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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Impossible Possibility: Karl Barth on the Paradoxical Relation between Grace and Unbelief

In talking with someone about my recent post on why a commitment to universal atonement, at least as articulated by T.F. Torrance, does not entail a corresponding commitment to universal salvation, I was reminded of how counterintuitive this seems, especially to those coming from a background in traditional Reformed soteriology. Although not stating it in quite these terms, I explained that far from necessitating universalism, Torrance’s understanding of universal atonement actually necessitates the very opposite! To many, such as the person with whom I was conversing, this statement appears to be highly paradoxical, if not utterly incoherent. It seems that if we affirm universal atonement, then we are either forced to affirm universalism or fall back into a libertarian notion of free will. If we reject both of these options, then, so the reasoning goes, we are left only with the possibility of affirming limited atonement and its corresponding view of limited predestination.

While this post may not clear up all of the confusion, I would like to offer what I hope will be a further clarification of this issue. This time, my point of reference will be Karl Barth who, in the first half volume of his Church Dogmatics writes:

[It is not] faith that puts in effect all that the Word of God tells us. Faith too, and faith especially, is faith in Jesus Christ. It is thus the recognition and confirmation that God’s Word was already in effect even before we believed and quite apart from our believing. Faith particularly—and this is the element of truth in the older Lutheran 6a00d83451cfe769e201310fb8506c970cdoctrine of the [efficacy of the Word apart from its appropriation]—lives by the power which is power before faith and without faith. It lives by the power which gives faith itself its object, and in virtue of this object its very existence.

Baptism was instituted for this reason, as a sign of this true and supreme power of God’s Word. As a real act on man, as an act of sovereign disposition, it proclaims for its part that man belongs to the sphere of Christ’s lordship prior to all his experiences and decisions. Even before he can take up an attitude to God, God has taken up an attitude to him. Whatever attitude he may adopt, it will be done within and on the ground of the attitude that God has adopted to him. If he believes, this will be just a confirmation of the fact that he has God’s promise and is claimed, judged and blessed by God. If he does not believe, this again will not be a possibility he can freely choose. He will sin against God’s Word. He will not show himself to be free, but unfree. He will not choose, but will be rejected. He will grasp, not a possibility, but an impossibility. In a Word, in his very unbelief he will be measured by the Word of God and smitten by its power. The preceding attitude of God to him will make his unbelief unbelief, his sin sin. Only in the sphere of grace is there faith and unbelief, righteousness and sin. Only through the power of God’s Word are there the two categories, those who are saved and those who are lost.[1]

Let me try and unpack Barth’s reasoning. First, Barth asserts that when the Word of God, the gospel of Christ, comes to us whether in written or spoken form, it is not our act of faith that “activates” its power so as to make it true. What the gospel proclaims is true, apart from and prior to our act of faith. As Paul argued in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6, the fact that many people are blind to the light shining in the face of Christ does nothing to detract from that light’s brilliance. Just like the sun, the light of Christ revealed in the gospel shines on us, whether we are able to see it or not. Another way of saying this is that Jesus is, as Peter told Cornelius in Acts 10:36, the Lord of all, whether or not they acknowledge him as such. The fact that not every knee bows and not every tongue confesses that Jesus is Lord in the present does not mean that Jesus is not actually the Lord, even their Lord, the one to whom has been given all power in heaven and on earth.

Now, Barth continues, if the gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord of all people independent of their awareness or submission to him, then this means that they are implicated in the sovereign decision that God has made concerning the final destination toward which all of human history is directed. That is to say, the decisive event that took place in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ is determinative for all human beings. As Paul preached to the Athenians in Acts 17:30-31:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

The gospel is God’s command that “all people everywhere repent”, a command that, in contrast with the “times of ignorance” characterizing history prior to the coming of Christ, now confronts every human being precisely on account of the death and resurrection of Christ. Leading up to the final judgment, this gospel is a “fragrance from life to life” for those who are saved is the same gospel that is also “a fragrance from death to death” for those who are perishing (2 Cor. 2:15-16). Note well: the destiny of the latter is not determined by a power different from the one that determines the destiny of the former; both result from an encounter with the objective reality of the lordship of Christ which the gospel proclaims to all. Jesus is Lord of all people, and thus the destiny of all people is inextricably bound up with him, whether they acknowledge it or not.

