Julie Canlis

Unfortunately, but fortunately at the same time (I am moving onto Thomas Boston), I am leaving TFT’s discussion on Jonathan Fraser of Brea’s theology. All I can say, as I’ve read the presentation, there are striking points of contact between Calvin’s and Fraser’s theology; not least of which, and most importantly for our discussion here at The Evangelical Calvinist, is there respective views on the Unio Mystica or “Mystical Union.” I thought I would just “blog” out of this section with a nice and telling closing comment made by Torrance on the effect of Fraser’s treatise ‘A Treatise of Justifying Faith’, and how it was received during its initial printing by the ‘other Calvinists’ of the day. Not surprisingly, its reception then, is much like it is today (even evident on this blog). Here we go:

Published only after his death, like the first edition, this work of James Fraser, A Treatise on Justifying Faith, was late in making its impact on the Church of Scotland. Its call to return to authentic Reformation doctrine was misunderstood by the so-called ‘orthodox’ Presbyterians, and its powerful biblically sustained argumentation for the sovereign act of divine forgiveness and the universal offer of salvation to all people without discrimination was resented by the hyper-Calvinist establishment. They realised that their doctrine of redemption, formulated within the logical strait-jacket of the absolute decree of God, was being called radically into question on the ground of the solia gratia principle of the Reformation. Being unable to meet its challenge except through reiterating the propositions of strict federalist and predestinationist theology, they set Fraser’s teaching aside, but could not denigrate a saintly Covenanter who had suffered so much for his faithfulness to the Gospel and his refusal to yield to the imposition of Erastian Prelacy upon Scotland. However Fraser’s work steadily bore fruit in turning people’s minds back to the primacy of the nature of God revealed in Jesus Christ and his infinite Good-will toward sinners, and thereby opened the door for the proclamation of the Gospel of free unconditional grace, without yielding to Arminian universalism. . . . [italics mine] (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 202)

The italicized portion is an inside hat-tip to all you Scotists out there. Here is one reason why I like TF Torrance so much, he was a man ahead of his time in many respects — even if this means that he was also overstated at some points. I say this, because he (his brother James) was pressing this notion of the ‘mystical union’ and Calvin much before it was popular (it’s still not, but increasingly and slowly it is becoming accepted). That is to say, that TFT saw the Unio Mystica as a core to understanding Calvin’s theology; because he saw this at work in the Scottish theology that he was so much apart of — viz. he was able to recognize a side of Calvin that other predispositions to Calvin’s theology placed on mute.

People like Charles Partee (his recently released book: The Theology of John Calvin), and Julie Canlis (Calvin scholar, see her short essay entitled: Calvin’s Institutes: A Primer for Spiritual Formation) all are both noticing this same thing in Calvin’s theology — viz. the centrality that union with Christ played as evinced in Calvin’s duplex-gratia (gift and gratitude) versus the more culturally popular and thus trenchant appropriation and framing of Calvin’s theology as outlined by people like Muller and the post-Reformed ‘orthodox’ — the framing that blushes Calvin as a ‘theologian of decretal determinism’.

The never ending debate of continuity between Calvin and the Calvinists will probably endure until the Lord returns. Bruce Gordon, amongst most ‘Reformed’ scholars, holds to the thesis that in fact there is continuity between Calvin and those who bear his name today; he says:

. . . Calvin’s discursive, humanist style, which he shared with his contemporaries, was replaced by new forms of argumentation that could be used in the schools and academies. The theology itself was not changing, and Calvin’s thought remained crucial to Reformed tradition, but the means by which it was taught reflected new requirements. Moreover, as he had lived, in death Calvin did not stand alone. He was read, studied and interpreted in various contexts all within a wider stream of Reformed thought that included Bullinger, Vermigli and their successors. Just as he had wanted, he belonged to the community of churchmen. (Bruce Gordon, “Calvin,”339).

I think, reading between the lines, Gordon is saying that much of the post-Calvin development was really only a matter of genre; that pedagogy, and historical circumstances — facing “the Calvinists” — required various approaches and appropriations. I am sure this is true. But is it also sound to reduce Calvin’s thought, and the development of his thought to an issue of “style,” and not “material content,” as Gordon does? I am leery on this point.

