September 2009


Can you think of any good old fashioned, Evangelical Calvinist, “universal atonement” passages? Let me start the list:

  • John 3:16
  • I John 2:2
  • I Timothy 4:10
  • . . . anymore?

This is certainly one of the reasons we are called: Evangelical Calvinist; because we believe that Christ genuinely died for all of humanity (per the implications of the Incarnation). This might sicken someone like Scottish Federal theologian Samuel Rutherford, he said:

Christ offers in the Gospel life to all, so that they believe, but God mindeth to bestow life on a few only . . . There is no greater mystery, than this, ‘Many are called, but few are chosen.’ So Christ’s sending with his commission, cometh under a twofold notion: one is, in the intention of the Evangel; the other is, in the intention of him who proposeth the Evangel to men — I mean, God’s intention to give faith and effectual grace. The former is nothing but God’s moral complacency of grace, revealing an obligation that all are to believe if they would be saved; and upon their own peril be it, if they refuse Christ. (Thomas F. Torrance, quoting Samuel Rutherford, “Scottish Theology,” 101-02)

You might favor Rutherford’s thinking. I suppose this post is open to contrairians to “Evangelical Calvinism,” but make material points.

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Here is Hugh Binning (1627-1653), young Scottish theologian, speaking of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation; speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation:

. . . our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose. (Thomas F. Torrance, quoting Hugh Binning, “Scottish Theology,” 79)

This understanding, historically is very Scotist in orientation, Myk Habets says:

The Scotistic thesis on the primacy of Christ essentially comes down to one word — love. The predestination of Christ is a completely gratuitous act of God. The corollary is that the incarnation is not conditioned by any creaturely factor such as sin. This utter independence from a creaturely factor is true in the case of all the elect. Therefore, a fortiori, it must be true of the predestination of Christ who, as head of the elect, was predestined to the greatest glory. The basic reason given by the Scotists for the works of God ad extra is the supreme love of God.

and,

. . . The sine quo non of the Scotistic thesis is that the predestination of Christ took place in an instant which was logically prior to the prevision of sin as absolutum futurum. That is, the existence of Christ was not contingent on the fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis. . . . (Myk Habets, “On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ,” (Journal Compilation, Blackwell publishing 2008), 347, 349)

These are the premises which Evangelical Calvinism flows from. Hugh Binning clearly fits the Scotist thesis, the Evangelical Calvinist seeks to magnify the primacy of Christ through its theologizing; it seeks to be “Evangelical” by accepting the ‘evangelical’ implications that flow from the primacy of God’s life mediated to us in Christ. It is my belief, as an ‘Evangelical Calvinist’, that the Scotist thesis — here defined, and illustrated — best captures and articulates the truth of the Supremacy of God’s life in Christ. The alternative is the Thomist thesis — which Federal theology flows from, per its ‘Doctrine of God’ — this thesis has other implications . . . we’ll have to continue to talk about those in the days to come. Let’s close with one of “Evangelical Calvinism’s” favorite passages of scripture:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18. He is the head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20. and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.  ~Colossians 1:15-20

P. S. Often times I speak in polarities, i.e. Evangelical Calvinism vs. Federal etc., this usually is for rhetorical purposes — in order to engender discussion, to provoke — what this post should illustrate though, is that there indeed is a distinct approach to Evangelical Calvinism that does differentiate it from Federal theology — The ‘Scotist thesis’. Everything we do in theology starts with how we conceive of God, so while I realize there is a continuum of belief represented within the ‘Reformed tradition’, depending on this defining point, one will end up on one trajectory or the other or the other. Not all is as nice and neat as I would prefer, but we at least need to define the “poles” in order to further nuance and understand where the various traditions flow from within the ‘Reformed tradition’.

This post is really in response to a discussion I’ve been having in the previous post to this one (‘The Ground of the Atonement’). Given the nature of Covenant theology, we have “Covenants;” these “Covenants” are parsed out differently, even amongst Federal theologians. Some of these theologians have three, but usually it is two (the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace). Here is how the Westminster Confession of Faith describes these two ‘Covenants’:

I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. . . .