With this understanding in place, Barth moves on to describe the actual moment of decision: what then accounts for the division between those who are saved and those who are perishing? It is not that God has decided positively for some and negatively for the rest, for the gospel’s proclamation of the universal lordship of Christ means that the same decision has been rendered for all: every knee will bow and every tongue will confess in one way or another. Rather, Barth offers an asymmetric account of the point of division between the two groups: those who hear the gospel and believe simply confirm the reality of the decision that God has made concerning them. This is not a “free” choice in the sense that it can ultimately be traced to an autonomous decision on the human side; it is simply what we would normally expect when those who are under God’s decision in Christ are confronted with this fact through the preaching of the gospel.

On the other hand, there is no corresponding explanation for why the rest refuse to acknowledge Christ’s lordship over them. It is a mystery because in Christ God has negated sin, condemning it in the flesh of the one who was made in likeness of sinful flesh (Rom. 8:3). There is no rational, logical explanation for why Christ’s subjects do not subject themselves to him but rather resist and rebel. When this occurs, therefore, their refusal to repent cannot be described as a “free” choice either, in the sense that they have simply chosen between two equal possibilities. Because the gospel comes as a command with the infinite weight of the authority of God, there is only one conceivable option when it confronts us: repent and believe as God has commanded. The “choice” to do the opposite is not truly a possibility that exists on the same level; hence it is asymmetric. Thus when people make this incomprehensible choice, they do not show that they are free but only unfree, enslaved to the sin that has been negated at the cross, having their minds blinded by the god of this world to keep them from seeing the glory of Christ in the gospel (2 Cor. 4:3).

Thus, whether we consider those who are saved or those who are perishing, in neither case do we have a situation in which the determinative factor is either that 1) God has positively decided for the salvation of one group while deciding for the damnation (or at least passing over) the rest, or that 2) the people confronted by the gospel have simply exercised their free will. Rather, both those who are saved and those who are perishing respond, for reasons that cannot be correlated, on the basis of the prior decision of God in Christ. Those who respond in faith have merely done that which corresponds to God’s prior decision for them, whereas those who respond in rebellion have merely done that which a mind blinded and enslaved by the god of this world are capable of doing. Undergirding all of this is the gospel’s proclamation that the destiny of every single human being has been decisively determined in the death and resurrection of Christ, an objective fact that lays upon every human being the necessity to repent and believe. Thus, however paradoxical it may seem, it is the universal scope of that which the gospel proclaims that creates the crisis of decision to which all people are called, giving rise to the “impossible possibility” that many will refuse and thus consign themselves to eternal damnation.


[1] Karl Barth, Church dogmatics: The doctrine of the Word of God, Part 1. (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), p.154.

Reforming Calvinism: Why Universal Atonement Does Not Entail Universal Salvation

In a post in which I explained T.F. Torrance’s contention that the traditional Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement implies a heretical Christology, specifically that of Nestorianism. Following Torrance, I argued that a fully orthodox Christology, resting on the twofold concept of anhypostasia (the Word assumed the flesh and nature common to all humanity) and enhypostasia (the Word become a particular human, Jesus of Nazareth), requires us to affirm that what Christ did on the cross he did for everyone who shares the humanity that he assumed in the incarnation, meaning that he made atonement for all people.

Usually one of the first questions (and objections!) that arises in response is this: will then all people be saved and, if not, why? I have heard this rejoinder countless times, and it was once again expressed in a comment on the aforementioned post. From the perspective of a traditional Reformed soteriology, it seems illogical, unless one falls back on the notion of libertarian free will, to affirm universal atonement but deny, as Torrance adamantly does, final universal salvation. If Christ died efficaciously for all, then why are not all saved? I am sympathetic to those who respond this way because it is precisely how I would have reacted myself a few years ago! So I think it would be beneficial to sketch out an answer to this question (which is the purpose of this post), but with the caveat that I can only torrance_2-1address, given the constraints of a blog post, one particular part of what could (and perhaps should) be a much longer answer.

