Irish Theological Quarterly


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 . . .

Here is Habets commenting on TF Torrance’s view of carnal union and spiritual union with Christ:

Utilizing the language of the Scottish divine John Craig, Torrance distinguishes between Christ’s ‘carnal union’ with humanity from his ‘spiritual union.’ Our carnal union with Christ refers to the union between Christ and humanity through his incarnation. He was made man for us that he might die for us, and so there is a carnal union established between Christ and all of humanity. Our spiritual union with Christ refers to the fact that the Holy Spirit unites the believer with Christ so that the benefits of Christ may be ours. It is important that the carnal union and the spiritual union are not separate but rather, spiritual union is a sharing in the one and only union between God and humanity wrought out in Jesus Christ. (Myk Habets, “The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study,” Irish Theological Quarterly 73 [2008] 338.

This is how Torrance could speak of ‘universal atonement’ (UA) as a necessary corollary of the “Incarnation;” and yet not ‘universal salvation’ (US). UA is the ‘objective’ plank, and in fact the reality and ground by which all of humanity is now oriented to God. The ‘spiritual union’ is the subjective side that is only realized for those who respond to God’s convicting work by the Holy Spirit.

This distinction is different from Westminster Calvinism, which limits Christ’s union with humanity to a certain group of humanity — the elect (thus leaving it open to a charge of Nestorianism). Carnal/Spiritual union allows for a way to speak about election and reprobation in meaningful ways, which are grounded in Christ. In fact, it is this basis which makes this form of Calvinism, Evangelical. All of humanity is represented by Christ, and thus all of humanity is accountable to His ‘salvation’ or His ‘wrath’. Scholastic Calvinism does not place Christ at the center in this way, their basis for God’s wrath, then, is seen outside of Christ — not within. This is a problem, amongst others . . .

**I’ve been trying to think of the best way to proceed, relative to introducing an Evangelical Calvinist approach to predestination and election. I’ve decided the way I’m going to do it, at least at this juncture, is to work through Myk Habets’ essay, The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study (from Irish Theological Quarterly 73 [2008] 334-354). So what I’m going to do is quote large chunks, to open our discussion, then I will — through following posts — work at distilling what Habets is uncovering in regards to T. F. Torrance’s Evangelically Calvinistically tensed understanding of ‘our’ topic (the great thing is that Dr Myk Habets reads here, and so if I err too much he can reign me back in ;-). Let’s begin, this first section will just entail a lengthy quote (hey if I can transcribe this whole thing, including footnotes, the least you can do is read it 😉 from Habets, and serves as a great intro into our discussion (Like I said, I will have a series of posts breaking down this first quote, I’m hoping even this first run will generate some feedback from you all — which just might shape my “breaking down” posts).**

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I. The Prothesis of the Father and the Eternal Decrees

Torrance adopts the language of prothesis to refer to divine election whereby the Father purposed or ‘set-forth’ the union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. Divine election is a free sovereign decision and an utterly contingent act of God’s love; as such, it is neither arbitrary nor strictly necessary 4. Torrance holds to the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election,5 one which represents a strictly theonomous way of thinking, from a centre in God and not in ourselves.6 ‘Predestination’ simply emphasizes the truth that God has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), which Torrance links with the teaching that Christ as Lamb of God was slain before the foundation of the world. The eternal decrees of the Father are not to be thought of in exclusion of the Son, for the eternal purposes of God do not take place apart from Christ or ‘behind his back’ as it were. As such, ‘predestination was understood simply as the decretum Dei speciale [special decree of God].’7 This allows Torrance to distinguish between predestination and election in the following way: predestination refers ‘everything back to the eternal purpose of God’s love for humanity,’ while the cognate term election refers ‘more to the fulfillment of that purpose in space and time, patiently worked out by God in the history of Israel and brought to its consummation in Jesus Christ.’8 In one of his earlier works he writes: ‘Election is not therefore some dead predestination in the past or some still point in a timeless eternity, but a living act that enters time and confronts us face to face in Jesus Christ the living Word of God.’9

One of the distinctive features of a Reformed doctrine of election is the recurring instance that election ‘is christologically conditioned.’10 Following Calvin, Torrance claims that Christ is the ’cause’ of election in all four traditional senses of ’cause’: the efficient and the material, the formal and the final. ‘He is at once the Agent and the Content of election, its Beginning and its End.’11 Election proceeds from the eternal decree of God but this eternal decree of election assumes in time once and for all the form of the wondrous conjunction of God and humanity in Christ.12 The hypostatic union is the heart of any understanding of election as Torrance makes clear when he writes, ‘How are we to relate God’s action to our faith? The secret of that is seen only in the God-manhood of Christ, for that is the very heart of election, and the pattern of our election, and is visible only there since it is election in Christ.’13

Torrance is adamant that election and predestination must be expounded in terms of christology for it has to do with the activity of God in Christ.14 As a direct consequence, it is to Christ and the salvation he purchased that one must look for the ground of election, not to some secret decree of God ‘behind the back of Christ.’15 Torrance even subjects Calvin to criticism at this point for not holding strongly enough to the fact that Jesus Christ is the ground of election, not only the instrument and author of election.16 When Christ is seen as the object and subject of election then more deterministic conceptions of election are done away with. ‘These then are the two sides of the Christian doctrine of predestination: that salvation of the believer goes back to an eternal decree of God, and yet that the act of election is in and through Christ.’17 It is Christ’s election which forms the basis of a correct understanding of his person and work, something Torrance affirms is central to the history of Scottish theology and reflected supremely in the Scots Confession. In general agreement with Torrance is Fergusson who, when referring to the Scots Confession, considers it to root election in the person and work of Christ so that it ‘produces a strikingly evangelical exposition of election.’18

