Grace


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’.

Here’s ‘the Man’, T. F. Torrance, commenting on one of my favorites, Scottish theologian, Jonathan Fraser of Brea (17th c.):

. . . Faith is to be understood in a personal way, not as an assent to information, to truths of Scripture or doctrinal propositions, but as the assent that arises in the heart and understanding as an echo of or answer to Christ’s call in the Gospel. It is a ‘closing with Christ’, when ‘the Lord speaks to the heart and draws the heart to himself’. Faith is to be understood, therefore, in accordance with the nature of its proper object, a Saviour crucified for our sins held out to us by the Love of God in the Gospel. It is not to be understood in terms of its own nature or activity as faith, but in relation to Christ its proper object as he is offered to us in the Gospel. Faith is ‘not a giving but a receiving grace’. What Fraser was concerned to stress here and all through his work was the objective basis of the confidence and assurance of faith, in Christ himself. ‘The Ground of this Confidence is wholly in the Lord Jesus without us, and not at all either in whole or in Part in our selves.’ (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 184)

This is how EC’rs like to think about ‘Saving Faith’, it is vicarious, and grounded in Christ’s life for us. I’m afraid that typically faith is framed in ‘substance’ terms, as grace is (the Thomist impact). EC sees such things in relational and through Trinitarian lenses. I hope your faith is grounded in Christ’s and not in some sort of ‘accident’ of essences or something.

The following is a great quote on sola gratia (grace alone) by none-other than our own ;-), Myk Habets; and how this looks within the ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ framework. (This will be the weekend post, then).

Torrance is critical of Roman Catholics, certain evangelicals, and liberals alike, who, in direct antitheses to a Reformed doctrine of election, rest salvation upon our own personal or existential decision. The Arminian error is not in subscribing to universal atonement but in subscribing to universal redemption based upon an erroneous reading of 2 Cor 2:15. Free-will is nothing other than self-will and it is the self which is enslaved to sin, therefore no human truly has free-will; therefore, salvation must be by grace alone. A vivid picture of this is provided when Torrance turns to the story of Zacchaeus found in Luke 19:1-10. Interested in Christ but wanting to retain his freedom to stay aloof from him, Zacchaeus, short in stature, hides in a tree to observe Jesus from a safe distance. But Jesus invades his space and announces his decision to lodge in Zacchaeus’s house and tells him to make haste and come down. ‘Then the astonishing thing happened,’ Torrance notes, ‘this man who did not have it in him to change his heart, who was not free to rid himself of his own selfish will, found himself free to make a decision for Christ, because Christ has already made a decision on his behalf. This is what Torrance sees as the heart of the Gospel — that the Son of God has come into the far country to men and women enchained in their self-will and crushed by sin, in order to take that burden wholly upon himself and to give an account of it to God.

This view is contrasted to that of the Arminians who, in Torrance’s opinion, throws people back upon themselves for their ultimate salvation, something he considers ‘unevangelical.’ The Gospel is preached in this unevangelical way when it is announced that Christ died and rose again for sinners if they would accept this for themselves. Torrance considers this a repetition of the subtle legalist twist to the Gospel which worried St Paul so much in the Epistle to the Galatians. ‘To preach the Gospel in that conditional or legalist way has the effect of telling poor sinners that in the last resort the responsibility for their salvation is taken off the shoulders of the Lamb of God and placed upon them — but in that case they feel they will never be saved.’ In contrast Torrance proposes the following as an example of how the Gospel is preached in an evangelical way:

God loves you so utterly and completely that he has given himself for you in Jesus Christ his beloved Son, and has thereby pledged his very being as God for your salvation. In Jesus Christ God has actualised his unconditional love for you in your human nature in such a once for all way, that he cannot go back upon it without undoing the Incarnation and the Cross and thereby denying himself. Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way that he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour.

Torrance’s presentation of the Gospel in such a way is instructive. The love of God is not in question, not even for the reprobate. All are elect in Christ as Christ died for all, thus universal pardon is announced in the free and gracious offer of salvation. And yet, two other things are equally clear; first, not all are saved. The sinner has the right and the ability to refuse the love of God and to damn themselves, no matter how impossible this may seem. While this will forever remain a mystery, it is nonetheless a reality. Second, the sinner does have to do something, namely, repent and believe. While faith is a gift, it must be responsive. This is why Torrance asserts one of his oft repeated phrases, ‘all of grace does not mean nothing of man, but the reverse.’ (Myk Habets, “The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study,” Irish Theological Quarterly 73 [2008] 351-52).

A nice ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ synopsis of what ‘grace alone’ means; certainly we see TFT’s penchant for vicariousness at play here; and also we see how ‘grace alone’, for TFT, is personified in Jesus Christ. This is contrariwise to both the Federal Calvinist understanding (which thinks of grace in terms of a ‘quality’ or ‘substance’), as well as the Arminian understanding (which also thinks of grace in terms of ‘something’ we have from God, instead of ‘someone’).

I hope you find this helpful, especially those of you for whom this is your first time exposure to such thinking; I think the quote is pretty straightforward, if not (or even if it is), let me know what you think. Questions and comments, critique and candor are what posts like this are intended to provoke. So let it flow . . .