I would like to quote a section from the introduction to Torrance’s book Atonement written by his nephew Robert Walker. Walker, who edited the lectures that comprise the book, helpfully summarizes Torrance’s resolution to this seeming conundrum:

The fact that God has become man and that the whole life, death and resurrection of Jesus is a real act of man, means that God has not come half way to humanity as it were, leaving humanity to go the other half, but that he has so come to humanity that in time and in human flesh he has actually completed for humanity their whole salvation. In the humanity of Jesus, the word of God has become truth in the heart of man, the covenant has been fulfilled from the side of God and from the side of man, and the kingdom of God has begun on earth…

It is the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ which makes his entry into times even more decisive and eschatological. If Jesus has acted on behalf of all humanity and completed the salvation of all inside his person, then whether they will or not he has made it a fait accompli and something they are confronted with in his person. If by contrast salvation is simply on offer in his person, then there is a sense in which people can take it or leave it and pass by on the other side. But if Jesus has actually taken the place of each and every single human being before God, and in their place and on their behalf has achieved salvation for them, then they are inescapably involved. The radically substitutionary and representative nature of Jesus’ action for each and every person means that they have been set aside and something has been done in their name. They have been signed up for salvation by the action of God and of man in Christ while they were still enemies. The ground has been taken from under their feet and in the person of Christ they are confronted with their own salvation, inescapably involving them in decision.

If is the fact Jesus is not only God but God acting as man for humanity, and not only as man but as individual man, achieving salvation for us in the reality and individuality of his person and meeting us individually in personal encounter, that involves us in existential decision and in eschatological tension between reality of what-and-who he is for us and what we still are in ourselves. It is the fact that Jesus has done something in our name and in our place for each person individually that means we are inescapably involved in decision as he meets each person individually in personal encounter, in the reality of what he is for us in his love and grace and in his calling us to follow him in faith.[1]

If we pay close attention to what Walker says, we can begin to see why Torrance’s understanding of the atonement, far from logically terminating in universalism, actually grounds the stark reality of eternal damnation and intensifies the evangelistic call to faith and repentance. While this may seem like a paradoxical statement, Walker shows us why it is the necessary correlate to “the radically substitutionary nature of salvation in Christ”. It is only because in Christ a divine decision has been irrevocably made regarding every single human being – a decision not ultimately for damnation but salvation – that every single human being is called to make a decision for Christ. Had Christ not vicariously substituted himself in the place of all humanity, then it would not be true that all humanity bears the responsibility of repenting of sin and trusting in Christ.

Why is this? Because, as Torrance himself reminds us numerous times in his works, the cross was just as much judgment on sin as it was salvation from sin. As Paul affirms in Romans 8:3, God sent his Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh” and thereby “condemned sin in the flesh”. In Christ, God has passed his divine sentence once for all on human sin, pouring out upon it the full measure of his judgment and wrath. It is precisely for this reason, and only for this reason, that Paul, two verses prior (Rom. 8:1), can exclaim that in Christ condemnation for sin now no longer exists. That is to say, the atonement must first pass judgment on sin before it can save from sin. Better still, the atonement must pass judgment on sin in order that it might save from sin.

This, in turn, has significant ramifications for how we construe the relation of the atonement to the final destiny of humanity. If atonement is inextricably bound up with judgment, then, in order to affirm the universality of judgment, we must also affirm the universality of the atonement. If Christ died efficaciously for only a limited number of human beings, then judgment has likewise only been passed on a limited number of human beings. But this would contradict, among other biblical passages, Paul’s exhortation to the Athenians in Acts 17:3o-31:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.

Notice the logic of Paul’s discourse. Prior to the coming of Christ – “the times of ignorance” – there was a sense in which God “overlooked” the sin of the nations of the world. The coming of Christ, however, changed all that. The coming of Christ means that now God is commanding “all people everywhere to repent” through the preaching of the gospel. What accounts for this change? It is because, as Paul makes clear, God will “judge the world in righteousness” in Jesus Christ, a reality attested publicly by his resurrection from the dead after his shameful execution at the hands of the Romans. In other words, Paul draws a direct correlation between the person and work of Christ, the final judgment, and the necessity laid upon every single human being to repent. Yet this correlation would atonement-torrancemake little sense if that which Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection had been intended to have ultimate validity only for a select number of humanity. It is only because Christ represented and substituted himself for “all people everywhere” that all now stand under the divine judgment manifested in the cross and thus bear the responsibility to obey God’s command to repent and believe. As illustrated by the Athenians’ reaction to Paul’s sermon, not everyone will, however, repent and believe, and for such people there remains nothing but the consummation of that very judgment at the end of the age.

Again, as indicated by Walker’s introduction, this is only one piece of a much longer and more nuanced answer that the question to which it responds requires (involving, among other things, the positive role of the salvation Christ achieved in himself and the implications of his vicarious humanity), but hopefully this much allows to see better why Torrance’s view of universal atonement does not lead to universal salvation. Before it ever means salvation, atonement means judgment. Hence, only universal atonement means universal judgment. Because in Christ all are judged, all are commanded to repent and believe the gospel. Tragically, not all will repent and believe, and thus not all will be saved.

