The Word of God in the Word of Man: Working Out the Evangelical Level of a Scientific Missiology, pt. 1 (with reference to T.F. Torrance)

Last week I posed the question as to the possibility of reading T.F. Torrance’s theology of mission through his construct of the stratified (i.e. layered, multi-dimensional) nature of theological knowledge. In one sense we can say that Torrance’s stratified concept of theological knowledge follows a logic of discovery (or epistemology) rather than a logic of being (or ontology), although in reality the latter precedes the former. In other words, this approach articulates its understanding of the object in question by retracing the steps made from the lowest (experiential) to the highest level. At the highest level, one discovers the ontological basis without which the lower levels would not exist and which deepens the knowledge intuitively apprehended at those levels, yet one cannot arrive at the highest level without first passing through the lower. This twofold movement is reflected in the Trinitarian mission: from the Father through the Son in the Spirit, and then in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. The latter is that with which we experientially begin, and the former is the deeper reality which we discover through theological reflection on the latter.

If that seems a bit complex, it basically means this: we are to submit all of our missional thought and practice to the dictates of the gospel (including both the content of the gospel’s message and the underlying theo-logic that grounds it). As Torrance writes:

…the whole life and work of the Church in history must be subordinated to the content of the Gospel, and criticized and corrected according to its content, the saving person and work of Jesus Christ. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then the torranceyoungChurch must conform to Christ in the whole of its life and work.[1]

So thinking in terms of a stratified missiology must begin at the level of our experience of the gospel itself as it meets us in the witness of the church and the testimony of the Bible. Apart from this witness and our acceptance of it, we would have no missional theology at all. As Torrance explains:

We cannot see Jesus, for He has withdrawn Himself from our sight; and we will not see Him face to face until He comes again—but we can hear His voice speaking to us in the midst of the Church on earth. That is the perpetual miracle of the Bible, for it is the inspired instrument through which the voice of Christ is still to be heard. Jesus Christ was the Word of God made flesh, the still small voice of God embodied in our humanity, and it is that same Word, and that same voice, that is given to the Church in the Bible. It is by that voice that the Church in all ages is called into being, and upon that Word of God that the Church is founded. The Church is, in fact, the Community of the Voice of God, for it is the business of the Church to open the Bible and let the voice of Christ speaking in and through it be heard all over the world. It is the mission of the Church to carry the Bible to all nations, and to plant it in every home in the land, and by preaching and teaching, and the witness of its members, to make the Word of God audible, so that the living Voice of Jesus Christ the Saviour of men may be heard by every man and woman and child….

When we know Jesus Christ today our knowledge … derives from direct personal contact with Him and is based on personal witness about Him. We can have personal knowledge about Jesus Christ, but can we have direct personal encounter with Him and know Him personally for ourselves? Yes we can, and that is the perpetual miracle of the knowledge of Jesus Christ. But this direct personal knowledge of Jesus Christ comes when two things happen; when other people communicate to us a knowledge of Christ, and when at the same time He Himself alive comes to us, using their communication about Him as the means to reveal Himself directly and personally to us…. Because God has become man in one particular person in history, we can only know of Him through personal and historical contact with that person—our knowledge of God in Christ must be personally and historically communicated to us through a human chain of witnesses beginning with the recorded witness of the original disciples. But Jesus uses that historical witness to bring us to Him, and to convey Himself to us directly.

In this very Gospel, for example, it is John who is speaking and bearing witness to Jesus, and I am expounding what John has said, not simply in the light of what I think he said but in the light of what I have learned together with others in the Church of the meaning of the Gospel. I am influenced in my witness by the witness of others in the history of the Church, so that as we meditate upon this passage and seek to listen to its message, we do that “with all saints,” in the communion of the Spirit. But in that very communion it is Jesus Christ Himself alive, acutely and personally near, who speaks to us, and we hear and know Him face to face, invisibly as yet, but nonetheless directly and intimately. That is the perpetual miracle of the Gospel wherever it is preached. It is preached by very fallible human beings, but through their witness and in spite of their mistakes, Christ Himself comes and meets with sinners directly and enters into conversation with them just as He entered into conversation with these disciples at the very beginning of the Gospel….

This also the Gospel has to tell us, therefore: it is not enough that we should encounter Jesus personally for ourselves, meet and know Him and receive from Him all that He has to offer us; it is imperative that we go and find our brothers, our neighbours and our friends, and introduce them to Jesus as well, so that they may believe not because they have heard us speak about Him but because God uses our witness for His supernatural revelation, and as the means whereby there is direct personal encounter with the living Christ.[2]

Torrance’s argument is well summarized by Paul’s words in his first letter to the Thessalonians (1:4-9, ESV):

For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God.

Here we see Paul saying, in not so many words, exactly what Torrance did. The Thessalonians’ knowledge of God (revealed in Christ and opposed to idols) began with their reception of the gospel preached by Paul and his missionary companions. This evanreception was not a mere change of ideas (as from one philosophy to another) but rather the powerful work of the Holy Spirit evident in the conviction and joy that it produced even in the midst of affliction, a result that transcended any sociological or psychological explanation. As Paul says in 2:13, “when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.” They may not have clearly understood the full significance of what was happening to them in their encounter with the gospel, but they grasped, even if only on an intuitive level, that the foolish-sounding message of Paul was actually the power of the God in whose presence no idol can be countenanced any longer. Not only that, but having received the gospel as the word and power of God, they then became imitators of Paul, having been conscripted by the gospel into the service of the same.

So this is ground zero of a scientific missiology. Through the church’s witness, we who were formerly alienated from God in idolatry have come to know him as revealed in Christ and proclaimed in the gospel. When we heard in the “word of man”, we recognized it as the “word of God”. Although we may not have comprehended the exact relation between the two, or even how such a thing could be possible, we consciously entered in the sphere of God’s redemptive mission as we received the word of the gospel in the preaching of the church. As a result, we find ourselves caught up as active participants in the very same mission, transformed from mere hearers of the word into doers of the word committed to sharing and spreading throughout the world our ever-deepening understanding of the gospel of Christ.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, “Introduction to Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises”, in John Calvin, Calvin’s Tracts and Treatises, Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), viii.

[2] T.F. Torrance, When Christ Comes and Comes Again (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 27, 55-56.

“The Disqualification of Human Powers”: The Virgin Birth and Salvation By Faith Alone (T.F. Torrance on the Apostles’ Creed)

Here in Italy, the month of May is dedicated to the veneration of Mary the mother of Jesus. Outside the local Catholic parish, a large banner reads: “Maria, Mamma di Noi Tutti” (Mary, Mama of Us All). In Catholic theology, Mary is held up as the prime example of divine-human cooperation in salvation. Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium (61-62) states:

[Mary] cooperated by her obedience, faith, hope and burning charity in the work of the Saviour in giving back supernatural life to souls…. By her maternal charity, she cares for the brethren of her Son, who still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and cultics, until they are led into the happiness of their true home. Therefore the Blessed Virgin is invoked by the Church under the titles of Advocate, Auxiliatrix, Adjutrix, and Mediatrix.

I would contend, however, that Catholic teaching has it completely backwards. Far from being the greatest example of human cooperation in salvation (i.e. a synergistic soteriology), Mary constitutes the greatest example — or what T.F. Torrance calls “the great bulwark” — of the historic Reformation emphases on salvation by grace alone through faith alone. According to Torrance, these doctrines are necessitated by and implied in the central affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus Christ was “born of the virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit”. Torrance explains:

The two usual credal statements used for this dogma [of the virgin birth] are, natus ex virgine Maria and conceptus de Spiritu Sancto: Born of the Virgin Mary, and conceived by the Holy Spirit. To the understanding of these we must address ourselves. The “born of the Virgin Mary” means that Jesus, while really and genuinely having a human birth of a human mother, was not born as other men are. The “conceived of the Holy Ghost” means that the secret and origin of Jesus lie wholly with God and in his sovereign gracious will alone…. That is to say under the sovereign act of God, not under the sovereignty or act of an earthly father. In other words, in this act, man and God are not co-equal partners. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is the great bulwark, or ought to be when rightly understood, against all 1268px-henry_ossawa_tanner_american_active_france_-_the_annunciation_-_google_art_projectsynergistic ideas and all monistic conceptions of faith in God. What took place, took place under the free will of God, in which God alone was Lord and Master, in which the birth of Jesus was grounded in the sovereign creative act of God alone.

