Scottish Theology


**A repost for your Sunday**

Here is a quote from T. F. Torrance, from the preface of his book Scottish Theology. This really captures the distinction and nuance that I am trying to make through this blog for the uninitiated (thus far). That indeed there is a rift between what has been called Federal Calvinism (or what I’ve been calling “Classic”), and Evangelical Calvinism (or “Scottish Theology”). TFT is introducing his book, and giving some of the rationale for writing it.

In Chapter One on John Knox and the Scottish Reformation, I have offered a general account of the deep doctrinal change that took place, but in the succeeding chapters I have tried to focus on the main issues that arose as a result of the adherence of the Church of Scotland to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Following upon the teaching of the great Reformers there developed what is known as ‘federal theology’, in which the place John Calvin gave to the biblical conception of the covenant was radically altered through being schematised to a framework of law and grace governed by a severely contractual notion of covenant, with a stress upon a primitive ‘covenant of works’, resulting in a change in the Reformed understanding of ‘covenant of grace’. This was what Protestant scholastics called ‘a two-winged’, and not ‘a one-winged’ covenant, which my brother James has called a bilateral and a unilateral conception of the Covenant. The former carries with it legal stipulations which have to be fulfilled in order for it to take effect, while the latter derives from the infinite love of God, and is freely proclaimed to all mankind in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the imposition of a rigidly logicalised federal system of thought upon Reformed theology that gave rise to many of the problems which have afflicted Scottish theology, and thereby made central doctrines of predestination, the limited or unlimited range of the atoning death of Christ, the problem of assurance, and the nature of what was called ‘the Gospel-offer’ to sinners. This meant that relatively little attention after the middle of the seventeenth century was given to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and to a trinitarian understanding of redemption and worship. Basic to this change was the conception of the nature and character of God. It is in relation to that issue that one must understand the divisions which have kept troubling the Kirk [church] after its hard-line commitment to the so-called ‘orthodox Calvinism’ of the Westminster Standards, and the damaging effect that had upon the understanding of the World of God and the message of the Gospel. . . . (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” x-xi)

This encapsulates the motivation for the blog here; my desire is to alert folks to the reality that TF is speaking to. Here TFT highlights the development of a tradition of Calvinism that is particular to Scotland; but, also want to note that this phenomenon was not unique to the Scots. This kind of development was also, contemporaneously, at play in England as well; Janice Knight has identified this branch of development within Calvinism, as The Spiritual Brethren (as opposed to The Intellectual Fathers — the Westminster Divines).

Calvinists of today, need to know, that they aren’t the only Calvinist ‘orthodoxy’ around; that history is not on their side, per se. Even more importantly, beyond history, I really do not believe that scripture is on their side — by and large.

Anyway, I hope this quote gives you more insight on where many of my cues have been and are coming from. I also hope that if you are into ‘federal theology’ that this will at least make you pause.

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Here is a snippet from Myk Habets on Torrance’s understanding of ‘Federal theology’:

Federal theology, in Torrance’s estimation, works on the premise of a contract or bargain made between the Father and the Son in eternity past, and interpreted in necessary, causal, and forensic terms, rather than grounding election in the incarnate person of Christ, as it was with Calvin and Knox. Torrance rejects a strictly causative relation between God’s eternal decrees and their end because they eclipse any real meaning to such passages as John 3:16 on the one hand, and as a result, on the other hand, they tended to restrict the proclamation of the Gospel to the ‘heathen’ due to a ‘forensically predetermined covenant-structure. (Myk Habets, “The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study,” Irish Theological Quarterly 73 [2008] 344 ©2008, Irish Theological Quarterly Sage Publications, Los Angeles, London, New Dehli, Singapore and Washington DC DOI: 10.1177/0021140008095442)

I think this point has been established by now, this is how Torrance viewed Federal Calvinism, and its inherent problems. I tend to agree with TFT, of course, and so I thought I would provide this little summation by Habets in order to reaffirm how it is that Evangelical Calvinists think of their Calvinist Cousins. One of the primary points of departure between ‘EC’s’ and ‘FC’s’ is how we frame election; is it ‘personal’ and grounded in Christ and God’s life, or is it ‘abstract’ and grounded in a set of decrees? EC’s believe it is personal, as underscored by Habets with TFT; while FC’s approach this issue in abstractions, and thus miss the ‘Evangelical’ sense of the Gospel as disclosed in the person of Jesus Christ — as disclosed to all humanity in Jesus Christ (the FC only has the Gospel disclosed to the elect — even if there is a ‘general call’ — based upon the decree of election ratified through the payment made by Christ at the cross for them).

Anyway, this is just a snippet of things to come. I want to stay on track, and continue unfolding the distinctives of EC; which is what this little post is trying to do in ‘good-faith’ with the proviso that this is only a foreshadowing of posts to come! Stay tuned . . .