Beyond this, and what is agreeable with what Gordon asserts, with qualification of course, is that Calvin was read “in various contexts all within a wider stream of Reformed thought.” What Gordon seems to be presuming, given his list of “Calvin’s readers” (i.e. Bullinger, Vermigli, et al.), is that this wider stream is what developed into what we now call “Orthodoxy” (i.e. corollary with the Westminster Divines, et al.). This is where “Evangelical Calvinism” wants to step in and say, “hello, wait a minute, what about the Scots and even some of the English?” Now certainly, if we assume that “Orthodoxy” is “Orthodoxy,” then the “stream of Reformed tradition” is delimited in ways that automatically preclude what we as “Evangelical Calvinists” want to say; and that is that there are readings of Calvin within the ‘Reformed tradition’ that do not fit into the “Orthodox” stream, per se (viz. depending upon what the standard of actual “Orthodoxy” is — is it sola scriptura, or self proclamation?).

Case in point, and on this I will close; Calvin had a very Trinitarian way of reading Union with Christ, it was ‘real’ and ‘ontological’ union — this is what Evangelical Calvinists believe as well. Do the Federal or Orthodox, predominately see it this way (I am generalizing here)? Julie Canlis, a Calvin scholars says:

My suspicion is that Calvin’s scuffle with Osiander is largely to blame for our Reformed emphasis on justification to the exclusion (or downgrading) of adoption as spiritual union. Although Alister McGrath notes, “Calvin is actually concerned not so much with justification, as with incorporation into Christ,” it seems as if Reformed theology traded this full-bodied trinitarianism for a narrower (though vital) christocentrism. Out of fear of Osiander’s (and others’) focus on union unaccompanied by an appropriate role for the cross, we have compensated by limiting union to the cross—the method by which we are saved. With this move, however, we are no longer asking the questions that Calvin was asking: we suddenly are left with questions about how we are saved, from what we are saved, and what we should do now that we have received this salvation. They tend to be the questions that quench rather than nourish spiritual formation because they are stunted. Calvin’s questions always centered around God (not ourselves, or even our salvation) and about the glory of God—questions that are not stunted because they open themselves up to a reality much larger than themselves and do not approach this reality with a (frankly consumerist) howcan- I-get-salvation mentality or a (primarily functional) what-should-I-do-now mentality. Calvin’s questions took their cues from God in his trinitarian fullness and his inexplicable desire to bring us into this fullness. In distancing himself from Osiander, Calvin was not necessarily less radical than Osiander in his vision of union with God, he was just relentlessly trinitarian. Union, when explained as justification or friendship or even fellowship with God, doesn’t quite meet Calvin’s standards. “Not only,” Calvin says, “does Christ cleave to us by an indivisible bond of fellowship (societatis), but, with a wonderful communion (communione), day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us until he becomes completely one with us.” It seems that Calvin himself is arguing for something more than fellowship: “not only fellowship but communion, becoming one with us.” What does this mean? I believe it is Calvin’s desire to push us deeper, through the glory of being reconciled to God by justification, into a life of being spiritually formed by the Trinity itself (himself!). Adoption is Calvin’s answer to both Osiander’s non-trinitarian union and the sometimes-diluted “union” that we in the Reformed tradition have unconsciously embraced. (Julie Canlis, “Calvin’s Institutes: A Primer for Spiritual Formation,” Resurgence [2007])

There is alot in this one quote (Osiander was one of Calvin’s theological opponents, btw); suffice it to say, besides the rich points that Canlis is making (theologically), this illustrates the way that Calvin can and should be read on “Union.” If this is the case, shouldn’t this be one of the salient points that we judge whether or not the “Orthodox Calvinist” has indeed read Calvin the right way? I think it should be. If this was a key of Calvin’s theology, shouldn’t it be a keynote in the “Orthodox” Calvinist’s theology?

I could provide more comment, in fact I want to quote TFT in his book “Scottish Theology,” wherein we see ‘Evangelical Calvinists’ reading “Union” much the same way as Calvin. The point would be, if “Scottish Theology” reads Calvin the way he intended, and “Federal Theology” (Classic Calvinists) do not; wouldn’t this at least suggest that “Evangelical Calvinism” should be included in the discussion of the “wider Reformed tradition?” I think so, thus an impetus for this blog. I wonder what you think . . .


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