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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I leave it to you to ponder this question.


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


Horton vs. Barth on Law vs. Grace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

[2] Ibid., p.144.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.142. In-text citation from Frank Thilly, A History of Philosophy (New York: Henry Holt, 1941), pp. 221–222, emphasis added.

[2] Ibid., p.223.

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

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

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

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

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.


[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.

Richard Muller and the Demise of “Calvin vs. the Calvinists”

In the world of Reformation and post-Reformation Protestant studies, the name of Richard Muller looms large. Among the many scholars working in the field, Muller distinguishes himself for his seemingly endless and virtually encyclopedic knowledge in his area of expertise. Not only is Muller a brilliant scholar, but he has also spearheaded the
decisive defeat of what he and many others consider to be caricatures and distortions of calvin-in-genevaReformation and post-Reformation Protestant theology, one of which is the (in)famous “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” thesis – the idea that the Reformed theologians following in Calvin’s wake, beginning with Theodore Beza, compromised the great Reformer’s teaching and constructed a system at odds with Calvin himself. The demise of this notion under Muller’s attack is assumed to be so complete that the mere mention of his name is regarded as sufficient to subdue any remaining stragglers still ignorant of his undisputed victory.

It is for this reason that I find extremely interesting what Muller writes at the beginning of his magisterial work Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics about this very issue:

As for the terms “Calvinist” and “Calvinism,” I tend to avoid them as less than useful to the historical task. If, by “Calvinist,” one means a follower of Calvin who had nothing to say that was different from what Calvin said, then one would be hard put to find any Calvinists in the later sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. If by Calvinist, one means a later exponent of a theology standing within the confessional boundaries described by such documents as the Gallican Confession, the Belgic Confession, the Second Helvetic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism, then one will have the problem of accounting for the many ways in which such thinkers—notably, Amandus Polanus von Polansdorf, Bartholomaus Keckermann, William Perkins, Franciscus Junius, and Gulielmus Bucanus, just to name a few—differ from Calvin both doctrinally and methodologically. One might even be forced to pose Calvin against the Calvinists. Given the diversity of the movement and the fact that Calvin was not the primary author of any of the confessional norms just noted, the better part of historical valor (namely, discretion) requires rejection of the term “Calvinist” and “Calvinism” in favor of the more historically accurate term, “Reformed.”[1]

There are two things about this paragraph that I – as a highly appreciative but not uncritical follower of Calvin and the Reformed tradition at large – would like to briefly highlight.

1) Simply stated, there are differences, both doctrinal and methdological, between Calvin and the Reformed orthodox theologians that came after him. While Muller has indeed provided a helpful and necessary corrective to many of the more superficial historical reconstructions and radical disjunctions sometimes posed between the late medieval, Reformation, and post-Reformation periods, it would be a mistake to over-read his argument and conclude that no differences whatsoever obtained between Calvin and the later Reformed. Although the phrase “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” does create some problems, even Muller himself makes the remarkable observation (detractors take notice!) that when Calvin is compared with the post-Reformation orthodox, “One might even be forced to pose Calvin against the Calvinists.”

Clearly, this is the thesis that Muller ultimately rejects. But it is important to realize that he does so not because there no truth in the statement itself, for even he recognizes that there are indeed significant differences. Rather, he rejects the idea on methodological and terminological grounds, namely, that Calvin alone does not define the tradition that followed him and that said tradition should neither be considered exclusively as “Calvinism” nor should it be divorced from the wider theological and philosophical currents and prominent thinkers of the day. Nevertheless, Muller’s statement gives credence to our contention as Evangelical Calvinists that although the Reformed tradition cannot be reduced to Calvin, neither can it be reduced to the “Calvinist” or Westminsterian form that it assumed later on. There is, in other words, space for fruitful and constructive retrievals of Calvin’s theology (i.e. Evangelical Calvinism) that take different pathways than those cemented by the Reformed scholastics.

2) The fact that Muller’s objection to the “Calvin vs. the Calvinist” thesis is primarily grounded in methodological concerns raises an interesting point regarding Muller’s own counter-thesis regarding the “broad doctrinal continuity” between the Reformers and the Reformed orthodox.[2] To arrive at this conclusion, Muller argues that

Much of the literature assumes a discontinuity between the thought of the Reformers and their orthodox successors without recognizing that a change in form and method does not necessarily indicate an alteration of substance. Scholastic Protestant theology has been described as rationalistic, intellectually arid and theologically rigid—without due attention to its own statements concerning the use of reason and the import of dogmatic system for faith. Such descriptions ignore the process of development—itself quite original and creative—that brought about the orthodox or scholastic Protestantism of the seventeenth century…

In order for the Reformed scholastics to receive an adequate interpretation, therefore, we must not only allow for development and change within the tradition, but we also need to trace that development and change in terms of a movement of thought not simply from Calvin to the orthodox but from the theology of an entire generation of Reformers, including not only Calvin but also Bullinger, Musculus, Vermigli, and their contemporaries.[3]

Clearly, Muller is arguing that methodology is largely determinative of results. Sure, he says, if we simply compare “Calvin to the orthodox”, then we will end up with the false conclusion that the Reformed scholastics distorted Calvin’s theology. However, if we adopt the right methodology – by tracing the entire “movement of thought” from the medieval period through that of Reformed scholasticism, then we will arrive at the right conclusion – one of substantial continuity that is not overthrown by any elements of discontinuity.

