EC Themes

  • Methodology (Prolegomena)
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.

  • Doctrine of God
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.
. . . 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'.
  • Pre-destination & Election
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)

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.


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.
  • Union With Christ Theology
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 . . .
  • The Atonement
Here T. F. Torrance (uber-Evangelical Calvinist) is commenting on John Knox's understanding of the atonement. You'll notice that the Federal (*forensic*) understanding is being implicitly critiqued throughout the unfolding of the comment:
. . . Several comments on this understanding of Christ's sacrifice may be in place. While traditional forensic language is used, the atoning sacrifice is not to be understood as fulfilled by Christ merely as man (which would imply a Nestorian Christology), but of Christ as the one Mediator between God and man who is himself God and man in one Person. This means that 'the joyful atonement made between God and man by Christ Jesus, by his death, resurrection and ascension', is not to be understood in any sense as the act of the man Jesus placating God the Father, but as a propitiatory sacrifice in which God himself through the death of his dear Son draws near to man and draws man near to himself. It is along these lines also that we must interpret the statement of the Scots Confession that Christ 'suffered in body and soul to make the full satisfication for the sins of the people', for in the Cross God accepts the sacrifice made by Christ, whom he did not spare but delievered him up for us all, as satisfication, thereby acknowledging his own bearing of the world's sin guilt and judgment as the atonement. As Calvin pointed out in a very important passage, God does not love us because of what Christ has done, but it is because he first loved us that he came in Christ in order through atoning sacrifice in which God himself does not hold himself aloof but suffers in and with Christ to reconcile us to himself. Nor is there any suggestion that this atoning sacrifice was offered only for some people and not for all, for that would imply that he who became incarnate was not God the Creator in whom all men and women live and move and have their being, and that Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour was not God and man in the one Person, but only an instrument in the hands of the Father for the salvation of a chosen few. In other words, a notion of limited atonement implies a Nestorian heresy in which Jesus Christ is not really God and man united in one Person. It must be added that the perfect response offered by Jesus Christ in life and death to God in our place and on our behalf, contains and is the pledge of our response. Just as the union of God and man in Christ holds good in spite of all the contradiction of our sin under divine judgment, so his vicarious response holds good for us in spite of our unworthiness: 'not I but Christ'. . . . (T. F. Torrance: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell," 18-19)
Lots going on here, primary of which is a robust, trinitarian Doctrine of God. Indeed, I would suggest that this is the key from whence Federal and Scottish Theology (or "Evangelical Calvinism") depart, one from the other.

One of the subsequent points of departure between Federal and Evangelical Calvinism is how the "atonement" is framed. The former frames it forensically, per the covenant of works/grace (as shaped by the 'decree'); while the latter frames the shape of the atonementontologically (per the one 'covenant of grace' as shaped within the free predeterminations in the life of God).

There is more to be said. I will try and come back later and provide more reflection, especially for those of you for whom this is new (even "strange teaching").
  • Vicariousness In Christ
Here is a great summary of how Thomas Torrance understood the biblical realities of: justification, reconciliation, and redemption. This summary is provided by Robert Walker, TFT's nephew and editor of Torrance's book Atonement. Of note is the vicarious nature of all three concepts, all grounded in Jesus Christ as our priest and mediator:
(ii) Justification, reconciliation and redemption are the act of God and man in Christ
Again throughout his theology, Torrance emphasises that in Jesus Christ we have the act of God and of man, of God as man in his one person. Justification, reconciliation and redemption therefore must be thought of not simply as the act of God for our salvation, but also as the real act of man, of God as man for us. the importance of this for Torrance's theology and for understanding it cannot be overstated. Justification is not simply the act of God judging sin, atoning for it himself and declaring us righteous in his beloved Son, it is man saying amen to the righteous judgement of God and at the same time fulfilling all righteousness in his own perfect life and humanity. Reconciliation is thus not simply God reconciling the world to himself in Christ, but reconciliation worked out, achieved and realised by Christ as man within his own person, in his own mind, life, heart and soul. Redemption is the mighty act of God in which mankind is liberated from bondage and decay into the new creation through the resurrection of the man Jesus Christ from the dead in the fullness of physical existence. (T. F. Torrance, ed. Robert T. Walker, "Atonement," xlv)
This is the stuff (the guts) of Evangelical Calvinist thought on salvation. If you fail to grasp this, then you will fail to see how EC is indeed distinguishable from Classic Calvinism, in general; and most Christian soteriological understandings, in particular. Furthermore, if you fail to engage the material here, then at the same time, you'll also fail to realize 'how' Calvinist this actually is.

First, there is a grounding of all salvation in God's life alone, in Christ; thus the reason EC stresses the vicarious humanity of Christ for us. We press this, because if we don't, we leave open the possibility for man to have some objective part in salvation (i.e. cooperate with God kind of soteriology). If Christ truly assumed humanity --- and He did --- and if He truly is our priest and mediator --- and He is --- then He, as the firstfruits from the dead, accomplished every aspect of salvation (in Himself). He trusted the Father for us, He first loved the Father, that we might love Him; He repented in our stead, He resurrected that we might resurrect, etc. etc. How this is appropriated is through the Holy Spirit's creativity and otherness (who brings us into communion with the Father and the Son, just as sure as He is the bond of communion and union between the Son's divine and human natures) --- Myk Habets alerts us to the language of theosis and theopoieses in the theology of Torrance [fodder for another post] --- the Spirit provides the space (as He did in the Son) for humanity to 'respond' out of Christ's faith on our behalf.

Second, I say you'll realize how Calvinist this is because it places a genuine primacy on Christ's life. It places a supremacy on God's life as salvation and grace, as the origination of all that is. That without God's unilateral activity in salvation, there, indeed, is no salvation; after all, God's life is salvation. I say these markers are benchmarks of Calvinism because of Calvinism's goal, historically, to speak of salvation in terms that magnify Jesus alone. Now, just because all Calvinists would say these are the touchstones, does not mean all versions or instantiations of Calvinism reach these marks. My contention is that Federal/Classic Calvinism does not; and it is simply because Classic Calvinism has a flawed doctrine of God that does not allow fluid discussion about salvation, because it will not allow for a dynamic understanding of God's trinitarian and relational life.

**Obviously, all of the above are posts that I have written for the blog here. I wanted to at least pull some of this together for first time visitors so that you'll have at least an inkling about what 'EC' is all about. If you have any questions, or points of contention, then let me know. Thanks!**