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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Exegetical Barth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Ibid., p.x.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Calvin on the “In-Christness” of Predestination

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

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

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

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

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

Reforming Calvinism: Why the Doctrine of Limited Atonement Implies a Heretical Christology

T.F. Torrance is known to have criticized the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement (i.e. that Christ died in an efficacious way only for the elect) on the basis of its implicit Nestorianism, the early Christological heresy, condemned by the council of Ephesus in 431, that separated Christ’s divine nature from his human nature in such a way that he essentially came to be thought of as two distinct persons held together (in a single body, as it were) by a union of will. Now, at first blush, it may not be immediately apparent to the casual reader why Torrance would make this claim. What has Nestorianism (which atonement-torrancerelates to Christology) to do with limited atonement (which relates to soteriology)? A critic (though not an unappreciative one) of Torrance, Kevin Chiarot, argues that Torrance’s “continual application of Nestorianism to limited atonement seems overdone. The view is traditionally held by people who repudiate Nestorianism…[T]o accuse them of splitting incarnation and atonement, or the divine and human natures of Christ, is an exercise in question begging.”[1] In response to critics like Chiarot, is anything to be said in Torrance’s defense?

Although I am sympathetic with those who struggle to see the connection that Torrance makes here (because it was not readily obvious to me at first), I am persuaded that he is fundamentally correct, and it is partly for this reason that I have personally advocated on this blog the need for traditional Calvinism to be reformed. To help explain why this is so, I would like to quote a section from Adam Neder’s excellent essay on Karl Barth’s view of the hypostatic union (i.e. the orthodox way of understanding Christ as having two natures united in one person). Neder writes:

When the Word became flesh, he did not cease to be God, but as the unfolding of election, and in accordance with the will of the Father, he became also a man. In an act of pure mercy and grace, God in his mode of being as the Son became flesh. But what, Barth asks, does it mean to say that the Word became flesh? It certainly cannot mean that he adopted into unity with himself one man among other human beings, nor can can it mean that he exists “in a duality” along side an individual man. For were that the case, the Son would not really have become flesh at all, and atonement would have been impossible, since that which occurs in the humanity of Jesus Christ is relevant for the rest of humanity only because Jesus Christ’s humanity is the humanity of God. Thus, Barth rejects adoptionism and Nestorianism because neither can support Jesus Christ’s work of reconciliation. In Barth’s parlance, the Nestorian Christ would simply be man, not the man.

To underscore this point, he affirms the anhypostasis or impersonalitas of the human nature Christ. Jesus Christ exists as a man only as and because the Son of God exists as a man. The man Jesus “exists directly in and with the one God in the mode of existence of His eternal Son and Logos – not otherwise or apart from this mode.” Rather than uniting himself with a homo – an autonomously existing human being – “What God the Son assumed into unity with Himself and His divine being was and is – in a specific individual form elected and prepared for this purpose – not merely ‘a man’ but the humanum, the being and essence, the nature and kind, which is that of all men, which characterizes them as men, and distinguishes them from other creatures.” Barth defines this humanum (elsewhere he refers to it as humanitas) as the “concrete possibility of the existence of one man in a specific form.” Thus Jesus Christ is “a man” – a truly human being – who does not exist independently (anhypostasis), but exists only in the Word (enhypostasis).[2]

Neder here employs some technical terms utilized by both Barth and Torrance to explicate the relationship between Christ’s divine and human natures. Basically, “enhypostasis” refers to the fact that when the Word became flesh, he did so by becoming a specific individual in a particular time and place: Jesus of Nazareth born of the virgin Mary. So far so good. But what Neder highlights is that an orthodox doctrine of the incarnation must go beyond a mere affirmation of enhypostasis. Why? It is because there is a serious error lurking in the background. On the basis of enhypostasis alone, would it not be conceivable that when Scripture affirms that the Word became flesh as Jesus of Nazareth, it simply means that the Word chose a man named Jesus of Nazareth who was already alive and then came to dwell in him? Indeed, the doctrine of enhypostasis alone does not guard against this possibility, which is nothing other than another heresy condemned by the early church as “adoptionism”. Even though Nestorianism was a bit more conservative in its approach (because it didn’t consider Jesus karl_barth_profileto have lived for some time prior to the Word coming to dwell in him), it essentially boiled down to the same error: it made it possible to think of Jesus of Nazareth in some measure as a distinct person with a theoretically independent existence apart from the divine Word. This is what Neder means when he says that, according to adoptionism and Nestorianism, Christ “exists ‘in a duality’ along side an individual man”.

Why is this so problematic? It is because, as Neder points out, it would mean that the Word did not actually himself become flesh. That is, the Word, the Son of God, would not have been himself the sole Subject of the incarnation, but would have shared that role with the man Jesus. In this view, the flesh that the Word assumed would not have become the flesh in which God was acting as the operative agent. But this would mean, then, that Paul was wrong in claiming that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19, emphasis mine). And if Paul was wrong, and it was not God himself who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, then there would be no hope for salvation, because it is only God who can save!

For this reason, Barth (and Torrance, following the historic line of orthodox Christology) laid great emphasis on the fact that the man Jesus had no independent existence prior to or apart from the Word assuming flesh. This is the meaning of the word “anhypostasis”. Simply stated, anhypostasis means that there would have been no Jesus of Nazareth except that the Word had become flesh. It was the Word, and the Word alone, who was the Subject of the incarnation. This is, of course, not to take away anything from the full humanity of Jesus, which is what the concept of enhypostasis protects. Yet, without the Word’s assumption of human nature, there would have been no Jesus of Nazareth.

