Tag Archives: Reformed Theology

Reading Karl Barth on Election (15)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:134-138, Excursus on Supra- and Infralapsarianism (#2).

The strength of the supralapsarian position is that the divine decree of election stands at the head of all God’s works, in contrast to the infralapsarian doctrine in which the decree of election is subsumed as it were under the doctrine of providence, following the decree of creation and fall. This view has the effect of placing salvation behind or beneath creation, distinguishing two distinct orders in the divine work. Nevertheless, the infralapsarian position has two advantages. First, the harshness of the supralapsarian position is mitigated somewhat since God elects those who are already and actually fallen; God has not brought humanity into the world in order to fall and so to be damned. Second, this helps avoid the supralapsarian difficulty of making God responsible for the fall and for evil.

The Supralapsarians so exalted the sovereignty of God above everything else that they did not sufficiently appreciate the danger of trying to solve the problem of evil and to rationalise the irrational by making it a constituent element in the divine world-order and therefore a necessity, a part of nature (138).

Nevertheless, each side is also deficient in some way. As already hinted, the supralapsarian view presents a particularly harsh view of the electing God—“the Supralapsarian God threatens to take on the appearance of a demon” (140). Their error was not their desire to “know” more than could be known, but in seeking to know in the wrong place (135). Barth also finds another problem: by making self-glorification the centre and measure of all things, supralapsarianism could and did prepare for a corresponding movement in which human concerns became the centre and measure of all things (137). The direct link between the divine sovereignty and the individual exacerbated this tendency. There is, no doubt, some degree of irony here, that the emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God should issue instead in an emphasis on the absolute centrality of the human. Barth sees this development occurring early in Reformed theology: “What vistas open up and what extremes meet at this point! Is it an accident that A. Heidanus, and even so pronounced a disciple of Coccejus as his son-in-law F. Burmann, were at one and the same time Supralapsarians—and also Cartesians?” (137).

But the weakness of infralapsarianism is even more concerning. First, although their arguments against supralapsarianism “sound well enough, … they are not the arguments of faith” (135). Their objections are “logico-empirical,” applying to God standards taken from the order of human reason (135-136).

But the history of Israel and of Jesus Christ and of the Church is not played out within the framework of a prior and already preceding history of nature and the universe. That is not the picture of the world and history as it is given us in the Bible. According to the Bible, the framework and basis of all temporal occurrence is the history of the covenant between God and man. … It is within this framework that the whole history of nature and the universe plays its specific role, and not the reverse, although logically and empirically the course of things ought to have been the reverse. At this point the Supralapsarians had the courage to draw from the biblical picture of the universe and history the logical deduction in respect of the eternal divine decree. The Infralapsarians did maintain the sequence of the biblical picture in respect of the realisation of salvation, but they shrank from the deduction. In respect of the eternal divine decree they maintained a supposedly more rational order, isolating the two dispensations and subordinating the order of predestination to that of providence. … It was inevitable, then, that the Infralapsarian construction could at least help towards the later cleavage between natural and revealed theology. It is that which (within the framework of the common presuppositions) makes it appear the less happy of the two (136).

This long citation reveals a crucial element of Barth’s hermeneutics and theological method. Although scripture begins with the story of creation and fall and then moves onto the story of redemption commencing with the account of Abraham and the covenant established with him, Barth insists that in fact, the proper understanding of the divine work is the reverse: the covenant of God with humanity precedes the creation as that covenant established in the person of Jesus Christ in the eternal divine self-determination in the decision of election. By prioritising creation and fall above redemption the Infralapsarians did manage, as already noted, to remove from God the responsibility of sin and evil. Nevertheless a danger lurked here as well:

According to the Supralapsarian opinion man was nothing more than the elect or reprobate in whose whole existence there was only the one prospect of the fulfilment of a course already mapped out either one way or the other. But the Infralapsarians knew of another secret of God side by side with the decree of predestination. Theoretically at least, then, they knew of another secret of man apart from the fact that he is either elect or reprobate. For them man was also (and indeed primarily) the creature of God, and as such responsible to God. This view involved a softening in the understanding of God which is both dangerous and doubtful (137).

