Richard Muller


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)

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I have to quote this, simply because it verifies a very important point; that Calvin’s Doctrine of God is Scotist not Thomist. Here Muller is discussing how Calvin conceived of predestination and election in Christ. I will just quote this quickly, and come back later (I just want this for future reference, and for all of you to see).

. . . Calvin must depart from a doctrine which examines the predestination of an abstract humanity which does not exist apart from the person of Christ. A similar redefinition of the predestination of Christ is seen in the theology of Bonaventure — who will apply the divine determination neither to the Word, since the divine Word disposes all things, nor to the human nature abstractly, but to the God-man as the foundation of the predestination of mankind to salvation. Calvin, I believe, goes farther still than this, but the underlying theological motivation is similar and the precedent, which places Calvin once again in continuity with Francisan and ultimately Scotist rather than Thomist thought, is significant.

— Richard Muller, “Christ and the Decree,” 37

We see themes in this quote of an-enhypostasis (have to explain later for those unaware, in fact just go here), and also Muller goes on and discusses Calvin’s extra Calvinisticum in re. to Christ’s mediatorship and the decree; all important points . . . we will have to discuss later. BUT, the most important point for me at the moment, is the one on establishing Calvin’s ‘Doctrine of God’ as ‘Scotist’ and not ‘Thomist’ — thanks, Richard!

Here Muller confirms what I have been asserting all the while; that he sees an organic thread between Calvin and the “orthodox, Calvinists.” He says:

In the early years of the Reformation emphasis on the faith of the individual and stress on a new found sense of Christus pro me placed atonement at the center of theological concern. Even so, the work of Christ as mediator occupies the center of Calvin’s thought. The following essay will argue in similar terms that Protestant orthodoxy did not depart from this emphasis, that it developed a doctrinal structure more formal in definition and more scholastic in method but nevertheless concerned to maintain a doctrinal continuity with the soteriological emphasis and christological center of the theology of Calvin and his contemporaries. In this development, orthodoxy completed the transition (already evident in the work of Calvin) from piety and the preaching of reform to the system of Reformed doctrine. New structures, like the threefold office and the two states of Christ were integrated into systems of doctrine as formal principles, indeed, as new doctrinal contexts elicited from scripture, in terms of which dogmas received from the traditions — the Chalcedonian christological definition, for example — would be understood and, to a certain extent, reinterpreted. In this context also, the doctrine of the atonement, because it manifested the gracious will of God, moved into close relation with the doctrine of election. (Richard Muller, “Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology From Calvin to Perkins, 10)

Like I said, a “seamless whole.” Muller represents, as one of the “Reformed’s” best scholars (and let me just say, he is exceedingly brilliant, an amazing scholar), the atttitude that I’ve been trying to engage here. That is, what Muller calls “orthodoxy” is the only “live” option for what it means to consistently and coherently appropriate the thought of Calvin — thus the exclusive claim (by Federal theology) to the name “Calvinist.” It is this thesis that becomes the a priori force that shapes the sectarianism that is now evinced by Calvinists, today. That is, if someone says that there are other, even historic, ways to appropriate Calvin (much more in line with his Evangelicalism); these folks are considered heterodox.

I’ve read Muller’s book before, I don’t think he sustains his thesis here; I think it remains an ad hoc assertion. But that’s just me . . .

Recently I have been interacting with a rather distinguished commenter (I think I know who he is [using my inductive tools], but he prefers to remain anonymous, that’s fine, but his ideas are now public, so I will respond to those), his name is Kenneth P. He believes that I am too rushed, too premature, in fact immature in my analysis of the ‘Reformed tradition’; that “my history” does not comport with history in reality. Thus he believes, by implication, that the premise of my blog is aloof — e.g. a non-starter if you will. Given who this commenter is, I want to show his ‘ideas’ all due respect — he’s done the research, he’s spent the time. Here he critiques my apparently nascent understanding of the history:

. . . But the fact is that you have not drunk deeply enough at the wells of the tradition you are aiming to reclaim/revise/critique in some way. An example: “We have Lutherans, Anabaptists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, etc., etc.; all could bear the name of ‘Reformed’ — it’s all of our heritage.”

The problem here is that you confuse Reformation traditon with Reformed tradition. Out of your list, only Presbyterians are actually Reformed even while they are all Reformation theologies – and that’s because Reformed theology is creedally/confessionally based, not simply on one person or an electic pick and mix of doctrines. That’s just a historical fact of terminology, before we start asking any evaluative questions. Any Lutheran in the C17 would NOT want to be called Reformed! This is one example of your revisonism (I think it’s unintended rather than deliberate?). Elsewhere, conversely, in other instances on this blog you draw lines of discontinuity within the tradition which are far too premature.