But that does not mean that the work is an act on the part of God without man, but on the contrary that “man” plays a great part in it all, for in Jesus the eternal Son of God becomes man, but he becomes man, and the man-side of the act is the predicate side alone. This act of God’s sheer Grace, this advent of God, … means a disqualification of human capabilities and powers as rendering possible an approach of man to God. It is to man that God comes. But in that God comes, in that God acts in an act which is grounded in himself alone, though among men, there is carried in the words “born of the virgin Mary” the disqualification of human powers. Jesus Christ is not in any sense, even in a co-operative sense a product of human conjugal or any other activity. The fact that he is born of the Virgin betokens the downright reality of God’s Grace which begins from and continues in his sovereign initiative. Thus here we have the sentence on human nature to the effect that human nature as such has no capacity, no power, no worth, to beget a Christ, to be the place and ground of divine revelation. Man and God are not equal partners here in the work of Salvation; it is entirely of Grace — “conceived of the Holy Spirit“. How are we to understand that?

First, we are to see that the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ means that he is in no sense the product of the causal-historical process of nature or of the world. God the eternal Son entered into humanity and assumed flesh and took it to be one with himself in the Person of Jesus Christ….

Second, we are to think of the birth of Jesus as a creation on the part of God, a creative act of the Spirit, in Mary. But here we must not think that there was any sort of marriage between Mary and the Spirit — that idea would simply be heathen mythology. Nor are we to think that this creation was creation out of nothing, but rather creation out of our fallen Adamic humanity, ex virgine, out of the Jewess Mary. That is to say the creation of Jesus in the womb of the Virgin presupposes the first creation, and betokens a recreation in the midst of and out of the old. That is a large part of the significance of the Incarnation, that Christ really comes to us, to our flesh and assumes it; that out of our fallen humanity which God has come in Christ to redeem and reconcile fallen sinful human beings to himself, he created and assumed flesh for himself for ever, to be one with it. The humanity of Jesus Christ was a real and not a docetic affair. This indicates, nevertheless, the fact that the origin of Christ was an act of God alone, and therefore an act of sheer Grace.

Third, we are to understand the birth of Jesus as a break in the sinful autonomy of man…. In his own sovereignty or autonomy man is not free for God’s Word. And thus the birth of Jesus takes place apart from any act of human will or assertion, apart from human sovereignty, such as epitomised in the act of the man or the father. God himself, God the Holy Spirit, is the actor here, and he alone, in which the act of human assertion is excluded. Thus Christ is not born as a result of human nature, but of an act of the Spirit; in other words, the Incarnation is an act of pure Grace and not of nature. Here in the Virgin birth man has no say in the matter; he exercises no act of self-will in order even in helping to bring about the act of God.

Fourth, it is here that we may discern very clearly the significance or meaning of the Grace of God in its most pure form; and in a form we may do well to take as a norm for our understanding of all God’s gracious acts, and of all other theological statements. God takes the initiative and approaches Mary, telling her of the choice of God. She has not to do anything in the matter except under the operation of the Spirit. What she does is humbly believe, and is blessed because of that, not because of her virginity. The attitude that the believer must take up towards Christ in Salvation is that very attitude of trust which Mary took up: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord!” It is an act of humble willing obedience and surrender to God. And in her there took place the incomprehensible act of God, the birth of Jesus Christ, Immanuel, God with us!

We must think of our own salvation in Christ in a similar way. In the address or annunciation to us of the Word of Christ himself, we are called to surrender to him in like manner, and there takes place in us the miracle of Christ is us! That is the Christian message. And it is not at all of our active willing. To as many as believe in God, to them gives he the exousia or power to become the sons of God! We are born again, to transpose the metaphor, not of the will of man or of the will of the flesh, but of the will of God…. What happened at the birth of Jesus Christ altogether uniquely, happens on another level in every instance of rebirth in men, women and children in Christ Jesus, or when he enters into our hearts and thereby recreates us. Just as in the birth of Jesus Christ there was no foregoing action on the part of human co-operation between an earthly father and mother, so in our salvation there is no Pelagian or synergistic activity either. It is from first to last salvation by Grace alone, salvation of men and women and children and among men and women and children that is grounded on an immediate act of God himself, and not on both man or woman or child and God.

Christ was conceived immediately by the Spirit — therefore in a Virgin. We are saved by faith, but in faith which is itself ultimately the gift of God, a human act, yes but grounded in God alone…. Faith is here not a creation out of nothing, but is creatively begotten through the Holy Spirit in a human child of God, in the sphere of his/her human choices and decisions, not of his/her human personality, but a creation out of it, and therefore independent of it. Thus in no sense is faith a product of our human capacities, thought or ability or insight…. As Mary welcomes the annunciation of the Word, of the Christ, and receives it, and so conceives: so we receive the Word of God which is engrafted into our souls, and, as it were, ‘conceive Christ’ within our hearts. We simply receive, giving up human capacities and powers. We do not bring the Christ into us, we do not appropriate him or make him real to us and in us. That is the work of the Holy Spirit; our part is humbly and thankfully to yield up all our autonomy and sovereignty, in surrender to the Work of God on and in and for us through the Spirit. [T.F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Jesus Christ (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 118-120.]

No doubt Torrance’s exegesis of these credal statements will be contested by many. I am convinced, however, that he is correct. When we pay careful attention to the biblical narratives in which Jesus’s conception and birth are recounted, it seems clear that the Evangelists stress the absolute sovereignty of grace. It is the Word of God (alone!), communicated by the angel, that takes the initiative. It is the Word of God, enlivened by the Spirit, that works in Mary that which, from a human perspective, is an impossibility. Mary was a virgin, and nothing lay in her power, without a human father, to bring her Savior to conception. It was, in other words, wholly an act of sheer grace. Grace alone. And all that Mary could do in response — that which she did do — was merely accept the Word of God to her and the Work of God within her by faith. By faith alone.

And so it is with all of us as well. We hear the Word of God in the word of the gospel which promises us the work of God in salvation. All we can do is simply respond in simple faith: “May it be to me according to your word”. Thus it is that the Apostles’ Creed teaches salvation by grace alone through faith alone.

Turning the Points of History: The Decisive Role of Prayer in Luke and Acts (Reformission Monday)

As I continue to seek to be “schooled in prayer” (as it is sometimes said), specifically as it relates to the work of Christian mission and ministry, I have learned much that has put fire and (what I hope is) power into my praying. I am currently reading through a collection of essays, edited by D.A. Carson, entitled Teach Us To Pray. One of the essays, written by M.M.B. Turner, examines the role of prayer in the Gospels (particularly Luke who emphasizes this theme) and Acts. Turner’s survey of the relevant passages regarding the ministry of Jesus and the subsequent mission of the apostles provides a view of prayer that is both fascinating and challenging as we think about what it means (for all Christians!) to be engaged in the spread of the gospel to all the nations:

Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples to pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers out into his harvest field (10:2) … expresses in teaching a theme … highlighted by [Luke’s] narrative: God’s sovereignty in bringing salvation and (simultaneously) man’s responsibility to pray concerning it. His special interest in this theme comes to relatively clear focus in the observation that Luke has a tendency specifically to mention human engagement in prayer at, or just before, what are quite clearly turning points in redemptive history. Thus it is while the whole people are praying (1:10; cf. 1:13) that the great announcement of the dawn of salvation is made to Zechariah; it is while Jesus is praying that the Spirit which empowers the proclamation of the good news descends upon him (3:21); it is after he prays that he chooses the twelve who were to become the core or foundation of the Israel of fulfilment (6:12); again, it is after he prays that they make the all-important confession of his messiahship (9:18); [it is] actually while he is praying that the disciples are afforded a glimpse of his End-time glory (9:28ff), and he prepares to 10 Pentecostestread the path towards Jerusalem and death; and it is after prayer in Gethsemane that he faces the ordeal of the cross. We shall notice that this theme is developed even more strongly in Acts.

The church in Acts is a church of prayer. To that extent, at the very least, the example of Jesus’ prayer-life is seen to have had its effect. Thus the church begins its post-resurrection life in prayer (1:14 [cf. 1:24]), and the first summary underscores the church as a praying community (2:42). The church naturally continues to offer God thanks over bread, as Jesus did, at the beginning of a meal (27:35), and its apostles attend the temple at the hours of prayer (3:1; cf. also 22:17 and 21:27ff). Prayer had become typical too in conversion-initiation, which can thus be described in the language of Joel 3:5 as ‘calling upon the name of the Lord’ (2:21; cf. 9:14,21; 15:17; 22:16). Mediatorial prayer, associated with laying on of hands, is also not uncommon. It is associated with this initial turning to God, especially in praying for Spirit-reception (8:15,17; 19:6); but it is also found in different types of commissioning (6:6; 13:3; 14;23), and in healing (9:11; 28:8)…. Prayer is not regarded merely as important, but as an apostolic priority; the seven are chosen so that the apostles will not be distracted from their prayer and their ‘service of the word’ (6:2-4)….