One final point: If we press Torrance as to why not all will repent and believe, he will not respond with the typical answer given by those who hold to an Arminian soteriology (which is one reason why we cannot accuse him of Arminianism!), namely, that such is the result of libertarian free will. Torrance will have nothing of that, precisely because he knows that the will that we suppose is free is merely self-will, a will curved in on itself intent on sinfully usurping the place of God. Free will is a mirage that upon close inspection dissolves into a rebellious will hell-bent on its own destruction. Rather, the refusal to repent and believe can only be attributed to the irrational and absurd nature of sin before which, Torrance says, we can only stand aghast and tremble. Were we able to explain the sin that lies at the root of humanity’s rejection of the gospel, then sin would no longer be sin, for sin is by nature inexplicable. However unsatisfying an answer this may be, it is the only one that can be given in the face of the “mystery of lawlessness” (2 Thess. 2:7).


[1] Robert T. Walker, ‘Editor’s Introduction’ in T.F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), pp. lxvi-lxvii. Emphasis mine.

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.


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

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Bruce McCormack on Limited Atonement vs. Universal Salvation

Typically when we encounter passages in Scripture that seem to stand in tension, we instinctively try to find a way to alleviate that tension. Nowhere is this more evident than in relation to the tension we feel between the texts of Scripture that seem to indicate the universal extent of God’s saving will and those that assert the sobering reality of the eternal damnation of all who, for whatever reason, die without placing their faith in Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Usually attempts to resolve this difficulty end up affirming a version of limited atonement (Christ died ultimately to save the elect alone) or universal possibility (Christ died to save all but not all will freely believe) or universalism (Christ died for all and so all will be saved).

While they are all logically coherent, it seems to me that each of these positions, in one way or another, downplays certain texts at the expense of others. To all of us who wrestle with these issues, Bruce McCormack offers some wise words of counsel in an essay he contributed to the book Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Although McCormack does not offer us a tidy solution, he does encourage us to stay rigorously faithful to the whole range of biblical teaching, giving equal weight to all of its parts. He writes:

Conspicuous by its absence from Paul’s theology is any mention of “hell.” One might well think that the talk of the wrath and fury, tribulation and distress which awaits those who do evil in Rom. 2:8-9 is equivalent to “hell” but Paul never uses that word. The concept of “hell” does play a sizable role in the teaching of Jesus and in the Book of Revelation, of course. Taken by itself, this difference between Jesus and Paul would not be a problem. The two views could easily be harmonized simply by regarding what Jesus has to say as a 410vuZc5y-L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_further expansion upon what Paul knows to say. The problem, however, is that Paul is committed to a universal atonement [e.g. 1 Tim. 2:3-6] – as well as the understanding that faith in Jesus Christ is effected in human beings by God’s grace alone. And the combination of these two elements creates a difficulty of no small proportions. For if grace is irresistible, if faith is God’s to give as He wills and Christ died for all, then, logically, God’s will ought to be to give the gift to all and universal salvation should be the result. Alternatively, we could take up our starting point in the “two-group” eschatologies of Jesus and the Seer and look back through the lens provided by the Pauline understanding of the relation of grace and faith and the only logical option would be to affirm a limited atonement. Universal salvation on the one side and limited atonement on the other; those are the only two logical possibilities which arise on the soil of the Pauline understanding of faith as a sovereign work of God. And because Jesus’ teaching on hell, especially, was taken to be the fixed pole, Reformed theology in its orthodox expressions always concluded to a limited atonement. The net effect of that decision was, of course, that Paul’s commitment to a universal atonement had to be negotiated out of existence.

I would suggest that there is a better way of dealing with this, the most profound and important of the tensions found in the New Testament. I am certainly conservative enough in my understanding of biblical inspiration to believe that if something appears in the New Testament, it is there because God wanted it there. So if a tension exists, there must be a reason for it. And if I had to guess, I would say that the reason has to do with the fact that those awakened to faith in Jesus Christ in this world are still sinners. If God told us the answer to the problem in advance of the eschaton, we would harm ourselves on one side or the other. If He were to tell us that a universal salvation will be the final outcome, we would very likely become lax, antinomian even. The sense of urgency that is pervasive in Paul’s Christian existentialism would be lost. If, on the other hand, God told us that limited atonement is the true resolution of the tension, we would very likely despair of our salvation. How could anyone be certain that the atoning death of Christ was really intended for him or her? And so I would venture to guess that the tension I have described is divinely intended – in order to protect us from ourselves.