Fair enough. However, it seems very odd to me that Muller also wants to maintain that

The term “scholasticism,” when applied to these efforts indicates primarily, therefore, a method and not a particular content: the method could be (and was) applied to a wide variety of theological contents and it could be (and was) applied to other academic disciplines as well…And despite the persistence of a few writers who insist that “scholasticism” brings with it a set of particular theological and philosophical concerns,10 there is, certainly, a consensus in contemporary scholarship that “scholasticism,” properly understood, indicates a method, capable of presenting and arguing a variety of theological and philosophical conclusions, and not a particular theology or philosophy.[4]

Why is this odd? Let me put it in somewhat stark terms. On the one hand, Muller argues that one’s method largely determines the results of one’s study. On the other hand, Muller argues that one’s method hardly determines the results of one’s study at all. Is the inconsistency not obvious? Since he wants to maintain continuity between the theology of the Reformers and that of the scholastics, Muller must argue that the undeniable change in method from the Reformers to the scholastics involved little to no alteration in the results of Reformed theological inquiry. Yet to defeat modern interpreters who attempt to drive a wedge between the Reformers and their scholastic successors, Muller must argue the exact opposite, namely, that adopting a particular method does indeed determine in large measure the results of one’s inquiry. So my question to Muller is this: which is it? You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

I do not want to deny that Muller has done a great service in helping us to better understand the history of Reformed theology. However, I think that Muller’s zeal to reinforce the continuity between the theological substance of Reformed orthodox and the Reformers (with the added bonus of excluding theologians such as Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance from the Reformed tradition as neo-orthodox) lands him in his own quandry, for in order to support his thesis, he must deny to others (Barth, Torrance, et al) what he allows to the Reformed orthodox. On the other hand, if he is willing to grant to the Reformed orthodox the freedom to change method and alter somewhat doctrinal content in contrast with their forebears, it would seem only right that he grant the same freedom to those Reformed theologians, such as Barth and Torrance (and Evangelical Calvinists!) who simply want to bring their tradition into greater conformity with the Word of God.


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.30

[2] Ibid., p.46.

[3] Ibid. pp.43-44, 46.

[4] Ibid., p.35.

Creeds, Confessions, and Evangelical Calvinism

Recently on Facebook someone asked me about how Evangelical Calvinism understands its relationship to the historic creeds and confessions of the church. I responded by writing (in a slightly modified form):

In terms of creeds and confessions, I would follow a typical Reformed taxis of: Scripture, then the ecumenical creeds, then confessions. I have a great concern to hold to the orthodox statements of Trinitarian and Christological belief, especially as articulated at Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus and Chalcedon. To be perfectly honest, it was my increased interest in and study of pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzen that led me in the direction of Evangelical Calvinism. There is much that I appreciate and affirm in the Reformed confessions, but I think that they (and here I think in particular of the Westminster Standards as st-athanasius-the-greatopposed to the Scots Confession) deviate from aspects of orthodox Trinitarianism and Christology as represented by the creeds. This is not to say that there are blatant or explicit negations of the creeds. What I mean is that the creeds (Nicene-Constantinopolitan, Chalcedonian) were written to represent a constellation of theological commitments that hang together. I discovered that it’s not sufficient to simply affirm that Jesus is “consubstantial with the Father” without understanding what that statement was meant to protect and the underpinning theology (touching many aspects of the Christian faith) that it symbolized. As I began to engage deeply with this, I began to discover discrepancies between the soteriological views implicit in the creeds and those of the Reformed confessions. Given my Reformed commitment to the priority of the creeds over the confessions, the discovery of these divergences led me away from classical Calvinism and to EC. This is why whenever I discuss issues surrounding EC on my blog, I usually try and show how what I am saying regarding EC is Calvinism reified according to the central commitments of Nicene-Constantinopolitan-Chalcedonian orthodoxy.