The upshot of affirming anhypostasis along with enhypostasis is that it means that Christ was not, as Neder explains, simply man but also the man. In other words, since the Word did not, in the incarnation, assume an independent human person into union with himself, he must have assumed what Barth calls “humanum“, the “being and essence, the nature and kind, which is that of all men, which characterizes them as men, and distinguishes them from other creatures”. By assuming the nature that is common to and shared by all humanity, the Word entered into solidarity and union with all humanity. Yes, the Word became a man – Jesus of Nazareth (enhypostasis). But orthodox Christology demands that we also hold that the Word became the man, the new Adam, the one in whose humanity all people, without exception, are represented.

With these important concepts in place, we are in a position to see why Torrance can legitimately claim that limited atonement implies a Nestorian Christology. First he describes the fundamental problem with Nestorianism in the following way:

If Christ acted only in his human nature on the cross and God remained utterly apart and utterly transcendent, except that he agreed in will with Christ whom he sent to die, then all that Christ does is not necessarily what God does or accepts.[3]

This is, in fact, the view of the atonement that logically follows from a Christ whose human flesh is not of God himself but of an independent human person, for if this is true, then we cannot affirm that it was God in Christ reconciling the world to himself on the cross Thomas_F._Torrancebecause of the split between the divine and human natures of Christ. It is on this basis, and only on this basis, that we could then say that…

…the sacrifice of Christ may be accepted as satisfaction only for the number of the elect that God has previously chosen or determined. [For] if God himself came among us in Christ his beloved Son, and assumed upon himself our whole burden of guilt and judgment, then such an arbitrary view would be impossible. And we must hold the view that it is indeed God himself who bears our sins, God become man and taking man’s place, standing with humanity under the divine judgment, God the judge becoming himself the man judged and bearing his own judgment upon the sin of humanity, so that we cannot divorce the action of Christ from the action of God. The concept of a limited atonement thus rests upon a basic Nestorian heresy.[4]

I hope the connection between limited atonement and Nestorianism is now more clear. Basically, if Christ died effectually only for a limited number of persons chosen from among all humanity in general, then the atonement must be understood only in terms of enhypostasis, that is, as the death of a Christ who was simply man in union with the Son of God. If, on the other hand, we hold enhypostasis firmly together with anhypostasis (and we must do so in order to avoid the specter of Nestorianism), then we cannot say that Christ was simply man but also man – the new Adam, the representative of all humanity – because only in this way can we maintain that Christ was truly the Word become flesh such that in Christ it was God reconciling the world to himself. But if this is true, and if the flesh that the Word assumed was not that of another distinct, independent person but that which came into being only in virtue of the incarnation, then his flesh was the humanum that is common to all humanity, and thus the reconciliation that he accomplished “in his body of flesh by his death” (Col. 1:22) must be said to avail for all. To say otherwise would be to drive a wedge between Christ’s divinity and humanity, and that, quite simply, is Nestorianism.

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[1] Kevin Chiarot, The Unassumed is the Unhealed: The Humanity of Christ in the Christology of T.F. Torrance. (Eugene: Pickwick, 2013), p.221.

[2] Adam Neder, ‘History in Harmony: Karl Barth on the Hypostatic Union’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), pp.157-158. Quotations from Barth taken from Church Dogmatics IV/2.

[3] T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. 184-185.

[4] Ibid.

No Rational Sin: T.F. Torrance on the Error of Universalism

Anyone who has read T.F. Torrance to any extent knows that he was an ardent exponent of universal atonement and of Christ-conditioned election which vicariously includes all humanity. The common objection to these doctrines is that they inevitably lead to the notion of final universal salvation. Torrance, however, was just as ardently opposed to universal salvation as he was in favor of universal atonement and election. How could this be? Doesn’t his position seem logically incoherent, as indeed many have alleged?

In 1949 Torrance wrote an article in response to one “Dr. Robinson” who was at the time advocating the doctrine of universal salvation. It is instructive to see how Torrance critiqued Robinson’s position while at the same time maintaining his own firm commitment to the universal scope of Christ’s atoning and electing work. This is what Torrance had to say to Robinson:

All that Dr. Robinson’s argument succeeds in doing is to point to the possibility that all might be saved in as much as God loves all to the utmost, but it does not and cannot carry as a corollary the impossibility of being eternally lost. The fallacy of every universalist argument lies not in proving the love of God to be universal and omnipotent but in laying down the impossibility of ultimate damnation. Dr. Robinson has cited passages from the New Testament which would seem to him to point in the direction of universalism, but what of those many other passages which declare in no uncertain terms that at the last judgment there will be a final division between t-f-torrance-1946the children of light and the children of darkness ? What of the shuddering horror of the words: “It were better for that man had he never been born”, which came from the lips of Omnipotent Love ? There is not a shred of Biblical witness that can be adduced to support the impossibility of ultimate damnation. All the weight of Biblical teaching is on the other side.

Universalism is always and inevitably inconsistent for two reasons, (a) It commits the logical fallacy of transmuting movement into necessity. At the very best universalism could only be concerned with a hope, with a possibility, and could only be expressed apocalyptically. But to turn it into a dogmatic statement, which is what the doctrine of universalism does, is to destroy the possibility in the necessity. This is precisely what Dr. Robinson has done. He started off in the second part of his essay, with a personal analogy and a personal truth, but immediately he proceeded to universalise it. In such a procedure the actual historical particularity of every choice as a free movement disappears, and necessity takes its place—no matter how hard one may try to avoid it, and Dr. Robinson has tried very hard. Apparently he has not realised that thinking in terms of universals in point of fact destroys the free decision of faith; that when personal Christian truths are turned into general truths they become necessary truths. Every free personal choice is rooted in historical existence. To think it sub specie aeterni is to abrogate it. Universalism inevitably becomes shipwreck upon the stubborn particularity of the personal event.