To this I respond that I agree and disagree. First I disagree that I have misunderstood, maybe overstated, what in fact Reformation tradition encompasses. My point was to generalize, assert that to say that one is ‘Reformed’ could be construed in polymorphous ways. What I was intending to communicate is that we need more pinpointedness in distinguishing someone from the ‘Reformation tradition’; other than just saying the ‘Reformed tradition’ — Kenneth doesn’t like the designation, Calvinist, which I think, historically, is a viable label.

I agree that there is the distinction that Kenneth is making, but I think it is unhelpful to label it ‘Reformed’; without further nuancing it with “Calvinist.” Kenneth himself makes the point that the Lutherans of the 17th century would not take the label ‘Reformed’, which signifies to me that there was somebody, some group who the Lutherans did not want to be associated with — i.e. the ‘Reformed’ or the ‘Calvinists’.

Really though, this point on ‘Reformed’ or ‘Calvinist’ is to quibble — even if Kenneth wouldn’t think so. In other words, relative to the premise of this blog, to make Kenneth happy we would change the name to: The Evangelical Reformed. I could live with that, I actually like the label ‘Reformed’ better (although I’ve found it to be imprecise, at points); but this isn’t really the point of dispute, at least for me.

The point of dispute revolves around this statement from Kenneth:

. . . Elsewhere, conversely, in other instances on this blog you draw lines of discontinuity within the tradition which are far too premature.

Of course it is hard to offer much defense against this, since Kenneth doesn’t cite any solid examples; but I get his point.

This all gets at the nub of what this blog is about; viz. identifying a wrinkle, a substantial nuance within the ‘Reformed/Calvinist’ tradition. My operating assumption is that there is most certainly a competition of sorts within the ‘Reformed’ tradition. It is too easy to say that I prematurely draw lines of discontinuity between apparently competing movements within the ‘Calvinist tradition’. Of course the burden is to demonstrate that there in fact is a mutually exclusive trajectory at work within the Calvinist tradition; one that is at odds, and does not cohere with what we know of the ‘Reformed tradition’ today (e.g. Westminster).

It seems, according to Kenneth’s comments, that he accepts the methodology and premises at work in Richard Muller’s work. I like to think of Muller’s approach as analogous to a steamroller. I say this because the way Muller presents things, is that what we have in the Protestant Reformation (magesterial and post) is this “movement” that incorporates all kinds of strands and trajectories (Thomist, Augustinian, Nominalist, etc.) — except of course, the ‘Scotist trajectory’. Muller says:

. . . Beyond the issue of medieval background, there is also the issue of the ongoing examination, discussion, appropriation, and rejection of Aristotle and Aristotelianism in the philosophy and theology of the Renaissance, Reformation, and post-Reformation eras. It is simply not the case that, at the moment of Luther’s protest against Aristotle, Aristotle and Aristotelianism disappeared from the map of European intellectual history or were universally banned from the thought-world of the Reformation. Whatever one decides about the implication and result of Luther’s early attack on Aristotle, there remains a history of Aristotelianism in the universities and in the thought of the Protestant as well as the Roman Catholic world both during and after the Reformation. That is a fact of history-to ignore it is to prejudice the analysis of period.

Here he is responding to a former prof of mine (Ron Frost) in a dispute they had in the Trinity Journal. While there certainly is a ‘Reformed’ tradition, to frame it the way that Muller (and then Kenneth apparently) does is to misrepresent the material divergence within this broader Reformed tradition. Muller, as illustrated in the quote, frames the history of this whole ‘Reformed’ tradition as represented by its Aristotelian/Thomistic/Scholastic form. This is not correct, this is to misrepresent the ‘Reformed tradition’; it is to misrepresent by failing to identify substantive distinctives represented by the continuum that we call the ‘Reformed tradition’.

The goal of this blog is to correct this caricature by Muller, I say caricature because he fails to give account to the part of the Tradition that took shape under John Knox, and others — the Scottish tradition. This ‘tradition’ represents the set of beliefs that shapes what we have been calling Evangelical Calvinism. Unlike what Muller would say is ‘The Tradition’ (which is best exemplified by the Westminster divines), the Scottish tradition worked from Scotist assumptions — Scotist metaphysics. Muller’s tradition is shaped by Thomist assumptions, these are exclusive from eachother; and therefore this has ‘drastic’ theological implications for how we understand a Doctrine of God, and then subsequent dogma.

So, far from engaging an binary biurfacating of things — as Kenneth claims I’m doing — the Tradition, so called, is multifocal. If we are really going to talk about the Reformed tradition (my ‘Calvinist’); then we ought to include its whole tradition. This is the contention of my blog, Scottish theology has not been given a credible place within the ‘Tradition’ (as far as I can see); simply because it has been deemed as ‘heterodox’ because it does not fit into what the gatekeepers of the ‘Tradition’ has said the ‘Tradition’ is. And this is because the ‘Tradition’ and ‘Thomism’, as evinced in Muller’s construction, cannot allow this to be.