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.

Here is Thomas F. Torrance critiquing George Hill’s understanding of limited atonement (you can find a fuller explication of this in TFT’s “The Mediation of Christ [must read]):

Hill seemed to have no idea of the biblical teaching about the election of one for the many found both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, and of the idea that the redemptive purpose of God for all nations of the earth was narrowed down to Israel, to a remnant, and then in the most intensive way to Jesus in the midst of Israel, and was fulfilled in and through him in a universal way for all mankind. Thus in respect of the people of Israel the universalising purpose of God will lead to the point when ‘all Israel shall be saved’. Instead, Hill limited the universal sufficiency and extent of Christ’s atoning redemption by a notion of specific ‘destination’, governed by God’s eternal degree, of only certain individuals for ultimate salvation. Regarded from the end result, therefore, the penal satisfaction offered by Christ in his sacrificial death was held to be actually and finally effectual only for particular people. Thus even for George Hill, this evangelical moderate who sought to restore, in some measure at least, the place of the love and mercy of God to its primary place in redemption, the atonement was essentially and rigidly limited in its nature and extent. The question had to asked, therefore, as indeed it was by Thomas Chalmers, what kind of God does this imply? That was the great question with which the General Assembly was faced in 1830, with McLeod Campbell’s revolt against the idea of God that lay behind the doctrine of predestination and limited atonement in what George Hill regularly referred to as ‘the Calvinistic System’ that prevailed in the Kirk.

— Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 262-63

The one for the many is a key biblical motif, and it first finds its ‘rootage’ in the antecedent life of God. In other words, who we see mediated through the national life of Israel, and then fully enfleshed in the tabernacling of Jesus (Jn 1:14); is what has always already been a reality in God’s life for us in the Son for all eternity (or ‘supra-time’). This is the some of the stuff that goes into an Evangelical Calvinist understanding of a Christ conditioned election or Christic Supralapsarianism. Salvation is grounded in God’s life, and so who we see revealed in Jesus of Nazareth is who has always been in the ontological coinhering relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

All of this dovetails nicely with Scott’s recent post on election.

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.

Here is Hugh Binning (1627-1653), young Scottish theologian, speaking of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation; speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation:

. . . our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose. (Thomas F. Torrance, quoting Hugh Binning, “Scottish Theology,” 79)

This understanding, historically is very Scotist in orientation, Myk Habets says:

The Scotistic thesis on the primacy of Christ essentially comes down to one word — love. The predestination of Christ is a completely gratuitous act of God. The corollary is that the incarnation is not conditioned by any creaturely factor such as sin. This utter independence from a creaturely factor is true in the case of all the elect. Therefore, a fortiori, it must be true of the predestination of Christ who, as head of the elect, was predestined to the greatest glory. The basic reason given by the Scotists for the works of God ad extra is the supreme love of God.

and,

. . . The sine quo non of the Scotistic thesis is that the predestination of Christ took place in an instant which was logically prior to the prevision of sin as absolutum futurum. That is, the existence of Christ was not contingent on the fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis. . . . (Myk Habets, “On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ,” (Journal Compilation, Blackwell publishing 2008), 347, 349)

These are the premises which Evangelical Calvinism flows from. Hugh Binning clearly fits the Scotist thesis, the Evangelical Calvinist seeks to magnify the primacy of Christ through its theologizing; it seeks to be “Evangelical” by accepting the ‘evangelical’ implications that flow from the primacy of God’s life mediated to us in Christ. It is my belief, as an ‘Evangelical Calvinist’, that the Scotist thesis — here defined, and illustrated — best captures and articulates the truth of the Supremacy of God’s life in Christ. The alternative is the Thomist thesis — which Federal theology flows from, per its ‘Doctrine of God’ — this thesis has other implications . . . we’ll have to continue to talk about those in the days to come. Let’s close with one of “Evangelical Calvinism’s” favorite passages of scripture:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18. He is the head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20. and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.  ~Colossians 1:15-20

P. S. Often times I speak in polarities, i.e. Evangelical Calvinism vs. Federal etc., this usually is for rhetorical purposes — in order to engender discussion, to provoke — what this post should illustrate though, is that there indeed is a distinct approach to Evangelical Calvinism that does differentiate it from Federal theology — The ‘Scotist thesis’. Everything we do in theology starts with how we conceive of God, so while I realize there is a continuum of belief represented within the ‘Reformed tradition’, depending on this defining point, one will end up on one trajectory or the other or the other. Not all is as nice and neat as I would prefer, but we at least need to define the “poles” in order to further nuance and understand where the various traditions flow from within the ‘Reformed tradition’.

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