Thus in his exposition of this theological dispute, Barth finds something to commend on both sides, as well as something to critique. The Supralapsarians rightly emphasise the divine sovereignty and grace but open the possibility of making God responsible for sin and evil, and indeed the whole order of creation being a monstrous economy intending the fall and damnation of multitudes. The Infralapsarians rightly retreat from this position by interposing the decrees of creation and fall in advance of the decree of election though this has the disadvantage of separating the orders of creation and redemption. Interestingly, Barth finds that both sides opened a theoretical possibility which later became actual, of an anthropocentric turn in theology in which humanity became the centre and concern of theology.

Reading Karl Barth on Election (14)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:127-134, Excursus on Supra- and Infralapsarianism.

Having detailed his theology of Jesus Christ as electing God and elected human, Barth inserts a lengthy excursus surveying the supralapsarian-infralapsarian controversy in Reformed theology from the early seventeenth century. He begins by noting that this was a controversy within the one church that did not disturb or rend the church, but nor was it ultimately settled. He identifies the central question of the controversy: “Is the one elected or rejected homo creabilis et labilis [i.e. humanity to be created and fallible], or is he homo creatus et lapsus [i.e. humanity created and fallen]?” Barth develops his argument in three sections. The first section provides an overview of the two sides of the dispute, plus a mediating position proposed late in the century (127-133). The second section (133-139) analyses what the two sides have in common, as well as the particular strength of each side, together with a suggestion of each side’s weakness. In the third section Barth proposes his own assessment of the controversy (139-145). The whole is an exemplary piece of historical theology and argument.

In Barth’s exposition the supralapsarian position is characterised as “a system of consistent theistic monism” (129). It is an audacious and consistent attempt to exalt the divine sovereignty as the rationale and originating cause of all things, and in particular, the eternal destiny of every person, whether to life or to damnation. God’s primal and basic purpose is the divine self-revelation, viz. the glory of his mercy and justice, with creation, the fall, and salvation ordained as means toward this end.

Infralapsarianism is a derivative position, formulated in response and opposition to supralapsarianism. It proposes a more modest understanding of the divine purpose. Whereas the supralapsarian “knows” God’s basic and primal will, and why it is that the creation and fall had to take place, and that God has created each individual in order that they might fulfil either this destiny or that as a revelation of either the divine mercy or the divine justice (128),

The infralapsarian does not think that he has any exact knowledge either of the content of God’s primal and basic plan or of the reasons for the divine decree in respect of creation and fall. On the contrary, he holds that the reasons for this decree are ultimately unknown and unknowable (129).

The decree of election is the first and chief of those decrees which relate to the destiny of sinful man, but it is not the first and chief of all the divine decrees. Between creation and the fall on the one hand and salvation on the other there is no necessaria connexio et subordinatio (130).

The infralapsarians insist that God’s decree of election concerns actual humanity, created and fallen, rather than a hypothetical humanity with no real existence. Creation and the fall are not the means of election by which God achieves the ultimate aim of self-glorification, but the presupposition of election. Thus the divine decrees which establish creation and allow the fall precede the decree of election.

In the second section, Barth finds four presuppositions common to the two parties (133-134). Both groups emphasise the priority of divine grace which selects human individuals as the object of election. Both understand the divine decree as a determinative “system” according to which the entirety of history is played out. Third, God’s election is balanced:

When God set up this fixed system which anticipated the life-history and destiny of every individual as such, then in the same way, in the same sense, with the same emphasis, and in an exact equilibrium in every respect, God uttered both a Yes and a No, accepting some and rejecting others. … The two attitudes together, the one balancing the other, constitute the divine will to self-glorification, and God is glorified equally in the eternal blessedness of the elect and the eternal damnation of the reprobate (134).

