Doctrine of God


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.

Here is Thomas F. Torrance critiquing George Hill’s understanding of limited atonement (you can find a fuller explication of this in TFT’s “The Mediation of Christ [must read]):

Hill seemed to have no idea of the biblical teaching about the election of one for the many found both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, and of the idea that the redemptive purpose of God for all nations of the earth was narrowed down to Israel, to a remnant, and then in the most intensive way to Jesus in the midst of Israel, and was fulfilled in and through him in a universal way for all mankind. Thus in respect of the people of Israel the universalising purpose of God will lead to the point when ‘all Israel shall be saved’. Instead, Hill limited the universal sufficiency and extent of Christ’s atoning redemption by a notion of specific ‘destination’, governed by God’s eternal degree, of only certain individuals for ultimate salvation. Regarded from the end result, therefore, the penal satisfaction offered by Christ in his sacrificial death was held to be actually and finally effectual only for particular people. Thus even for George Hill, this evangelical moderate who sought to restore, in some measure at least, the place of the love and mercy of God to its primary place in redemption, the atonement was essentially and rigidly limited in its nature and extent. The question had to asked, therefore, as indeed it was by Thomas Chalmers, what kind of God does this imply? That was the great question with which the General Assembly was faced in 1830, with McLeod Campbell’s revolt against the idea of God that lay behind the doctrine of predestination and limited atonement in what George Hill regularly referred to as ‘the Calvinistic System’ that prevailed in the Kirk.

— Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 262-63

The one for the many is a key biblical motif, and it first finds its ‘rootage’ in the antecedent life of God. In other words, who we see mediated through the national life of Israel, and then fully enfleshed in the tabernacling of Jesus (Jn 1:14); is what has always already been a reality in God’s life for us in the Son for all eternity (or ‘supra-time’). This is the some of the stuff that goes into an Evangelical Calvinist understanding of a Christ conditioned election or Christic Supralapsarianism. Salvation is grounded in God’s life, and so who we see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is who has always been in the ontological coinhering relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

All of this dovetails nicely with Scott’s recent post on election.

Everyone needs to go to Scott’s; he has a really good post unfolding what we *EC’s* think about Supralapsarianism and ‘election’ that is conditioned in Christ.

Go here: Evangelical Calvinism — Part 3: Election

TFT commenting on Jonathan Fraser of Brea’s understanding of the Incarnation and Atonement. Notice how Fraser’s view (according to TFT) is at odd’s with the Westminster Confession of Faith’s ‘partitive’ understanding of the extent of the atonement.

Fraser realised that the extent of the atoning death of Christ had to be thought out in light of the interrelation between the Incarnation and the atonement, and so of the saving assumption by Christ of our Adamic humanity which was comprehensive in its nature and range. As the one Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ embraced all mankind, and therefore what Fraser called all ‘mankind sinners’. As the first Adam brought death by sin upon all flesh, so Christ came as the second Adam in order by means of death to lay a foundation of reconciliation and life for all. He did not take on himself the nature of man as elected, but the actual human nature of mankind as the object of his atoning death and satisfaction, which applies to all and every member of the human race. Hence it may be said ‘All men are fundamentally justified in him and by him.’ ‘Christ obeyed, and died in the room of all, as the Head Representative of fall man.’ Fraser understood this incarnational assumption of our humanity in accordance with St Paul’s teaching in Romans 8.2f about Christ condemning sin in the flesh, i.e. all sin in all flesh, and in 2 Corinthians 18.5f about Christ being made sin for us, that through his death and blood we might be reconciled to God, and be made the righteousness of God in him. Christ came into the world, then, as Mediator not to condemn it but to save it. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 198 [He is referencing Fraser’s Justifying Faith ppgs 104f & 184f, 264-70, 201ff & 206ff])

This is not different from John Calvin’s understanding (here Calvin interacts with his interlocuter, Georgius):

Georgius thinks he argues very acutely when he says: Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world; and hence those who wish to exclude the reprobate from participation in Christ must place them outside the world. For this, the common solution does not avail, that Christ suffered sufficiently for all, but efficaciously only for the elect. By this great absurdity, this monk has sought applause in his own fraternity [the ‘Lombardians’], but it has no weight with me. Wherever the faithful are dispersed throughout the world, John extends to them the expiation wrought by Christ’s death. But this does not alter the fact that the reprobate are mixed up with the elect in the world. It is incontestable that Christ came for the expiation of the sins of the whole world. But the solution lies close at hand, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but should have eternal life (Jn. 3.15). For the present question is not how great the power of Christ is or what efficacy it has in itself, but to whom He gives Himself to be enjoyed. If possession lies in faith and faith emanates from the Spirit of adoption, it follows that only he is reckoned in the number of God’s children who will be a partaker of Christ. The evangelist John sets forth the office of Christ as nothing else than by His death to gather the children of God into one (Jn. 11.52). Hence, we conclude that, though reconciliation is offered to all through Him, yet the benefit is peculiar to the elect, that they may be gathered into the society of life. However, while I say it is offered to all, I do not mean that this embassy, by which on Paul’s testimony (II Cor. 5.18) God reconciles the world to Himself, reaches to all, but that it is not sealed indiscriminately on the hearts of all to whom it comes so as to be effectual. As for his talk about no respect of persons [Georgius], let him learn first what the term person means, and then we shall have no more trouble in the matter. [brackets mine] (John Calvin, trans. J. K. S. Reid, “Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God,” 148-49)