(b) It commits the dogmatic fallacy of systematising the illogical. Sin has a fundamentally surd-like character. Somehow evil posits itself and cannot be rationalised. The New Testament teaches that when it speaks of the mystery of iniquity, and of the bottomless pit (abyssos). Evil is fundamentally discontinuity. No explanation involving only continuity or coherence can ever approach the problem, for that would be to draw the line of continuity dialectically over discontinuity. The doctrine of the atonement teaches us that no matter how much we think about it, here our reason reaches its limit. It cannot bridge the contradiction between God and man in guilt. The contradiction is resolved only by an act of God in which man in contradiction to God is reconciled and yet the terrible bottomless reality of sin is not denied. That act of God is ultimately eschatological so that just how the contradiction is dealt with in atonement is yet to be revealed at the Parousia. That is the relevance of apocalyptic, but apocalyptic is the antithesis of universalism.

Universalism is the doctrine that rationalises sin, that refuses to admit in its dark fathomless mystery a limit to reason. Universalism means that the contradiction can be bridged by reason after all, and constitutes therefore the denial of atonement and the anguished action of Calvary. The Christian faith which has looked into the limitless depth of the Eli, Eli lama sabachthani, and considered the great weight of sin to discover that only by act of God can man get across the gulf, will accept the way of humility where the Cross makes foolish the wisdom of this world. It will learn the discipline of suspending judgment in order to avoid foisting a false and abortive unity or a closed system of thought upon the actual facts of existence. The irrational mystery of evil is the other rock upon which universalism as a unitary interpretation of existence inevitably suffers shipwreck. True dogmatic procedure at this point is to suspend judgment, for here that is the most rational thing reason can do. Whether all men will as a matter of fact be saved or not, in the nature of the case, cannot be known.[1]

As can be seen, Torrance staunchly refused to give in to the allure of universalism, despite the direction that logic supposedly should have pulled him. Whether we fully agree with him or not, what we see here is Torrance’s effort to maintain the full scope of the biblical witness, giving due weight to both its universal and particular elements, without sacrificing either one for the sake of logical coherency. That is not to say that Scripture is illogical, but simply that it forces us to reconsider what exactly it is that should constitute what is “logical” or not.

As Torrance argues, universalism is the attempt to rationalize the irrational, to find a reason for the unreasonable, to explain the inexplicable. If we could find a way to rationally come to terms with sin and why some reject Christ, then we would have effectively emptied sin of its sinfulness, of the very thing that makes it so heinous and abominable. Sin is a “bottomless pit” of darkness and absurdity, and any way in which we try to come to terms with its operations in the human heart will only lead us to distort biblical teaching. Either we will fall, like Dr. Robinson, into the quagmire of universalism, or we will rigidly logicalize the atonement in terms of limited intent and effect, or we will reduce Christ’s work to the provision of a mere possibility. I believe that Torrance is correct in identifying each one of these options as flawed and ultimately unfaithful to the full range of the biblical testimony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barth’s Doctrine of Election in 100 Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

“To Be or Not To Be (Natures or Persons)?”: Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism, pt. 2

In my recent post “‘To Be or Not To Be (In Christ)’?: That is Kevin Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism“, I offered an initial response to Vanhoozer’s critique of Evangelical Calvinism in his essay entitled “The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)”.[1] As a preliminary rejoinder, I argued that Vanhoozer’s disjunction between ontology and soteriology – a fundamental point upon which his critique is based – does not speak in terms appropriate to the orthodox grammar developed by the early church to explicate and defend the central Trinitarian and Christological doctrines of Scripture. There is, however, much more to Vanhoozer’s critique than this, and so I intend to address some further issues that he raises. Again, Bobby Grow has already done an excellent job in doing this, but I think there is an additional angle from which to examine the argument.

It is close to the halfway mark of Vanhoozer’s essay (pp.192ff) that he begins to lodge his primary complaints with Evangelical Calvinism (as represented primarily by Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, and Myk Habets). His first point – that Torrance errs in thinking that his view of incarnational union (i.e. that Christ in his incarnate humanity ontologically grounds and vicariously represents all human beings in his person and work) equals that of Calvin – is not a significant problem, whether or not it is true. Vanhoozer acknowledges this and quickly proceeds to consider election in Ephesians 1, arguing that Evangelical wordmadefleshCalvinism does little justice to the actual way in which Paul speaks of the elect in Christ as those who are of the Holy Spirit. Since I have already examined Ephesians 1 in a previous post, I do not want to retread that same ground here, so suffice it to say that I, as an Evangelical Calvinist following Barth, do not (contrary to some accounts) reduce the conception of election as articulated in the biblical text to merely ‘all humanity in Christ’. That is, of course, ultimately where a Christ-conditioned view of election lands, but (and as even Barth’s own multi-layered exposition indicates) it does not bypass the nuanced ways in which Scripture speaks of election in terms of both human communities (Israel and the church) and individuals in history (elect vs. reprobate). Thus, I do not think that Vanhoozer’s charge takes into full account the various ways in which ‘election’ is used in Scripture (for which it is necessary to look also outside Paul’s writings) in that he presupposes a view equally reductive as the one which he criticizes (i.e. election as merely ‘those who have received the Spirit’).