As an example of what I am talking about here, I would like to quote a section from Athanasius’ famous work On the Incarnation of the Son of God in which he explains his understanding of Christ’s atoning work. As we can see in what follows, Athanasius articulates what Evangelical Calvinism, following T.F. Torrance, calls an ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ view of the atonement in contrast to the nearly exclusive emphasis on the ‘forensic’ or ‘transactional’ aspects that dominate many of the Reformed confessions. Athanasius writes:

[Y]ou must know this also, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body, but had become attached to it; and it was required that, instead of corruption, life should cleave to it; so that, just as death has been engendered in the body, so life may be engendered in it also. Now if death were external to the body, it would be proper for life also to have been engendered externally to it. But if death was wound closely to the body and was ruling over it as though united to it, it was required that life also should be wound closely to the body, that so the body, by putting on life in its stead, should cast off corruption. Besides, even supposing that the Word had come outside the body, and not in it, death would indeed have been defeated by Him, in perfect accordance with nature, inasmuch as death has no power against the Life; but the corruption attached to the body would have remained in it none the less.

For this cause the Saviour reasonably put on Him a body, in order that the body, becoming wound closely to the Life, should no longer, as mortal, abide in death, but, as having put on immortality, should thenceforth rise again and remain immortal. For, once it had put on corruption, it could not have risen again unless it had put on life. And death likewise could not, from its very nature, appear, save in the body. Therefore He put on a body, that He might find death in the body, and blot it out. For how could the Lord have been proved at all to be the Life, had He not quickened what was mortal?

And just as, whereas stubble is naturally destructible by fire, supposing (firstly) a man keeps fire away from the stubble, though it is not burned, yet the stubble remains, for all that, merely stubble, fearing the threat of the fire—for fire has the natural property of consuming it; while if a man (secondly) encloses it with a quantity of asbestos, the substance said to be an antidote to fire, the stubble no longer dreads the fire, being secured by its enclosure in incombustible matter; in this very way one may say, with regard to the body and death, that if death had been kept from the body by a mere command on His part, it would none the less have been mortal and corruptible, according to the nature of bodies; but, that this should not be, it put on the incorporeal Word of God, and thus no longer fears either death or corruption, for it has life as a garment, and corruption is done away in it.[1]

This is the kind of atonement theology that was so important to pro-Nicene theologians such as Athanasius but that is sadly missing in many Reformed accounts. Ultimately, I do not think that the typical Reformed accent on the forensic/transactional aspects of the atonement is at odds with the ontological emphases that we find in Athanasius. Yet inasmuch as the forensic/transactional aspects are sometimes employed in order to fund a doctrine of ‘limited atonement’ (i.e. Christ’s death paid the penalty only for the elect), I find that my commitment to the authority of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and its attendant theology as the norma normata of the Christian faith (always, of course, under Scripture as the norma normans) drives me to embrace the Reformed tradition in its Evangelical Calvinist form (as in the Scots Confession) rather than to drink from the streams flowing out of Dort and Westminster.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 60–61.

Calvin & Westminster on Assurance

westminster_standardsWestminster Confession, Chapter XVIII

III. This infallible assurance [of salvation] does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011) III.ii.15-16.

Also, there are very many who so conceive God’s mercy that they receive almost no consolation from it. They are constrained with miserable anxiety at the same time as they are in doubt whether he will be merciful to them because they confine that very john-calvinkindness of which they seem utterly persuaded within too narrow limits…But there is a far different feeling of full assurance that in the Scriptures is always attributed to faith. It is this which puts beyond doubt God’s goodness clearly manifested for us [Col. 2:2; 1 Thess. 1:5; cf. Heb. 6:11 and 10:22]. But that cannot happen without our truly feeling its sweetness and experiencing it in ourselves. For this reason, the apostle derives confidence from faith, and from confidence, in turn, boldness. For he states: “Through Christ we have boldness and access with confidence which is through faith in him” [Eph. 3:12 p., cf. Vg.]. By these words he obviously shows that there is no right faith except when we dare with tranquil hearts to stand in God’s sight. This boldness arises only out of a sure confidence in divine benevolence and salvation. This is so true that the word “faith” is very often used for confidence.

Here, indeed, is the chief hinge on which faith turns: that we do not regard the promises of mercy that God offers as true only outside ourselves, but not at all in us; rather that we make them ours by inwardly embracing them. Hence, at last is born that confidence which Paul elsewhere calls “peace” [Rom. 5:1]…Briefly, he alone is truly a believer who, convinced by a firm conviction that God is a kindly and well-disposed Father toward him, promises himself all things on the basis of his generosity; who, relying upon the promises of divine benevolence toward him, lays hold on an undoubted expectation of salvation.

I know many people (following Richard Muller et. al) will complain that I am trying to resurrect the dead caricature of ‘Calvin vs. the Calvinists’. But it seems patently obvious to me, just on a simple comparison of these two passages regarding the relation of assurance to faith, that there is a significant difference! The Calvinian emphasis on assurance as inextricably bound up with saving faith – in contrast with Westminster’s division of the two – is one of the reasons why Evangelical Calvinism distinguishes itself as evangelical – i.e. truly good news! – as opposed to classical or federal Calvinism of the Westminster variety.