This appears to agree with Fraser’s understanding, indeed, I think it does. Richard Muller disagrees:

Much of the dispute over the doctrine of “limited atonement” in Calvin’s thought can be laid to rest, moreover, by an examination of Calvin’s own language. In a strict sense, “atonement” is not Calvin’s word: Calvin uses expiatio, satisfactio, and reconciliatio as well as the more general term redemptio (particularly in Institutes, II. xvi. 4-6). The two former terms refer to the work of Christ as it relates to the problem of sin and guilt, expiatio indicating specifically the propitiation or propitiatory sacrifice (i.e., the “atonement”) and satisfactio indicating the reparation or amends made for the wrong against divine justice. Here Calvin insists on the fulness of Christ’s work, the complete expiation or satisfaction for sin—which is to say and unlimited “atonement.” On the other hand, the benefits of Christ’s death, the reconciliatio or actual redemptio, the restoration and purchase of individuals, is restricted to the elect, to those upon whom Christ bestows his benefits; and, thus, if the term “atonement” is loosely construed  to mean “reconciliation” or “redemption,” Calvin arguably teaches “limited atonement.” In fact, Calvin’s usage of an unlimited expiatio or satisfactio and a limited reconciliatio, redemptio, or as we shall see intercessio, follows closely the old distinction between sufficiency and efficiency and well fits what is loosely called “limited atonement” not only in Calvin’s thought but also in later Reformed theology. (Richard Muller, “Christ and the Decree,”34).

How convenient. As is quickly apparent, Muller’s thesis of continuity between Calvin/Calvinists is driving this paragraph (as the last clause indicates). More importantly is what he is actually saying, he says ‘if the term “atonement” is loosley construed to mean “reconcilation” or “redemption,” Calvin arguably teaches “limited atonement”.’ That is a big IF, and Muller’s thesis pivots on it. There is no doubt that for Calvin, atonement is universal (even Muller says this); but the question (as this is the control) then becomes, do the Westminsters also hold to universal atonement in the same univocal terms as Calvin, or is their’s a true ‘limited atonement’ (not hypothetical)?

All I want to suggest, at this point, is that the Scot’s I’m reading about seem to be much more in line with Calvin’s understanding than the Westminsters. Calvin grounds, at least in the quote above, atonement in Christ (not a decree) — this does not mean that he cannot speak of election and reprobation in terms of decrees — the question, is, do the ‘post-Reformers’ likewise ground the extent of the atonement within the life of God (i.e. like Fraser who frames satisfaction in filial terms between Father and Son by the Spirit); or do they base satisfactio on the ground of the decree (i.e. conditions of a contract being met)? Is the ground love or contract? This is a significant question, I think . . .

I apparently have a bunch of “Calvin scholars” reading here, what do you think?

It seems that Muller wants to frame Calvin’s theology per the ‘sufficient’ ‘efficient’ dichotomy, which Calvin appears to distance himself from, in the quote above (then there’s his comm. on I Jn 2:2 [Calvin’s]). I think what’s important though, is if Calvin really did think in those terms, per the extent and thus grounding of the atonement. For Fraser ‘Sufficiency’/’Efficiency’ was  relativized and grounded in the Son’s love for the Father by the Spirit, it looks like this is also true of Calvin (notwithstanding Muller’s comments).

Let me close in relief, by returning where we started with Jonathan Fraser of Brae’s understanding. TFT holds that Fraser is in line with Calvin on universal atonement, and then the application of that to the elect/reprobate:

. . . Fraser held that Christ died for all people, the unbelieving as well as the believing, the damned as well as the saved, the reprobate as well as the elected. How, then, did he think that the death of Christ, not least his atoning satisfication for sin, bears upon those who reject Christ and bring damnation upon themselves? This was one of the basic issues where James Fraser sided with the teaching of John Calvin, rather than with that of those ‘Protestant Divines’ who, he complained, had not followed the old road. The paricular point we must take into account here is that according to St Paul the knowledge of Christ is to some people a ‘savour of life unto life’, but to others it can be a ‘savour of death unto death’. In that light it may be said that while the preaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified for all mankind is mean for their salvation, it can also have the unintended effect of blinding and damning people — it becomes a ‘savour of death unto death’. That is how Fraser regarded what happened to the reprobates in becoming ‘the vessels of wrath’ [see Fraser’s “Justifying Faith,” 279). . . . While the Arminian used this as an argument for universal redemption, Fraser, like Calvin, interpreted it as indicating how the death of Christ proclaimed in the Gospel has a ‘twofold efficacy’ in which it can act in one way upon the elect and in a different way upon the reprobate. That is to say, it is the Gospel that acts in that way. Those who reject the Blood of Christ thereby become objects of ‘Gospel and Wrath and Vengeance’ and bring destruction and damnation upon themselves. It is the very condemnation of sin in the atoning satisfaction made by Christ for all mankind, elect and reprobate alike, that becomes the condemnation of the reprobate who turn away from it, and thereby render themselves inexcusable. ‘Reprobates by the death of Christ are made more inexcusable . . . If the death of Christ affords clear ground for all to believe, then I think the death of Christ makes all Unbelievers inexcusable.’ Fraser spoke of this judgment of the unbelieving and the reprobate as ‘Gospel wrath’ or wrath of a Gospel kind. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 199-200)

**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

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’.

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).