The major issue that Vanhoozer has in his sights, though, is what he considers to be “the very origin of Torrance’s, and Evangelical Calvinism’s soteriology”, that is “a conflation of senses of union with Christ, stemming from a fundamental confusion of the categories ‘natures’ and ‘persons,’ itself the result of what we might call hyperextended anhypostasis.”[2] From this, Vanhoozer goes on to register the following three concerns:

  1. As to the idea that the Son assumes humanity, Evangelical Calvinism elides the distinction between nature and persons…
  2. As to the doctrine of election, Evangelical Calvinism mistakenly associates it with the “carnal” union of natures (i.e. Incarnational ontology) rather than spiritual union of persons (i.e. salvation by grace through faith)…
  3. As to the crucial concept “being in Christ” – the font from which all spiritual blessings flow (Eph. 1:3) – Evangelical Calvinism ontologizes what for Paul (and Calvin) is ultimately a personal union wrought by the Holy Spirit, the giver of life (and faith).[3]

There is obviously quite a bit going on here, so let me try and clarify the heart of the problem as Vanhoozer sees it. First, Vanhoozer is correct to note: 1) that Evangelical Calvinism understands the scope of soteriology to equal that of ontology (though, I would add, not by confusing the two) on the basis of the grounding and redemption of all creation – including all of humanity – in Jesus Christ, and 2) that this ontological/soteriological relation of humanity to Christ is ultimately required by the incarnation understood in terms of an anhypostatic/enhypostatic Christology.[4] Now I realize that this last sentence may be difficult for many people to understand, so I will let Vanhoozer himself break it down a bit. Essentially he is arguing that the incarnation did not establish an ontological/soteriological relationship between Christ and every human being because:

In becoming man, the Son takes on human nature [i.e. anhypostasis], but this means that he becomes human being, not all human beings [i.e. enhypostasis]. As “true man,” the Son exercises his representative and substitutionary role. However, in the words of Donald Macleod: “the only humanity united to him hypostatically is his own. . . . It was not the human race by the specific, personalized humanity of Christ that suffered under Pontius Pilate.” [The Person of Christ, pp.202-203] The Incarnation unites the Son to human nature, to be sure, but it does not follow that it unites the Son to me (or me to the Son). To say the Son assumed humanity does not necessarily mean that he assumed my humanity, that is, the subsistent, hypostatic relation that is me. To be sure, Jesus’ assuming humanity is a necessary condition for his being the mediator, the Messiah, and the second Adam. However, the question in dispute is whether human beings come to participate in Christ as representative of the new covenant…and head of a new humanity…simply through what Barth calls an “ontological connexion.” [CD, IV/2, p.275).

Once again, we see Vanhoozer attempting to drive a wedge between ontology and soteriology, between humanity as created by Christ and humanity as redeemed in Christ. The ultimate reason for this (as we will see in a subsequent post) is that Vanhoozer fears the lack of such a wedge will lead to universalism, even though this is unequivocally denied by Evangelical Calvinists. So in order to sustain this disjunction, Vanhoozer must distinguish between the humanity/human nature that Christ assumed in the incarnation and the humanity/human nature possessed by all other individual human beings. Thus, Vanhoozer contends, just because Christ assumed human nature and became a human being, this does not mean that he assumed the human nature of every human being such that he in effect becomes hypostatically every human being (which would be absurd). Thus, for Vanhoozer (following Macleod), the only human nature we can properly speak of in relation to Christ is that of Christ himself. Otherwise, Vanhoozer avers, we stretch the anhypostatic component of the incarnation to its breaking point.

Vanhoozer’s critique here is admittedly complex inasmuch as it hinges on the technical distinctions betwee anhypostasis and enhypostasis. Therefore, in order to provide a bit of clarification, I would like to quote (at length) Fred Sanders who helpfully explains the history and meaning of these terms. Not only does Sanders shed light on an otherwise obscure topic, but he also provides some important details that address Vanhoozer’s concerns:

The powerful theology of the fifth ecumenical council [Constantinople II] has suffered from neglect, misunderstanding, and misrepresentation through the history of the church, but especially in Western theology during the modern period. When this theology has been taught at all, it has been taught poorly…There is, however, a shorthand way of describing the heart of this council’s theology; although couched in second_council_of_constantinopletechnical terms not used at the council itself, this description is worth introducing because it is the standard way of referring to the fifth-council theology and because of its real explanatory value. I am referring to the anhypostatic/enhypostatic Christology. This terminology, derived from Leontius, is not utterly opaque in one is already alert to the prevalence and importance of the word hypostasis in patristic Christology so far. If, as the theology of the fifth council argues, the eternal hypostasis of the Son takes to himself a perfect and complete human nature, what is the status of that human nature? Normally, any instantiation of human nature that we come into contact with is also a human person.

Is the human nature of Christ, therefore, also a human person? The Christology we are considering gives a twofold answer. On the one hand, the human nature of Jesus Christ is in fact a nature joined to a person, and therefore enhypostatic, or personalized. But the person who personalizes the human nature of Christ is not a created human person (like all the other persons personalizing the other human natures we encounter); rather it is the eternal second person of the Trinity. So the human nature of Christ is personal, but with a personhood from above. Considered in itself, on the other hand, and abstracted from its personalizing by the eternal person of the Son, the human nature of jesus Christ is simply human nature, and is not personal. The human nature of Christ, therefore, is both anhypostatic (not personal in itself) and enhypostatic (personalized by union with the eternal person of the Son)…

Jesus Christ is human, and Jesus Christ is a person. It is also true that Jesus Christ is a human person, but what the fifth council makes clear is that “a human person” cannot mean “his created human nature is personalized by a created human personhood.” Instead, we can and must think in terms of the human nature of this divine person, the humanity of the hypostasis of the Son. After the powerful two-natures thinking honed at Chalcedon, it would be easy to imagine that the key to Christology is to double everything according to the logic of two perfect natures unconfused, unchanged, undivided, and unseparated. But at the center of the incarnation is the hypostasis of the hypostatic union, and no parallel thinking can apply to the hypostasis. The person involved in the incarnation is not derived by adding above and below, but comes down from above and takes to himself what is below. The parallelism appropriate to two-natures Christology only functions properly within a zone marked out by trinitarian thought. To say it in terms of the development of the last few councils: this one divine person (Ephesus 431) who is fully divine and fully human (Chalcedon 451) is the second person of the Trinity (Constantinople II 553).[5]

