Jonathan Fraser of Brae


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’.

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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)

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.

II Corinthians 2:15 says:

15 For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. 16 To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.

Which illustrates something about the”why” of appropriating of salvation (or not); and that is, simply, that Scripture really never speaks to “why” (i.e. why some choose and some don’t, to follow Christ). We do know that the Holy Spirit is the one who so works on the hearts of those who finally believe; but we also know that He works on the hearts of those who don’t believe (Jn 16). For one He works in a way that the Gospel is a “sweet aroma and the fragrance of life;” for the other the “smell of death.” This is where scripture leaves it, certainly all of this is grounded in Christ’s work . . . even His rejection (but we are never fully led to know “why” folks remain in “unbelief”).

Here is how T. F. Torrance describes Jonathan Fraser of Brea (an 17 century Scot, and one of the foremost Evangelical Calvinists of his time):

Quite clearly, then, 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 satisfaction 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 particular 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 meant 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’. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell,” 198–201)

Unlike the Classic Calvinist (Westminster), the Evangelical Calvinist does not look — necessarily — for all the “causal” reasons of “Why.” We want to look at scripture, and most definitely work out and into the inner logic of the scriptures; but this only means that we can only press as far as the boundaries of scripture, and Christ’s life, allow. I would suggest, then, that knowing “Why,” in the form provided by the CC’s; is not a tenable approach to interpreting scripture. And the reason I know this, is because in their method, in their desire to “fill in the gaps,” they end up flattening out scripture; when scripture in reality is alot more rough than “our systems” would have them to be.

Let me provide a lengthy quote from T. F. Torrance on Jonathan Fraser of Brae (a Scottish theologian from the 17th century). This is what makes someone an “Evangelical Calvinist” (EC) versus an “Classical” one; remembering that there is something behind all this that is really at stake in speaking of someone as an EC — and that is our “Doctrine of God.” I digress, here is this quote; it will require follow up, which I will do at a later time (or in the comments, which if you read here, I would appreciate your feedback 😉 — although I have provided a little commentary at the end of this quote). Here we go:

. . . Fraser realized 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 Christ Jesus 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 and representative of fallen 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 [sic] 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.

Woven into this understanding of redemption through Christ as mediator and Fraser’s understanding of the all sufficiency of the death of Christ, was the place he gave to the reformed doctrine of the active and passive obedience of Christ, his obedient life and vicarious suffering. As with earlier reformed theologians of the 53rd chapter of Isaiah about the suffering servant played a basic role in Fraser’s thinking about the mediatorial life and activity of Jesus, prompting him to take into account ‘ the whole course of Christ’s obedience from his incarnation’ through which he united himself to sinners in an effectually saving way in order that all men might believe. Fraser admitted, however, as we have already noted, that the atoning death of Christ for sinners was ‘ not necessarily effectual’ for all, for there was no physical or necessary connection between them, although there may be one of faith. It is significant that Fraser would not divorce the all sufficiency of Christ’s death from the all sufficiency of his incarnate person and obedient life. This is very evident in the arguments he developed for ‘ a sufficient universal satisfaction for reprobates’.

Quite clearly, then, 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 satisfaction 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 particular 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 meant 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’.

The Word of the Lord goeth not in vain, but shall certainly accomplish that whereunto it is sent. Isa.I.5. The Messengers thereof being a sweet savour unto God, in them that perish, and in them that are saved, 2 Cor. ii.15. So the blood of Christ is a sacrifice of a sweet smelling savour to the Lord both in them that perish, and in them that are saved.

While the Arminians 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 with 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.

God’s intention, end and purpose he designed, was indeed to save the elect amongst them, but not to save the rest, but that they contemning and rejecting the offer salvation might be made fit objects to shew his just gospel-vengeance and wrath upon them, tho’ it be true that God intended the work should have such an end.

According to Fraser this ‘ Gospel-Wrath’ is a worse punishment than ‘ Law-Wrath’. This was rather harsher than what Fraser said elsewhere, where he was closer to Calvin. Thus in speaking of Christ as ‘ crucified and crucified for our sins’, he wrote ‘ Nothing can be expected from this Saviour but good will: It’s by accident Christ condemns, but his primary end is to give life to the world.’
Again:

I grant indeed Christ doth condemn many, but then consider that such as he condemns it is for flighting of his grace offered in the Gospel; his first office is to preach glad tidings, to hold out the golden scepter that the world might believe and be saved, but then the world misbelieves Christ (for a great part of them did) Christ secondarily condemns and per accidens.If by unbelief they neglect this great salvation, the death of Christ will be so far from saving of them that it shall be their greatest ditty. (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell,” 198–201)

Notice how Fraser makes the distinction between creation and election. This allows him to speak about a universal atonement, and at the same time talk about election and reprobation as theological realities. In other words, the incarnation vis-à-vis the atonement becomes the touchstone framework for his articulation of his brand of covenant theology. So on one hand he can say that Christ genuinely died for all humanity, and on the other hand hold that this universal atonement encapsulates both the elect and reprobate. One having a positive response to the Gospel, and one having a negative response to the Gospel.

Something that I like about Fraser, and his approach, is that he provides an alternative, more evangelically motivated Calvinism; contra his rationalist counterparts from Westminster. In other words, whereas Westminster Calvinists frame the whole atonement discussion with logico/causal language so that if Jesus dies, whomever he dies for “will be saved”—i.e. because if he doesn’t save who he dies for then he shed some of his blood in vain, and his sovereignty is called into question. Fraser’s approach reorientates the atonement from the causal rationalist language toward a more Christ centered evangelical framing; he accomplishes this by focusing on the supremacy of Christ over both life and death. For Fraser Jesus is the centrifugal force who alone (along with the Father and Holy Spirit) determines salvific reality for all people. Fraser does not seem to feel forced, as the rationalist Westminster Calvinists does, to explain why some respond positively and some negatively; he just recognizes that this is the reality. And this reality all orbits around Jesus Christ, and his ultimate determination shaped by his triune life.

There is a lot more that needs to be said, but I would say this piece has gone on long enough. If you have made it this far, then I’m sure this quote has prompted many questions; so I’ll see you in the comment meta.