Finally, both sides understand the divine good pleasure which issues this decree in terms of the decretum absolutum; God’s grace is understood in terms of an absolute freedom whose basis and meaning are completely hidden.

Behind both these views (at a different point, but with the same effect in practice), there stands the picture of the absolute God in Himself who is neither conditioned nor self-conditioning, and not the picture of the Son of God who is self-conditioned and therefore conditioned in His union with the Son of David; not the picture of God in Jesus Christ (134).

Bruce McCormack on Prevenient Grace

prevenient-grace1I enjoy finding biographical data about the theologians I am studying. Knowing something of their life helps me better understand their theology. In his discussion of Open Theism, Bruce McCormack inserts this interesting biographical note, which not only describes his views on prevenient grace, but also “conversion” to Reformed faith:

On a personal note, when I was a student at Covenant Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, Pinnock’s newly edited volume on the universality of grace and the conditionality of election provided me with arguments which helped me to withstand the Calvinist perspective which was dominant there. It was not until I had transferred to my denominational seminary, Nazarene Theological Seminary, that I experienced a “second conversion”—one which moved me from a Wesleyan-Arminian perspective to a Reformed outlook. The occasion was a paper I wrote on John Wesley’s doctrine of prevenient grace. The disappointment I experienced as a consequence of close study of this doctrine was tremendous. I regarded it then (and continue to do so to this day) as a sophistical attempt to overcome the doctrine of “total depravity”—a doctrine to which Wesley was theoretically committed—by means of a “grace” which is alleged to restore in all just enough freedom so as to put every human being in the position of being able to accept or reject “saving grace” when it is “offered.” The problem for me did not lie simply in the fact that such a view only pushes the logic of irresistible grace back one step (since the liberty which is restored in all must be the work of God alone if the affirmation of total depravity is seriously meant). It did not even lie in the fact that the net effect of Wesley’s teaching was to make his affirmation of total depravity meaningless, since the totally depraved turn out to be an empty-set. The real problem for me lay in the fact that there is not a hint, so far as I can see, of such a concept of grace to be found in Holy Scripture. Having said that, I should add that I do understand the allure of Arminianism, for I too was once an Arminian.[1]

[1] McCormack, Bruce L., “The Actuality of God: Karl Barth in Conversation with Open Theism,” in Engaging the Doctrine of God: Contemporary Protestant Responses, ed. McCormack, B. L., (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 202-203.

Reformed Theology (Allen)

Allen, R. Michael, Allen, Reformed TheologyReformed Theology
(Doing Theology; London: T&T Clark International, 2010), xi + 217
ISBN: 978-0-567-03430-4

R. Michael Allen’s Reformed Theology is a welcome contribution for those who claim the tradition and those who do not. Allen is no impartial observer but an insider, a committed and thoughtful participant in the tradition who mines the Reformed confessional, dogmatic and exegetical heritage to delineate the central doctrinal commitments of his theological tradition. Although emerging from the Reformation and maintaining a ‘Reformational’ theology, it is to be distinguished from other Reformational groups such as Lutheranism, Anglicanism, and Anabaptism. Allen develops his outline of the tradition in eight chapters dealing with the Word of God, Covenant, God and Christ, Faith and Salvation, Sin and Grace, Worship, Confessions and Authority, and Culture and Eschatology. In so doing he demonstrates that Reformed theology cannot be dismissed as narrowly focussed on the so-called doctrines of grace or the “five points of Calvinism.” Rather, the Reformed tradition has a distinctive contribution to make across the whole spectrum of Christian theology.