[P]erhaps the most commented-upon aspect of the prayer-motif in Luke-Acts appears in a more global overview of his handling of the them. What is striking is that at almost every important turning point in the narrative of God’s redemptive action we find a mention of prayer. Thus the choice of Matthias to replace Judas in the twelve, the foundation of the Israel of fulfilment, is preceded by prayer (1:24); it is while the 120 are gathered together in prayer (1:14) that the promise of the Spirit is fulfilled on the day of Pentecost; the martyrdom of Stephen which leads to the scattering of the church and the consequent spread of the Gospel (8:1,4; 11:19) was attended by prayer; Peter and John must pray before the Samaritans (the first converts outside the nation of Israel proper) can receive the Spirit as a seal of their acceptance of the Gospel proclaimed by Philip to them (8:14-17); immediately prior to his healing and baptism at the hands of Ananias, and thus at the beginning of his great God-given task, Paul is described as praying and receiving a fresh vision (9:11f.) — and a visionary experience in prayer in the temple later confirms his calling especially to the Gentiles (related at 22:17); Cornelius, the first Gentile to be converted in Luke’s account, receives, while he is praying, an angelic vision commanding him to send for Peter (10:30 — and in response to his earlier prayers [10:4]); and it is while Peter is praying that he receives the epochal vision of clean and unclean animals that opens the path for him to go to this and subsequent Gentiles with the Gospel (10:9f.; cf. 10:34f.). Similarly it is while the Antioch church is worshipping God in prayer and fasting that the Spirit indicates they should set aside Paul and Barnabas for what proves to be a decisive mission to Galatia (13:2-3), after which the Gentiles will form a major part in the church. The two missionaries are then commissioned with prayer (13:3). The theme is pursued with more restraint in the chapters which follow, but it remains clear.

Luke-Acts thus presents us with a bold double canvas of the early church in which the most significant redemptive-historical acts of God are portrayed as taking place in a context of prayer, revealed in advance to someone praying, or — in roughly half the instances — actually cast as the Lord’s response to his people’s prayer. This portrayal is never in danger of suggesting that the true initiative in salvation-history lies in believers, in their determination to pray for specific events to come to pass. God is only fulfilling what he long before promised. Such decisive acts of God as (e.g.) the descent of the Spirit on Jesus, on the disciples at Pentecost, and at Cornelius’s home, take place in a context of prayer, but not obviously as an immediate response to a specific request for the same.

Nevertheless, without answering questions of cause and effect, the whole tableau gives a unified picture of the close relationship between prayer and God’s decisive acts of salvation, right up to the parousia (Lk. 18:1ff.). Luke-Acts as a whole thus constitutes a powerful encouragement and prophetic call to the church to be a church of prayer: not just to pray for its own perseverance as the people of God under pressure in this age, and for salvation at the end … but for continual faithfulness in witness to the gospel now, and for fresh inbreakings of God’s grace and power now, such as point to the mercy, glory, and power of the ascended Lord until he comes. [M.M.B. Turner, “Prayer in the Gospels and Acts,” in Teach Us To Pray: Prayer in the Bible and the World, D.A. Carson ed. (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002), 71-72, 74-75.]

If seeing how Luke portrays the significance of prayer in the world-altering events that he recounts does not provide us with a massive incentive to pray, I honestly do not know what else will! It is truly stunning to consider how God has determined to use the prayers of the saints to accomplish his redemptive purposes for the world. Although we may be left with questions as to how all of this works (divine sovereignty vs. human responsibility), Luke gives us no other option than to conclude that the prayers of the church are an integral, if not the central, component in the fulfilment of the Great Commission and the salvific plan of God.

I used to think of prayer as more of a preparation for the work of ministry and mission. Now I have come to realize that prayer is itself the work. To be sure, our work is not limited only to prayer, but it certainly cannot be carried out apart from prayer. When we are talking to God about people, we are not doing less than if we were talking to people about God. To the contrary: if only God can save, then what better use of our time can there be than in devoted, constant, passionate, and prevailing prayer on behalf of the world? In the sovereignty of God, the prayers of the saints constitute the turning points of history. May the Spirit grant to the church a renewed vigor in and commitment to the indispensable work of prayer for the sake of the nations and the glory of God!

“I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me!”: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on Praying with Importunity

In my personal devotions I have been reflecting much lately on prayer. Prayer is something that, if I am honest, has not been a consistent practice in my life. Not that I have neglected prayer; rather, as the great prayer warriors of history might say, I have not “prevailed” or “importuned” in prayer. Much of this stems from the fact that I have too much confidence in what I can accomplish in the flesh and far too little faith in what God will do in response to my prayers. At the same time, I confess that I have exercised very little patience even when I given myself to intense praying, disappointed by the apparent ‘lack of results’.

For people like myself (and I’m sure there are many!), passages like Luke 11:9-10 can be perplexing:

And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.

After praying for a while and not seeing tangible answers, I am left thinking: “I have asked but have not received! I have sought but not found! I have knocked but nothing was opened! What is wrong?”. Honestly, it is just sometimes easier to neglect prayer than to face this troubling question.

However, I have recently found much help from a sermon in which the great Welsh preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones expounded this very passage. Lloyd-Jones’s insights struck me like a bolt of lightning and have since invigorated by fervency and constancy in prayer. He says:

Now many no doubt have had this perplexity with regard to the whole question of answers to prayer. There are statements in Scripture which seem to suggest that you only have to ask and you will receive. So people say, ‘But I have asked, and I have not received’, and they do not understand this. I am suggesting that the answer is that LLoyd-Jonesthere is a greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think, and our Lord suggests that, in varying the expression, ‘Ask; seek; knock.’

True asking, I am suggesting, is the knocking. In other words, asking does not mean a casual request. You suddenly feel like it and you make your request, then you forget all about it by the next morning. That is neither true asking, nor true seeking. In true asking there is a kind of urgency, there is a refusal to be content with anything less than the answer. That is where this knocking comes in. You do not merely shout from a distance, you go on and you approach nearer and nearer, and at last you are, as it were, hammering at the door.

This is clearly the teaching of Scripture itself. Our danger, all of us, is to reduce the great blessings of the Christian faith to some almost automatic process. I have often compared it to the slot machines into which you put your coin and draw out your chocolate or drink—there it is. That is simply not true in the Christian life. It is not true at all. There is this element of real seeking, ‘hunger and thirst’. ‘Blessed are they that do hunger and thirst after righteousness.’ That does not mean that in a service you wish you were living a better life and you would like to be better, or when you are at a funeral you feel the same thing, and then forget all about it and go back and live the same old life. No, hungering and thirsting after righteousness! ‘Asking; seeking; knocking!’

And as that is the teaching of the Scripture, you will find this abundantly confirmed in the testimonies and the experiences of people who testify to having received this great blessing. Many of them have had to strive sometimes for years before they have had this wonderful experience, and they say, furthermore, that looking back they can see that there difficulty was that their seeking was fitful—they would do it in spasms and then forget all about it. Then they would come back to it, and then forget about it again. But then they reached a point at which they became desperate, and like Jacob of old they, as it were, said, ‘I will not let thee go except thou bless me.’ Now that is the thing, typified once and for ever in that great story of Jacob. And it has been repeated so often in the lives and the testimonies of people.

The trouble with us is we are all half-hearted about this. Our Lord is speaking here about importunity…. So that if we just almost casually, as it were, ask God for this blessing and nothing happens, we must not blame God. We have not fulfilled the conditions, and have not really asked. Do not forget—’Ask; seek; knock.’ Importunity! ‘I will not let thee go!’… God is our Father and he does not give us the blessing we want immediately, always. Thank God he doesn’t. We would never grow up if he did, and this is part of our whole process of sanctification. By withholding the blessing God searches us, examines us, makes us examine ourselves, and realize the terms and the conditions, and he deepens the whole of our spiritual life.