Here is how one of the original framers of Covenant theology (or Federal theology), Caspar Olevianus, understood the Covenant of Grace — here recounted by Lyle D. Bierma,

A search for the ground or basis of the covenant of grace in Olevianus will uncover not one but three such foundations, better understood, perhaps, as  a single foundation with three levels. The first and uppermost level is Christ Himself in His role as eternal High Priest. It is as Priest that He offered up Himself as a sacrifice for our sin and obtained our righteousness before God. And it is as eternal Priest, ascended and seated at God’s right hand, that He preserves forever the covenant blessings obtained below. The death of Christ is the foundation of the covenant promised to Abraham, therefore, in the sense that it was on the cross that the covenant promise was “founded,” or established or confirmed. Indeed, it was both a necessary and sufficient foundation. The establishment of the eternal covenant of grace depended on the death of Christ, but His death would have been in vain if it were not also the only way our reconciliation with God could have been procured. (Lyle D. Bierma, “German Calvinism in the Confessional Age,” 76)

In the post below this one, I said: “The ‘Federal Calvinist’ makes God’s love for ‘elect’ humanity a byproduct of something else being met first, viz. the the penalty for ‘Law-breaking’ — the ‘ground’ of His love is that the requirements of the ‘Law’ are met . . . .” This seems to be in agreement with what the Westminster Confession of Faith says on ‘The Covenants’, and it does not disagree with what Bierma is saying per Olevianus’ Federal Theology, in fact it dovetails.

My point here is simply this, in the ‘Federal scheme’ salvation is framed through a contractual arrangement (a bilateral or diplueric covenant system); man (in the first Adam) was to keep His end of the ‘pact’, and then God would keep His (covenant of works) — quid pro quo. Man failed, God initiated His plan of salvation in Christ (based upon His decree — I’m of course speaking temporally here); Christ met the conditions of the covenant of works (in man’s place), but in order to secure this, a penalty had to be paid, first. In other words, God’s grace, and its enactment for man were conditioned or ‘grounded’ upon a ‘forensic’ footing. Since man broke the Law (cov. of works), man must pay for his crime. Since God is gracious, he becomes man, meets the conditions of the Law (active obedience); but none of this means anything unless He also pays for the “crimes against God.” In other words, God’s acceptance of man in Christ all hinges upon this payment (passive obedience) — or as Bierma said above: The death of Christ is the foundation of the covenant promised to Abraham, therefore, in the sense that it was on the cross that the covenant promise was “founded,” or established or confirmed. Indeed, it was both a necessary and sufficient foundation.

God’s grace, God’s love for man, in ‘Federal/Covenant theology’ is grounded upon the atonement of Christ (the cross); if He does not meet the conditions of the Covenant of Works, but more importantly, if He does not ‘found’ or ‘establish’ the Covenant of Grace (payment for sin) at the cross . . . then the contract/covenant is nullified. Love/grace for man is not attainable. This is why I said that the ‘atonement’ or the ‘cross’ serves as the ground of God’s love for humanity (in ‘Federal theology’) — versus God’s free determining life of love. God is subserviant to His decrees, He cannot love us until the conditions and legal requirements are met in the covenant of works and grace.

Typically, in the ‘Classic Calvinist’ framing of the atonement, the ‘ground’ of God’s love for humanity is predicated upon Christ’s legal payment of restitution at the cross. In other words, God is able to love ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’ because Christ meets the obedience requirements set out in the ‘Covenant of Works’. God’s love for us is contingent upon the legal payment made at the cross in this scenario.

TF Torrance comments on a different approach, in fact an ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ approach, offered by a Scottish theologian named John Davidson. Torrance is commenting on Davidson’s catechism, and upon the ground of God’s love for us:

. . . All through his Catechism Davidson laid the strongest emphasis upon what has taken place in the Person of Christ apart from believers, and never upon the persons of those who believe. This was coupled with his emphasis upon the prevenient love of God, from which salvation flowed, without any suggestion that God had to be placated or appeased in order to love and be gracious toward sinners. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 54)

The broader discussion here is on Davidson’s understanding of union with Christ, and of course that vicarious relationship that obtains in Christ’s life for us. But beyond that, this illustrates an important point of departure (and I realize some want to see more uniformity between Federal and Scottish or Evangelical Calvinism — but these are the material points), between a Federal Calvinist and an Evangelical Calvinist, so called. In the latter’s case, we see the cross and Christ’s death, therein, as driven or predicated by God’s love for us in Christ; in the former, they see God’s love for us predicated by certain forensic stipulations being met prior to God’s ability to love us [albeit framed decretally or through the decrees].

