Critiquing Classic Calvinism


Here is a snippet from Myk Habets on Torrance’s understanding of ‘Federal theology’:

Federal theology, in Torrance’s estimation, works on the premise of a contract or bargain made between the Father and the Son in eternity past, and interpreted in necessary, causal, and forensic terms, rather than grounding election in the incarnate person of Christ, as it was with Calvin and Knox. Torrance rejects a strictly causative relation between God’s eternal decrees and their end because they eclipse any real meaning to such passages as John 3:16 on the one hand, and as a result, on the other hand, they tended to restrict the proclamation of the Gospel to the ‘heathen’ due to a ‘forensically predetermined covenant-structure. (Myk Habets, “The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study,” Irish Theological Quarterly 73 [2008] 344 ©2008, Irish Theological Quarterly Sage Publications, Los Angeles, London, New Dehli, Singapore and Washington DC DOI: 10.1177/0021140008095442)

I think this point has been established by now, this is how Torrance viewed Federal Calvinism, and its inherent problems. I tend to agree with TFT, of course, and so I thought I would provide this little summation by Habets in order to reaffirm how it is that Evangelical Calvinists think of their Calvinist Cousins. One of the primary points of departure between ‘EC’s’ and ‘FC’s’ is how we frame election; is it ‘personal’ and grounded in Christ and God’s life, or is it ‘abstract’ and grounded in a set of decrees? EC’s believe it is personal, as underscored by Habets with TFT; while FC’s approach this issue in abstractions, and thus miss the ‘Evangelical’ sense of the Gospel as disclosed in the person of Jesus Christ — as disclosed to all humanity in Jesus Christ (the FC only has the Gospel disclosed to the elect — even if there is a ‘general call’ — based upon the decree of election ratified through the payment made by Christ at the cross for them).

Anyway, this is just a snippet of things to come. I want to stay on track, and continue unfolding the distinctives of EC; which is what this little post is trying to do in ‘good-faith’ with the proviso that this is only a foreshadowing of posts to come! Stay tuned . . .

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Here is J.K.S. Reid in his Introduction to his translation of John Calvin’s Concerning The Eternal Predestination of God. He is concerned with underscoring Calvin’s procedure of thought and method per his “system” of things. Calvin’s appropriation by the post-Reformed (those who followed Calvin, through Beza, Zanchi, Perkins, Ames, and others) is a very “logic” driven system of coherence; i.e. they “finish off” where Calvin supposedly “left off.” Certainly they could’ve, but then again they “could’ve not.” This alerts us to the reality that Calvin, given his procedure, is open to multi-appropriations, which would explain why, in the history, there in fact are multiform articulations on Calvin’s theological trajectories — thus the existence of “Evangelical Calvinism” in Scotland, and what Janice Knight has called The Spiritual Brethren in Old England (where they predominated for a time), and New America (where they were overshadowed by The Intellectual Fathers, or Federal/Classic Calvinists). Here is Reid:

. . . A good deal of nonsense is talked about Calvin, as though his system were logical in the sense of being rounded off and complete; and the statement by frequent repitition has become almost a commonplace. In fact his system has not this character at all. It is certainly logical in the sense that the argument moves carefully step by step from one point to the next. But, to do it justice, it must bejohncalvin7recognized as including elements not easily (or at all) capable of being harmonised — a complexio oppositorum, as H. Bauke says of it (see J. T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, Oxford University Press, New York, 1954, p. 202). Of special relevance to the purpose here is the following example. Pighius objects to Calvin that the dominical command to preach the Gospel universally conflicts with the doctrine of special eleciton (§VIII. I). Calvin’s brief answer to this conundrum is that Christ was ordained for the salvation of the whole world in such a way that only those  who hear are saved. The universality of the grace of Christ is symbolised by a promiscuous preaching of the Gospel; the universality of the Mediator is paralleled by the universality of the call to penitence and faith. But at this point the harmony ends; the offer of salvation is made equally to all, but salvation itself is for those who are elect. It is the bare bones of the argument, then, that are exposed, even if the result manifests a certain awkward untidiness. There is no attempt to compel harmony or to systematise by force. That there is a consequent practical difficulty is obvious; and it is one which, whatever Calvin thought of it, was compelling enough to drive his opponents into another camp. The situation for Calvin is not really significantly relieved by what he adds to the argument. The universal offer of the Gospel does indeed have a meaning for those in whose case it is not effective. Quoting St Paul, Calvin says that for them it can only be a “savour of death unto death.” The logicality of the exposition is so far preserved that the universal offer of salvation has at least some effective consequence in all cases. But the parallelism on analysis is found to be specious; the awkwarx untidiness reappears at a different point. It does not now consist in the fact that the same offer of the Gospel sometimes has and sometimes has an effect commensurable with its nature and with the purpose with which God designed it, and that sometimes, on the other hand, it has a quite opposite effect, incommensurable with its nature and the saving purpose of God — it precipitates death instead of life, destruction in place of salvation. This goes to show that Calvin’s first loyalty is directed, not to formal adherence to abstract logicality, but to the facts of the case and situation as he conceived them, or rather as he conceived the Scriptures to depict them. The logicality of his thought is dedicated not to the formation of a system, but rather to the eliciting of the meaning and the implications of those facts which, as it seemed to him, belong the body of Christian truth. (John Calvin, trans., J.K.S. Reid, “Concerning The Eternal Predestination Of God,” 13-14)

