The Gendered Soul: Eugene Peterson, T.F. Torrance, and the Spiritual Nature of Human Sexuality

In the last couple of days since Jonathan Merritt’s interview with Eugene Peterson went live on the Religion News Service website, the internet has been ablaze over Peterson’s alleged affirmation of same-sex marriage, eliciting responses of all kinds, including a rather humorous article on The Babylon Bee. Evidently however, according to Christianity TodayPeterson has since retracted/clarified his statements and re-affirmed Wedding-rings-hands-on-biblethe traditional (i.e. orthodox) Christian view of marriage as between one man and one woman.

I have to admit that I was deeply disappointed (at first, but somewhat relieved by the CT retraction), but that is really neither here nor there with respect to what I would like to address in this post. I typically don’t write about “current events” such as this, and yet it just so happened (in the providence of God) that I just came across a stimulating passage in Geordie Ziegler’s excellent study of grace in the theology of Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance. Irrespective of where Eugene Peterson does or does not stand on the issue of same-sex marriage (or even more basic, the morality of same-sex relations in general), Ziegler’s explanation of how Torrance defines, on the basis of Scripture, what it means to be human has profound implications for how the church — committed as it must be to biblical authority — should think about these issues. Ziegler writes:

Torrance views male and female co-humanity as basic to the onto-relational and functional structure of humanness. The basis of Torrance’s argument depends heavily on the unity of soul and body in the human being and on the teachings of Jesus on marriage. Since sexual differentiation is not “merely adventitious or accidental” but is actually “intrinsic to the human soul,” Torrance asserts that “the human soul … is either male or female.” Gendered existence is ontologically constitutive, such that the “man-woman relation generates a dynamic ontological relationship within human existence.”

Thus, “the essential human nucleus … is neither man by himself nor woman by herself, but only man and woman.” Torrance considers the not good of Genesis 2:18 a disclosure of the fundamentally sexual or gendered character of humanity’s isolation. Torrance’s concept of sexually differentiated co-humanity fittingly integrates with his holistic understanding of the human being as an onto-relational physical and rational creature designed for communion—with both God and one another. In this sense, the structural reality of sexuality functions as an innate drive toward bonding and also as a need to find completion in another human person which would complement and match our basic onto-relationality as persons.[1]

There is a bit a technical language here, but the basic idea should be easily comprehensible when we understand what Ziegler, and Torrance, mean by “onto-relationality”. Essentially, this term is a combination of the words “ontology” — which denotes what a thing is and what makes it what it is — and “relationality”. Fundamental to Torrance’s view of what it means to be human is the biblical concept of the “image of God”, the imago Dei, which at root is a relational concept. To be created in the image of God implies that human beings are what they are only in relation to him inasmuch as they exist to image him. According to Genesis 1, this holds true not only for the God-human relation but also for the human-human relation. When God created humanity in his image, he created them “male and female”. It is only in their “co-humanity” that they fully image forth their Creator, and thus, in a secondary sense, they need each other to be what they were created to be. In other words, human beings are what they are (ontology) not apart from God and each other, but only in right relation to God and each other. Relationships are constitutive of what it means to be human. Hence, “onto-relationality”.

Now the crucial point that Ziegler brings out is Torrance’s assertion that the maleness and femaleness that makes such onto-relationality possible is more than skin-deep; it is, in fact, an inherent feature of the human soul. That is, Torrance argues that according to Scripture, the human soul is not a generic or androgynous entity that depends on the physical structures of the body in order to determine sexuality. Rather, when the Bible says that God created them “male and female”, it speaks of a fundamental reality that encompasses all of what it means to be either male or female. As Ziegler notes, the fact that it was “not good” for the man to be alone does not bespeak the mere lack of a biologically compatible partner suitable for reproduction. Instead, it is the man in the fullness of what makes him who he is that needs the woman in the fullness of what makes her who she is. Succinctly stated, human sexual differentiation is a matter of the soul and not merely of the body. We do not have either “male parts” or “female parts”; we are either a male soul or a female soul.

Now the implications of this for contemporary questions on same-sex marriage or unions (not to mention transgender issues) are profound. To be human persons created in the image of God means that our very existence is bound up in our relationships with “the other”. According to Genesis 1-2, God’s design in the creation of humanity was very specific: “male and female he created them”. “It is not good for man to be alone”, so God made the woman and brought her to the man. The problem with same-sex unions (civil, sexual, or otherwise) is that they violate not just the biological distinctions inherent in our human existence but, more importantly, the spiritual and ontological distinctions that go to the root of who we are. To conceive or practice the imago Dei relation — reflected in Scripture’s affirmation that the man and the woman become “one flesh” in marriage — in any sense other than the one exclusively established by God in creation is suicidal. It constitutes a dehumanizing, self-destructive attack on the very thing that makes us human. The exclusively “one man-one woman” nature of marital relations is not one that can be modified or redefined (as though it were purely a matter of genetics, preference, or biological compatibility) without doing spiritual and ontological damage to the inner structure of our very humanness. Same-sex unions do not simply constitute a transgression of divine law; they are a corrosion of our very essence as human beings.

Certainly this concept could be extended to address the transgender issue. If our sexuality is not merely “embodied” but also “ensouled” within us, then why would we automatically assume that it is the body, rather than the soul, that is broken? That is, why would we suppose that by altering the biology of someone who struggles with sexual identity we have therefore fixed the problem? In reality, perhaps (and in light of biblical teaching I think we can confidently say) it is the soul that is sick, that it is a person’s spiritual alienation from God that has produced a twisted view of the self. Developing this point further, however, would take this post too far afield.

In conclusion then, I think that regardless of whatever Eugene Peterson may think about same-sex marriage, Christians who are called to seek the healing and salvation of sinners cannot approve of a practice or lifestyle that ultimately leads to their destruction. Such would be a contradiction in terms. Just as we would never condone someone putting a gun to his or her head and pulling the trigger, so also we should never condone someone engaging in a sexual relation that constitutes a suicide of the soul. In such circumstances, affirmation would not be love, but hate. When confronted by the destruction of human beings, love does not smile and speak of tolerance; it warns of imminent danger and, if possible, intervenes. By God’s grace, may the church of Jesus Christ take its stand for life and not against it.


[1] Geordie W. Ziegler, Trinitarian Grace and Participation: An Entry into the Theology of T.F. Torrance (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017), 161-162. For citations of Torrance’s works, see Ziegler, 160.

The Final Word: H.R. Mackintosh on Jesus Christ as Revelation Made Flesh

Why is it that, as claimed by John Calvin, T.F. Torrance, Karl Barth, and many others, Jesus Christ is the definitive revelation of God, the Word revealed to which the Word written attests in its whole and in all of its parts? Why is Jesus Christ the full unveiling of God such that we cannot, nor dare not, seek another God hidden somewhere behind his back, another dark mysterious deity whose final word of self-revelation has been hitherto concealed? H.R. Mackintosh explains from the gospel of John:

At various points the writer opens up, beyond this unity of Father and Son, a vista of its eternal character. He transcends the first three Gospels by insisting on the fact that the Sonship of Christ is increate and un-beginning, the presupposition of all time and history. In the beginning…He had been the Word with the Father. Ere coming from heaven He had lived a life somehow characterised by spiritual relationships (17:5); it was not some impersonal moment or tendency in God which had taken flesh and dwelt among men, but the Son, eternal object of the Father’s love (17:34), and possessed word-made-fleshthereby of a perfect knowledge of the Father which was capable of reproducing itself in His earthly consciousness.

As one whose place is in the Father’s bosom (1:18) He presents God in propria persona. He knows God thus because He has always known Him so. “I speak the things which I have seen with My Father”; “no man hath ascended into heaven, but He that descended out of heaven.” Numerous other salient passages dwell on this prior life of Sonship. To the Jews’ question where He will go that they cannot come, He answers, “I am from above” (8:38). In the mysterious declaration, “Before Abraham was, I am” (8:58), the tense is apparently chosen to denote, as far as human speech permits, the timeless and unbecoming eternity of His inmost being. And in the upper room, He speaks to the Father of “the glory which I had with Thee before the world was”(17:5) and prays that it may be restored to Him.

Yet the main object of these statements is not to make certain speculative predications, in a so-called metaphysical interest, but to exhibit Jesus as the final revelation of the Father. This is the pivotal and organising idea in St. John’s theology. We can see the conviction in his mind that none can reveal perfectly save He who is that which He reveals. In His essential love, accordingly, the Father has poured forth His being in Jesus, that a perishing world may have life through Him. “Believest thou not,” Jesus asks, “that I am in the Father and the Father in Me? The words that I say unto you I speak not from Myself: but the Father abiding in Me doeth His works” (14:10). [H.R. Mackintosh, The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus Christ (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp.103-4.]

Quite simply, Mackintosh’s answer (which is nothing other than the apostle John’s answer!) is that Jesus is the final, ultimate, and definitive word of revelation because he is revelation himself. He does not come on God’s behalf to relay information about God; he is God himself, the Son in full equality and coinherence with the Father and Spirit, who makes God known within the confines and structures of our human capacities. Inasmuch as Christ is flesh, he is God accommodating himself to our understanding, as it were, with a lisp and a stammer (as Calvin put it); yet as God in flesh, he is eloquent and radiant (as Barth put it). Jesus is what he reveals, and therefore there can be no other revelation of God than what we see and hear and know in him, from now and throughout all eternity. In Jesus we have heard that eternal Word, and it is Love.

Renewing the Image: Why Jesus Christ is the Only True Apologetic (Reformission Monday)

Continuing on in my series exploring missional theology with T.F. Torrance, I would like, in this post, to consider one of the practical implications of what I have discussed thus far in terms of a Christological missiology. A Christological missiology is simply an understanding and practice of mission and evangelism whose methodology is shaped exclusively by the inner logic of Christ himself as he is proclaimed in his gospel. In short, the message determines the method. Now this can seem to be a fairly heady or abstract trial-of-the-apostle-paul-nikolai-k-bodarevskiconcept, so I would like to flesh it out a bit more by suggesting one concrete way in which Christology impacts missiology. Once again, we turn to Torrance to get us started:

At this point we must recall Calvin’s conception of the imago dei discussed earlier. Properly speaking, that image can be seen only in Christ. He is the imago dei in essence, but we who believe may have it by communication or by imputation or by spiritual generation. In some sense there remains traces in fallen man, but the image is really invisible in him, and only begins to shine forth in the Christian. But wherever the imago dei is to be found it is the reflex of God’s glory through response to His grace. That is the way in which it was designed to shine forth in man. Strictly speaking, therefore, the imago dei exists only in faith and will be revealed at the advent of Christ when He comes in His full glory.