Sanders unearths a particular detail, relative to Constantinople II’s clarification of Chalcedonian Christology, that Vanhoozer seems to miss and that leads him to ‘hyperextend’ enhypostasis (in ironic contrast to his objection that Evangelical Calvinism hyperextends anhypostasis). When Vanhoozer argues that the Christ’s assumption of “humanity does not necessarily mean that he assumed my humanity, that is, the subsistent, hypostatic relation that is me“, he equivocates on the meaning of the persons in question. Whereas Vanhoozer thinks that EC confuses natures and persons, it would be more accurate to say that EC distinguishes between the Person of Jesus Christ (as the Creator enfleshed) and the persons (i.e. creatures) with whom he united himself in the incarnation. In other words, Vanhoozer’s critique appears to trade on a symmetrical relationship between the way in which human nature is enhypostatized in Christ and the way in which it is enhypostatized in all other human beings. As Sanders explains, the whole point of Constantinople II’s distinction between anhypostasis and enhypostasis in Christology was to safeguard the truth that the acting Subject of the incarnate Christ is the Word (contra any notion, such as in Nestorianism, that the human Jesus could have existed prior to or apart from the Word). That is to say, whereas all human beings are personalized persons – deriving their nature and personhood from outside themselves – the Word who is the single subject of the incarnation is the personalizing Person – the One who gave existence to this particular man Jesus of Nazareth by the Spirit in the incarnation. Thus, while it is true that both Christ and all other human beings are persons, they are not persons in the same way. The latter, as creatures, are personalized; the former, as Creator, is the Personalizer.

So what does this mean for Vanhoozer’s critique? Simply this: the person of Jesus Christ in the incarnation is utterly unique for which there is no parallel and as such, he cannot be thought of as enhypostatic in the same way that all other human beings are. To be sure, Vanhoozer’s argument who gain traction were it addressing any other human being, for it would certainly be incoherent to speak of a ‘personalized person’ – a contingent creature – as somehow instantiating an ontological bond with all of humanity. Although sharing a nature common to all other human beings, a personalized person cannot be other than or prior to who he/she already is as an enhypostatic individual and thus has no existence independent from that individuality. A personalized person can only receive his/her humanity. This, however, is not the case for the Word through whom all things came into being. The Word, as personalizing Person, did exist prior to and apart from his enhypostatized humanity, for he was already a hypostasis in the Trinitarian being of God – the Word, the Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. Thus, there is something qualitatively different about the way in which the Son became Jesus and the way in which every other human being becomes who they are. Inasmuch as “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14) and not simply “one particular instance of flesh”, he took into irrevocable union with himself not a man (for that would be the heresy of adoptionism) but “man”, the “flesh”, the humanity, that is enhypostatized in all human beings. Karl Barth expresses it thus:

That the Word became flesh means, indeed, that He became a man. But we have to be careful about the sense in which alone this can be said. If we ask what the Word became when in His incarnation, without ceasing to be the Word, He nevertheless
ceased to be only the Word, and if we allow ourselves to say that He became flesh, we must barthiconnote that primarily and of itself “flesh” does not imply a man, but human essence and existence, human kind and nature, humanity, humanitas, that which makes a man man as opposed to God, angel or animal…

“The Word became flesh” means primarily and of itself, then, that the Word became participant in human nature and existence. Human essence and existence became His. Now since this cannot be real except in the concrete reality of one man, it must at once be said that He became a man. But precisely this concrete reality of a man, this man, is itself the work of the Word, not His presupposition. It is not (in the adoptianist sense) as if first of all there had been a man there, and then the Son of God had become that man. What was there over against the Son of God, and as the presupposition of His work, was simply the potentiality of being in the flesh, being as a man. This is the possibility of every man. And here—for the individuality and uniqueness of human existence belong to the concept of human essence and existence—it is the one specific possibility of the first son of Mary. The Word appropriated this possibility to Himself as His own, and He realised it as such when He became Jesus. In so doing He did not cease to be what He was before, but He became what He was not before, a man, this man.[6]

Barth carefully upholds the delicate balance between both aspects of Christ’s humanity – both as man (anhypostasis) and as a man (enhypostasis). To simple say that Christ became “a human” would be tantamount to adoptionism, and it is Barth’s insistence that Christ became “a human” by assuming that which makes all human beings “human” (and thus united himself to all human beings) that preserves his account from serious Christological erro. It seems to me that contrary to this, Vanhoozer so emphasizes Christ’s being a human being (enhypostasis) that he fails to grasp the implications of Christ’s being human (anhypostasis) and thus ontologically related to all who are likewise human. This, I would contend, is what the Chalcedonian Definition intended when it appropriated the Nicene homoousion – originally used to describe the consubstantial and thus irreducibly ontological relation of the Son to the Father – and applied it to the Son’s relation to humanity in the incarnation: “co-essential [homoousion] with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential [homoousion] with us according to the Manhood” (retrieved here). The Chalcedonian fathers certainly knew what they were doing when they wrote this. If the homoousion means that Christ is ontologically (rather than merely morally or covenantly) united with the Father, what could it mean for Christ to be homoousion with humanity except that he is likewise ontologically (rather than merely morally or covenantly) united with all human beings who share the same human nature?