This fits well with Charles Partee’s point on Calvin as a “confessor,” more than a dogmatician; Calvin certainly had a logic and method to his theologising, but it was driven by his ineluctable commitment to say what scripture says — even if coherence remains tenuous. Richard Muller and his followers, and those he follows in the history of post-Reformed orthodoxy, have sought to provide, by and large, the “rounded-offness,” or logical coherence to Calvin’s enthymemic (unstated premises) articulation. It is this crux upon which this school claims to be orthodox, its orthodoxy is proximate to its genealogical lineage to Calvin himself; or so goes the thinking. Of course this claim remains questionable at best, since enthymeme is by definition “unstated;” the danger with discerning the unstated is that we might “state” where or what Calvin, in this instance, never intended.

Since, if as Reid has stated, the “lack of logicality” is real in Calvin; the door is open for, as stated before, multiform appropriation of Calvin. My contention is not that the “orthodox” don’t have a credible claim on Calvin, instead that their’s is not to be understood as exclusive. The history of “Calvinism” bears witness to this, amen, amen! 

P.S. The theology that Reid brings up in the quote will have to be addressed at a later date, it is substantial.

**Sorry, I know I just said I would be focusing on more EC stuff, but I’m just going where my reading has me, at the moment. Here TFT comments on the impact that the ‘Westminster Confession of Faith’s’ Doctrine of God had upon the rest of its articulation on salvation and Christ as mediator. This further illustrates how it is that, within the Federal system, we no longer end up with a doctrine of salvation that is Christ grounded, but instead shaped by the decrees, which then shape Christ as mediator (it should be the other way around, and would be if Trinitarianism was at the fore).**

. . . Nevertheless, in failing to give primacy to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Confession of Faith presents a doctrine of God as primarily omnipotent creator and judge of all the earth, who can only be Father to his creatures if the requirements of his Law are rigorously satisfied and God himself is thus satisfied. It is in this way tha the Confession then goes on to present its articles of belief in God’s eternal decrees, of creation and providence, in which he ‘freely and unchangeably’ ordained whatsoever comes to pass, the fall and punishment of mankind, and God’s covenant with man, by which God was pleased to express ‘some voluntary condescension’ on his part. Only then, and within that framework of God as judge and lawgiver, does the Confession come to the doctrine of the Mediator and his atoning satisfaction. This doctrine of God, not primarily as Father, but primarily as creator, lawgiver, and judge, accentuated within the framework of a federalised and logicalised system of Calvinism, was to have problematic and deleterious effects in later Scotish theology. The tendency to trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s Beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, tended to foster a hidden Nestorian dualism between the divine and human nature in the one Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socianian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love. Perhaps it was in order to meet this problem that it could be said that it was the office of Christ as ‘the mediatorial King’, actually to contract and administer the covenant of grace.

— Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 133

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).

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 . . .

Here Muller confirms what I have been asserting all the while; that he sees an organic thread between Calvin and the “orthodox, Calvinists.” He says:

In the early years of the Reformation emphasis on the faith of the individual and stress on a new found sense of Christus pro me placed atonement at the center of theological concern. Even so, the work of Christ as mediator occupies the center of Calvin’s thought. The following essay will argue in similar terms that Protestant orthodoxy did not depart from this emphasis, that it developed a doctrinal structure more formal in definition and more scholastic in method but nevertheless concerned to maintain a doctrinal continuity with the soteriological emphasis and christological center of the theology of Calvin and his contemporaries. In this development, orthodoxy completed the transition (already evident in the work of Calvin) from piety and the preaching of reform to the system of Reformed doctrine. New structures, like the threefold office and the two states of Christ were integrated into systems of doctrine as formal principles, indeed, as new doctrinal contexts elicited from scripture, in terms of which dogmas received from the traditions — the Chalcedonian christological definition, for example — would be understood and, to a certain extent, reinterpreted. In this context also, the doctrine of the atonement, because it manifested the gracious will of God, moved into close relation with the doctrine of election. (Richard Muller, “Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology From Calvin to Perkins, 10)

Like I said, a “seamless whole.” Muller represents, as one of the “Reformed’s” best scholars (and let me just say, he is exceedingly brilliant, an amazing scholar), the atttitude that I’ve been trying to engage here. That is, what Muller calls “orthodoxy” is the only “live” option for what it means to consistently and coherently appropriate the thought of Calvin — thus the exclusive claim (by Federal theology) to the name “Calvinist.” It is this thesis that becomes the a priori force that shapes the sectarianism that is now evinced by Calvinists, today. That is, if someone says that there are other, even historic, ways to appropriate Calvin (much more in line with his Evangelicalism); these folks are considered heterodox.

I’ve read Muller’s book before, I don’t think he sustains his thesis here; I think it remains an ad hoc assertion. But that’s just me . . .

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