Charles Partee

The real advance has obviously been made when we come to the INSTITUTIO of 1559, in which unio cum Christo [union with Christ] has become the common denominator under which Calvin tried to range his whole doctrine of the appropriation of the salvation achieved and revealed in Christ. For now in the Third Book, before he can speak of faith, of conversion and renewal, of the vita hominis christiani, of abnegatio nostri as its sum, of the necessary bearing of the cross, of the relation between this and the future life, then — and only then — of justification, of Christian freedom and prayer, of eternal election as the ulitmate presupposition of the whole, and finally of the future resurrection, according to the view attained in 1559 he has first to make it plain how it can come about at all that what God has done for us in Christ, as declared in the Second Book, can apply to us and be effective for us. The answer given in the noteworthy opening chapter of the Third Book is to the effect that it comes about through the arcana operatio Spiritus, which consists in the fact that Christ Himself, intead of being extra nos, outside the man separated from Him and therefore irrelevant to us, becomes ours and takes up His abode in us, we for our part being implanted into Him (Rom. 11:17) and putting Him on (Gal. 3:27). (Karl Barth CD 4.3.2, 550-51 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 195)


Theologian R. B. Kuiper believed that John Calvin would’ve completely supported the 5-points of Calvinism (see Charles Partee, “The Theology of John Calvin,” 128. footnote 13); Kuiper said in light of his view on Calvin:

Calvinism is the most nearly perfect interpretation of Christianity. In the final analysis, Calvinism and Christianity are practically synonymous. It follows that he who departs from Calvinism is taking a step away from Christianity. For in the last instance the fundamentals of Calvinism are also the fundamentals of the Christian religion. (R. B. Kuiper, As To Being Reformed, cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 128.fn.13)

Come on, admit it, this describes you; you think Calvinism is the Gospel “TULIP” style. All those outside this pale, just might be outside the orthodox; indeed, may not be a Christian at all, right? ūüėČ

Here is Charles Partee on Imago Dei (Image of God) and Imago Christi (Image of Christ):

Having praised the original creation of human understanding and will, Calvin concludes that God is comprehended in Christ alone (II.6.4) until such time as we shall see God as he is (II.14.3). God cannot be known apart from Christ because “all thinking about God outside Christ is a vast abyss which immediately swallows up all our thoughts.” Those who philosophize about God without Christ are deluded (compare 1 Pet. 1:20; I John 2:22). Since Calvin’s theology is based on faith, not on reason, the Christian life is not linked by chains of reasoning but guided by faith in Christ, which is the principal work of the Holy Spirit. “We hold ourselves to be united with Christ by the secret power of his Spirit (III.11.5). “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” (III.11.10).

Image and Likeness. The same dynamic from created to fallen to restored also applies to Calvin’s view of the image of God. Mankind was originally created in God’s image, which means “that man was blessed, not because of his own good actions, but by participation in God” (II.2.1). The image of God is not to be understood only as a possession but a relationship—and “participation in God” involves “union with Christ.” In the fall, while “God’s image was not totally annihilated and destroyed in [Adam], yet it was so corrupted that whatever remains is frightful deformity” (I.15.4). Human sin means that the image of God cannot be understood solely in terms of creation or fall but in the true image of God restored in Jesus Christ. In other words, Calvin defines the image more in terms of redemption than creation. Regeneration is nothing else than the reformation of the image of God in the godly, but the second creation of the image in the restoration by Christ is a far more rich and powerful grace (Com. Eph. 4:24). The grace of God exhibited in Christ exceeds all miracles. Indeed the redemption that he has brought surpasses even the creation of the world (Com. Is. 9:6).

Since Christ is the perfect image of God and we are united to him, we are restored to God’s image. . . . (Charles Partee, “The Theology of John Calvin,” 86-87)

Much to be said, and I will reflect on this over the weekend. Let me just place a bookmark on the participation and Imago Dei/Christi point, this is important, even if Calvin himself was not entirely internally consistent, himself.

Two quotes from Calvin on Union with Christ (or Unio Mystica):

First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us.

— Institutes III. 1. 1 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 40

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. 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.

Institutes II. 16. 19 cited by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 41

Both of these quotes illustrate something that stands at the heart of an ‘Evangelical’ approach to Calvinism; and that is the vicarious life of Christ. If we aren’t ‘really’ brought into His life, in the Incarnation and Atonement (both of these being inextricably linked), then salvation only ends up dealing with the symptoms (murders, lying, stealing, lusting, blaspheming, etc.) — the external problems — and not with the “heart problem” (where the murders, lying, etc. flow from). If Jesus didn’t get into our skin, and thus we into His, then we end up with a half baked salvation . . . which really is no salvation. More to come . . .

Maybe you share this sentiment of Calvinism:

Calvinism has established a foothold on theology, and therefore in actuality become the plague and scourge of the Church. . . . The salient determinant [for Vance’s writing] is the tremendous damgaing nature of the Calvinistic system. Nothing will deaden a church or put a young man out of the ministry any more than an adherence to Calvinism. Nothing will foster pride and indifference as will affection for Calvinism. Nothing will destroy holiness and spirituality as an attachment to Calvinism. There is no greater violation of every hermeneutical, contextual, analytical, and exegetical interpretation of Scripture than Calvinism.

— Lawrence M. Vance, “The Other Side of Calvinism,”¬†vii-viii¬†cited by Charles Partee, “The Theology of John Calvin,” 7

I once read a book by Stephen Strehle entitled: The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter Between the Middle Ages and the Reformation; I think there should be a book written and entitled: The Calvinist Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter Between the Reformation and the Modern. The point is, is that Vance’s vitriol is simply typical of a naive notion that there is not categorical conceptual continuity between ‘yesterday’ and ‘today’. I am willing to bet that Vance’s ideas on salvation, Christ, God, etc. are very much so informed by a complex of ideas that find at least some of their shape from the ‘Calvinist’ perspective — for good or ill — this is to say nothing of Calvin, himself, per se.

Beyond this, maybe the sentiment by Vance characterizes your own perceptions¬†about ‘Calvinism.’ As this blog intends to show, though, Calvinism should actually be understood to be CalvinismS; Calvinism is not a monolith, historically, that is. Anyway, I just thought this quote was curious, and indeed captures much of the sentiment upon Calvinism, even today — most popular captured by Dave Hunt’s “What Love is This?”, which Partee moves onto to deconstruct in the next couple of paragraphs in his book.

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’.