If this is the case, how can we use the imago dei apart from faith to raise us up to a knowledge of God? And how can we use it independently of God’s grace and revelation in order to prepare us for that revelation, if it is only a reflex of God’s glorious grace? The very way to put out the light of God intended to exhibit God clearly to our minds is to appropriate as our own in this way what has been given to us from heaven. Therefore, on Calvin’s view, any attempt to build up a knowledge of God upon the examination of the imago dei in man himself would simply be a huge petitio principiiWithin faith we know that “whatever God bestows upon us by Him belongs of right to Him in the highest degree; yea, He Himself is the living image of God, according to which we must be renewed, upon which depends our participation in the invaluable blessings here spoken of”. This means that we may use the imago dei as an analogy within faith, but only within faith, for “faith imports a knowledge of the Truth which excludes and shuts out whatever comes from men.”…”There is no other way in which God is known but in the face of Jesus Christ, who is the bright and lively image of Him…. It is not every kind of knowledge which is described here, but that knowledge which forms us anew into the image of God from faith to faith.

Moreover, Calvin says, whatever may be left of the image of God in natural man is destroyed by the restoration of the image of God in us when we believe in Christ. That means that the image of God in which has been inverted by sin must be re-inverted. Because it is grace which strips a man of his perverted Adamic image, it is only stripped in the moment of the restoration of the true image of Christ. In other words, we are restored to the true image of God only through conformity to the death and resurrection of Christ. “Nothing is more opposed to spiritual wisdom than the wisdom of the flesh; nothing is more at variance with the grace of God than man’s natural ability, and so as to other things. Hence the only foundation of Christ’s Kingdom is the abasement of men…. We must give up our understanding, and renounce the wisdom of the flesh, and thus present our minds empty to Christ, that He may fill them.”

Inasmuch, therefore, as only by the grace of God in Christ, and not by nature, is the imago dei restored, so our knowledge of God which is bound up with this imago dei is gained by grace alone, and not by nature. And inasmuch as to put on the new man after the image of God in Christ we must put off the old man after the perverted image of Adam, so in order to know God in Christ, we must put away all preconceived notions, and all natural knowledge preceding from man independently of faith in Jesus Christ.[1]

As should be obvious, Torrance is writing about John Calvin’s view of humanity, a doctrine that centers around the biblical affirmation that God created human beings in his image (imago dei) to be his image-bearers in creation. For Calvin (and arguably for Torrance as well), this concept of humanity as the imago dei goes to the heart of what it means to be human and has an irreducibly relation dimension. Human beings do not exist as autonomous creatures but derive their very life and significance from being rightly related to their Creator whose image they were made to reflect as a mirror. This means that the imago dei is not, strictly speaking, some innate quality that human beings possess, for they only bear God’s image to the extent that they live in trusting and obedience response to the Word of God that created them. That is to say, the only “point of contact”, so to speak, between God and humanity is the Word.

If this was true prior to the fall, how much more so after! The New Testament speaks of Christ as the true imago dei in whose image we are destined to be conformed. We do not yet know what we will be, for our minds and all the ideas that they have are thoroughly corrupted by sin. Thus, it is only by looking at Christ that we can see what true humanness really is. For those who are in Christ, their true being is hidden with him in God, and thus they now possess the imago dei only in the sense that they have it by faith in what has not yet appeared (Col. 3:3-4), of which the Holy Spirit is given as pledge and guarantee.

So what does this have to do with mission? The fact that only Christ is the true imago dei and that all else has been wholly depraved and twisted by sin means that there is no residual image or knowledge of God in fallen humanity to which we can appeal when communicating the gospel. Technically speaking, there is a sense in which the imago dei remains in fallen humanity, yet whatever does remain has only been perverted into its opposite. It is not as though humanity simply lost something super-added and now has become neutral; no, sin drives humanity’s image-bearing in a diametrically opposed direction. For this reason, any appeal to a supposed “natural” knowledge of God still residing in sinful human beings as a foundation upon which to build a Christian knowledge of God is doomed to failure. Sinful humanity will simply take any such appeal and twist it beyond recognition, ending up in a worse state than before. This would mean that apologetics, traditionally conceived, has little to no value in communicating the gospel to those who minds are blinded by the god of this world.

Since Jesus alone is the imago dei breaking in through the veil of sinful humanity, only he is the true apologetic of the gospel. It is not as though a message other than that concerning Jesus Christ (e.g. logical arguments for the existence of God) can pave the way for the gospel. The gospel never comes to ears that are in some sense ready for it; rather it breaks in with a fresh power that itself creates the ability to hear. We cannot make people more “receptive” to the gospel outside of Christ, for it is the gospel that carries with it its own receptivity-making power. Those with an ear to hear have it only because the power of God in the gospel has given it to them.

This does not mean that we should not take care in the way we share the gospel, making sure that the words and concepts that we use to convey it are in a language and idiom comprehensible to those we are trying to reach. Nor does it mean that apologetics has no valid function. Moreover, it is undeniable that preparation for the gospel can occur by means of the Holy Spirit who operates in inextricable conjunction with the ascended Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father. However, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that anything other than “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2) will give sight to the blind, give hearing to the deaf, and give life to the dead. The preaching of the cross is a folly and a scandal and can only be spiritually discerned (1 Cor 1-2). And yet, it is precisely this preaching that determines “to know nothing…except Jesus Christ and him crucified” that by the Spirit carries its own power to create in its hearers the ability to see, hear, and live again.

In conclusion, we could say that this missiological principle — only Jesus is the true apologetic of the gospel — is a necessary implication of the incarnation. When the Word became flesh as dwelt among us as the true imago dei, he destroyed all pretensions to the validity of any other “natural” knowledge of either God or humanity. Since Christ and Christ alone is the Word of God to humanity and humanity’s response to God, only he is the one in whom a reconciling knowledge of God has any validity and power to save.


[1] T.F. Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2001), pp.151-153. Although Torrance deals primarily with Calvin’s views, it is undeniable that he is sympathetic toward if not in full agreement with the great Reformer. Even if Torrance’s position on the validity of natural theology as a soft apologetic is hotly debated, it should be clear to everyone that he adamantly eschewed traditional natural theology and its use as a hard apologetic (i.e. using natural theology as a preambula fidei), and so the fundamental point still stands.


Reforming Calvinism, pt. 16: Irresistible Grace (The Gift and the Giver)

In this entry in my series Reforming Calvinism, I move from my critique of the traditional Calvinist understanding of ‘irresistible grace’ to an Evangelical Calvinist revision. In doing so, my desire continues to be, as it has been all along, not to jettison the traditional five Irrisistible-Grace-AVATARpoints of TULIP but rather to build on the key insights that they contain and reform them into greater conformity to God’s self-revelation in Christ as attested in Holy Scripture. As we have seen in part 15 of this series (here and here), the traditional definition of ‘irresistible grace’ attempts to account for the way in which God sovereignly accomplishes his salvific will in relation to individual human beings so as to preserve the primacy and graciousness of grace. However, by lapsing back into the medieval notions of created grace that funded the Catholic theology so ardently opposed by the Reformers, the classic Calvinist view ultimately undermines the very thing that it hopes to protect. By driving a wedge between the gracious gift and the divine Giver, classic Calvinism turns salvific grace into a ‘thing’ that becomes a quality or possession of the regenerate individual and consequently, it reintroduces the synergistic and sacramental soteriological framework that it superficially eschews.

So how can we begin to reform this doctrine so as to maintain its key insight regarding the primacy and sovereignty of grace? The first step, as hinted above, is to refuse to separate the gift of grace from its divine Giver. With reference to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, Karl Barth warns us that:

Nowhere is there more obvious danger of confusing the subject and object of faith or love than in relation to this third mode of God’s being in revelation [i.e. the Holy Spirit]. But all such confusion is ruled out by the clause: “Who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified.” This gift, the donum Spiritus sancti, refuses to be abstracted from its Giver. But the Giver is God. We can have the gift only when and as we have God.[1]

Likewise commenting on the Creed, T.F. Torrance stresses:

In the third article of the Creed belief is confessed in the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of life who proceeds from the Father and who with the Father and the Son together is glorified and worshipped.” In line with what is said there about Jesus Christ as the incarnate Son of God, the Holy Spirit is said to be the Lord and the Giver of Life. In both cases the divine Giver and the divine Gift are one and the same. At the Reformation that Nicene principle was applied not only to the Word of God and to the Spirit of God but also to the grace of God. The grace of God given to us in Christ is not some kind of gift that can be detached from Christ, for in his grace it is Christ himself who is given to us. Properly understood grace is Christ, so that to be saved by grace alone is to be saved by Christ alone. It was in a cognate way that the Reformation (I think here especially of John Calvin) regarded the gift of the Holy Spirit, who is not some gift that can be detached from God and dispensed to us by the church, for the Holy Spirit himself is the Lord and Giver of life. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that the gift of God in Jesus Christ is mediated to us and we are savingly united to Christ.[2]

What Barth and Torrance articulate here in conformity to the theology embedded in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is of utmost importance. However we understand the event of conversion, we cannot divide the grace that effects it from the Giver who gives it by defining grace as something that becomes the possession of the regenerate will in distinction with the being and act of God himself. As Barth succinctly states: “Grace is the Holy Spirit received, but we ourselves are sinners.”[3] To be drawn by grace means to be drawn by God. To be given grace means to be given God. To be saved by grace means to be saved by God. At no point in the ordo salutis does grace become the predicate and humanity the subject. The gift is the Giver, and the Giver is the Lord. As I continue to offer an Evangelical Calvinist revision of ‘irresistible grace’, this will be the fundamental insight upon which everything else will be based.