Because election is bound up with Christ, it must not be thought of in any impersonal or deterministic sense.19 The encounter between God and humanity in Christ is the exact antithesis of determinism; it is the ‘acute personalization’ of all relations with God in spite of sin. Interestingly, because Christ is the ground of election there can be no thought of indeterminism in relation to the encounter between God and humanity either.20 Owing to the adoption into Protestant scholasticism of deterministic thinking, something Torrance attributes to an artificial importation of Greek determinism, election is often thought of in terms of cause or force, and so forth.21 But this is to transpose onto God our thought and in the process distort the doctrine of election. It is here Torrance becomes most animated: ‘Thus, for example, in the doctrine of “absolute particular predestination” the tendency is to think of God as a “force majeure” bearing down upon particular individuals. That is to operate with a view of omnipotence that has little more significance than an empty mathematical symbol.’22 Evident in this statement is Torrance’s methodological commitment to work from an a posteriori basis rather than an a priori one, and so reject a natural theology.23 Omnipotence, for instance, is what God does, not what God is thought to be able to do because of some hypothetical metaphysical can. What God does is seen in Christ. What then does the ‘pre’ stand for in ‘predestination’? asks Torrance. Originally it made the point that the grace by which we are saved is grounded in the inner life of the Trinity.24 ‘That is to say, the pre in predestination emphasises the sheer objectivity of God’s Grace.’25 It was this view of the priority of divine grace which fell away in scholastic Calvinism so that predestination could be spoken of as ‘preceding grace’ and election came to be regarded as a causal antecedent to our salvation in time. The result of this shift was a strong determinist slant.26 (Myk Habets, “The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study,” Irish Theological Quarterly 73 [2008], 335-38)

Footnotes

4. That is, it must be constructed in the fashion of Protestant scholasticism or of process theology. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture, 131.
5. It is based on unconditional election ‘for it flows freely from an ultimate reason or purpose in the invariant Love of God and is entirely unconditioned and unmotivated by anything whatsoever beyond himself’ (ibid, 131)
6. See ibid, 131-132
7. Torrance, ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 108.
8.Torrance, ‘The Distinctive Character of the Reformed Tradition,’ 4.
9. Thomas F. Torrance, ‘Universalism or Election?’ Scottish Journal of Theology 2 (1949): 310-318, 315.
10. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 14 (emphasis his).
11. Torrance, ‘The Distinctive Character of Reformed Tradition,’ 4.
12. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 14.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid., 172.
15. Ibid. Torrance considers the one covenant of grace to be completely fulfilled in Christ so that the covenant idea is completely subordinated to Christ. See Torrance, ‘Introduction,’ Iv-Ivi and ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 111.
16. On Torrance’s reading, Calvin attributed the ultimate ground of election to the inscrutable will of the Divine decree. He cites John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1960), 3.22.2, which asserts that election precedes grace. A similar criticism of Calvin is given by Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4 vols (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956-1975), II/2, 111.
17. Torrance, ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 109.
18. David A. S. Fergusson, ‘Predestination: A Scottish Perspective,’ Scottish Journal of Theology 46 (1993): 457-478, 462. He also notes that ‘Barth claimed [it] was without parallel in the other Reformed confessions,’ (ibid, 462), referring to Karl Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938), 68-79, and Barth Church Dogmatics, II/2, 308. And yet, Ferguson does admit that even the Scots Confession does not entirely escape the ‘errors of double predestination,’ (ibid.).
19. See, for example, ‘In the early centuries of the Church, theology was marked by an emphasis upon the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom, largely to combat Stoic determinism and astrological fatalism’ (Fergusson, ‘Predestination: A Scottish Perspective,’ 457).
20. Fergusson sees this as one of the weaknesses of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, that due to God’s forekowledge God passes over the reprobate and this is an explanation why some believe and some do not. Ibid., 457-459. Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, 16, 307.
21. It was not simply Calvinistic scholasticism that made this determinist move but also Lutheranism. See, for instance, Luther and Erasmus, Free Will and Salvation (London: Library of Christian Classics, 1969).
22. Torrance, ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 114.
23. Torrance comments that ‘there is no doctrine where natural theology causes more damage than in the doctrine of predestination’ (Torrance, ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 114).
24. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture, 134.
25. Ibid.
26. A weakness of Torrance’s argument is his refusal to acknowledge this determinist element within Calvin’s own theology and not simply that of his followers. It seems clear that Calvin presents a doctrine of double predestination, albeit not as strictly as many of his followers do. See Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.21-24 (especially 3.23.1), and John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. J. K. S. Reid (London: Clarke, 1961). An account of Calvin’s doctrine of double decree can be found in F. H. Klooster, Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination, 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977), 55-86. Someon who shares Torrance’s basic convictions on election but does not share his views on Calvin is Fergusson, ‘Predestination: A Scottish Perspective,’ 460-462.

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Feedback is welcomed, from “trained theologians,” “budding theologians,” and “regular Christians — who also happen to be theologians” ;-). I will be working through some of this in the days to come, your questions and/or comments will certainly help shape my future posts. I am looking for critical/informed feedback (on this piece by Habets), but more importantly, I simply want to hear back from “regular Christians” who have questions about what they’ve read thus far. My method, I think, is going to be to try and get at the “general themes” that emerge from Habets’ rather technical (for the untrained eyes) and academic essay.