This again is something that the generation to which we belong is tending to forget. We are a people who always desire some short cuts, some easy method, some kind of ‘package’ blessing. And that is one of the great differences between the Christian literature of this present century and of the Christian church up to about the middle of the last century. People would seek a blessing for years before they received it. But there was a purpose in it all; God was dealing with them and leading them along a given path. You will never know the heights of the Christian life without effort. You have to strive for these things—there is a seeking, knocking, and an importunity. And it is because so many have missed that element that they get into confusion at this point.[1]

Although I might quibble a bit with some of the things that Lloyd-Jones says here (in good Torrancean fashion I would want to frame the ‘conditionality’ of prayer more in terms of Christ’s vicarious intercession for us), his fundamental point is incisive and illuminating: “there is greater content to this word ‘asking’ than we tend to think”. The problem lies not with God, nor with the promise that he has made us in Christ about responding to to us when we ask. The problem is that we have not truly asked! Asking in prayer is not making “causal” or “fitful” requests every now and again; it is importunate seeking and knocking! It is Jacob refusing to let go of God until he received God’s blessing! It is that relentless zeal to prevail, as Jacob did, even if it means wrestling all through night!

This is, of course, not meant to give hope to our selfish desires. In the context of Luke 11, Jesus is specifically speaking about the blessing of the Holy Spirit. Yet Lloyd-Jones reminds us that truly asking for the Spirit in prayer, and for all of the blessings promised us by God in the name of Christ, does not consist a sporadic or infrequent affair. It is the determined resolution of Jacob wrestling with God, of the woman demanding justice from the unjust judge, of the man requesting bread from his friend in the middle of the night, until God grants what he has promised. It may takes days, weeks, months, or even years, but this is what it means to truly ask of God. We ask by seeking and knocking until the door is opened to us, and by not giving up until it does so.

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[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.166-169.

 

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 Living Voice of God: John Calvin on the Supreme Authority of Holy Scripture

I have noted in the past that perhaps none of the five Solas constituting the heart of what Kevin Vanhoozer calls “mere Protestant Christianity” is as misunderstood (and for this reason as maligned) as sola Scriptura. Usually objections to this principle trade on a confusion of sola Scriptura (Scripture as the highest authority) with solo or nuda Scriptura (Scripture as the only authority). The former is the true meaning of the phrase (which thus gives full place to interpretive authority in the church), while the latter is a caricature. To be sure, there are some so-called Protestant circles that champion the slogan “no creed but the Bible”, but they do not represent the historic understanding and practice of the church of the Reformation. Thus, if objections are to be raised against sola Scriptura, it is important at least to do so according to its original meaning and not on the basis of twisted or eviscerated versions of it.

There is perhaps no better exponent of sola Scriptura than John Calvin himself, whose view of Scripture is layered, nuanced, and complex. That is to say, Scripture does not reduce, for Calvin, into a text like any other written document that depends on reader interpretation in order to achieve its author’s intended purpose. This does not mean that Scripture need not be interpreted, but that, according to Calvin, Scripture is not inert; it is not simply a book among others whose power lays dormant until activated by its readers. Rather, Holy Scripture, as an inspired text, breathed out from the very mouth of God (2 Tim. 3:16), is Portrait of John Calvin“the living voice of God” that speaks “with divine authority”, and thus it cannot be equated with, subsumed under, or domesticated by any other human power or institution, not least the church. The same God who inspired Scripture will not fail to accomplish his purpose in inspiring it. Richard Muller helps us to understand the various contours of Calvin’s view of sola Scriptura when he writes:

Calvin’s arguments for the divinity and authority of Scripture are particularly instructive in view of both their content and their somewhat less than fully systematized character and in view of the relationship indicated by Calvin’s between the self-evidencing authority of Scripture and the internal testimony of the Spirit, on the one hand, and the so-called external evidences of the divinity of Scripture, on the other. Scripture, argues Calvin, is autopiston, self-authenticating, not subject to “proof and reasoning” and having no authority beyond its Word to which believers need turn for validation. Scripture, inasmuch as it is “unassailable truth,” itself provides the norm for judgment:

it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illuminated by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty (just as if we were gazing upon the majesty of God himself) that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men.

This is no static deposit of revelation that Calvin describes, no past manifestation of God’s will duly recorded and embalmed for posterity: Scripture, when read, preached, and heard in faith is the living voice of God speaking with divine authority—so clearly authoritative in its own words and by the Spirit’s testimony in the reading that it is self-authenticating. Here, incidentally, is the link between Calvin’s view of inspiration and his doctrine of the authority of Scripture: the same Spirit that first offered the Word by means of this “ministry of men” continues to work in and through the words upon the hearts of the readers and hearers. It is the same Spirit who “dictates” to his “amanuenses” who continues to testify of the truth of the Word to believers. As the Reformed orthodox would later argue, Calvin indicates that inspiration is the ground of the authority of Scripture: “in order to uphold the authority of Scripture, [the Apostle] declares that it is divinely inspired; for, if it be so, it is beyond all controversy that men ought to receive it with reverence.”

Calvin can, thus, speak objectively of the authority of Scripture, commenting on the apostle’s words in 2 Timothy 3:16, “to assert its authority he teaches that it is inspired of God … dictated by the Holy Spirit.” He also, however, recognizes that this objective authority is not apprehended primarily by empirical analysis of the text as object: “if anyone ask how this can be known, my reply is that it is by the revelation of the same Spirit both to learners and to teachers that God is made known as its author.”

No amount of argument or testimony, Calvin was convinced, would be sufficient “to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God … for only by faith can this be made known.” Even so, “Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit.” The church, therefore, cannot be the guarantor of Scripture inasmuch as the church can only argue and testify to the truth of Scripture in an external way. Indeed, the church itself rests on “the writings of the prophets and the preaching of the apostles,” with the result that the church may proclaim the Word but “the same Spirit … who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what has been divinely commanded.” Those who attempt to “build up faith in Scripture through disputation,” comments Calvin, “are doing things backwards”—since even the successful vindication of Scripture from various attacks will not produce piety in the hearts of those defeated by argument. True conviction of the authority and divinity of Scripture derives from a higher source than mere human argument, “the secret testimony of the Spirit.”[1]

Here we see why Calvin attributed such a high, indeed the highest, place of authority to Holy Scripture not only in but also over the church. The difference between the text of Scripture and any other text written and recognized as authoritative by the church (e.g. the ecumenical creeds) is that Scripture was God-breathed, inspired for the purpose of being the unique vehicle by which God addresses his church with his own “living voice”. For Calvin, there was a direct link between the Spirit’s work of inspiration in the composition of the biblical texts and his continued work of testimony through those texts, a testimony which sets those texts in a position of unparalleled authority. Here we see why Sola Scriptura was not a Protestant innovation; it was the result of careful meditation on what Scripture actually is within the context of God’s communicative action to his people. The Spirit has inspired Scripture to be the means by which he speaks as the living voice of God. Since the same Spirit both inspired Scripture and continually speaks through Scripture, he will not fail in accomplishing the communicative purpose for which he inspired it.

This means, first, that we can affirm, with Calvin, that the Scriptures are ultimately self-authenticating. This is so not only because of the Spirit’s work through Scripture, but also because supreme authority cannot appeal to anything other than itself for its justification. If one authority must appeal to another in order to establish its own credibility and validity, then it is actually the latter, rather than the former, that possesses the greater authority. Scripture, as God’s living voice, cannot therefore be anything other than self-authenticating, for if it required authentication from another source, then it would no longer possess the authority of the God who is greater than all. Thus, however great may be the authority granted by God to the church and its teachers, it must always be reckoned as subservient to the unsurpassable authority of God himself exercised uniquely through Holy Scripture.

Of course it is true that we often find in the New Testament affirmations of the authority of the apostolic tradition. But that is just it: it is the apostolic tradition – what was taught directly from the mouths of the apostles whom Jesus appointed specifically for this task – that possesses this authority, and it is that tradition which has been delivered once and for all to the saints in the pages of Holy Scripture. It is also true that Scripture requires interpretation. Yet that work of interpretation cannot be thought of as completed or definitive, for it is only interpretation. In other words, interpretation is, by definition, subservient to the authority of the text that it interprets. Interpretation does not possess an authority independent of the text that it seeks to understand and explain. Interpretation is only interpretation (and not invention!) if it faithfully exposits the meaning communicated in the text. Thus, far from detracting from Scripture’s supreme authority, the need for interpretation actually intensifies it, for as long as the interpretation of Scripture is subject to error (and the New Testament testifies that it is – 2 Pet. 3:16), it is necessary for the church to remind itself constantly that it can never pronounce the final word on the meaning of Scripture. Only Scripture can pronounce that final word, and it is the work of the Spirit that guarantees that it will.

Once again, it all comes down to faith. Do we believe that God will refuse to allow his inscripturated Word to be domesticated or debilitated by human interpretive error, or do we trust that his living voice will assert itself over against all such errors to accomplish his purpose nonetheless?

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[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 2: the cognitive foundation of theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.257-258. For references to Calvin’s works, see Muller.