Let me rephrase, for sake of clarity; The ‘Federal Calvinist’ makes God’s love for ‘elect’ humanity a byproduct of something else being met first, viz. the the penalty for ‘Law-breaking’ — the ‘ground’ of His love is that the requirements of the ‘Law’ are met (thus the ‘Law’ becomes determinative of who God is, instead of God determining who He is). The Evangelical Calvinist says that God in Christ first loved us (in His intratrinitarian life), and that God’s life of love becomes the ‘ground’ for His actions in salvation history. The cross is a demonstration of God’s love, not the predicate (def. of ‘predicate’ is: ” involve as a necessary condition of consequence” def. taken from here) of God’s love. Federal theology says the latter is true, Evangelical Calvinism says the former is. The Apostle Paul agrees with the Evangelical Calvinist on this point:

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. ~Romans 5:8 (NASBU)

This topic actually is illustrative of what differentiates an Evangelical Calvinist approach from the Federal approach — it is the ‘Doctrine of God’. I believe that Federal theology makes God a predicate of creation; and then I also believe that Evangelical Calvinism sees God as He is, the antecedent of creation (He is in Himself, without us . . . cf. Ex. 3:15). Torrance continues to comment on the presupposition of Davidson’s thought vis-a’-vis Federal theology, he says:

It was Davidson’s statement that ‘Faith is ane heartie assurance that our sinnes are freely forgiven us in Christ’, that appeal was to be made again and again in Scottish theology in face of the lack of assurance that came with the change in the doctrine of God brought about by federal theology and the idea that God had to be appeased in order to be gracious to us. With Davidson, however, the assurance of salvation which is identical with faith is ultimately grounded in ‘the tender mercy and grace of God, who loving us when we were his enemies, provyded our salvation to bee wrought onely by his wellbeloved Sonne Jesus Christ, made Man of the Virgine Marie without sinne.’ That is to say, it was from the ultimate love of God the Father in freely giving his Son to be our Mediator, Redeemer and Saviour, that all parts of our salvation are fully accomplished in such a way in Christ that nothing on our part can ‘deface the assurance of our salvation’. . . . [TFT is quoting Davidson’s old Scottish] (Torrance, 54-55).

Here Torrance illustrates the significance that a ‘doctrine of God’ can have upon all kinds of doctrine — especially, of course, salvation — least of which is the atonement. This continues to illustrate a certain distinctiveness between Evangelical Calvinism and Federal Calvinism . . . it orbits around different doctrines of God, and then different understandings of salvation, etc. This is the core issue that shapes and motivates this blog . . . more to come!

P.S. Let me also caveat this, by way of anticipation; EC does not deny the forensic/juridical components of what Christ did, instead we see those things driven by His prior life of love. God’s love, His life, is the ground of His actions . . . which again, is why Paul says: demonstrates (which presupposes that His love for us [vicariousness is important here, as Scott is working on] is already there, prior to the cross).

**You see, I have some problems, I can hardly read a few pages from TFT’s “Scottish Theology” without feeling compelled to sit down and let you in on the ride — that’s what I am doing here 😉 . I’m not really going to comment on this one, except to say, watch out for how TFT, through his discussion of Scottish (Evangelical Calvinist) theologian John Craig (a successor to John Knox), hits on the distinctions between Federal and Evangelical Calvinism, his emphasis upon ‘union with Christ’ and the ontological understanding of the atonement, election, and carnal and spiritual union (this point will illustrate that Myk Habets nor myself made this stuff up), carnal and spiritual union was right there in John Craig’s theology. Anyway, won’t you read along with me . . .

In his catechetical teaching Craig devoted ‘the Second part of our Belief’ to the doctrine of Christ as king, priest, and prophet, the offices for which Christ was anointed by the Spirit, and which expressed how Christ saved us. Special attention was given to his priestly office in which he gave unusual place to the obedience and praying of Christ as part of his atoning passion offered for us in satisfaction of God’s wrath. Like Calvin he held that Christ died for all, suffering for us in soul as well as body, sustaining the person of guilty men, taking upon himself their punishment, and their curse, thereby bringing upon them the blessing of God. Of particular note is the question and answer: ‘What comfort do we have in the person of the Judge? Our Saviour, Advocate, and Mediator only shall be our Judge’, for it marks the vast difference between Craig’s radically christocentric doctrine of God and of Christ’s atoning satisfaction offered once for all, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the federal concept of God as primarily the ominpotent lawgiver who required to be appeased if we are to be saved. Thus with John Craig there was no concept of God as Judge behind the back of Christ.