What then do we make of the statements in Scripture, such as Romans 8:1-11 and Galatians 5:16-26, that seem to speak of a regenerate will and nature being the possession of believers? In response, I would like to briefly make two points. First, a careful reader of these texts will observe that the contrast Paul develops is not between those who are fleshly and those who regenerate but between those who are fleshly and those who are of the Spirit. The difference between these two statements is enormous. The first – that which Paul does not say – distinguishes between two types of humanity simpliciter: the unregenerate and the regenerate. The second – that which Paul does say – does not so much distinguish between two types of humanity as though one possessed an inherent quality that the other does not. The difference, rather, is the presence and action of the Holy Spirit as given by and uniting us with the risen and ascended Christ.

Second, we must remember that the New Testament is decidedly eschatological in orientation. That is, it universally presupposes that the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes has been inaugurated in Christ and by the Spirit but yet awaits consummation in the future. Thus, we cling to the assurance of our redemption not because of what we can see in ourselves but because of what we see in Christ as the one into whose image we will one day be perfectly transformed. As Paul states in Colossians 3:3-4: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” In other words, we believe that in Christ we have died to our sins and have been raised to newness of life. But that fact is that we believe this; we do not see it yet in ourselves. The real ‘us’ is “hidden with Christ in God” and will not be fully revealed until Christ who is our life appears at the end of the age. To profess our salvation, then, is not to attribute to ourselves a new, intrinsic quality; it is rather to fix our eyes firmly on Christ in whom our fully redeemed and glorified selves our hidden. 

I would like to conclude this post with another quotation from Barth who drives these points home with particular force:

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…

But to have it in faith means that we have it in promise. We believe that we are redeemed, set free, children of God, i.e., we accept as such the promise given us in the Word of God in Jesus Christ even as and although we do not understand it in the very least, or see it fulfilled and consummated in the very least, in relation to our present. We accept it because it speaks to us of an act of God on us even as and although we see only our own empty hands which we stretch out to God in the process. We believe our future being. We believe in an eternal life even in the midst of the valley of death. In this way, in this futurity, we have it.[4]

Continuing with the next entry in this series, I will further unpack these crucial insights.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for help with the opening critique.

[1] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.488-489.

[2] Torrance, T.F., 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p.20

[3] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.466.

[4] Ibid. p.462-463.

Are There Two Wills In God?

After my post yesterday When Orthodoxy Becomes Innovation, I received the following question in a comment:

Jonathan, could you elaborate a little more what you mean by this:

“[T]he notion of two wills in God . . . introduces a rupture either between the revealed God and the hidden God or into the eternal life of God himself (depending on the way in which it is articulated). But this is precisely why the pro-Nicene theologians opposed Arianism.”

I can see the validity of your point here: “[Arianism] logically entails a denial that who Christ reveals himself to be for us in time is somehow different or distinct from God as he is eternally and antecedently in himself.” But I fail to see how that at all relates to what the Reformed scholastics articulated about the revealed and hidden wills of God. I’d also like to hear your thoughts on why you think a distinction in the wills of God ultimately leads to a rupture between the two.

As I began to respond, I realized that my reply would become much too long and involved to post as a comment, so I decided to put it here as a separate post. Not only that, but I think that others may have the same question, and so I thought that I would post my reply here for the benefit of others as well.

To begin, it is important to remember that a commitment to a single will of God was integral to the pro-Nicene contention that Christ was homoousion – of the same being/essence – with God the Father. Clearly if Christ is a mere creature, then his will must be distinct from that of the Father. On the other hand, if he is, as Athanasius stated, “proper” to the Father’s nature, then his will cannot be distinct from the Father’s will. With the development of orthodox trinitarianism, this was expanded to include the Holy Spirit as well, such that all three persons were not said to possess distinct wills but rather to instantiate a threefold repetition of the same divine will. The reason for this, of course, is that a notion of distinct wills in God implies the existence of distinct natures, for as demonstrated in the later monothelite/dyothelite controversy, will is understood to be a property of a nature. Thus in orthodox theology, a distinction in wills implies a distinctionfull_does-god-desire-all-to-be-saved of natures, yet this would run into the problem of di- or tritheism (depending on the number of distinct wills posited), or full-blown Arianism (if one of the wills/natures is considered less than homoousion with the other). So just on the face of it, the notion of ‘two wills’ in God would seem to be incoherent at best, heterdox/heretical at worst. If the will of Christ is different from that of the Father, as in Arianism or tritheism, then there is no way for us to know for sure that who Christ reveals in himself is identical with the God who exists from all eternity in unapproachable light.

Someone could possibly respond that the distinction in question is not ontological but functional. In other words, what is meant by ‘two wills’ in God is not that God in himself actually possess two distinct wills, but rather that his one will has differing aspects that can be functionally categorized as either ‘secret’ or ‘revealed’. The problem with this is not as blatant, yet it is nevertheless still present. Since, as even indicated in the commentor’s question above, the error is not as obvious, it will require a bit of explain. To do so, I’d like to start by considering a passage whose interpretation is somewhat controversial, 1 Timothy 2:3-6. Paul says:

3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.

The reason for which the interpretation of this passage is controverted is not that difficult to ascertain. Many classic Calvinists, including Calvin himself, understand the “all people” of verse 4 as all “kinds” or “classes” of people. Often these Calvinist are fairly consistent in their interpretation of the biblical witness in that whenever universal language is used in relation to God’s salvific will, that language is interpret in a limited sense in order to provide coherence with the classic Calvinist understanding of election and limited atonement. Thus, for example, John 3:16 is taken to mean that God loved the world not in the sense of every single person but rather in the sense of those whom he had predetermined to save.

There are other Calvinists, however, that accept a more universal reading of these passages. An example would be John Piper who, in an article on the question of two wills in God, says that while the limited reading of 1 Tim. 2:3-6 is exegetically possible, he is willing to concede, even if for the sake of argument, a universal interpretation. I personally think that this latter option is correct inasmuch as it seems required by the logic of Paul’s argument.

As Paul states in verse 5, the reason for which he can affirm that God “desires all people to be saved” is because (the conjunction “for” that begins vs. 5) God is one and the mediator between God and humanity is one – the man Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul’s affirmation in verse 4 of God’s universal salvific will derives from the fact that there is only one mediator who is the God-man Jesus Christ. Were there two mediators between God and humanity, Christ and another besides him – then in that case there might be grounds for asserting that while God desires all whom Christ represents to be saved, he may have another will regarding the eternal destiny of those represented by the second mediator. Were there a mediator unto damnation distinct from Christ who is the mediator of salvation, then it would make sense to say that 1 Tim. 2:4 means that God only desires the salvation of some (those represented by Christ). Since, however, there is only one mediator, Paul asserts that there can only be one salvific will of God.

Moreover, the universality of this salvific will is established by the fact that the one mediator assumed in his incarnation the humanity that is common to all people. Paul makes this clear by emphasizing the humanity of Christ – “the man Jesus Christ.” However, there is not a separate ‘humanity’ that is somehow distinct from that which Christ assumed in his incarnation. As all human beings have descended from Adam having been created in the image of God, so also Christ assumed this humanity as the last Adam and the true image of God and is therefore the representative and mediator of all humanity without exception. Again, were it the case that God had created two ontologically distinct classes of humanity in Genesis 1 – a humanity in the image of God and humanity in some other sense – then it would make sense to say that Christ represents only a limited group of human beings in assuming their flesh. Since, however, this is clearly not the case, it cannot be that Christ is not the mediator between God and all humanity without exception, for his humanity is not different from that of all other human beings.

All of this rests on the fact that the incarnation is a revelatory act. As John 1:14, 18 affirms:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

The Word of which John speaks in this chapter is self-same with the man Jesus Christ. This is the same Word who in verse 1 is identified as not only being with God in the beginning but also being God himself. For this reason, the one who came in the flesh and dwelt among us is none other than God himself. This means that when we see the glory of Jesus, we see the glory of the Father. No one has ever seen God, but when the Word became flesh, he ‘exegeted’ (this is the verb in the Greek) God to us. He made known to us the Father within the ontological structures of our humanity such that we as finite creatures could come to know our infinite Creator. This is why Jesus could say to Philip in response to his request to show them the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:8-9). Contrary to what Philip was likely thinking, there is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ. To see Jesus is not to see the Father only in part, as though there were some aspect of God that remained hidden or to be discovered through some other means. No, Jesus assures Philip, to see him is to see the Father without distortion or remainder.

Now if we put this all together, we can see why the idea of ‘two wills’ in God, one ‘revealed’ that is somehow different than than one that is ‘secret’, is so problematic. If what Christ reveals in his incarnation is somehow different from that which the Father has willed, then the good news that John records in his gospel loses its foundation. We might as well delete John 1:14, 18 and 14:8-9 from our Bibles, because we can have no assurance that what Christ reveals is coextensive with who God is eternally and antecedently in himself. We will always be left to wonder if there is some aspect of God that might alter the picture of him that we see in the person of Christ.

But more than this (and to respond more directly to the commentor’s question above), the notion of ‘two wills’ in God (a concept intended to buttress the classic Calvinist understanding of election and limited atonement) introduces a rupture into the being of God himself. How so? If we remember, from John, that the incarnation is revelatory of who God is, and if we combine this with what Paul says about how the incarnation reveals that God’s salvific will is universal, then we immediately encounter a significant problem if, apart from this ‘revealed will’, we posit a ‘secret will’ that somehow changes or limits, as in the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’, the actual salvific will of God (i.e. while the atonement is sufficient to save all, it is intended to be effective only in actually saving some). Thus, one the one hand, Christ’s incarnation reveals that God desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4-5); on the other hand, his secret will, established before creation, is different (or even contrary!) in that it actually only wills the salvation of a few.

So the rupture is this: either there is a disjunction between the salvific will of the Son (revealed in the incarnation as universal) and the salvific will of the Father (the actual content of which is hidden in eternity), or there is a disjunction between the salvific will of the Trinity revealed in Christ’s incarnation (universal in scope) and the salvific will of Trinity hidden in eternity (limited in scope). In the first case, we are back to either the problem of tritheism (because two distinct wills implies two distinct natures) or full-blown Arianism (because the salvific will of the Son is overridden by and thus inferior to the salvific will of the Father).