The Ineffable Blowing of the Spirit: Karl Barth, Causality, and the Mystery of Prayer

The question of causality in both theology and philosophy (not to mention the sciences) is definitely a thorny one. Much ink (and blood) has been spilled in controversy over this very point. Is God sovereign over all things? If so, how? Does God’s sovereignty mean that creaturely freedom is an illusion? If creaturely freedom is not an illusion, is God’s sovereignty thereby limited? What about prayer? If God is sovereign, then what good will prayer do? How can we possibly expect to have an effect on God’s ways and works if he has already planned everything out from before creation? Or if prayer is effectual, does that mean then that God really isn’t totally sovereign?

These are the kinds of difficult questions that arise in relation to question of causality. On the surface, it may seem somewhat of an abstract and abstruse discussion. Yet when we begin to think about it, we come to realize that the way we understand causality, bothkarl_barth divine and human, has a massive impact on our lives, from prayer to evangelism to finances to suffering.

I have personally found Karl Barth helpful in working through these questions. As most readers of Barth know, however, he can sometimes be difficult to follow through all the twists and turns and heights and depths of his thought, especially when it comes to issues like causality and concursus (that is, the relation between divine and human action). Christopher Green helps to illuminate our journey with Barth just a little bit when he writes:

While Barth avoids the traditional use of the causal terminology, he still adopts it for his own nuanced reasons. In the Spirit, God works something that is rightly called “causality” in divine providence because he and his covenantal partner (i.e., the creature) mysteriously “condition” each other. God’s Spirit makes this “conditioning” possible on each side, and the irreducible mystery of providential causality is grounded within God’s own life. For this reason, the question of the “causality” of the Spirit in the created world is an incontrovertible enigma:

The divine pattern must be normative on both sides. In His procession from the Father and the Son, the Spirit is a particular Spirit, the Holy Spirit. He is always a Spirit of love and peace and order, but now He is the Spirit of the love and peace and order which according to the eternal mystery of the unity of Father and Son will always be a mystery in the ways and works of the Spirit in the created order, and therefore in Christian existence. The Spirit can never be observed or imprisoned by the creature, and therefore by the Christian, but in all His majesty He will always be a free Spirit and—therefore the Holy Spirit.

This element of pneumatic mystery in concursus opens a door for Barth to talk about causality without thinking of it as a “mechanical” causality. The Spirit is the effect of Jesus Christ’s action in providence, and this is a conditioning of his partner, the creature. Due to the fact that Christ’s action takes place in the Spirit, his action on the creature transpires in such a way that it is causal and yet, ineffably nonmechanical. Christ’s providential action is “causal” because it is a “conditioning” of the creature, but this is not a “mechanical” conditioning.

Barth’s appropriation of “causal” language refers to a kind of covenantal “conditioning” that is meaningful in two ways: First, and in the light of the importance that is placed on the atonement in §49.1, it may be more accurate to say that God’s work in providence is “causal” in the sense that it is a soteriological “conditioning.” Barth’s way of soteriologically adopting the term causa should not be a surprise on account of his “radical correction.” Since Barth’s doctrine of election is elevated above his doctrine of providence, the traditional terminology is not only placed in a soteriological context, it is retained so that it can be meaningfully redefined. Second, and regardless of the way that Barth’s soteriology qualifies his account of the appropriate use of causal terminology, divine and human agents do have a real impact on each other due to this soteriological context. God may even be said to be “determined” by the creature in the act of prayer. This happens, furthermore, because God allows this exchange to occur mysteriously in the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the “Lord of our hearing” in such a way that “no method” can approach him on the side of the creature.

For Barth, this solution will only satisfy the theologian if the “cause” question originates within the context of a prayerful commending of the Word. That is, the question of God’s ongoing relation with the creature in concursus can only be properly raised when this is done from the standpoint of Barth’s soteriology. The creature will only pray in the context of providence when this also occurs in the context of reconciliation. Creation cannot be isolated and investigated here. All too often, however, the “cause” question is motivated by a need to safeguard the doctrine of divine omnipotence with a conceptual apparatus and, therefore, the theologian attempts to gain knowledge of creation apart from reconciliation, that is, apart from prayer. Attempting to gain knowledge of creation in se and apart from reconciliation is characterized by Barth in §49.2 as motivated by fear. However, a practical knowledge of the divine concursus that arises out of prayer is satisfied with the irreducible mystery of the Spirit’s action, which embraces both creation and reconciliation as mutually supportive contexts. I will elaborate on this version of causality more fully in the following three chapters. However, at this point it suffices to say that the prayer that the Spirit encourages is one that jettisons dissatisfaction and suspicion from theology, and therefore, the motive that traditionally encourages the use of causa.

Barth makes it clear in §49.2, and especially in his discussion of succurrit, that Christ is certainly omnipotent over all things. However, for Barth, Jesus Christ is the King who enacts the omnipotent rule of God because the Spirit that enacts this causality in the created world is “His Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is a predicate of Christ’s action in providence that not only safeguards the inexplicability of the mysterious relation between reconciliation and providence, but conceals the historical effect of his power in practice.143 The Spirit is “a subjectivisation of the objective Word of God.” In other words, only in the context of faithful prayer can the creature come to apprehend what it means that she is the “partner” of God. Just as Christ possesses the Spirit, he possesses the creature’s prayer and directs it to apprehend this mystery analogically, without grasping it fully. This also offers a clue for understanding what Barth means when he speaks of human freedom in §49.2.

As a predicate of Christ’s work, the Spirit is God’s action that guarantees the origin, execution, and effect of every event in history. Therefore, this leaves us with one final implication: that the act of the creature is truly free because the Spirit is the mystery of God’s empowering love in Jesus Christ: “Where the Word and Spirit are at work unconditionally and irresistibly, the effect of their operation is not bondage but freedom.” At once, in the Holy Spirit, divine providence is incomprehensible, but is also faithful to the Creator’s purpose for the creature—that she should be free. The ongoing freedom of the creature in divine concursus is guaranteed in Christ’s action on account of the mystery of the Spirit’s mediation.

Now this may leave us with just as many questions (if not more!) than before. There is certainly mystery here, and I doubt that we will ever fully comprehend the ways and works of God, especially with what pertains to our own role as human beings in relation to them. What we can learn, however, is that we must not reduce God’s sovereign and providential activity, especially the mysterious “blowing of the Spirit wherever he wills”, in mechanistic or logico-causal terms. God is not a machine (neither are we for that matter!), nor does he operate like one. The ineffability of the Spirit means that all of our explanations will ultimately fall short of the reality to which they point.

In the end, Barth and Green help us to see that however we may understand this mystery, it is only in prayer that we can actually begin to grasp it – not necessarily in systematic or explicable categories, but in the kind of knowledge that we can only acquire by participation in the reality of which we speak. This is indeed why Barth often stressed that apart from prayer, all theological work is done in vain.

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[1] Green, C.C., 2011. Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.87-90. For citations of Barth, see Green.

The New Reformation: T.F. Torrance on Retrieving the Nicene and Protestant Pattern of Reform for Today

In a series of recent posts I examined the question “Is the Reformation over?” from a variety of angles and, in each case, I gave a resounding “No!” as the answer. When I say that the Reformation is not over, I do not mean, of course, that the unique circumstances and protagonists of the 16th century have remained until the present day. Rather, I mean to say that there is still just as much need for the church of today (particularly the Roman Catholic, but not only!) to be reformed as there was during the time of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and the other Reformers. Yet given that we who live in the 21st century face a very different cultural, social, political, and religious context, what would carrying forward the Reformers’ torch into this present darkness look like? What does it mean to be “always reforming”, especially when we consider the current state of affairs between the Protestant Church and the Roman Church that have been evolving in unprecedented directions since Vatican II?

T.F. Torrance offers some insightful suggestions for what such a “new Reformation” might involve. Characteristically looking back to the pivotal periods in church history that were the first ecumenical councils and the Reformation, Torrance exhorts us to retrieve the radical “Christological correction” that those moments brought to bear on the church’s thought, life, and practice:

Let us now come to the doctrinal content of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, and in the light of it try to discern what is or ought to be the pattern of reform today – and here I wish to expand what was said above about the centrality of the homoousion in the Nicene theology. As I understand the Reformation it was an51sddm6csfl-_ac_ul320_sr208320_ attempt to carry through in the sixteenth century a movement of rethinking that corresponded very closely to that of the Early Church. Let us consider it in four steps.

