Federal Theology


This is in response to Heather’s request for me to compare/contrast Evangelical Calvinism with Traditional/Classic Calvinism. This will all be off the top (it’s a blog remember 😉 ).

  • Doctrine of God

Evangelical Calvinist: Holds to a view of God that emphasizes the Trinitarian nature of God’s life of love — a more relational understanding. God’s life is determined to be what it is by His free-love one for the other; which overflows to His creation.

Classic Calvinist: Holds to a view of God that emphasizes God’s oneness as the Law-giver — a more abstract understanding. Which is why we end up with decrees in God’s dealings with humanity, he must remain unmoved by His creation.

  • Election

Evangelical Calvinist: Grounds election in Christ. He is the electing God and elected God-Man for humanity — which means all of humanity.

Classic Calvinist: Grounds election in the decree, and focuses on particular individuals instead of Christ as the elect.

  • Salvation

Evangelical Calvinist: Emphasizes the idea of ‘union with Christ’ as the ground of salvation, thus His vicarious life is the place where our salvation is rooted (i.e. in His choice for us, not our choice for Him). The Holy Spirit makes Christ’s objective work for us subjective, making Christ’s ‘Yes’ to the Father (as our mediator in His humanity) our ‘Yes’ in ‘Him’.

Classic Calvinist: Speaks of ‘union with Christ’, but grounds salvation in the ‘elect’ man’s Spirit ‘enabled’ choice; in this sense elect man is enabled to cooperate with God in appropriating salvation (albeit it is all attributable to God’s power).

There is more, Heather, and I will respond further. You wanted to know more about Barth’s “apparent” universalism, I will broach that at a later time as well. Let me know what you think of this, if this helps. And of course this post isn’t just for Heather 🙂 , so any and all feedback is expected.

Here is a video that is quite excellent in elucidating the kind of Calvin theology that T. F. Torrance develops in his book Scottish Theology; and the thesis, in regards to understanding Calvin’s theology, that Charles Partee develops in his newer book The Theology of John Calvin. The thesis is that Calvin’s theology is oriented around Unio mystica, or “Union with Christ.” This video is also interesting, because it comes from a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in PA, his name is Dr. Lane Tipton. Ironically, but not really, another WTS professor (although this one from the CA campus) takes issue with Tipton’s statement on the forensic component of justification overshadowing the person of Jesus Christ in salvation, and in particular the theology of John Calvin (not the “Calvinists,” per se) . . . you can read what he has to say here. Watch the video, it’s only about 5 minutes, and then I’ll pick you up on the other side:

H/T: R. Scott Clark

This, if taken at face value from Tipton (which I am), writhes against dyed in the wool Federal Theologians; that is, their interpretation of Calvin, and the continuity of heritage, reads Calvin almost exclusively through forensic lenses (which is what Federal theologians must do, at least if they are going to claim to be the only living heirs of Calvin). What Tipton is saying, is what Partee is saying about Calvin, and this is what T. F. Torrance is saying about the Scottish/Evangelical Calvinists who emphasized this ‘Calvin’ theme of “Union with Christ” within their own theological development.

The question is, theologically, does Calvin ground his view of justification on the terms of the decree (Covenant of Works/Grace) being met; or does he ground it in the person of Christ? The Federal says the former, the Evangelical says the latter. Not to be too audacious, but it almost sounds as if Tipton is Evangelical, at least his interpretation of Calvin is.

Follow Jue’s line of thought, if you’re unfamiliar with the history of Reformed theology this video should help you. Jue hits on scholastic theologian (Classic Calvinist), Francis Turretin; what is noteworthy is the genealogy and historical flow that Jue notes per the influnce of Turretin’s Eclentic Theology. It was Charles Hodge at Princeton who had Turretin’s theology translated into English from the original Latin, and thereby secured its place as one of the primary “shapers” of what we know as Reformed theology today — most ardently articulated at Westminster Theological Seminary, where Dr. Jue teaches.

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)

Let me clarify something, real quickly; us Evangelical Calvinists are not saying that we have sole claim on Calvin and his theology. We aren’t saying that Federal Calvinists don’t have any claim on Calvin’s theology, either. Instead, since Calvin’s thinking often (as reflected in the Institutes) was more ‘Biblically’ tensed, than ‘Dogmatically’ (although he does present theological loci for sure); we are left with particular tensions in his thought. What, then, we are claiming, as EC, is that an aspect of Calvin has been developed one way (Evangelical); while another has been developed in another way (Federal). Both can make legitimate claims to Calvin’s thought, both can say they have the more faithful appropriation — thus sola scriptura, this must be the norming norm by which we adjudicate such issues. And this is my point, my goal here really isn’t to say that Federal Calvinists aren’t the ‘true heirs’ to Calvin; it’s only to alert us to the fact that they aren’t the only ‘true heirs’. 🙂

**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

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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