The second case is not as obviously problematic but is nonetheless so, for it renders the life of God revealed in the incarnation (the economic Trinity) as fundamentally different from the life of God from all eternity (the immanent Trinity). In this instance, the rupture is not within the eternal being of God (as in the first case) but between God’s eternal being in himself and economic being in revelation. Once again, this is precisely what the Nicene homoousion was intended to avoid, for according to the various forms of ‘Arianism’, the being, will, and act of Jesus Christ in time is not self-same with the being, will, and act of God in himself from all eternity. Arianism did not simply entail a denial of the full divinity of the Son simpliciter; it entailed a denial of the full divinity of the God-man Jesus Christ. This is why, in the Nicene Creed, it is specifically “Jesus Christ” (rather than simply God the Son considered apart from the incarnation) who is said to be homoousion with the Father. Therefore, if that which Christ reveals is somehow different than who God is antecedently and eternally in himself, than we violate one of the central meanings of the Nicene homoousion and cannot escape the charge that we have adopted a functionally ‘Arian’ view of revelation.

As I can see it, the only way to avoid this problem and still hold, as classic Calvinism requires, the notion of ‘two wills’ in God is by positing another disjunction, not between the Father and the Son nor between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity but rather in Christ himself between his person (incarnation) and his work (atonement). That is to say, if we are intent on avoiding the first two errors but we still want to hold to a distinction between God’s revealed will to save all and his hidden will to actually save only some, then the only option left to us is to say that Christ’s incarnation (which, again, is universal in its representation of all humanity created in the image of God) is different in scope than his work (designed only to save the elect).

Yet this move is just as problematic as the other two. First, it does violence to the clear teaching of Scripture that Christ doesn’t simply provide salvation but that he is salvation. If we divide Christ’s incarnate person (corresponding to the ‘revealed will’) from his atoning work (corresponding to the ‘secret will’), then salvation is reconstrued as a ‘thing’ that can be distinguished and possessed apart from Christ himself. But those goes against, for example, what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” In other words, Christ doesn’t give us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption as gifts that we can possess apart from him. Rather, Paul says that Christ himself is these things, and we partake of them only insofar as we are “in Christ Jesus”, ‘engrafted’ into his very person by the Spirit.

Furthermore, a separation of Christ’s work from his person effectively instrumentalizes Christ’s humanity as a mere means to an end. That is, it implies the idea that Christ assumed flesh merely for the sake of accomplishing human salvation, similar to an astronaut who puts on a spacesuit only for the purpose of going into space. In this view, there is nothing essential to Christ about his humanity, for it is only an instrument that he took up in order to save the elect. The problem with this, however, is twofold. First, it once again evinces a similarity to Arianism in that it considers the man Jesus Christ as subordinate to the eternal will of God rather than as fully one with that will. The Arians believed that Christ had been created precisely for the purposes of human salvation, and thus they had an instrumentalized view of his humanity. Although the ‘two wills’ notion is not explicitly Arian, it effectively adopts of view of Christ’s humanity that is remarkably similar.

Second, a separation between Christ’s person and work means that the incarnation is not, as John teaches, inherently revelatory of who God is, because the only reason that Christ assumed flesh was due to the contingencies of history. Rather than, as T.F. Torrance beautifully stated, providing us with an ‘open window into the very heart of God’, the incarnation constitutes an action that occurs only because humanity has fallen into sin. Hypothetically then, the incarnation could have not even occurred had humanity not fallen into sin. But if the incarnation occurs only on account of the contingencies of history and creation, then it is not a revelation of who God is essentially in himself but only of what he would do given a certain set of circumstances. We don’t see the Father himself when we see Jesus, we just see what the Father has decided to do in this particular situation. The rupture that this introduces is between God and Jesus Christ, for while the former’s existence is necessary, the latter’s, in this view, is merely contingent.

So once again, the notion of ‘two wills of God’ in which the one ‘revealed’ differs in some way from the one ‘hidden’ in eternity inevitably runs into significant problems. Regardless of where it does so, it cannot help but introduce a rupture into the life of God, whether within the Trinity, between the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity, or between God and Jesus Christ. All three of these instances effectively constitute a violation of the inner theo-logic of the Nicene homoousion which, in the face of Arian assertions to the contrary, was intended to preserve the truth, indispensable to the gospel, that the being, will, and act of Jesus Christ in history is self-same with the being, will, and act of the Triune God antecedently and eternally in himself. Though of course the ‘two will’ notion does not explicitly deny the full equality of Christ with God, it nevertheless entails a theology that functionally denies it in practice. This is why I, in keeping with orthodox Christian belief and along with others like Karl Barth and T.F. Torrance, would reject such a view.

(Special thanks to Bobby Grow for providing ideas for the critique in this post.)

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 13: Limited Atonement (Limited to One, Unlimited for All)

In the previous entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I argued that the traditional understanding of ‘limited atonement’ did not go far enough in limiting Christ’s atoning work in order to maximize its efficacy. I proposed that a better and more biblical doctrine would indeed limit the atonement, but it would do so in terms of a single human being: Jesus Christ himself. This would result in a revision of limited atonement that could also be called ‘incarnational’ or ‘ontological’ inasmuch as it locates the atonement within Christ’s own incarnate person who in himself actualized the full extent of human Limited-Atonement-AVATARredemption, passing through death and rising in the eternal life of the new creation. Such a view would be drastically limited and yet fully maximized in its ability to account for not only humanity’s aquittal from sin’s penalty but also humanity’s purification from sin’s corruption and resurrection from death.

Paradoxically, however, such a drastic limitation not only maximizes the atonement’s power to a seemingly infinite degree, but it also has a universalizing effect. When we come to understand, on account of the indissoluble connection between Christ’s incarnate being and salvific work, that the atonement took place in Christ himself, we discover that the atonement is likewise unlimited in its extent. This is what Athanasius meant when he stated that by becoming flesh, the Word was able to die “in the stead of all…that thenceforth corruption might be stayed from all by the Grace of the Resurrection”.[1] Athanasius sounds very much like the apostle Paul here in 2 Corinthians 5:14: “One has died for all, therefore all have died.” What Christ has done, he has effectually done; yet what Christ has done, he has done for all. In other words, the atonement is both fully efficacious in power and universal in extent.

There are two primary reasons for this. First, when Scripture identifies Christ as the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45-49), as the imago Dei (Col. 1:15), and the Son of God who came in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3), it indicates that the Word assumed the same flesh that we have in order to share in our humanity. As Hebrews 2:14-17 clearly teaches, Christ was made like us in every respect (though, of course, he remained sinless), for only in this way could he, through death, destroy death and become our perfect and faithful high priest. Yet if this is so, then it makes no sense, given the indivisible connection between Christ’s incarnate person and atoning work, to say that the atonement is ultimately effectual only for a limited group of human beings. If the atonement was the work that Christ wrought in the depths of his own incarnate person, and if he became that incarnate person by assuming a humanity no different than that of all human beings, then how could his atoning work ultimately be limited to only some?

As my friend Bobby Grow once asked in a blog post: “Is there a separate ontology for our humanity that is indeed distinct from the kind that Jesus assumed for us in His incarnation?” This question is incisive because it penetrates to the heart of the issue. If Christ assumed a humanity ontologically distinct from our own, then the atoning work that he accomplished could never reach us. His humanity would be fundamentally different than our own, and thus we would remain forever untouched by the work that he carried out in himself. On the other hand, if Christ did indeed assume our humanity in order to truly and fully save us from within, then all that he did he did for all inasmuch as he did it in the nature and flesh shared by all human beings. To attempt to limit the extent of Christ’s atoning work to a restricted group of human beings is therefore to fall prey to an incoherent or deficient Christology, for it is ultimately to deny the fullness and integrity of Christ’s incarnation. If he did not assume the human nature shared by all humanity, then he did not assume human nature at all. As Irenaeus of Lyons contended:

But if the Lord became incarnate for any other order of things, and took flesh of any other substance, He has not then summed up human nature in His own person, nor in that case can He be termed flesh…But now the case stands thus, that the Word has saved that which really was [created, viz.,] humanity which had perished, effecting by means of Himself that communion which should be held with it, and seeking out its salvation. But the thing which had perished possessed flesh and blood. For the Lord, taking dust from the earth, moulded man; and it was upon his behalf that all the dispensation of the Lord’s advent took place. He had Himself, therefore, flesh and blood, recapitulating in Himself not a certain other, but that original handiwork of the Father, seeking out that thing which had perished….

If, then, any one…pretends that the Lord possessed another substance of flesh, the sayings respecting reconciliation will not agree with that man. For that thing is reconciled which had formerly been in enmity. Now, if the Lord had taken flesh from another substance, He would not, by so doing, have reconciled that one to God which had become inimical through transgression. But now, by means of communion with Himself, the Lord has reconciled man to God the Father, in reconciling us to Himself by the body of His own flesh, and redeeming us by His own blood.[2]

As Irenaeus explains here, Christ assumed the nature and flesh shared by all human beings. This means that what he accomplished in himself he accomplished vicariously for all. Contrary to critiques of a ‘physical’ theory of redemption, the fact that Christ accomplished redemption in himself means that it is not immediately or automatically actualized in everyone else. Yet the fact that he accomplished this work vicariously insofar as he did it in the nature and flesh shared by all human beings means that full redemption has been utterly accomplished de jure for all, even if not all will experience it de facto in themselves.