In short, I think it was a mistake for the Westminster Assembly to seek to resolve this question on the side of limited atonement in advance of the return of Christ in glory – just as I think that it would be a mistake for any church today to teach universalism. Again, these are simply the logical possibilities that arise on the soil of the Reformed understanding of the relation of grace and faith. As such, they constitute the walls within which we are to live in this world. All of us will tilt more to one side than the other. And if individual theologians wish to conclude to one or the other – for the sake of exploring implications and relationships among the various Christian doctrines, they should be allowed to do so. That belongs to their unique calling. But churches need to be responsible for all the faithful. And for that reason, I would say, neither limited atonement nor universalism should ever be made church dogma.[1]

As I mentioned before, McCormack does not offer any simple solutions or clean ways of reducing certain tensions in the full scope of biblical teaching, especially those in relation to human salvation. But he does offer sage advice, namely, that however difficult or uncomfortable, we must allow Scripture to dictate to us how we should think, reason, theologize, preach, and evangelize, even when we cannot understand how all of the pieces fit together. Indeed, we see in a glass darkly, and we must walk by faith rather than by sight. Therefore, let God’s Word be God’s Word, and may we bow all of our logic and systematic categories in humble submission to it.


[1] McCormack, B.L., 2011. ‘So That He May Be Merciful to All: Karl Barth and the Problem of Universalism’ in Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp.239-241.

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.


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

“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.


[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.

The Evangelical Calvin: Atonement Edition


In this post, I would simply like to offer a selection of quotations from John Calvin on what Christ accomplished in the atonement and its implications for the world. I do not want to offer any comments or reflections but just allow the cumulative weight of these statements have their effect. Without further adieu, here is Calvin:

The Holy Spirit commands us to pray for all, because our only Mediator admits all to come to him; just as by his death he reconciled all to the Father.[1]

[T]hough Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and is offered through God’s benignity indiscriminately to all, yet all do not receive him.[2]

[I]t is the will of God that we should seek the salvation of all men without exception, as Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world.[3]

Luke emphasizes this even more, teaching that the salvation provided by Christ is common to all mankind. For Christ, the Author of salvation, was begotten of Adam, the common father of us all [Luke 3:38].[4]

[The] Redeemer of the world . . . was there, as it were, in the person of all cursed ones and of all transgressors, and of those who had deserved eternal death . . . and bears the burdens of all those who had offended God mortally.[5]

[Christ] willed in full measure to appear before the judgment seat of God His Father in the name and in the person of all sinners, being then ready to be condemned, inasmuch as He bore our burden.[6]

But here there is a special regard. It is that He must be the Redeemer of the world. He must be condemned, indeed, not for having preached the Gospel, but for us He must be oppressed, as it were, to the lowest depths and sustain our cause, since He was there, as it were, in the person of all cursed ones and of all transgressors, and of those who had deserved eternal death.[7]

It is also a fact, without controversy, that Christ came to atone for the sins of the whole world.[8]

This is our liberty, this our glorying in the face of death—that our sins are not imputed to us. He says that this redemption was procured through the blood of Christ, for by the sacrifice of his death all the sins of the world have been expiated.[9]

Thus his flesh, which proceeded from the seed of Abraham, since it was the temple of God, possessed a vivifying power; yea, the death of Christ became the life of the world.[10]

Hence it follows, that what led him to pray to be delivered from death was the dread of a greater evil. When he saw the wrath of God exhibited to him, as he stood at the tribunal of God charged with the sins of the whole world, he unavoidably shrunk with horror from the deep abyss of death.[11]

Now, then, the blame lies solely with ourselves, if we do not become partakers of this salvation; for he calls all men to himself, without a single exception, and gives Christ to all, that we may be illuminated by him.[12]

Christ opens up the first cause, and, as it were, the source of our salvation, and he does so, that no doubt may remain; for our minds cannot find calm repose, until we arrive at the unmerited love of God. As the whole matter of our salvation must not be sought any where else than in Christ, so we must see whence Christ came to us, and why he was offered to be our Saviour. Both points are distinctly stated to us: namely, that faith in Christ brings life to all, and that Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish.[13]

Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favour of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life.[14]