(a) At Nicaea, as Athanasius and Hilary tell us, the Fathers were confronted with so many different conceptions and notions thrown up in the debates with Valentinians and Arians that they set themselves to seek out and sift through the basic biblical images and concepts and to reduce them to their fundamental essence in such a way that the basic logical structure or simplicity that was thus revealed would serve to throw light upon all the other forms of though and speech, and serve at the same time as a criterion for accurate assessment of them. The result was the homoousion, for in Jesus Christ who is not only the image but the reality or hypostasis of God we have the one objective standard by which all else is to be understood. He is the scope of the Scriptures and the scope of the faith. It is in Him that we have to do, not with a man-fashioned, but with a divinely-provided Form…to which all else must conform in the life and thought and worship and mission of the Church. It is that central relation of Christ to the Holy Scriptures that was revived at the Reformation…

(b) It remains a fact of history, however, that the Early Church did not carry through the results of its work in Christology into the whole round of the Church’s thought and life. Thus in the West many aspects of the Church were allowed a luxuriant growth that was unchecked and uncriticized by the central dogma of Christ. The Reformation represents an attempt to carry through a Christological correction of the whole life and thought of the Church. It was an attempt to put Christ and his Gospel once again into the very centre and to carry through extensive reform by bringing everything into conformity to him and his Gospel.

(c) In carrying through this programme of reform the Church had to push the development of Christian theology beyond the point which it reached in the ecumenical councils, especially into the realm of soteriology, Church and mission. The movement of the Reformation was not contrary but complementary t0 that of Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc. Look at it in this way. The fathers in the Early Church were concerned in the homoousion to affirm their faith in the deity of Christ, believing that what God is to us in the saving acts of Christ he is eternally in his own divine Being. They thus stressed the Being of God in his Acts – they were concerned with theological ontology, the being and nature of the person of the incarnate Son. That did not stand in question with the Reformers, but what they were concerned to do was to stress the Acts of God in his Being – they focussed attention on the saving work of the Son.

We can state this in another way. The fathers of the Early Church were concerned in the homoousion to assert the belief that when God communicates himself to us in Christ it is none other than God himself in his own divine Being that is revealed. The fathers of the Reformation were concerned to apply the homoousion to salvation in Christ, insisting that when God gives himself to us in him it is none other than God himself who is at work. God himself is active in his saving gifts and benefits – that is to say, they applied the homoousion to the doctrine of grace. Mediaeval theology had evolved all sorts of distinctions here, proliferating many kinds of grace; grace was something that God communicated, something that was detachable from God and that could assume different forms in the creatures to whom it was communicated, as habitual grace or created grace or connatural grace, etc. But when the Reformers applied to grace the homoousion they cut all these distinctions completely away and carried through a radical simplification of mediaeval theology, for grace is none other than Christ, God communicating himself to us, the unconditional and sovereignly free self-giving of God the Lord and Saviour of men. Grace is total, and personal or hypostatic – Jesus Christ himself.

This carried with it, of course, a rethinking of the doctrines of salvation and sanctification and of the Church and sacraments. Accepting fully the patristic doctrine of the Being of God in His Acts in Christ, the Reformation insisted on stressing the Acts of God in the Being of Christ, and in so doing carried through a great transition in theological thinking from a more static mode to a more dynamic mode…It was indeed this stress upon the mighty living active God who intervenes in history creatively and redemptively and who has himself come to us in history in Jesus Christ that helped to emancipate all thought from the still and sterile notion of deus sive natura in the Latin conception of God, and set in motion the great advances of modern times.

(d) Along with this came a recovery of the doctrine of the Spirit. The doctrine of Christ had hardly been set upon a proper foundation at Nicaea with the doctrine of the homoousion than the Church found itself faced with the same struggle with regard to the Holy Spirit, for the semi-Arians and Macedonians insisted on thinking of him as a creature. But the Nicene theology found it was bound to go on in faithfulness to the biblical teaching to affirm the homoousion of the Spirit also, and so laid the foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity. A full doctrine of Christ and a full doctrine of the Spirit stand or fall together. Hence at the Reformation there took place a recovery of the doctrine of the Spirit, of the living presence and personal action of God in the world, released to mankind in fullness on the ground of the reconciling work of Christ. The doctrine of the Spirit and the stress upon the Acts of God in his Being went together. This also involved a recovering of the doctrine of the Church. Right up to the Council of Trent the Roman Church had never produced an authoritative doctrinal statement on the Church. There was indeed no significant monograph on the subject between Cyprian’s De Unitate and Wycliffe’s De Ecclesia. But with the Reformation the whole picture was altered and the doctrine of the Church as the community of believers vitally united to Christ as his Body through the Spirit received its first great formulation since patristic times…*Indeed the whole apophaticmovement of the Reformation may well be regarded as a Christological criticism of the notions of Church, Ministry, and Sacraments as they had developed through the Dark and Middle Ages in strange detachment from the high Christology of Nicaea and Chalcedon…*

Is this the new ‘Reformation’? Here once again it would seem to me that reformation can take place only on the Church’s proper foundations, and that no real advance can be made until we learn to think together again the Being-in-the-Act and the Act-in-the-Being. I myself am convinced that it is this combination of patristic and Reformation theology which is our only real answer to the problems that Roman theology still presents to us, and that if we can undertake this constructive rethinking, as indeed Rome is now apparently undertaking herself, then we will be able to gather up the historical development of the whole Church in a movement of profound clarification which will enable her at last to make advances in theology understanding comparable to those which have been taking place in modern science…

I cannot see any reformation coming to its fulfilment and taking its place as it ought within the thinking of mankind, and among all the peoples of the earth, except that which is wholly committed to belief in the Creator and Redeemer God, and which takes seriously and realistically the stupendous fact of the Incarnation, and except that which develops its theological understanding not by means of its own artistic creations but through rigorous and disciplined obedience to the objective reality of the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The Christian Church is confronted today with its Nebuchadnezzar and his dream of a vast image reaching up to heaven, the image of a technological empire in which man imposes his own will and the patterns of his own invention upon the universe. But like Daniel the Church must speak of the stone that is cut out of the mountain not by human hands, which will smite the image of human empire and break it in pieces, and will itself become a mountain that fills the whole earth. The new Reformation cannot do without its apocalyptic message which is a transference to the history of human achievement in all the empires of political, social and scientific endeavour of the Gospel of salvation by grace alone.[1]

Much, I’m sure, to the chagrin of Roman Catholics, Torrance (rightly!) identifies the Reformation as simply a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that consisted in a “Christological correction” of those elements of the church’s theology and practice that had not developed in strict accordance with the profound dogmatic insights that emerged at the early councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. Rather than deviating from the universal consent of the fathers established at these councils, the Reformation actually resulted from a deeper penetration into the central theo-logic that governs the Christian faith – that Jesus Christ is both coessential with God by nature and coessential with humanity by grace. As Torrance avers, when these twin pillars, upon which the whole of the Christian faith rests, are applied to the doctrines of salvation (soteriology) and the church (ecclesiology), the outcome is the Protestant Reformation! Indeed, the great Reformation solas – sola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria – can simply be understood as a further and faithful development of the seminal patristic convictions embedded in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedonian symbols.

In other words, it was a theological retrieval of the Christocentric nature of the entire spectrum of the church’s thought, life, and practice that gave birth to the Reformation, and, as Torrance suggests, it will only be this same kind of rigorous Christological realignment of all things to the lordship and logic of Jesus Christ, the sole mediator between God and humanity, that will fan the flame of reformation today. While the challenges of the 21st century may differ from those faced by the Reformers in the 16th, the ultimate basis, means, power, and goal of reformation remains ever the same: the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. Only to the degree that every thought, every practice, every aspect of the life of the church is taken “captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) will there be reformation. Yet insofar as all things are taken captive to obey Christ, there cannot but be reformation!

And, by God’s grace, so may it be!

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.264-267, 282-283. The section demarcated by the * comes from Torrance’s (1996) book Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, p.230.

Irenaeus, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Receptivity of Christ

This week I was both honored and humbled to be mentioned by Fr Kimel in a post on his blog entitled ‘Vicarious Faith, Tom Torrance, and a Few Memories‘, written in response to my own post ‘Athanasius, T.F. Torrance, and the Vicarious Humanity of Christ‘. Fr Kimel stated that the reference I provided to Athanasius via Khaled Anatolios was “a welcome confirmation” of Athanasius’ doctrine of Christ’s vicarious humanity (at least in some form), although he finds that it “still lack[s] the Torrancean twist”. I don’t want to strenuously object to this statement, for I fully acknowledge that Torrance was working constructively with the patristic tradition, allowing his Reformed t-f-torrance-sketchcommitments to shape (but also to be shaped by!) his engagement with the church fathers, and in particular Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria whom he especially loved (for an excellent examination of Torrance’s relation to patristic theology, I would highly recommend Jason Radcliff’s T.F. Torrance and the Church Fathers). As I commented on Fr Kimel’s blog, I don’t think that we have any substantial disagreement in this regard.