Distinctive also is the fact that Craig regarded election as bound up more with adoption into Christ, with union with him, and with the communion of the Spirit, than with an eternal decree. The union of people with Christ exists only within the communion of the redeemed and in the union they conjointly have with Christ the Head of the Church. ‘All who are united with Christ are joined with the Church. Which of these two unions is the first and cause of the other? The mystical and spiritual union with Jesus Christ. For we are all saints of God, because we are joined first with Christ in God.’

Union with Christ and faith are correlative, for it is through faith that we enter into union with Christ, and yet it is upon this corporate union with Christ that faith and our participation in the saving benefits or ‘graces’ of Christ rest. John Craig held that there was a twofold union which he spoke of as a ‘carnal union’ and a ‘spiritual union’. By ‘carnal union’ he referred to Christ’s union with us and our union with Christ which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which he sanctifies us. The foundation of our union with Christ, then, is that which Christ has made with us when in his Incarnation he became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; but through the mighty power of the Spirit all who have faith in Christ are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. It is only through this union, through ingrafting into Christ by faith and through communion with him in his Body and Blood, that we may share in all Christ’s benefits — outside of this union and communion there is no salvation, for Christ himself is the ground of salvation. Hence, as Craig pointed out, the Creed speaks of the remission of sins within the credal article on the Spirit and the Church. While he laid emphasis on the work of the Spirit in effecing union and conjuction with Christ, Craig insisted also that God uses three main instruments to bring us into union and to maintain us in it: the Word, the sacraments, and the ministry of men. . . . (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 50-52)

Isn’t that rich? If there are any questions, let me know.

Also don’t forget I just posted, right before this one, two other posts here and here.

Vicariousness is such an important concept for EC, I dare not pass up an excellent summation of what’s at stake. T. F. Torrance says:

. . . However, it is still this emphasis upon the vicarious humanity of Christ which we lack. If the emphasis is upon the fact that God has acted for us in Christ, then our human response is by way of cooperation, because an act on the part of man is required in addition to and complementary to the act of God. Hence Protestantism often teaches, or tends to teach, that we are all co-workers and ‘co-redeemers’ with Christ and God! But for Calvin and Knox that error is obviated in their teaching about the vicarious and priestly nature of the human Jesus. It was in the Eucharist that their stress upon that came out most strongly. It was through union with Christ in his vicarious humanity nourished in sacramental communion that the concern of the Reformed Kirk with human and social care in the lives of people was grounded. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell, 45)

Often we see the appropriation of salvation framed in terms of ‘our’ response; but this only flows, per TFT, from following a Docetic christology. Docetism is the heresy that forwards the notion that Christ only “appeared” to have a human body; thus it is realy only God acting in salvation, and not man. Therefore we must act on our behalf, our assertion of faith becomes the bridge between God and man in salvation. This is what pressing in on Christ’s vicariousness remedies; it takes serious His actually becoming man, it takes serious the fact that not only was God acting, but man in Christ by the Spirit was also acting in the atonement. This way the God-Man is the center of salvation; it is His ‘Yes’ to the Father that we speak out of. There is nothing to add, there is no gap to fill; we must see the con-junction of God and man in Christ as the key to our discussions on salvation. We must recognize that there is nothing good in our humanity, no infusion of grace that we can cooperate with God through, no good works that we can accomplish in order to do anything towards salvation . . . it’s either Christ in us, or nothing!

Do you see why pressing a full-fledged hypostatic union is so important? If not, we will construct systems of “Bible reading” that, by default, symptomatically bring us back to ourselves. It was not enough for God to act in salvation; it must be the God-Man acting, or there is no hope! Does this make sense . . .

**Don’t forget to read: Scott’s post**

Scott Kirkland, fellow Evangelical Calvinist, has just posted on “Evangelical Calvinism: Atonement,” you should go read it! We share kindred hearts, although I fear I’ve been going astray a bit, he desires to communicate what EC is about at understandable levels; in ways that a person need not be a “trained theologian” to understand. He is doing a two point series, his next post should be a good one as well; he will relate the vicarious life of Christ to his discussion on ‘Atonement’. This is great, since both go hand-in-hand.

Go here to read it

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