When he declares that he did not come to condemn the world, he thus points out the actual design of his coming; for what need was there that Christ should come to destroy us who were utterly ruined? We ought not, therefore, to look at any thing else in Christ, than that God, out of his boundless goodness, chose to extend his aid for saving us who were lost; and whenever our sins press us—whenever Satan would drive us to despair—we ought to hold out this shield, that God is unwilling that we should be overwhelmed with everlasting destruction, because he has appointed his Son to be the salvation of the world.[15]

It was God who appointed his Son to be the Propitiator, and who determined that the sins of the world should he expiated by his death.[16]

It is, as I have already said, that, seeing that men are created in the image of God and that their souls have been redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, we must try in every way available to us to draw them to the knowledge of the gospel.[17]

For it is no small matter to have the souls perish which were bought by the blood of Christ.[18]

Behold the Turks which cast away the grace which was purchased for all the world by Jesus Christ: the Jews do the like: the Papists, although they say not so openly, they show it in effect. . . . And thus we see now, how men are not partakers of this benefit, which was purchased them by our Lord Jesus Christ.[19]

Also we ought to have good care of those that have been redeemed with the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we see souls which have been so precious to God go to perdition, and we make nothing of it, that is to despise the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.[20]

And what shall we do when we see souls in peril, which are so precious before God, as he has shown in that he has ransomed them with the blood of his own Son?[21]

Because to see souls created in the image of God move toward their own damnation is hardly a light matter, especially souls that were redeemed at such a cost by the blood of God’s son.[22]

And indeed, our Lord Jesus was offered to all the world. . . . Our Lord Jesus suffered for all and there is neither great nor small who is not inexcusable today, for we can obtain salvation in Him.[23]

It was God who appointed his Son to be the Propitiator, and who determined that the sins of the world should he expiated by his death.[24]


[1] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.59

[2] Calvin, J. & Owen, J., 2010. Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.211

[3] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.157

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

[5] Calvin, J., 1997. The Deity of Christ and Other Sermons. Audubon: Old Paths. p.55

[6] Ibid., p.52

[7] Ibid., p.95

[8] Calvin, J. & Cole, H.H., 1856. Calvin’s Calvinism: A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God, London: Wertheim and Macintosh. p.150

[9] Calvin, J. & Pringle, J., 2010. Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.148

[10] Calvin, J. & Owen, J., 2010. Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. p.180

[11] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol.3, p.234

[12] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 3, p.295

[13] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 1, pp.122-123

[14] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 1, p.125

[15] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 1, p.126

[16] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 2, p.106.

[17] Calvin, J., 2008. Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1–7, trans. Rob Roy McGregor, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, p.593

[18] Calvin, J., 1983. Sermons of M. John Calvin, on the Epistles of S. Paule to Timothie and Titus. Carlisle: Banner of Truth, p.817.

[19] Ibid., p.177

[20] Calvin, J., 1973. Sermons on Ephesians, trans. A. Golding; rev. S. M. Houghton and L. Rawlinson. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, p.521

[21] Ibid. pp-684-685

[22] Calvin, J., 2003. Sermons on the Book of Micah, trans. and ed. Benjamin Wirt Farley. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, p.371

[23] Calvin, J., 1956. Sermons on Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Death and Passion of Christ, trans. T. H. L. Parker. London: Clarke, p.141.

[24] Calvin, J. & Pringle, W., 2010. Commentary on the Gospel according to John, Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. Vol. 2, p.106.

*Special thanks to Paul Hartog for directing me to these quotes.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 14: Limited Atonement (Union with Christ)

In the last few entries in my series on Reforming Calvinism, I have been delineating an Evangelical Calvinist revision of the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’ that, in my opinion, preserves the best insights but eradicates the problematic aspects of the traditional view. I have proposed that in order to maximize the atonement’s efficacy in fully accomplishing human redemption, we must understand the atonement to be properly limited to one human being alone – Jesus Christ – who worked out ontologically within his own incarnate person the condemnation and destruction of sin, the purification from all corruption, and the resurrection from the dead. By limiting the atonement in this way, I argued that it has the paradoxical effect of ‘universalizing’ the atonement in a way Limited-Atonement-AVATARwhich the traditional view could never nor even wanted to do. Inasmuch as Christ accomplished his atoning work in the ontological depths of the humanity that he shared with all human beings, he accomplished redemption vicariously for all.