Thus, in response to the three aforementioned critical points raised by Vanhoozer, I would argue:

  1. As to the idea that the Son assumes humanity, Evangelical Calvinism does not elide the distinction between nature and persons; rather it properly distinguishes between the way natures are related to persons in Christ vs. in all other human beings and, in doing so, coherently affirms that when Christ assumed human nature in the incarnation, he united himself to all human beings as their ontological and soteriological ground.
  2. As to the doctrine of election, Evangelical Calvinism does not mistakenly associate it with the “carnal” union of natures rather than spiritual union of persons; rather it affirms that the Word’s Spirit-wrought personalizing of human nature in Jesus Christ involves both “carnal” and “spiritual” aspects of union and that it reveals, rather than obscures, the saving intention of God from all eternity with regard to all people.
  3. As to the crucial concept of “being in Christ”, Evangelical Calvinism does not ontologize what for Paul is ultimately a personal union wrought by the Holy Spirit, for it is Paul himself who, while clearly emphasizing the personal, “spiritual” aspect of union with Christ, ontologizes this union when, for example, he portrays, in Rom. 5:12-21, Christ as the last Adam of whom the first was merely a “type” (implying that the scope of Christ’s work is equal to the impact of Adam’s sin) or when he declares, in 2 Cor. 5:14-16, that he can no longer regard any human being “according to flesh” on account of the fact that Christ died for all and thus all died in him. Indeed, how could Paul consider the reality of all human beings to have so decisively changed such that he could no longer think of anyone merely as they are “according to the flesh” if all had not been included in the scope of Christ’s death?

In conclusion, I would say that Vanhoozer wants to sunder that which Evangelical Calvinism believes that God has joined together – Christ and humanity, ontology and soteriology, carnal union and spiritual union. No doubt this raises, as it does for Vanhoozer, the question has to whether Evangelical Calvinism logically ends in universalism or, if not, incoherency. This, however, is a question for another post.

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[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2014.’The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)’ in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

[2] Ibid., p.198.

[3] Ibid., pp.198-200.

[4] Ibid., pp.195-198.

[5] Sanders, F., 2007. ‘Introduction to Christology: Chalcedonian Categories for the Gospel Narrative’ in Jesus in Trinitarian Perspective: An Introductory Christology. Nashville: B&H Publishing, pp.30-32.

[6] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/2: The doctrine of the Word of God, London; New York: T&T Clark. p.149.

“To Be or Not To Be (In Christ)?”: That is Kevin Vanhoozer’s Question to Evangelical Calvinism

Unlike many detractors of Evangelical Calvinism, one of the most thoughtful and respectful critics is Kevin Vanhoozer. Responding to a recent blog post written by Bobby Grow, Vanhoozer stated that Evangelical Calvinism is “a serious attempt to reform the Reformed tradition, an attempt that merits serious attention.” Despite whatever disagreements I may have with him, I am highly appreciative of the spirit with which Vanhoozer seriously engages with us Evangelical Calvinists inasmuch as he recognizes that we ourselves are engaged in a serious task. It was this recognition that led Vanhoozer to lend serious attention to Evangelical Calvinism in an essay that is perhaps (at least in my mind) one of the most significant and careful critiques to date.

As mentioned above, Bobby Grow has already written a few responses (1, 2, 3, and 4)to Vanhoozer’s essay, and he has done a fantastic job in doing so. What I hope to do in my own response here is not say anything particularly new but rather support Bobby’s argument from a slightly different angle. In Bobby’s first response (written back in 2014), vanhoozer_kevinhe addressed the question raised by Vanhoozer regarding ontology vs. soteriology as it pertains to human election and union with Christ. Indeed, the first half of Vanhoozer’s essay highlights this issue as

…our primary question: Are the elect “in Christ” simply by virtue of being human (ontology) or because they have somehow become beneficiaries of his life and work (soteriology)?[1]

Vanhoozer reiterates this as the central focus of his critique when he further writes:

My intent in what follows is to examine the suggestion, put forward by Evangelical Calvinists, that all human beings are elect in Christ. Does this insistence collapse “being in general” (ontology) into “being in Christ” and, if so, does “being in Christ” connote salvation (soteriology)? T. F. Torrance draws a fascinating ontological implication from Jesus’ incarnation: “human beings have no being apart from Christ.” [Torrance, School of Faith, p.cxiii.] The key question, then, is this: if the incarnation is the “setting-forth” of the eternally purposed union of God and man in Jesus Christ – the historical projection of divine election into creaturely existence – this is every human being a “being in Christ”, and, if so, does it follow that all are saved?[2]

Vanhoozer follows these questions with a comparison of “Perspectives Old and New” on what it means to be “chosen in Christ” (Eph. 1:4), the old (i.e. Classical Calvinist) view represented by Calvin himself and the new (i.e. Evangelical Calvinist) view represented by Karl Barth, T.F. Torrance, and Myk Habets. He concludes this section by saying:

The differences between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism here come into sharp contrast. First, as concerns election: Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith, whereas Evangelical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation. Second, as concerns union with Christ: Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom “in Christ” serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e. a covenantal union of persons), whereas Evangelical Calvinists tend to follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being “in Christ” as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s).[3]

At this point, Vanhoozer moves to a more explicit critique of Evangelical Calvinism based on these two key distinctions. While his specific points merit consideration and response (which I hope to offer in a future post), I want to stop here in order to address the fundamental dichotomy that Vanhoozer sets up as the basis for the rest of his critique, namely ontology vs. soteriology. It is true that Vanhoozer also mentions other dichotomies, such as Pauline vs. non-Pauline language and a union of persons vs. a union of natures. The latter distinction is a significant point and requires a separate response. The former issue, however, can be somewhat simply addressed by saying two things. First, although Vanhoozer restricts the scope of his essay to Paul and specifically to Eph. 1:4 (being of course free to do so), Evangelical Calvinism derives from a much more dogmatic approach that would incorporate the writings of not only a single biblical author but the entire canonical witness. That is not to say that EC is not interested in the exegesis of Pauline writings in the manner according to which Vanhoozer’s essay proceeds. Yet it seems, at least to me, somewhat reductive and methodological deficient to engage with EC on these grounds when EC is driven largely by a dialectical/dialogical/theo-logical approach to Scripture that operates at what Torrance called the “depth dimension” of Scripture.