The second reason why a Christ-limited atonement has universal effect for all is because an orthodox Trinitarian theology would require us, contrary to the traditional view of limited atonement, not to introduce any rupture between the act of the Son in history and the will of the Father in eternity. In other words, we must not posit a secret decree of God eternally hidden in the inscrutable recesses of his will that contradicts or emends what is revealed in Christ’s death for all and in the gospel that proclaims this truth to all. As T.F. Torrance explains:

Since Jesus Christ the only-begotten Son of God is of one being with the Father, and since he is God and man inseparably united in his incarnate Person, then like the incarnation the atoning work of the incarnate Son falls within the inner life of the Holy Trinity…[T]he cross is not only a revelation of the love of Christ but a revelation of the love of God. The cross is a window opened into the very heart of God…

The atonement is not to be explained or understood simply on the ground of the historical event of the crucifixion of Jesus, as some external transaction enacted by Jesus between God and man describable in moral or legal terms, but as taking place ultimately within the incarnate mystery of the union of divine and human nature in Jesus Christ the Mediator between God and man…There is no conflict between the act and being of Christ and the act and being of God, for there is an unbroken relation of being and act between them [necessitated by the Nicene homoousion], which applies fully to their act and being in the atonement. The atoning self-sacrifice of Christ that took place once for all on the cross was offered through the eternal Spirit to God thus procuring eternal redemption…

In him God has drawn near to us, and we may draw near to God with complete confidence as those who are sanctified together with Jesus, and who are included in his atoning self-presentation through the eternal Spirit to the Father. That is surely what it means for us sinners to have access to the Father through the blood of Christ and in one Spirit,…and, what is more, to be certain that what he is toward us in the Gospel of Christ as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, he really is and always will be in himself.[3]

The implications of this are staggering. Contrary to views that would posit a disjunction between God’s self-revelation in the cross of Christ (which according to classic Calvinism is inherently sufficient for all) and God’s hidden decree in eternity (that limits the inherent sufficiency of the cross to the elect), the heart of the Christian faith summated in the Nicene homoousion requires us to take seriously the fact that the God who we see revealed in Christ on the cross is God as he is antecedently and eternally in himself. It means that the atonement, worked out ontologically within the depths of the incarnate Mediator and thus accomplished vicariously for all, must be said to fully reveal the eternal will of God before time began with no distortion or remainder. If we insist on the complete and utter continuity between who God is for us in Christ on the cross and who he is in himself from all eternity, we can, like Torrance, know for sure what is his benevolent will and inexpressible love for each one of us. We need not fear, but we can draw near to him with full assurance of faith that Christ accomplished salvation not only for the world but also specifically for each one of us. This is good news!

In the next and final post on an Evangelical Calvinist revision of limited atonement, I will explore what is involved in the de facto realization in us of the atonement that Christ accomplished de jure for all.


[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, 1892. On the Incarnation of the Word. In P. Schaff & H. Wace, eds. St. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, pp. 40–41.

[2] Irenaeus of Lyons, 1885. Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, pp. 541–542.

[3] Torrance, T.F. 1992. The Mediation of Christ. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard. pp.113-115.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 11: Limited Atonement (Critique & Reconstruction)

In this eleventh entry in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I intend to offer one last point of critique of the traditional view of ‘limited atonement’ which will then serve as the
segue into my own sketch of an Evangelical Calvinist revision. To begin, I would like to return once again to R.C. Sproul’s articulation of the Reformed position (which can be accessed in its entirety here):

This doctrine is chiefly concerned about the original purpose, plan, or design of God in
sending Christ into the world to die on the cross…God the Father designed the work of
redemption specifically with a view to providing salvation for the elect, and that Limited-Atonement-AVATARChrist died for His sheep and laid down His life for those the Father had given to Him..

This does not mean that a limit is placed on the value or the merit of the atonement of Jesus Christ. It’s traditional to say that the atoning work of Christ is sufficient for all. That is, its meritorious value is sufficient to cover the sins of all people, and certainly anyone who puts his or her trust in Jesus Christ will receive the full measure of the benefits of that atonement. It is also important to understand that the gospel is to be preached universally. This is another controversial point, because on the one hand the gospel is offered universally to all who are within earshot of the preaching of it, but it’s not universally offered in the sense that it’s offered to anyone without any conditions. It’s offered to anyone who believes. It’s offered to anyone who repents. Obviously the merit of the atonement of Christ is given to all who believe and to all who repent of their sins.

The final problem that I want to highlight in relation to Sproul’s view is how it depicts the atonement in ‘transactional’ terms. This is evident in the way in which Sproul frames the atonement in terms of the ‘merit’ or ‘value’ obtained by Christ. Indeed, ‘limited atonement’ seems to require such a ‘transactional’ view, for it seems to be the only coherent way in which Christ’s death can be said to effectually atone only for the sins of a limited number of human beings. Using any other metaphor, it would be difficult to quantify how Christ’s death ultimately only ‘pays’ the ‘price’ or ‘penalty’ of the sins of the elect. The ‘transactional’ view, however, is rife with difficulty. T.F. Torrance explains:

[I]n Western Christianity the atonement tends to be interpreted almost exclusively in terms of external forensic relations as a judicial transaction in the transference of the penalty for sin from the sinner to the sin-bearer. In the biblical and early patristic tradition, however,…the Incarnation and the atonement are internally linked, for atoning expiation and propitiation are worked out in the ontological depths of human being and existence into which the Son of God penetrated as the Son of Mary…From his birth to his death and resurrection on our behalf he sanctified what he assumed through his own self-consecration as incarnate Son to the Father, and in sanctifying it brought the divine judgment to bear directly upon our human nature both in the holy life he lived and in the holy life he died in atoning and reconciling sacrifice before God.[1]

This is an important point to which I will return in subsequent entries, so here it is sufficient to note that when the atonement is understood primarily in ‘external’ or ‘transactional’ terms, it implies a rupture between the incarnation and the atonement, between who Christ is in his divine-human person and what he does to accomplish salvation as the divine-human mediator. Such a rupture is necessary, for ‘limited atonement’ must find a way to separate the humanity that Christ assumed in his incarnation from the atoning work that he accomplished in that humanity.

Why is this? It is because the atoning work that Christ accomplished in virtue of his humanity is ultimately intended only for a limited number of human beings, yet the humanity that he assumed in his incarnation is none other than the imago Dei in which Adam was created and from whom all human beings have descended. In other words, Christ bound himself to all human beings in his incarnation; therefore if his atoning work is intended to ultimately apply only to a limited group, then it is necessary to divide who Christ was (as the new Adam) from what he did (only for a limited number of Adam’s descendants). This, however, drifts into the territory of Nestorianism, the ancient heresy that introduced a similar rupture into the person of Christ by placing his divine and human natures in competition with each other.

If we divide Christ’s person from his work, then we have no choice but to understand his atoning work as occurring in manner external to his being – as something that he ‘pays’ or ‘earns’ – and from this results a ‘transactional’ view of the atonement. Thus, as Torrance points out, this view fails to see the atonement as taking place internally within Christ’s person, something that Paul explicitly teaches (God “condemned sin in the flesh” of his Son [Rom. 8:3]; “in [Christ] we have redemption through his blood” [Eph. 1:7]).

A significant problem with this is that a ‘transactional’ atonement based on ‘meritorious value’ would be efficacious to save only if human sin had consisted in a legal transgression that left human nature untouched. However, as we observed regarding total depravity, the fall also corrupted human nature; sin not only makes us guilty, but it also makes us sinners. Sin has deeply entrenched itself in who we are as human beings ontologically. This means that if Christ’s atoning work is defined merely in terms of a ‘payment’, a ‘transaction’, or a ‘merit’ that he offers on our behalf, then the guilt of our sin may be removed, but we still remain sinful in the inner recesses of our being.

Therefore, Christ’s death can be said to be effectual not if he only ‘paid’ for our sin but, as Torrance contends, if he also penetrated into the very depths of our human being and healed our nature from within by condemning sin in his own incarnate flesh. Yet if this is so, then it undermines the merely ‘transactional’ view that ‘limited atonement’ require. It also necessitates an unbroken union between who Christ was (incarnation) and what he did (atonement); but if so, then it means that we cannot distinguish between the universal sufficiency of Christ’s work (implied by his assumption of the humanity shared by all of Adam’s descendants) and the actual efficacy of his work. If Christ’s incarnation and atonement are indivisibly united, then the extent of the atonement’s efficacy must equal that of the incarnation’s scope.

Thus, I would argue that in one sense, the traditional view of limited atonement is actually not ‘limited’ enough. Althought it attempts to maximize its efficacy by limiting its full effect to the elect, it actually reduces its efficacy to an external, forensic transaction capable of exculpating sinners but not of actually freeing them from their sin. I believe wholeheartedly that Scripture includes such forensic elements in its teaching on the atonement, yet I also believe that it teaches much more. As mentioned above, it seems that Paul, for instance, locates the redemptive work of the atonement as occurring within the person of Christ himself rather than, so to speak, over his head.

I would suggest that the traditional understanding of ‘limited atonement’ was on to something important but that it failed to take its own best insight to its biblical and dogmatic end. I want to propose, therefore, a view of the atonement that is even more ‘limited’ than that of classic Calvinism. I want to propose that Christ’s atoning work, properly speaking, was limited to Christ alone in the sense that it did not occur primarily as a transaction outside of and separate from his person but rather, as the Torrance quote above indicates, within his own incarnate constitution as the divine-human mediator. In a way similar to that of election, this strict limitation to the person of Christ alone actually has a universalizing effect: inasmuch as Christ represented all in his incarnation, so also the atonement that he accomplished within his own incarnate person can be said to apply to all. In following posts, I will try to explicate this more fully.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Torrance, T.F., 1992. The Mediation of Christ. Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard. pp.40-41.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 9.2: Unconditional Election

In the first half of this entry on ‘unconditional election’ and Romans 8:28-30, I argued that the theo-logic underpinning Paul’s affirmations consists in the fact that Jesus Christ is the true imago Dei, the archetypal human in whose image all human beings were created, and therefore he is the One in whom God representatively elected all humanity. This, of course, immediately raises critical questions that I hope to address in this half of the post.

The first question that arises is this: does this view lead inevitably to universalism? As Paul would exclaim: “By no means!” Although I will not deal with this issue in greater detail until subsequent entries in this series, suffice it to say here that we must take care not to introduce notions of causality (such as those of Aristotle) into Paul’s argument such Unconditional-Election-AVATARthat we think it possible to determine the nature of causes and intents on the basis of what we observe as the effects. In other words, just because we cannot affirm on biblical grounds that all humanity will be saved, this does not mean that we cannot affirm the universal scope of God’s electing activity in Christ.