The final question that remains is this: if the atonement is properly limited to Christ alone, then how does anyone actually benefit from it? In order to answer this question, I would like to make use of the categories of de jure and de facto that I employed for my explication of the doctrine of election. What I have been saying with regard to a Christ-limited atonement refers specifically to the de jure aspect of human salvation. That is to say, the redemption that Christ accomplished, he vicariously accomplished de jure for all, but he accomplished it de facto only within himself. In other words, redemption has been utterly realized in Christ for every human being in principle, but only in one human being – Christ himself – in actual fact.

So how then does what Christ accomplished de jure for all become realized de facto in us as individual human beings?  I argued previously the necessity of understanding the atonement as vicariously accomplished for all due to the fact that Christ accomplished his atoning work in the nature and flesh that he assumed for all in his incarnation. It is therefore the divine-human hypostatic union of Christ himself in which our redemption was accomplished, and thus it is thus in union with Christ that we as individual human beings can participate by the Spirit de facto in that redemption. In order to understand how this occurs, it is important to explore in detail the nature of this union. For this, we turn to John Calvin who sets forth Scripture’s teaching on union with Christ in terms of three indivisible yet distinct aspects. Myk Habets helpfully explains (at length) Calvin’s view as follows:

Throughout Calvin’s theology three distinct but interrelated ‘unions’ are presented. The first is the incarnational union, the second, the unio mystica, and the third, a spiritual union…Calvin specifically cuts out any ‘extrinsecist’ notions of justification or reconciliation by positing justification as a benefit of union with Christ. Through participation in Christ we receive all the benefits of salvation, including Christ’s righteousness; which equates to the filial life. Calvin insists on the forensic nature of justification but is equally adamant that we are justified as a result of our union with Christ. This is affirmed when he writes, ‘You see that our righteousness is not in us but in Christ, that we possess it only because we are partakers in Christ; indeed, with him we possess all its riches’.

Christ is the mediating bond of union (Calvin’s first sense of ‘union’). The unio mystica is a personal union as men and women participate in a real way in Christ (Calvin’s second sense of ‘union’). This union is not without the Spirit who functions as the unitive bond of union with Christ (Calvin’s third sense of ‘union’). [Seng-Kong] Tan summarises Calvin’s position well:

Through the unitive operation of the Holy Spirit, Christ and the elect are brought into reciprocal relationship. The one is the humanward trajectory – Christ’s participation in us – where ‘he had to become ours and to dwell within us’; the other is the Christward movement – our participation in Christ – where we are said to be ‘engrafted into him’ [Rom 11.17], and ‘to put on Christ’ [Institutes 3.1.1]. (Tan, ‘Calvin’s Doctrine of Our Union With Christ) [1]

Before continuing, I would like to pause for a moment to comment on Habets’ summary of Calvin’s understanding of ‘union with Christ’ which, to repeat, involves three distinct yet indivisible elements. The first aspect, what Habets calls the ‘mediating’ or ‘incarnational’ union, is that which I have been explaining in these last few posts on the atonement. Christ accomplished his atoning work vicariously for all humanity inasmuch as he did it in the nature and flesh shared by all human beings that he assumed. When the Word became flesh, he established an ontological bond between himself and all other human beings that can never be broken or revoked without undoing the incarnation itself. As Habets articulates elsewhere in terms of ‘carnal union’:

[T]he carnal union establishes an ontological relation between Christ and all humanity…Without the Incarnation the estrangement between God and humanity would have continued to grow to such an extent that the alienation caused by sin would be complete so that humanity would disappear (along with the rest of creation) into nothingness. The Incarnation means that God refused to hold back his love for humanity and entered our alienated human existence to lay hold of it, bind it in union with himself, and heal it for all humanity. As a direct consequence all humanity is laid hold of by God and kept in existence by God.[2]

Thus, the ‘incarnational’ or ‘carnal’ aspect of union with Christ refers to the ‘downward’ movement of God to humanity in which the Son irrevocably united himself to humanity in his incarnation. It is in virtue of this incarnational union that Christ vicariously accomplished the atonement for all. This is the de jure aspect of human salvation: it has been utterly actualized in Christ for all in principle, yet not as a matter of fact in the actual existence of the rest of humanity. In order for the rest of humanity to partake de facto of the redemption accomplished in Christ, the second and third aspects of union with Christ – the unio mystica and the spiritual union by the Spirit – must be realized. Habets continues:

The fundamental basis of unio mystica for Calvin is to ‘put on Christ’ and to be ‘engrafted into him’…The most concise definition Calvin gives to the unio mystica is found in Institutes 3.11.10:

Therefore, that joining together of Head and members, that indwelling of Christ in our hearts—in short, that mystical union—are accorded by us the highest degree of importance, so that Christ, having been made ours, makes us sharers with him in the gifts with which he has been endowed. We do not, therefore, contemplate him outside ourselves from afar in order that his righteousness may be imputed to us but because we put on Christ and are engrafted into his body— in short, because he deigns to make us one with him. For this reason, we glory that we have fellowship of righteousness with him…

This is not a rejection of the Reformation doctrine of imputation but its relocation into the context of participation. Imputation is correctly understood when viewed, ‘not just in terms of imputed righteousness but in terms of a participation in the righteousness of Christ which is transferred to us through union with him’. When salvation is viewed through the lens of the unio mystica – a personal participation in Christ – we discern that all the benefits he won for us are actually imputed and imparted to us simply because we are in Christ.[3]

What Habets articulates here is critical for understanding the de facto participation of humanity in the salvation wrought by Christ’s atoning work de jure. If, as Calvin saw clearly, the sum total of human salvation is located in Christ himself, then no part of that salvation can be experienced by any other human being apart from union with him. Although I will wait to explore this idea until my treatment of ‘irresistible grace’, Calvin apprehends the biblical teaching that the Spirit is the bond by which Christ unites or ‘engrafts’ us by faith to himself such that we partake of all of the saving benefits inhering in his person.

In one sense, therefore, we could say that while Christ accomplished our salvation de jure by assuming our humanity, we personally come to take part in that salvation de facto when we are likewise ‘assumed’ into his humanity by the Spirit. To borrow a phrase from Torrance, Christ accomplished our salvation de jure by making himself bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, and we partake of that salvation de facto by becoming, by the Spirit, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. Thus, whereas the ‘incarnational’ aspect of union with Christ involves God’s downward movement to humanity in the Son’s incarnation, the ‘mystical’ aspect entails humanity’s upward movement to God through Christ by the Spirit. It is in this way, and in this way alone, that human beings can participate in the full effects of the atonement achieved in Christ.

Notice that I do not speak in terms of ‘redemption accomplished’ as opposed to ‘redemption applied’, the former referring to Christ’s atoning work in the past and the latter referring to the Spirit’s application of that work in the present. The reason that I avoid ‘application’ language but prefer to speak in terms of ‘participating in’ or ‘partaking of’ salvation in Christ is because ‘application’ can be taken to imply that Christ’s ‘sufficient’ work only becomes ‘effectual’ when we fulfill the conditions of faith and repentance by the Spirit. This, however, renders Christ’ atoning work either contingent or incomplete, for it effectively remains inert as a mere possibility until activated by our appropriation of it. I am convinced that Scripture teaches the exact opposite of this. I believe that Christ’s atoning work, as the book of Hebrews clearly states, is full, complete, and effectual, having been accomplished once and for all in history. In this way, redemption has been efficaciously achieved for all people in Christ himself. Inasmuch as Christ as the true imago Dei is the ontological ground and basis for the existence of all human beings in virtue of the incarnational union, redemption is the ultimate reality that defines their existence whether they believe it or not. Yet they will actually partake of it only if their union with Christ is fully realized through the Spirit.

From this, it should start to become clear how an Evangelical Calvinist revision of limited atonement should not necessarily terminate in universal salvation. The atonement does not save anyone in a mechanistic or automatic fashion. When we understand the atonement’s full efficacy to be limited to Christ’s person alone in virtue of the incarnational aspect of union, we also see how necessary it is for us to be united by the Spirit with him in a mystical or spiritual way. Although further explanation is required, we cannot say that this has occurred or will occur with respect to every single human being. Why not? What is to explain the reason for which some people are united to Christ by the Spirit while others are not? In order to answer this question, we must turn to the doctrine of ‘irresistible grace’, which we will consider in the next section of this series.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Habets, M., 2009. Theosis in the Theology of T.F. Torrance. Surrey; Burlington: Ashgate. pp.98-99.

[2] Habets, M., 2008. ‘The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T.F. Torrance as a Case Study’ in Irish Theological Quarterly 73, p.339.

[3] Habets, M., 2009. Theosis in the Theology of T.F. Torrance. Surrey; Burlington: Ashgate. , pp.100-101

[4] Ibid., pp.104-105