant orthodox, by way of contrast, faced issues similar to those confronted by the medieval scholastics in their work of system building. Luther and Calvin had argued pointedly against the use of philosophical concepts—particularly Aristotelian concepts—in the construction of theology and had consistently ruled out, if not the implicit acceptance of a largely Christian Aristotelian worldview, at least the explicit use of philosophical models. Both Luther and Calvin were reluctant to develop metaphysical discussions of the divine essence and attributes—though neither disputed the truth of the traditional attribution to God of omnipresence, omniscience, eternity, infinity, simplicity, and so forth. This perspective on metaphysical discussion and the related avoidance of the language of essence marks a major difference between the theology of these two Reformers and that of the Protestant orthodox. Much of that difference relates to the problem of the use of philosophy in theology.[5]

This is a significant and telling admission on the part of Muller. As key figures in the Reformation, both Luther and Calvin strongly opposed the very integration of Aristotelian philosophy into theology that the later Protestant orthodox advocated, because they believed that it had no place in, nor could it ever produce, a truly Christian theology that needed to ground itself ultimately in God’s own self-revelation in Christ. While it is of course true that neither Luther nor Calvin were themselves wholly unaffected by the philosophical currents of their day, it is important to realize what they were at least attempting to do, even if they were not thoroughly consistent in their doing of it. Now I realize that someone will object at this point, claiming that I fail to see Muller’s overarching point relative to the fundamental continuity between the Reformers and the orthodox despite whatever discontinuity there may be. Having read much of Muller’s work, I am very familiar with his thesis. I am just not convinced, based on what he himself says, that the discontinuity in this particular area is as insignificant as Muller would have us believe. Since this post is already somewhat long, I will just simply say – in view of a arts-graphics-2008_1183027apotential follow-up post to this one – that I am far more persuaded by Ron Frost’s contention that expunging Aristotelian philosophy from its corrupting infiltration into the medieval church was one of the driving ambitions of Luther in his reforming efforts:

An alternative paradigm, advocated here, is that Luther’s greatest concern in his early reforming work was to rid the church of central Aristotelian assumptions that were transmitted through Thomistic theology. To the degree that Luther failed—measured by the modern appreciation for these Thomistic solutions in some Protestant circles—a primary thrust of the Reformation was stillborn. The continued use of Aristotle’s works by Protestant universities during and after the Reformation promoted such a miscarriage. Despite claims to the contrary by modern proponents of an Aristotelian Christianity, Aristotle’s works offered much more than a benign academic methodology; instead, as we will see below, his crucial definitions in ethics and anthropology shaped the thinking of young theological students in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who read the Bible and theology through the optic of his definitions. Luther recognized that Aristotle’s influence entered Christian thought through the philosopher’s pervasive presence in the curricula of all European universities. In his scathing treatise of 1520, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther—who for his first year at Wittenberg (1508-9) lectured on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics four times a week—chided educators for creating an environment “where little is taught of the Holy Scriptures and Christian faith, and where only the blind, heathen teacher Aristotle rules far more than Christ.”[6]

As I (following Bobby Grow before me who referred me to Frost) have suggested many times here on Reformissio, the Evangelical Calvinism that I am promoting is nothing less than the attempt to return to these primal reforming impulses and resuscitate the “stillborn” Reformation. I simply do not agree with Clark, Van Til, and Muller that Aristotle provides pagan riches with which to construct the temple of God. If it is true, as the church fathers like Irenaeus taught, that God can be known only through God, then it is simply folly to think that he can be known through a man, however brilliant, like Aristotle.

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[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 3: the divine essence and attributes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.122.

[2] 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.139.

[3] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 3: the divine essence and attributes, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.107, emphasis added.

[4] 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.120, emphasis added. In-text citations from Verbeek, “Descartes and the Problem of Atheism,” p. 222. and Simon Patrick, A Brief Account of the New Sect of Latitude Men (London, 1662), cited by B. C. Southgate, “Forgotten and Lost: Some Reactions to Autonomous Science in the Seventeenth Century,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 50 (1989), p. 253

[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.360-361, emphasis added.

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