Some might say that this sounds strange, contradictory, or even irrational. Is not this passage the ‘golden chain’ of salvation, ensuring that all who are predestined will surely be glorified? Michael Horton, for example, objects for precisely this reason, arguing in relation to Barth’s view that “this presents a far more ominous threat of a breach between the hidden and revealed God. Barth holds that, despite one’s being chosen, redeemed, called, justified, and sanctified, it is at least possible that one may not at last be glorified but will be reprobate after all”[2]. In response, I would like to quote a section of N.T. Wright’s commentary on Romans in which he argues:

[This], indeed, is the thrust of vv. 28–30, which otherwise can easily degenerate, as the history of interpretation shows, into an abstract theory of personal predestination and salvation. God’s purpose for those in Christ is precisely Christ-shaped. They are chosen and called in order to advance God’s purpose in and for the world. The five great verbs (foreknown, foreordained, called, justified, glorified), crashing chords at the end of the movement, are all to be understood as Christ-shaped. That which is true of the Messiah is true of his people…

The emphasis of vv. 29–30 falls clearly on conformity to Christ; this remains so throughout the dramatic closing words, focused on the four last aorists (pre-shaped, called, justified, glorified). All has been accomplished in Christ: the fore-shaping of Christ’s people to be his younger siblings; their call through the gospel that announces his lordship; their justification by faith in the God who raised him from the dead; their glorification, so that they are now already seated in the heavenly places in him (see Eph 2:6, and in the light of that, Eph 1:20–22; Col 3:1–4). There may even be a backward glance to the story of Jesus himself: his incarnation, his baptism, his resurrection, his ascension—though this remains speculative. In any case, the christological basis explains the final aorist, which is otherwise very puzzling, coming as it does after so many futures (8:9–11, 13, 17–18, 23). All these things, including “glorification,” have happened already to and in Jesus, the Messiah; and what is true of the Messiah is true of his people.[3]

What Wright highlights here, albeit in a slightly different way, is the Christ-comprehensiveness of election. As discussed in part 7 and part 8, election is located exclusively in Christ. Election is not primarily something that it occurs in us or to us but something that occurs in Christ himself. This is why, as Wright notes, we cannot read Romans 8:29-30 without seeing its primarily Christological shape. As Wright also points out, the Christological shape of this passage explains Paul’s use of the aorist for a sequence of events that, at least in reference to human beings, has not actually occurred yet, for it has occurred in relation to Christ. It is Christ himself who, according to Paul, is the one who was foreknown, predestined before the foundation of the world and then called, justified, and glorified in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension (Rom. 1:1-4; 4:24-25; Phil. 2:5-11; 1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 1:9).

The problem, then, with Horton’s objection is that it fails to deal with the Christological shape of these verses. As Wright points out, the fundamental reference is to Christ himself and not to human beings. Being predestined, called, justified, and glorified does not, as Horton implies, signify first and foremost that which occurs in us. It refers supremely to Christ himself. The unbroken continuity of the ‘golden chain’ is ensured ultimately not by some mechanistic process or voluntaristic exertion of the divine will but rather by the concrete history of Jesus Christ that the gospel proclaims. The glorification of the predestined is in no greater jeopardy than the risk of Christ losing his exalted place in heaven at the right hand of the Father. It is imperative to note, however, that predestination, calling, justification, and glorification are only secondarily true of us insofar as we, as Paul explains in chapters 6-8, are united to Christ through faith by the Spirit. Thus, this interpretation of the universal extent of God’s predestinating love in Christ does not threaten the continuity of the ‘golden chain’, because it ultimately holds true for Christ himself and only derivatively for those who are united to him through faith by the Spirit.

At this point, the discerning reader may spot a problem. On the one hand, it seems that I am saying that God has in Christ elected all humanity. On the other hand, it seems that I am also saying that the elect are only those who are united to Christ through faith by the Spirit. So which is it? Have I trapped myself between two irreconcilable statements?

In response, I would begin by stressing once again the exclusivity of the ‘in-Christness’ of election. I would suggest that election is, in many ways, similar to how Reformed theology has usually understood justification. The righteousness by which we are justified is not something that we inherently possess, nor is it something that is ‘infused’ into us. Rather, our righteousness is an ‘alien’ righteousness; it resides extra nos – outside of us – because it is the righteousness of Christ himself. Thus, we are justified insofar as we are united to Christ whose righteousness ‘counts’ as ours by virtue of our union with him. The important dynamic to note here, especially for what concerns election, is that since this justifying righteousness is properly limited to and located in Christ alone (solus Christus), it has universally validity; it is “for all who believe” without “distinction” (Rom. 3:22). As even traditional Reformed theologians would say, the fact that all do not believe does not diminish the universal sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness to justify any and all. Hypothetically, if all believed, then all would be justified. Therefore, the fact that justifying righteousness is limited to and located in Christ alone means that it has a universal scope in principle [de jure] even if it is not universally appropriated by all through faith by the Spirit [de facto].

I would like to propose that a similar dynamic obtains with regard to election. Our election does not take place primarily in us or with reference to us. It is, like the righteousness by which we are justified, an ‘alien’ election, an election that occurs extra nos – in Christ himself – and it becomes ours insofar as we are united with Christ. If, as with justifying righteousness, election is, properly speaking, limited to Christ alone, then, also like justifying righteousness, it has a universal scope. As Christ was vicariously righteous so that all could be justified in him, so also he was vicariously elected so that all might be elect in him. If we view Christ’s obedience unto death as vicarious for all, does it not make sense also to view his election (which is the eternal basis of his obedience unto death) as vicarious for all? Could we not, along with a doctrine of Christ’s vicarious obedience and death, espouse a doctrine of his vicarious election?

If so, I suggest that we should discern, following Karl Barth, two complementary levels or senses in which Paul speaks of election in these verses: election de jure [the vicarious election of Christ that in principle includes all] and election de facto [the subjective realization of that election on the part of individuals through faith by the Spirit]. By distinguishing (though not separating) these two senses of election, it is possible to say that all human beings are elect de jure insofar as they are represented from all eternity in the election of Christ, yet not all human beings will necessarily ‘realize’ their election de facto in union with Christ through faith by the Spirit. Thus, in Romans 8:28-30, we could say that while it is election de facto that lies on the surface of the text, it is election de jure that serves as its ground and presupposition.

Bryan Burton further explains this dynamic when he comments regarding Barth’s view:

In a major excursus within his doctrine of reconciliation (IV/2:511ff), Barth divides humanity into those who are in Christ de jure and those who are in Christ de facto. By this Barth seems to articulate that while Jesus Christ as the electing God and the elected man on behalf of all humanity has elected, reconciled, justified, sanctified, and redeemed all humanity de jure in his first coming, the election, reconciliation, justificationsanctification, and redemption of all humanity in Christ has yet to be realized de facto. This will only take place in his second coming as an eschatological reality and possibility. In the meantime, humanity is divided between those who are in Christ de facto and those who are in Christ de jure; the task of those who are in Christ de facto is to bear faithful witness to the electing and reconciling work of Jesus Christ in order that all may recognize in fact (de facto) who they already are de jure.[4]

This, I would argue, is how a robust doctrine of election/predestination with reference to Romans 8:28-30 should be construed. Rather than viewing the universal and particular aspects of election as mutually exclusive, we should understand them both as eternally grounded in Christ and then dynamically revealed and worked out through history. In a de jure sense, we can affirm that all human beings are predestined, called, justified, and glorified insofar as they are vicariously represented in Christ, not only as the Word incarnate in time (Logos incarnatus) but also as the Word-to-be-incarnate before time (Logos incarnandus). On the other hand,  in a de facto sense, we must affirm that not all human beings appear, in the present, to be actually united with Christ through faith by the Spirit and thus do not benefit from what is theirs by right as human beings created in the image of God. Thus, instead of the more traditional ‘static’ understanding that sees all humanity divided prior to creation into two distinct and unchangeable groups of ‘elect’ and ‘reprobate’, this view results in a dynamic understanding of election in terms of an ever-widening circle, beginning with Jesus Christ himself before creation, that expands throughout history to include more and more individuals through the witness of incorporation into his elect community (i.e. those ‘called according to his purpose’ in Rom. 8:28). As Michael O’Neil explains:

Thus, Jesus Christ is the proper and primary focus of election. However, in this election he is not alone, but is with a people whom he represents as king and head. Because of the manner in which Barth has developed his understanding of Jesus as the elect person in whom all humanity are also elect, and as the one who has taken all rejection upon himself, it is expected that the people represented by him would include the entire race. This, however, is not the case. Barth finds the traditional focus of the doctrine on the ordering of the individual’s relation with God to be problematic and thus seeks to address this by positing a ‘mediate and mediating’ election of the community, between the election of Jesus Christ and that of the individual. Barth employs the image of the circle to present this understanding of election. Those called and gathered around Jesus Christ, the one community in the two-fold form of Israel and the Church, constitute an ‘inner’ circle of the election which has taken place in and with the election of Jesus Christ. Beyond this there exists a wider circle which includes the rest of humanity, and which is labeled by Barth as ‘the outer circle of the election which has taken place (and takes place) in Jesus Christ.’ For Barth, then, all the election that takes place in Jesus Christ is ‘mediated, conditioned and bounded by the election of the community.’

Barth’s move is pregnant with significance. When Barth speaks, therefore, of the elect individual he asserts that they are elect only in and with the community, ‘elect through its mediacy and elect to its membership…an election to participation in the ministry of the community.’ This inner circle is a circle of proclamation and faith, and those outside of it live lives that are ‘lost’, bearing the rejection of those who are apart from Jesus Christ. Yet this circle is not so closed or predetermined that it cannot expand, for an enlargement of the circle of election occurs as the Church faithfully pursues its calling of witness and proclamation in the world. Barth argues that ‘the election of each individual involves, and his calling completes, an opening up and enlargement of the (in itself) closed circle…. The existence of each elect means a hidden but real crossing of frontiers, to the gain of the Kingdom of God.’ The Church, therefore, must not regard the world as rejected for they are those to whom God has graciously turned in the election of Jesus Christ. The elect are called to proclaim the message of the triumphant grace of God, and to summon the world to faith in him. At every point on the frontier between the inner circle of the community and the outer one of the rest of humanity the gospel is to be proclaimed.[5]

Here we see double predestination concentrated in Christ himself. He is the Elect who has freely chosen to become Reprobate in the place of all humanity. For this reason, all are de jure predestined, called, justified, and glorified. Yet this de jure reality must become realized de facto among those who in their own hearts and minds are still dead in sin and at enmity with God, and thus Paul’s emphasis in Romans 8:28-30 falls on the dynamic outworking of what has taken place in Christ in the lives of said human beings vis-à-vis his elect community, “those called according to his purpose” (vs.28).