I realize Muller is supposedly doing ‘history’, but if he was doing sound non-revisionist history he would include the Scotists within it; instead he lets theological commitments subvert his interpretive work, and thus in his accounting Scottish theology does not deserve to be included at the table of what it means to be ‘Reformed’ or ‘Calvinist’ — let alone Evangelical Calvinist.

Calvinism is not a monolithic reality (thus this blog), historically, often times I find, when interacting with Classic Calvinists, that there is the pervasive belief that “their” tradition is pure gospel without development. I think the following, at least, illustrates that this is too reductionistic, and in fact there is significant disagreement between someone like John Calvin (Evangelical Calvinist par excellence) and Theodore Beza (Classic Calvinist the fountain-head), on the ordo salutis and the decrees .

In Richard Muller’s book: Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology From Calvin to Perkins, he is discussing Theodore Beza’s articulation of Christ and the decrees relative to predestination and the consequent doctrine of sanctification and assurance. Let’s hear from Muller on Beza’s view on “finding assurance” of salvation:

The syllogismus practicus [practical syllogism] appears in Beza’s thought as, at most, a partial solution to the problem of assurance. Beza frequently spoke of the inner witness of the Spirit as a ground of assurance, particularly in the context of justification and sanctification. This accords, on the one hand, with Beza’s forensic definition of justification and, on the other, with his recognition that sanctification could not be equated with progress toward a sinless life; in neither case could the emperical syllogismus enter the picture as the sole ground of assurance. But when Beza asks the question of the Christian life that results from faith, justification, and sanctification, proceeding, that is, from the divine cause to its human effects, he more pointedly even than Calvin, demands that good work follow. Throughout Beza’s works there is a tension between the spiritual and the emperical grounds of assurance: there is, in the relatively late study on Ecclesiastes, a denial of any use of material riches as a sign of justification or election–but in the isolated statement of the Catechismus compendarius, the syllogism rears its head in unabated form.

As Bray remarks, we encounter in Beza hardly a trace of Calvin’s teaching concerning Christ as the ground of assurance. There is a strong christological center in all of Beza’s attempts at systematic formulation and we sense everywhere the connection between Christ and the decree, but on the problem of assurance, which must always relate to causally to the decree, there is little christological discussion. In a sense, then, Beza allows more of a separation to occur between the munus Christi and the ordo salutis than does Calvin, to the end that the causal-emperical and pneumatological interests of the ordo predominate. . . . (Richard Muller, Christ and the Decree, 85)

The first point I want to highlight on Beza is that according to Muller the “Practical Syllogism” played a heavy heavy role as the basis for the elect to find assurance of salvation—in other words, emperically “proving” salvation was predominate within the soteriology of Beza. Secondly, there is a juxtaposition between the trajectory set by Beza versus the trajectory set by Calvin in regards to the basis of finding assurance (Calvin, according to Muller, believed that Christ alone was the sole base for finding assurance of salvation vs. Beza who “demanded” that good works are necessary if a person is to have assurance of salvation).

While Beza desires to present an christocentric soteriology, it appears, at least according to Muller’s analysis, that he becomes bogged down by concerns relative to ordo salutis rather than to emphasize the PERSON AND WORK of Jesus Christ.

Let me leave with a suggestion: it is this kind of Calvinism that is considered “Orthodox” today, the kind that was ratified at the Synod of Dordt. Again this kind of regimented Calvinism finds its genesis and shape through its Doctrine of God. The “Doctrine of God” that leads to a Bezan understanding (even a Westminster understanding), is the one informed by what has been called Thomism; that is, Thomas Aquinas’ (Roman Catholic scholar) integration of Aristotelian categories of the infinite with the Christian God. If we err at this point, which I believe Classic Calvinism has, then every other doctrine (including soteriology, issues dealing with salvaiton) will be skewed from an actual “Evangelical” understanding of Christian theology.

In fact it is this issue that will determine whether someone ends up an Evangelical Calvinist versus a Classic Calvinist; that is how we “start” out talking about God. I will need to unpack more of this later . . . I can do some of that in the comment meta if you want.

P. S. If anything, I want you to walk away from this post realizing that there really is a discernable distinction, very early on, to be made amongst Calvinism[s]. Thus, at the least, my blog title is warranted; and in fact, within the history of ideas, these distinctions are demanded if we are going to be “people of the truth” (Janice Knight has made a distinction between English Calvinism, one she labels The Spiritual Brethren [which would correlate closely to our “Evangelical Calvinism”, in some ways], and The Intellectual Fathers [which would correlate to “Classic Calvinism”, exactly] — I’m bursting at the seems here ;-), I have a surplus of things I want to speak to . . . in time ;-). I have left some terms undefined in this post (i.e. practical syllogism), this is on purpose . . . I’m hoping to create some space for discussion and questions :-).