Indeed, Allen argues that “Calvinism” is a misnomer and should be dropped entirely (3). He acknowledges the breadth and diversity of the tradition, although he is also clear that he stands within the conservative camp. He engages with voices from all sides of the tradition and acknowledges the critique of the “revisionists” where he feels it is appropriate. He is unafraid to make judgements: although a Reformed pastor, Schleiermacher is ‘outside the Reformed movement doctrinally’ (92); Karl Barth is a valued co-traveller in the tradition, though Allen often prefers the formulations of the tradition to those of the Swiss theologian.

The origin and formal principle of Reformed theology is the Word of God spoken to humanity, which takes several forms, primarily Jesus Christ, but also the Scriptures which constitute the normative witness to and source of our knowledge of God. Throughout the book Allen affirms the ‘regulative principle’ whereby Scripture functions to order the faith, theology, practices and structures of Reformed churches. If Scripture is the formal principle of Reformed theology, the leading material principle is the idea of the covenant. Allen, however, wants also to set alongside the material principle the ‘key theological tenets of the Reformed identity: justification, predestination, etc.

Reformed theology is confessional theology, undertaken in an ecclesial context where sola scriptura reigns, though, it must be acknowledged, ‘sola scriptura is not nuda scriptura’ (138). In his exposition of theological authority Allen follows Heiko Oberman’s suggestion that Protestant churches maintain a single-source theory with respect to the relation between Scripture and tradition; nevertheless, ‘the importance of tradition is underlined as the conduit by which Christ rules his church’ (139f.). Tradition is a legitimate though derivative and provisional authority in the contemporary church; nonetheless traditional formulations function as a legal authority—within the economy of the Spirit’s grace (142, 144f.; cf. 116), such that confessions ‘are formal texts that serve as rules for the theological beliefs of pastors and elders’ (145). Allen struggles to affirm both the binding authority and the provisionality of the confessions. He acknowledges the plurality and diversity that exists, particularly in recent confessions, and is concerned that loss of coherence between the various instruments is a danger confronting the Reformed churches. He insists that,

 The enduring legacy of the Reformed reformation cannot simply be reduced to its formal principle: reform by Scripture alone. Many have been tempted to sever the formal from the  material, taking the Reformed tradition as a constantly revolutionary process … But cultural and religious iconoclasm is not the Reformed vision or the practice of reforming church practice. It must also be guided by the material principle and key theological tenets of the Reformed identity: justification, predestination, etc. … Reformed theology is committed to the sole final authority of the Bible, to be read amongst the church and under the authority of her official confessions’ (154f.).

The difficulty observed here is not simply that which arises between theological authority and freedom, but between the formal and material principles of Reformed theology. Allen appeals to the Westminster Confession of Faith to specify the regulative principle, namely, only what is ‘either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture’ is authoritative, ‘unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men’ (139; WCF I.6). On this basis Allen outlines the Reformed argument for doctrines such as definite (i.e. ‘limited’) atonement and infant baptism. In both cases he fails to convince those not already convinced, and leaves the impression that covenant hermeneutics have been elevated above the primacy of Scripture. I suspect that Allen himself is not entirely comfortable with classic covenant theology; he suggests that ‘perhaps a way forward in Reformed theology will be found by combining Barth’s knack for lovingly describing the epistemic priority of God’s self-revelation, with the variegated narrative described in the “federal theology”’ (50). One unfortunate omission is the lack of explicit treatment of reprobation, which is a major concern for many outside the Reformed camp. Allen approaches the doctrine implicitly in a discussion of divine and human action (107-110). He acknowledges the need for more work ‘within the exegetical and dogmatic realms in showing how Jesus talks of judgment and love, and the Reformed tradition needs a new defense of the doctrine of hell and judgement, indeed, of God’s justice’ (110).

Reformed Theology is a well-written and generous book providing an excellent overview of the major features, methods and commitments of the Reformed doctrinal tradition. I hope it gains the wide reading it deserves, especially amongst those who seek a better, sympathetic understanding of the tradition, and also amongst those who self-identify as Reformed but whose exposure to the tradition has been unnecessarily narrow or even shrill.