While Paul merely alludes to this divine purpose in chapter 8, he goes on elaborate it in much greater detail in chapters 9-11. As we continue on into these chapters, we may be surprised to discover that Paul maintains that not only the believing Church but also Israel according to the flesh, although largely unbelieving, is also the elect people that God foreknew and called according to his purpose (e.g. 11:2, 11-12). Although calling them enemies of the gospel in 11:28-29, Paul nevertheless insists that unbelieving Israel is beloved on account of God’s irrevocable election and calling. Within a traditional Reformed view accustomed to define election and calling simply and strictly in terms of those who believe unto salvation, this could be a bit jarring. In what sense can unbelieving Israel be both elected and called yet also rejected?

When we take into consideration Paul’s argument as a whole throughout these chapters, we learn that, according to Paul, Israel’s rejection of Christ actually serves God’s purpose in two ways: first by vividly witnessing to the rejection that Christ vicariously suffered on the cross (i.e. the vessels of wrath that make known the riches of God’s mercy: 9:22-23) and second, by making it possible for the blessing promised to Abraham to be bestowed upon all the peoples of the earth (the natural branches cut off so that the wild branches could be grafted in: 11:17-24). In this way, even unbelieving Israel, like Pharaoh during the time of the Exodus (9:17), has been called according to God’s fundamentally loving and gracious purpose revealed in Christ. Whereas prior to Christ’s coming, Israel was ‘elect’ and the Gentiles were ‘rejected’, so now after the coming of Christ, Israel finds itself ‘rejected’ so that the Gentiles might become ‘elect’ in Christ. As N.T. Wright points out in Paul and the Faithfulness of Christ, even Israel’s rejection bears a Christological shape, for it is precisely the cruciform pattern of Christ’s own rejection for the salvation of the world that Israel now embodies, albeit unwillingly and unknowingly.

But this is not the last word for Israel, because Paul insists that God has not rejected the people that he foreknew (11:2). Rather, he reminds his Gentile readers that Israel’s hardening and stumbling in unbelief is not intended for their ultimate destruction (11:7-11), for when their unbelief has fulfilled the divine purpose of bringing salvation to the nations, so also will they be saved (11:25-26). Indeed, as Paul marvels, if their rejection means reconciliation for the world, then their inclusion will mean resurrection from the dead (11:15)! Finally, just before the climax of the entire section, Paul summarizes all the twists and turns of the redemptive history that he has just recounted by declaring that “God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (11:32). To paraphrase: throughout the complex course of human history, God has at various times rejected all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, so that in Christ alone he might universally show his electing love in a way that demonstrates that no one can presume on his grace. Although beyond our comprehension, this is the wisdom of God in realizing the de jure election of all in Christ by means the de facto election of his covenant community.

There are two important implications of this. First, Romans 11:32, standing as the climax of Paul’s entire argument in Romans 1-11, should make it clear beyond all doubt that there is no one beyond the scope of the electing love and mercy of God in Christ. Even as Paul refused to despair of his Jewish brothers and sisters who were hardened to the gospel and seemed to be among the rejected, so also should we not consider the apparent rejection of those around us as evidence of their ultimate reprobation, because even they have, in ways that perhaps are not yet fully manifest in the present, been called according to the eternal counsel of God that he purposed for all in Jesus Christ. As exemplified in Israel, present rejection does not necessarily mean ultimate reprobation. Those called according to God’s purpose in history, both the believing ‘elect’ and the unbelieving ‘rejected’, have a part to play in testifying to all people their de jure election in Christ. This does not mean that all will be saved, for according to Scripture many will resist their de jure election in Christ until the very end and so will be lost. Nevertheless, hope always remains.

Second, the view according to which Christ is the only truly Elect (and Reprobate) One in whom all are vicariously elected does not translate into a flat or forced interpretation of various biblical texts that seem to limit election to a specific group of people (e.g. 1 Thess. 1:4; 1 Pet. 1:1). As Paul indicates in Romans 9-11, there is a place for distinguishing between the ‘elect’ and the ‘rejected’ in the unfolding of God’s plan throughout history. What this should not entail, however, is the hardening of these categories into static, eternal divisions according to metaphysical or logico-causal commitments foreign to the text. Paul’s argumentation in Romans 9-11, anticipated in 8:28-30, pertains strictly to the outworking of God’s elective purposes in history, and this history is not necessarily indicative of eternal destiny. As we have seen, the Gentiles who were once ‘rejected’ have now become ‘elect’ (because they are in Christ!) whereas ‘elect’ Israel has now become ‘rejected’ but will one day be grafted back in to the root of their election. Inasmuch as the ‘rejected’ attest to Christ’s rejection on the cross and the ‘elect’ attest to his justification at the resurrection, both groups have their own unique role to play in testifying to the person and work of Christ in whom God purposed before creation to show his electing love and mercy to all (11:32). At the end of the day, we can confidently affirm that despite the often incomprehensibility of God’s ways (11:33), Jesus Christ is the elected man in whose humanity is revealed the electing God who has turned to all humanity in grace and love.

This is truly unconditional election.


[2] Horton, M., 2011 The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. p.322

[3] Wright, N.T., 1994–2004. The Letter of the Romans. In L. E. Keck, ed. New Interpreter’s Bible. Nashville: Abingdon Press, pp. 602-603.

[4] Burton, B., 2013. ‘Universalism’ in The Westminster Handbook to Karl Barth. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, pp.217-218.

[5] O’Neil, M., 2004. ‘Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election’ in The Evangelical Quarterly, 76(4), pp.316-318.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 9.1: Unconditional Election

This is the ninth entry in my series on reforming the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) in a more evangelical way (hence Evangelical Calvinism). If you have not already done so, I would recommend that before proceeding you catch up on the previous parts in this series
by clicking here: Reforming Calvinism. In this post (which I will actually split into two parts due to length), I will conclude my treatment of ‘unconditional election’. While I have spent a bit Unconditional-Election-AVATARmore time on this doctrine that I had intended, I think that it has been necessary in order to provide a reasonably comprehensive (though not exhaustive) sketch of what I think an Evangelical Calvinist revision entails. There is no doubt much more that could be, and perhaps should be said, but it is about time to move on to the atonement! To finish ‘unconditional election’, however, I would like to consider one more critical passage of Scripture and draw out some final implications. The passage is Romans 8:28-30:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

In this passage, Paul draws together the threads of his argument thus far in Romans and exuberantly explicates the present and future life and hope of God’s new humanity recreated through union with Christ, the last Adam, by the Spirit. A few verses after this, he will reach a stunning climax in his description of the rock-solid assurance that we have in Christ, and then he will undertake a notoriously difficult and complex exposition of God’s elective purposes in history that extends from chapter 9 until chapter 11. This latter passage is far too complicated to fully deal with here (though I will address it briefly in the second half), so I will limit myself to what Paul has to say concerning election (once again used as a rough equivalent for predestination) in these verses. As in previous entries, I will not present an exhaustive interpretation but rather a set of observations about what Paul affirms in this passage, especially with what pertains to what T.F. Torrance would call its ‘dimension of depth’.

To begin, I would like to focus on a particular detail that is sometimes overlooked and yet, in my view, constitutes the hinge on which everything that Paul says here turns. We notice that as Paul constructs the so-called ‘golden chain’ of salvation, he pauses briefly between ‘predestination’ and ‘calling’ to comment on the precise nature of what predestination entails. He states that those whom God foreknew he “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” It is imperative that we simply not skip over this detail without likewise pausing ourselves for serious reflection. The key question that we must ask here is this: what does this clarification about predestination presuppose? Asked differently: what must Paul believe in order to be able to make this assertion?

To answer this question, we must observe that Paul does not say God foreknew and predestined human beings ultimately with a view to themselves; rather he says that God foreknew and predestined them with a view to conforming them to his Son,  Jesus Christ. In other words, Paul’s statement about predestination presupposes the fact that, as I argued in my previous post on Ephesians 1, Jesus Christ is himself the election of God, the beginning of all the ways and works of God in history. He is the primordial decree of God apart from and before which there is no other. How do we know this? The answer seems somewhat obvious: if the election of Jesus Christ himself, both as electing God and elected man, did not logically precede the predestination of human beings of which Paul speaks in these verses, then it would be nonsensical for him to say that God predestined us to be conformed to Christ. If God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son, this means that his determination for the Son be the image to which we would be conformed must logically precede the act of predestination. Upon reflection, therefore, it seem evident that the election of Christ serves as the implicit ground upon which Paul’s explicit affirmation of human predestination depends.

But how do we know that Paul presupposes here a logically prior election of Christ, understood as the incarnate Son, Jesus of Nazareth? Does he not say that God predestined us to be conformed to the image of his Son? In other words, is not Paul’s reference to the Logos asarkos, the Word before he became flesh? In order to clarify this point, we need to remember what Paul says in the opening verses of Romans (1:1-4):

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures,  concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Right from the beginning of Romans, it is clear that when Paul refers to the ‘Son’ he does not have in mind the Logos asarkos, the Son of God considered prior to and apart from his incarnation in the flesh as Jesus Christ. Rather, we see that for Paul, the Son of God is he who “was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power…by his resurrection from the dead.” Paul does not draw dogmatic distinctions, as many theologians would later do, between the Son of God considered a se (unto himself apart from his incarnation in history) and Jesus Christ, the royal Son of David and resurrected from the dead. It would be anachronistic to impose these categories on Paul’s thought.

Thus, when we read in Romans 8:29 that God predestined us to be conformed to his Son, it is Jesus Christ to whom he is referring. This is massively important, because it reveals that the primordial decree of God – the act of the Triune God that constitutes Jesus Christ as the beginning of all the divine ways and works in history – is not to be conceived as taking place merely in terms of the Logos asarkos. According to Paul, it is Jesus Christ, the incarnate mediator, who stands before the foundation of the world as both electing God and elected man (cf. 1 Pet. 1:20). This is not to say that Jesus Christ actually existed in the flesh prior to creation or to deny that the incarnation represents a new event in the life of God in history. Rather, it is to affirm that the eternal decision logically prior to which there existed no other was simply God’s self-determination to be this kind of God, to be ‘Emmanuel’, the God who turns toward and commits to being with and for his people in love and grace for all eternity in Jesus Christ. It is to affirm that prior any other decision of the eternal will, the Triune God determined in the Son to be the human Jesus Christ in whose image humanity is foreknown, predestined, created, and restored.