Thus, how is it possible to evaluate Vanhoozer’s charge that EC surrenders territory to ontology that properly belongs to soteriology? I think that a helpful way to do so is to adhere closely to the dogmatic order prescribed by the EC methodology and begin, not with abstract categories of “ontology” and “soteriology”, but rather with the Trinitarian and Christological revelation that defines what these terms means and how they interrelate. As is usually acknowledged, the standard concepts and grammar for articulating an orthodox (i.e. biblically faithful) view of the Trinity and Jesus Christ was provided by the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian fathers who were forced to do so in the face of serious heresies such as Arianism, Apollinarianism, Nestorianism, and Eutychianism. Thus, for example, we see Gregory of Nyssa opposing the Arian views of Eunomius of Cyzicus by maintaining a strict correlation between God’s being and act. Patristic scholar Michel Barnes explains:

Eunomius’ alternative to Nicene and semi-Nicene doctrines of the Son’s generation was to teach that the Son was created; his description of the Son’s nature stressed both his created status (he is not the true God) and His role as Creator (he is God for us). By contrast, Gregory’s argument for the unity of the Trinity turns precisely upon his understanding that a productive capacity is natural to God. Thus Gregory argues that the common power of creation shown in the two Persons is evidence of their common nature…For Gregory the transcendence of God includes the capacity to produce; indeed Gregory’s conception of this capacity as a power means not only that this capacity exists as a natural capacity in God, but because this capacity is the power of the divine nature, God’s kind of existence is the kind that (re)produces. Gregory’s fundamental insight, and his argument against Eunomius, is that the divine nature, inso­far as it is the divine nature, is productive.[4]

The counter-assault that Gregory of Nyssa launched against Eunomius in defense of the full divinity of the Son (homoousion with the Father) was that the power of divine acts is inextricably related, and indicative of, the divine nature. In order to deny the full divinity of the Son while attributing to him divine power, it was necessary to separate God’s being cf83ceaccf81cf89cf83ceb700671.jpgfrom his act (or, specifically, the being of the Father from the act of the Son). Gregory’s response was to insist that not only can God’s being not be separated from his act, but also that God’s being is of such a nature that it is intrinsically active and thus manifests itself in the acts generative of the history of the universe.

It was critical, however, for the pro-Nicene fathers not merely to insist on the strict correlation between God’s being as Father and God’s act in the Son simpliciter, for at issue in the Arian error was the denial of the Son’s full divinity on account of his undeniably human existence in the person of Jesus Christ. Thus it was necessary, as exemplified by Athanasius, to make this same connection between God in himself and God revealed in history, or better stated, between the transcendent being of God dwelling from all eternity in unapproachable light and the being and act of the incarnate Son revealed in history. As another patristic scholar John Behr states:

Equally important is the manner in which God is the Father of his Son, Jesus Christ: is the existence of the Son the result of a volitional act of God, such that God could have chosen to be otherwise, or doe the revelation of God in Jesus Christ express what God in fact is? The affirmation, made by the Council of Nicaea and developed by Athanasius, that God is eternally the Father of his Son, means that in God there is a completely identity between nature and will; God does not first exist by himself, only subsequently to beget the Son. This identity of divine nature and activity, and the claim that the Son is fully divine as the Father, means, moreover, that the divinity of God is fully revealed in Christ, so that “he who has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14.9). That “in him the whole fullness of divinity dwells bodily” (Col 2.9) means that there is no surplus of divinity beyond this revelation, awaiting discovery through other means. The divine nature is not a passive object for human thought attempting to comprehend what God “really is” in himself, for God has revealed himself as he is.[5]

One of the reasons why the pro-Nicene theologians like Athanasius insisted on the absolute identity between who God is in himself and who he reveals himself to be in Jesus Christ was because the Arians, by positing an ontological disjunction between God and Jesus Christ, effectively reduced the latter to a mere instrument of human salvation. As Khaled Anatolios observes:

…the [Arian] model that locates the “for us” at the origin of the divinity of Christ is that it tended to subvert the notion of Christ’s lordship, since, even in his divinity, Christ was conceived as merely a means to the end of human flourishing.[6]

In other words, Athanasius discerned that if ontology (i.e. who God is in himself) was severed from soteriology (i.e. what God does in Christ in revelation and reconciliation), then Christ will be inevitably instrumentalized, thus reducing the fullness of who he is to only what he accomplishes. Thus, far from falsely conflating or confusing God’s being with his act and thus ontology with soteriology, it is precisely by holding the two together in an indivisible, differentiated union (i.e. the Chalcedonian pattern) that secures the former from being lost to the latter. If that were to happen, the soteriology would be ultimately deprived of any meaning, because it would be divorced from the only One in and with whom participation and communion constitute salvation. Thus, rather than separating ontology from soteriology in a dichotomizing way, the Trinitarian and Christological grammar of the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian tradition would require that we hold them together in an indissoluble union.

Since Vanhoozer appeals to Calvin to make his case regarding the ontology/soteriology distinction, it may be helpful, prior to drawing this post to a conclusion, to note how scholar Julie Canlis characterizes a resistance in Calvin, similar to that of the pro-Nicene theologians, to a division between Christ’s person (ontology) and his work (soteriology) and thus a reduction of Christ to the level of a mere means-to-end. She writes:

From such restrictive interpretations, it is a short step to “union with Christ” as latent natural theology, where communal life with God is enclosed in a utilitarian process by which we receive the benefits of christ. Ceasing to reflect God’s koinōnia-reality, union becomes the response to a prior human need for the commodities of salvation. It is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who reminds us that Calvin’s emphasis on the benefits of Christ can go one of two ways. He cites Melanchthon’s famous maxim…”to know Christ is to know his benefits”…and notes that “theology has often apostolized here.” [Bonhoeffer, Christology, p.48] For whether or not Melanchthon’s maxim already indicates the modern predisposition toward a functional christology, it certainly opens up the possibility for a split between the being and meaning of Christ. The danger here is that the beneficia Christi can be used to bolster a functional soteriology in which an anthropocentric obsession with the meaning and work of Christ is all that matters. march-8-ter-071.jpgThe Spirit is then incorporated into this transaction between God and humanity, as simply the one who is the bridge that links us to the things of Christ rather than as the one to bring us into Christ and the koinōnia that he has inaugurated in his person…