However, I do want to provide one more example that demonstrates, if not an exact identity, at least a significant continuity that exists between Torrance’s understanding of Christ’s vicarious humanity (which encompasses far more than simply Christ’s faith on our behalf) and the church fathers, this time with reference to Irenaeus. First, here is what Torrance has to say regarding one particular aspect of Christ’s vicarious humanity, i.e. his work of receiving and mediating the Spirit on behalf of and to humanity:

Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is thus the Mediator of the Holy Spirit. Since he is himself both the God who gives and the Man who receives in one Person he is in a position to transfer in a profound and intimate way what belongs to us in our human nature to himself and to transfer what is his to our human nature in him. That applies above all to the gift of the Holy Spirit whom he received fully and completely in his human nature for us. Hence in the union of divine and human natures in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit.[1]

As this paragraph makes clear, Torrance does not simply conceive the vicarious humanity of Christ as consisting in his faith and obedience that he carried out in our flesh and on our behalf. It extends also to his receiving of the Holy Spirit which, as Athanasius contended, was not so much in view of his own need but of ours:

And if, as the Lord Himself has said, the Spirit is His, and takes of His, and He sends It, it is not the Word, considered as the Word and Wisdom, who is anointed with the Spirit which He Himself gives, but the flesh assumed by Him which is anointed in Him and by Him; that the sanctification coming to the Lord as man, may come to all men from Him…Therefore ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever,’ remaining unalterable, and at once gives and receives, giving as God’s Word, receiving as man. It is not the Word then, viewed as the Word, that is promoted; for He had all things and has them always; but men, who have in Him and through Him their origin of receiving them. For, when He is now said to be anointed in a human respect, we it is who in Him are anointed; since also when He is baptized, we it is who in Him are baptized.[2]

For both Athanasius and Torrance, humanity was created to live in communion with the Father through the mediation of the Word and by means of the Holy Spirit. The fall into sin, however, destroyed human capacity to receive (or, once received, to hold on to) the Spirit, thus excluding humanity from the communion for which it existed. Thus, Christ assumed human flesh not only to do away with our sin and death, but also to vicariously receive our baptism in the Holy Spirit and thereby ‘adapt’ and ‘accustom’ our human nature to receive the same.

Perhaps even more than Athanasius, it was Irenaeus who stressed this particular aspect of Christ’s saving work. Julie Canlis explains:

The whole Irenaean history of salvation can be seen through this slow process by which humanity is “little by little accustomed [assuescentes] to receive and bear God” (AH V.8.1)…Even in the Garden, Adam needed “accustoming” to be able to receive the full gifts of the Spirit, for he was “neither accustomed nor disciplined to perfection” (AH IV.38.1). Here Irenaeus is not speaking of an aesthetic or moral perfection; rather, he insists upon “terming those persons ‘perfect’ who have received the Spirit of God” (AH V.6.1). As we noted of Christ’s progressive reception of the Spirit, the Spirit is not 200px-saint_irenaeusa quantifiable object for Irenaeus, but a quality of life as deeper koinonia with God. Full koinonia is a glory that Adam cannot stomach from the outset, for “even if he had received the Spirit, he could not have contained [capere] it” (AH IV.38.2). Though the full module of “accustoming” was to happen within the pleasant bounds of the Garden, Adam instead refused the Holy Spirit…

Although the first Adam “could not [capere] him,” those in the Second Adam are brought to their created telos through the slow but steady accustoming of the two hands. This exchange is accomplished by a double accustoming: God’s accustoming himself to humanity, and humanity’s becoming coming accustomed to God. Jesus’ mission is expressed precisely in these terms:

Giving humanity the power to contain [seize – capere] the Father, the Word of God who dwelt in man became the Son of man that He might accustom [adsuesceret] man to receive God, and God to dwell in man, according to the good pleasure of the Father. (AIH III.2o.2)

This is the descent of Jesus: in his humanity, creation is once again accustomed and enlarged to receive the things of God. The Spirit’s mission resonates with this theme, as he then takes this christological accomplishment and kneads it into the rest of humanity.

Wherefore [the Spirit] did also descend upon the Son of God, made the Son of man, becoming accustomed [adsuescens] in fellowship with Him to dwell in the human race, to rest with human beings, and to dwell in the workmanship of God, working the will of the Father in them, and renewing them from their old habits into the newness of Christ. (AIH III.17.1)

Participation (bearing/seizing/containing God) is a two-sided miracle, and we find both sides clearly outlined above. First, humanity is destined for a deep and enduring relationship of participation in God and in his divine gifts. Although this is wholly “unnatural” to humanity, God desires to bring humanity (assuesco) to the place such that it can bear the weight of his glory. Exchange, therefore, stands at the center of Irenaean participation. It is only the “descent of God” and his self-accommodation to humanity that allows for humanity to become accustomed, in Christ, to the things of God, thereby “ascending” to the Father.[1]

As we read Canlis’ account, replete as it is with statements of Irenaeus himself, it should be clear the substantial continuity between his understanding of Christ’s work of ‘accustoming’ our human nature to ‘bear’ or ‘seize’ or ‘contain’ the Spirit and Torrance’s affirmation that “in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit”. At least with respect to this particular facet of (to borrow Anatolios’ phrase) ‘the soteriological significance of Christ’s humanity’, not only do we see significant agreement between Irenaeus and Torrance but, even more, a virtual identity in language.

As with Athanasius, I am not trying to say that Irenaeus was a proto-Torrancean or that Torrance was a contemporary Irenaean. My point is much more modest: while it is beyond doubt that Torrance engaged the church fathers constructively, he did so not without first listening to them carefully and learning from them humbly, even appropriating some of their own language into his own theological reconstruction. I think that for this reason, Torrance was, in one sense, even more faithful to the legacy of the fathers than he would have been had he simply sought to repristinate verbatim their exact teaching. Had Irenaeus or Athanasius adopted the latter methodology, we would never have known their respective doctrines of recapitulation or the homoousion! It is the greatest honor to their legacy not so much to merely repeat what they said, but to learn from them and, where necessary under the guidance of the Word and Spirit of God, develop their insights even further. This is where, in my view, Torrance excelled.

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.246-247, emphasis mine.

[2] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. Four Discourses against the Arians. 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. 334–335.

[3] Canlis, J., 201o. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.214-217.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 19: Irresistible Grace (The Lord and Giver of Life)

In the previous entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I answered a question frequently raised regarding the vicarious humanity of Christ, namely, does Christ’s Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARbelieving in our flesh and on our behalf lessen or eliminate the necessity and importance of our own faith? The answer, we discovered, was: No! On the contrary, it is precisely Christ who grounds, creates, sustains, and brings to completion our own faith as we come to share in his faith through union with him. The question with which I left off in that post was this: if this is true, then how is it that such union with Christ occurs whereby we come to share in his faith?

The answer to this, simply stated, is that our union with Christ takes place by the Holy Spirit. Karl Barth makes this point abundantly clear when he writes:

The Holy Spirit is God Himself in His freedom exercised in revelation to be present to His creature, even to dwell in him personally, and thereby to achieve his meeting with Himself in His Word and by this achievement to make it possible. Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit can man be there for God, be free for God’s work on him, believe, be a recipient of His revelation, the object of the divine reconciliation. In the Holy Spirit and only in the Holy Spirit has man the evidence and guarantee that he really participates in God’s revealing and reconciling action. Through the Holy Spirit and only through the Holy Spirit does God make His claim on us effective, to be our one Lord, our one Teacher, our one Leader. In virtue of the Holy Spirit and only in virtue of the Holy Spirit is there a Church in which God’s Word can be ministered, because it has the language for it, because what it says of revelation is testimony to it and to that extent the renewal of revelation. The freedom which the Holy Spirit gives us in this understanding and in this sphere—gives, so far as it is His own freedom and so far as He gives us nothing else and no less than Himself—is the freedom of the Church, of the children of God.