It is also important to note that Paul’s use of the word ‘image’ is not accidential. As I explored in part 3, Jesus Christ is the true imago Dei in whose image Adam and all subsequent humanity was created (cf. Rom. 5:14: Adam was “a type of the one who was to come”). The significance of this consists in the fact that the concept of imago Dei ties together what Paul says concerning predestination with what Genesis 1 affirms regarding creation. If Christ was the subject, object, and goal of both predestination and creation, then it would seem erroneous to separate the scope of God’s salvific act in Christ from the scope of his creative act in Christ. Given that Paul appropriates the imago language of creation (relative to all humanity) and applies it to predestination, it would seem illegitimate to limit the extent of the latter while universalizing the extent of the former, since both occur in and with a view to Christ.

What would this be problematic? To separate creation from predestination (and by extension redemption) in this way would mean, by implication, separating ontology (being) from soteriology (salvation). How so? This would occur because it would posit a large number of human beings who are created in the image of God (ontology) but who are a priori excluded from being saved (soteriology). While on the surface this may seem like a coherent view, it ultimately falls apart when we remember, as Paul indicates in Romans 5:14 and 8:29, that Christ is the imago Dei who stands as the head of both human ontology and soteriology. It is in Christ’s image that humanity was created, and it is in his image that humanity is restored. For this reason, we cannot legitimately separate human ontology from soteriology without implicitly separating who Christ is (as the image of God) from what he does (create and restore humanity in his image). If, however, we separate who Christ is from what he does, then we end up driving a wedge between God’s being and his act, because according to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, Christ is homoousion, of one being/substance with the Father. Whatever we say or do in relation to Christ, we also say or do in relation to God himself. Ultimately then, to separate creation from predestination/salvation by limiting the scope of the latter while universalizing the scope of the former involves introducing a rupture into the very being of God himself, between who he is in himself from all eternity and what he does for us in Christ in time.

No such rupture is introduced, however, if we understand predestination primarily as God’s election of the humanity of Christ which, in turn, vicariously includes the election of all humanity in him. This, I think, is suggested by the way in which Paul speaks of Adam in Romans 5:14 as a “type of the one who was to come”, namely Christ himself, whose “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men” just as Adam’s “one trespass led to condemnation for all men” (5:18). As Adam was the representative of all humanity (unto sin and death), so also Christ is the representative of all humanity (unto grace and life). Correctly understood, however, Christ did not simply follow Adam in history but, since Adam was merely a ‘type’ of Christ, Christ actually preceded Adam as the true imago Dei and thus as the archetypal human. This means that as God elected the humanity of Christ before the foundation of the world as the beginning of all his ways and works, so also he elected all humanity insofar as Christ was the representative of all. As Karl Barth writes:

Jesus Christ, then, is not merely one of the elect but the elect of God. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), as elected man He does not stand alongside the rest of the elect, but before and above them as the One who is originally and properly the Elect. From the very beginning (from eternity itself), there are no other elect together with or apart from Him, but, as Eph. 1:4 tells us, only “in” Him. “In Him” does not simply mean with Him, together with Him, in His company. Nor does it mean only through Him, by means of that which He as elected man can be and do for them. “In Him” means in His person, in His will, in His own divine choice, in the basic decision of God which He fulfils over against every man. What singles Him out from the rest of the elect, and yet also, and for the first time, unites Him with them, is the fact that as elected man He is also the electing God, electing them in His own humanity. In that He (as God) wills Himself (as man), He also wills them. And so they are elect “in Him,” in and with His own election. And so, too, His election must be distinguished from theirs. It must not be distinguished from theirs merely as the example and type, the revelation and reflection of their election. All this can, of course, be said quite truly of the election of Jesus Christ. But it must be said further that His election is the original and all-inclusive election; the election which is absolutely unique, but which in this very uniqueness is universally meaningful and efficacious, because it is the election of Him who Himself elects. Of none other of the elect can it be said that his election carries in it and with it the election of the rest. But that is what we must say of Jesus Christ when we think of Him in relation to the rest. And for this reason, as elected man. He is the Lord and Head of all the elect, the revelation and reflection of their election, and the organ and instrument of all divine electing. For this reason His election is indeed the type of all election. For this reason we must now learn really to recognise in Him not only the electing God but also elected man. [2]

No doubt what I have written so far will raise questions in the minds of discerning readers. Does this inevitably lead to universalism? If not, does this then break the ‘golden chain’ that Paul constructs between predestination and glorification? Furthermore, does this stand in tension with what seems to be a more narrow focus in this passage on those whom God “called according to his purpose”? These are all important questions, and I promise that I will address them in the second half of this post.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring in part this post.

[1] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.116-117.

Irenaeus on the Preeminence of Christ

One of the goals that I hope to accomplish here at Reformissio is to promote Evangelical Calvinism in a way that reveals it to be not new or innovative (as some might suppose) but rather deeply rooted in the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. For this reason, I would like to follow my third entry in the series Reforming Calvinism with a post on how one of my favorite patristic theologians Irenaeus of Lyons articulated something very similar in his famous work Against Heresies. Irenaeus is remembered not only as one of the great defenders of the Christian faith against various ‘gnostic’ heresies that arose in the second century but also as the disciple of Polycarp of Smyrna who was himself a disciple of the apostle John. Here is Irenaeus as he ponders the primacy of Christ with respect to all humanity:

saint_irenaeus_oflyonsWherefore Luke points out that the pedigree which traces the generation of our Lord back to Adam contains seventy-two generations, connecting the end with the beginning, and implying that it is He who has summed up in Himself all nations dispersed from Adam downwards, and all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself. Hence also was Adam himself termed by Paul “the figure of Him that was to come,” because the Word, the Maker of all things, had formed beforehand for Himself the future dispensation of the human race, connected with the Son of God; God having predestined that the first man should be of an animal nature, with this view, that he might be saved by the spiritual One. For inasmuch as He had a pre-existence as a saving Being, it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain. [1]

Notice here how Irenaeus engages with the biblical text. He first mentions the genealogy of Jesus recorded in Luke 3:23-38. In contrast with Matthew’s genealogy which begins with Abraham and moves forward through history to arrive at Jesus’ birth, Irenaeus notes that Luke travels in the opposite direction, beginning with Christ and going backward until he arrives not only to Abraham but to Adam who was the “son of God”. It is not accidental that the term Luke applies to Adam – “son of God” – is properly ascribed to Christ himself throughout his gospel. As Irenaeus detects, there is something much deeper going on here than a mere recounting of Jesus’ family tree. Luke is intent on showing that the “Son of God” who historically came generations after Adam was, in reality, the one who preceded Adam as his true beginning and goal. Or as John the Baptist would say in John 1:30: “‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.” This is important for Irenaeus, for he discerns that Luke’s underlying motivation in tracing Christ’s lineage in this way is eminently theological: he wants to reveal how Christ sums up in himself, in his own incarnate humanity, “all languages and generations of men, together with Adam himself” In other words, Luke, according to Irenaeus, wants us to think of Christ not merely as a human being among many, but rather as the human being in whose image humanity was first created and in whom fallen Adamic humanity is now renewed and restored. We cannot, therefore, understand we who are as humans created and restored in the image of God until we ultimately understand who Christ is, the true image of God, for whom we were created and in whom we are recreated.

Irenaeus finds this to be confirmed in what Paul states in Romans 5:14, namely, that Adam was only “a type of the one to come.” Irenaeus concludes that “it was necessary that what might be saved should also be called into existence, in order that the Being who saves should not exist in vain.” This is remarkable. It reflects what we Evangelical Calvinists like to call, in the footsteps of Karl Barth, a “supralapsarian Christology”. Basically what this means is that prior to anything else in the divine plan, God determined to be Emmanuel, God with us in the person of Jesus Christ. There is no dark, mysterious decree (decretum absolutum) obscured behind God’s determination to be with us and for us (pro nobis) in Christ. There is no divine decision to elect individual humans, to create the world, to permit the fall, or anything else that logically precedes God’s eternal decision to be the kind of God that we come to know in Christ, the God who turns toward us in the overflowing bounty of his grace and love, the God who refuses to be God without us and who will pursue us even to the point of the death of the Son. As Barth would say: this “election of grace is the eternal beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ.” [2]

When Paul says in Ephesians 1:4 that we were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, when he says in Colossians 1:16 that all things were created through Christ and for Christ, he is not speaking of the second member of the Trinity abstracted from his historical identity as Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, astonishingly, it is the God-man Jesus Christ, the Word-who-was-to-become-incarnate (the Logos incarnandus) who is identified as the locus of these divine works. This means, as T.F. Torrance loved to say, there is no God hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ. The God that we see and know in Jesus Christ is God as he is antecedently and eternally in himself. This also means that we cannot understand any of God’s ways and works as they are revealed in Scripture without reference to Christ. Indeed, Christ is “the beginning, the firstborn of the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.” (Col. 1:18). Indeed, Christ must be preeminent in all things, not least in the way that we interpret Scripture and do theology. As Calvin remarked, “Unless we look straight toward [Christ], we shall wander through endless labyrinths.” [3]

In conclusion, Irenaeus demonstrates for us in this brief example how to read the biblical text ‘for all its worth’, that is, with a Christo-preeminent hermeneutic, one that does not content itself with the bare facts lying on the surface of the page, so to speak, but one that rather seeks to penetrate deeply into the inner logic that gives rise to and binds together all of the individual witnesses of canonical Scripture, namely the person of the Word of God himself, Jesus Christ. This was the passion and commitment that drove Irenaeus in his reading of Scripture and defense of the truth in the second century, and this is also what we as Evangelical Calvinist hope to retrieve and promote in the twenty-first.


[1] Irenaeus of Lyons, 1885. Irenæus against Heresies. In A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, & A. C. Coxe, eds. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, p. 455.

[2]  Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of God, Part 2, London; New York: T&T Clark, p.94.

[3] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, p.545.