When it is discussed within this context, adoption – not surprisingly – becomes flattened into a legal transaction between two individuals…This notion of adoption is representative of that functional trend in christology that would use Christ for its own ends – to gain salvation, legal adoption, or the benefits of Christ. Here the primary “benefit” of Christ – that is, adoption – has been radically severed from Christ’s own person as Son and has been used by humanity to achieve a goal beyond him. Christ is thus made an instrument of a process rather than the person in whom adoption is found. Correspondingly, the benefits of Christ often become detachable from the person of Christ, to be transferred to us by the Spirit without fundamentally bringing us into the Spirit’s new domain…Calvin himself exposes this contemporary tendency toward a functional Christology when he observes that “they sought in Christ something else than Christ himself.” [Comm. John 6:26].[7]

Although Vanhoozer’s question regarding what it means to be “in Christ” no doubt would still remain, at minimum we can see that Calvin eschewed any sense in which the soteriological work of Christ swallowed up the ontology of his person. This, I would argue, is in fundamental agreement with the theo-logic championed by the pro-Nicene fathers against the Arians.

Conclusion

What I have tried to do in this post is blunt much of the force of the critique that Vanhoozer mounts against Evangelical Calvinism in the second half of his essay by undercutting the primary dichotomy – ontology vs. soteriology – that he posits in the first half. By looking back to the theological grammar provided by the pro-Nicene and Chalcedonian fathers, it is clear that an orthodox understanding of the Trinity and Jesus Christ militates against any attempt to sunder ontology from soteriology inasmuch as such an attempt would implicitly sunder Christ’s person from his saving work, God’s being in himself from his acts in revelation and reconciliation in history, and, ultimately, God’s being and act in his own inner Triune relations. Far from confusing ontology and soteriology, it is only by holding them together in an indivisible, differentiated union (à la Chalcedon) that ontology is not emptied of meaning and, consequently, soteriology is deprived of its power.

Thus, to respond to the aforementioned distinctions that Vanhoozer draws between Classical and Evangelical Calvinism, it can be said:

1) While “Classical Calvinists associate being chosen in Christ with the Spirit’s uniting people to Christ through faith,” Evangelical Calvinists do not, by contrast, “associate being chosen in Christ” only “with the Son’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation” in the sense that a ‘carnal’ union with Christ (that which obtains on the basis of the incarnation) fully displaces a ‘spiritual’ union with Christ effected by the Spirit. Indeed, both senses are implicated in EC’s understanding of the twofold nature of union with Christ, as even attested by Calvin in his famous letter to Vermigli. (The question regarding the possibility of the realization of the former without the latter requires a different post).

2) While “Classical Calvinists tend to follow Pauline usage, for whom ‘in Christ’ serves as referring to the Spirit’s incorporation of saints into Christ (and hence the life of the triune God) through faith (i.e. a covenantal union of persons),” Evangelical Calvinists do not only “follow a distinctly non-Pauline usage, viewing being ‘in Christ’ as a necessary implication of the incarnation (i.e., an ontological union of natures, our humanity with Christ’s)” in the sense that they run roughshod over the Pauline writings. Rather, as I noted earlier, EC follows the path laid by the biblical text down into the “dimension of depth” that constitutes Scripture’s inner rationality and constitutive theo-logic. As Karl Barth remarked, the task of dogmatics consists in the church’s responsibility not to repeat the words of Scripture but to say what it needs to say on the basis of the words of Scripture.

This is why, on the one hand, much of what Vanhoozer argues in his essay by way of reference to specific texts can be easily affirmed by Evangelical Calvinists. The question, for EC, is not simply what do these texts say, but what is the fundamental theo-logic that gave rise to these texts in their unique historical circumstances. Thus, I think there is a way (as Barth himself exemplified in his careful delineation of the election of Christ as primary, the election of the community as secondary, and the election of the individual as tertiary) to approach passages such as Eph. 1:4 as textured witnesses to who God is and what he has done in Christ. That is to say, there may be deeper levels (the “depth dimension”) at which phrases like “in Christ” may operate, unfolding themselves through what Torrance has called a “stratified” approach to knowledge, that do not open themselves to refutation on the basis of simply proof-texting.

All this to say, I do not think that Vanhoozer offers a successful critique on the basis of a disjunction between ontology and soteriology. This certainly gains traction if the presuppositions of Classical Calvinism are maintained. However, Evangelical Calvinism not only proceeds differently, it also starts differently, looking to God’s self-revelation in Christ and by the Spirit as determinative of how we even begin to understand what ontology and soteriology involve and how they interrelate.

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[1] Vanhoozer, K.J., 2014.’The Origin of Paul’s Soteriology: Election, Incarnation, and Union with Christ in Ephesians 1:4 (with special reference to Evangelical Calvinism)’ in Reconsidering the Relationship between Biblical and Systematic Theology in the New Testament: Essays by Theologians and New Testament Scholars. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p.182.

[2] Ibid., p.184.

[3] Ibid., p.191.

[4] Barnes, M.R., 1998. ‘Eunomius of Cyzicus and Gregory of Nyssa: Two Traditions of Transcendent Causality’ in Vigiliae Christianae 52(1), pp.86-87.

[5] Behr, J., The Formation of Christian Theology Vol. 2: The Nicene Faith. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, p.17.

[6] Anatolios, K., 2011. Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p.94.

[7] Canlis, J., 201o. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.155-157.