It is this freedom of the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Spirit that is already involved in the incarnation of the Word of God, in the assumption of human nature by the Son of God, in which we have to recognise the real ground of the freedom of the children of God, the real ground of all conception of revelation, all lordship of grace over man, the real ground of the Church. The very possibility of human nature’s being adopted into unity with the Son of God is the Holy Ghost. Here, then, at this fontal point in revelation, the Word of God is not without the Spirit of God. And here already there is the togetherness of Spirit and Word. Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God. Through the Spirit flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God. Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such “the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him. As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Cor. 3:17 is Himself the Lord.[1]

In Reformed theology, it is not uncommon to speak of our conversion taking place through the Spirit’s work of uniting us to Christ. Indeed, this was a central theme in John Calvin’s theology. However, as I pointed out in my critique of the traditional understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ (here and here), the work of the Holy Spirit is frequently transmuted into sacramental notions of ‘created grace’ and ‘infused dispositions’ in which the Spirit’s presence and activity are conceived as qualities or properties of the regenerate individual. As T.F. Torrance contends:

At the back of all this there lies deep down a confusion between the Creator Spirit of Holy God and the creative spirituality of Christian man, and therefore we think we can develop out of ourselves ways and means of translating the new coming of the Spirit and the new creation he brings into the forms of our own natural vitality. The terminology of [Roman Catholics] and Protestants may differ: what Romans call ‘created grace’ Protestants call ‘the Christian spirit’, but in both the supernatural energy and life of the Creator Spirit falls under the disposal of man. In Romanism and Protestantism alike the Church has domesticated the grace and Spirit of God in its own spiritual subjectivity instead of being the sphere of the divine freedom where the Lord the Giver of Life is at work as Creator Spirit.[2]

Given this tendency, it is critical to emphasize two fundamental points in order to free Reformed theology from this error: 1) the Spirit is and always remains, as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed affirms, “the Lord and Giver of life”, and 2) the gift of the Spirit is grounded in and mediated to us by Christ. I will take each of these two points in turn.

First, the Spirit always remains the Lord and the Giver of life wherever he is present and active and can thus never become confused with any quality or property, whether natural or infused, in the regenerate individual. Recalling the important axiom that ‘grace is identical to the Giver’, we cannot make grace a possession of our own without detaching it from the person of the Holy Spirit or elevating ourselves to the level of God. As Barth argues:

But this also means that the creature to whom the Holy Spirit is imparted in revelation by no means loses its nature and kind as a creature so as to become itself, as it were, the Holy Spirit. Even in receiving the Holy Ghost man remains man, the sinner sinner. Similarly in the outpouring of the Holy Ghost God remains God. The statements about the operations of the Holy Spirit are statements whose subject is God and not man, and in no circumstances can they be transformed into statements about man. They tell us about the relation of God to man, to his knowledge, will and emotion, to his experience active and passive, to his heart and conscience, to the whole of his psycho-physical existence, but they cannot be reversed and understood as statements about the existence of man. That God the Holy Spirit is the Redeemer who sets us free is a statement of the knowledge and praise of God. In virtue of this statement we ourselves are the redeemed, the liberated, the children of God in faith, in the faith we confess with this statement, i.e., in the act of God of which this statement speaks. This being of ours is thus enclosed in the act of God. Confessing this faith in the Holy Ghost, we cannot as it were look back and try to contemplate and establish abstractly this being of ours as God’s redeemed and liberated children as it is enclosed in the act of God. We may, of course, be strong and sure in faith—that we are so is the act of God we are confessing, the work of the Holy Spirit—but we cannot try specifically to make ourselves strong and sure again by contemplating ourselves as the strong and the sure. To have the Holy Spirit is to let God rather than our having God be our confidence.

Second, while it is true that we partake of all the benefits of salvation when we are united to Christ by the Spirit, it is also true that the Spirit’s presence and activity in us is itself predicated upon the mediation of Christ. Torrance explains:

The Holy Spirit in his new coming is mediated to us through Christ in his divine and human natures. It behoved Christ to be God that he might give his Spirit to men, for only God can give God. It behoved Christ also to be Man that he might receive the Spirit of God in our human nature and mediate it to his brethren through himself. We are concerned here not primarily with the continuing presence and operation of the Spirit in the world which have been since the beginning of creation, but with the new coming of the Spirit in the profounder and more intimate mode of presence made possible by the Incarnation, and which the world cannot know or receive apart from Jesus Christ and what happened to our human nature in him.

Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary into our human nature through the power of the Spirit; at his Baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him and anointed him as the Christ. He was never without the Spirit for as the eternal Son he ever remained in the unity of the Spirit and of the Father, but as the Incarnate Son on earth he was given the Spirit without measure and consecrated in his human nature for his mission as the vicarious Servant. He came through the temptations in the wilderness clothed with the power of the Spirit and went forth to bring in the Kingdom of God by meeting and defeating the powers of darkness entrenched in human flesh. He struggled and prayed in the Spirit with unspeakable cries of agony, and bore in his Spirit the full burden of human evil and woe. Through the eternal Spirit he offered himself without spot to the Father in sacrifice for sin; according to the Spirit of Holiness he was raised from the dead, and ascended to the right hand of the Father to receive all power in heaven and earth. There he attained the ground from which he could pour out the Spirit of God upon all flesh. As Lamb of God and Priest of our human nature he sent down from the throne of the Most High the gift of the Holy Spirit upon his Church that through the same Spirit the Father and the Son might dwell with men.

Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, is thus the Mediator of the Holy Spirit. Since he is himself both the God who gives and the Man who receives in one Person he is in a position to transfer in a profound and intimate way what belongs to us in our human nature to himself and to transfer what is his to our human nature in him. That applies above all to the gift of the Holy Spirit whom he received fully and completely in his human nature for us. Hence in the union of divine and human natures in the Son the eternal Spirit of the living God has composed himself, as it were, to dwell with human nature, and human nature has been adapted and become accustomed to receive and bear that same Holy Spirit. In his new coming, therefore, the Spirit came not simply as the one Spirit who proceeds eternally from the Father but as the Spirit mediated through the human nature and experience of the Incarnate Son. He came as the Spirit of Jesus, in whom the Son sent by the Father lived out his divine life in a human form, in whom the Son of Man lived out his human life on earth in perfect union with the Father above. He came as the Spirit who in Jesus has penetrated into a new intimacy with our human nature, for he came as the Spirit in whom Jesus lived through our human life from end to end, from birth to death, and beyond into the resurrection. And therefore he came not as isolated and naked Spirit, but as Spirit charged with all the experience of Jesus as he shared to the full our mortal nature and weakness, and endured its temptation and grief and suffering and death, and with the experience of Jesus as he struggled and prayed, and worshipped and obeyed, and poured out his life in compassion for mankind. It is still in the Name of Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit comes to us, and in no other name.[4]

This is important, for it helps us to understand how ‘irresistible grace’ can be both wrong and right. It is wrong when, as noted above, it confuses the Spirit’s person and work with the qualities and operations of regenerate human beings (i.e. an infused disposition that responds irresistibly to the call of the gospel). It is also wrong when it it locates the ‘irresistibility’ of grace primarily in the relationship between the Spirit and human beings, because doing so completely bypasses the mediation of the Spirit from the Father that Christ effects in his own vicarious humanity. In other words, the traditional view of ‘irresistible grace’ transgresses the fundamental axiom of Christian orthodoxy that ‘the works of the three Persons of the Trinity are indivisible’, because it separates the prophetic work of Christ in the preaching of the gospel from the Spirit’s effectual work in those who hear (i.e. the Spirit does not effectually call in a ‘secret’ or ‘inner’ way all those who hear the gospel but only the elect), and it also fails to account for the necessary place of Christ’s vicarious reception of and living in the Spirit on behalf of all whom he represents in his incarnation (i.e. all humanity).

On the other hand, ‘irresistible grace’ can be rightly understood when the Spirit remains the Lord and Giver of life and when the ‘irresistibility’ of grace is located primarily in Christ’s own reception of and living in the Spirit whom he now mediates in his ascended and glorified state every time he exercises his prophetic office in the preaching of the gospel. Grace is thus truly irresistible, not because it infuses grace into our souls, but because it is an accomplished event (and thus irresistible!) in the life of Jesus Christ in which we come to participate through, as Paul says in Galatians 3:2-5, the “hearing” of the gospel. We can be assured, therefore, that when we share the gospel, we don’t have to wonder whether or not the Spirit will effect his ‘secret’ or ‘inner’ work of effectual calling; rather, we can be confident that through us Christ is exercising his prophetic role and the Spirit is at work to unite our hearers with him, and through him to the Father.

As usual, this no doubt leaves a lingering question. If all this is so, then why do many people not respond in faith when they hear the gospel? Moreover, doesn’t this whole reworking of ‘irresistible grace’ logically entail universal salvation? These are important questions that I will address in my next post in this series. Stay tuned!

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Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.198-199.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.244-245.

[3] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.462.

[4] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.245-247.