Unlock Truth for Your Kids with a Reformation Key

calvin-troubleWhen John Calvin settled into the work of Reformation in Geneva in the fall of 1536, it wasn’t because he was impressed with the state of affairs he found. In fact, Guillaume Farel had to threaten him with divine judgment on his studies if he should abandon the work Farel was certain God had placed on Calvin. But that’s another story.

Commenting on the state of affairs in Geneva, Calvin recalls:

When I first came to this church, there was next to nothing. There was preaching, but that was all. Images were hunted and burned, but there was no reform. Everything was in tumult.

He wasn’t exaggerating by much. When Geneva declared for Reformation a few months earlier, nearly the entirety of its clergy (between 5 and 10 percent of the city’s population) cleared out, leaving little in the way of an organized church.

Calvin and Farel had their work cut out for them.

You can find out the rest of the story and read about the importance of catechesis in the rest of my article at The Gospel Coalition.

Soli Deo Gloria

Remembering the Reformation Less Like Luther, More Like Calvin

luther-and-calvinWith the 500th anniversary of the Reformation (marked by Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg door) approaching, there’s an increasing amount of celebration going on in Evangelical circles.

But Carl Trueman is a bit skeptical (which, given my respect for him, I tend to take seriously). It seems to him this may be celebration with much zeal that is unfortunately “not according to knowledge.” He wonders, “Evangelicals may well be remembering the Reformation in 2017, but what exactly will they be celebrating?”

In other words, the question is whether doctrinally-relativistic Evangelicals haven’t whitewashed the Reformers (with their passion for hard-edged, doctrinal-ecclesial distinctions) and simply recast them in their own image. In other words, have all you smiling Baptists stopped to think about why Luther thought you were a bunch of enthusiasts, or have you sanitized him and made him safe for generic Evangelical consumption?

This is a problem because if we launch into these “Evangelical jamborees” as an exercise in self-affirmation, we lose the opportunity for historically-informed self-reflection.

Now, so far as it goes, I think Dr. Trueman’s point should be heeded. Evangelicals do often tend to “bowdlerize” its saints to make them comfortable members of the local small group. We ought to be attentive to history for more than hagiography and self-affirmation.

That said, foolish, young man that I am, I have a few quibbles with the piece. Or more positively, I’d like to suggest a few reasons to ground Dr. Trueman’s hope that next year’s round of Evangelical jamborees will be “much more than that.”

I suppose I’ll focus mostly on this paragraph:

The problem is that the Reformation is only really congenial to modern American evangelicalism if it is reduced to little more than the doctrine of justification by grace through faith. The sixteenth-century Reformation was about a whole lot more—and a whole lot that sits uncomfortably with the modern evangelical faith. So, like Bonhoeffer and C. S. Lewis, the Reformers and the Reformation must be bowdlerized, and by a strange domesticating metamorphosis, become modern American evangelicals. The truth is: The priorities and concerns of American evangelicalism have a highly tenuous and ambiguous relationship to those we find embodied in the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation and exemplified in the attitudes and actions of the Reformers.

One waggish initial response is to ask what the Fathers at Nicaea might make of the broader “priorities and concerns” of the local Presbytery meeting in Philadelphia 1500 years later, (which would presumably also want to cling tightly to Nicaea’s confession).

More seriously, though, while it’s wrong to collapse the distance of 500 years by simply remaking it in our image, its also seems easy to ignore the possibility that some of the differences between modern evangelical faith and that of the sixteenth century Reformation are a legitimate development of that faith in response to those 500 years. In which case, yes, there’s still much to be dismayed over in contemporary Evangelicalism. But I think we ought to be slower to find it wanting according to the standards of its 16th century forebears.

What’s more, I do wonder if Dr. Trueman’s being very fair to speak of Evangelicalism’s sharing “little more than the doctrine of justification by faith” with the Reformation. In the first place, as I’m sure Dr. Trueman (and maybe Luther himself?) would agree, justification by faith is no small thing to share.

While some might have qualms about calling it the “doctrine of standing or falling in the church”, it is a nodal doctrine that touches on a host of issues. All who affirm it must begin to approach each other on issues like imputation, atonement, the fundamentally gracious character of God, the nature of ecclesial mediation, and so forth (cf. Michael Allen’s Justification and the Gospel).

Another way of putting it is that sola fide begins to imply the other five solas as a whole. In which case, that celebration may include the recovery of a focus on the preaching and final authority of the Word of God, or the singularity of Christ’s priesthood, the rejection of the cult of saints, and so forth.

All of these are huge issues that even Evangelicals who disagree on some of the same issues the Reformers did (Lord’s Supper, Baptism), can still agree upon now, celebrate, and retrieve together. And this is even more so against a radical, secularizing culture, progressivism, or the inroads Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox apologists are trying to make among younger Evangelicals.

And now I speculate a bit: I wonder if Dr. Trueman’s confession that he is a “Reformed person who loves Luther more than Calvin” doesn’t have more than a little to do with his skepticism?

I’ll gladly cede to Dr. Trueman’s historical expertise at this point, but it seems Luther’s ecumenical style was a bit more bullish, and far less concessive than Calvin’s. Calvin thought Luther a great man, a latter-day apostle even. But Calvin (and a decent number of other Reformers) did not seem to follow him as a model in ecumenical matters. Indeed, he seemed to overlook the great man’s faults there.

Rather, it was Calvin who signed Augsburg. It was Calvin who tried to mediate between the Zwinglians and the Lutherans on the Supper on their commonalities, in order to present a more unified, strengthened Evangelical front in mission and in the struggle against the papacy. As doctrinaire as he could be, he seemed to possess something of a tactical relativizing streak when needed. What’s more, his confessionalism had ecumenical aims–in the preface to the Geneva Catechism, one of his chief stated reasons for presenting doctrine clearly is so that other churches might approve of it.

Obviously, I would be committing the very error Dr. Trueman is warning against if I tried to suggest that, without question, Calvin would fit right in on the podium at the next TGC “jamboree” or something. Then again, I suppose I wouldn’t rule out his showing up.

Dr. Trueman says that true ecumenism must begin with an honest statement of disagreement. I agree that an honest statement of disagreement has to happen. But surely prioritizing of an honest statement of agreement ought to come first, so that we can then properly move on to the areas of disagreement in the right attitude?

Yes, beginning with commonalities like justification by faith often can often be used to relativize differences in a bad way—the kind of way that thinks that just because we agree on justification, I should never tell my Zwinglian friend to allow Jesus to attend his own Supper.

Still, there does appear to be a proper “relativization” that confessing Nicaea, Chalcedon, and, yes, justification by faith, ought to have on that discussion—a relativization to its proper place within the whole structure of the faith. It is that sort of relativization without relegation makes recovering a proper appreciation for dogmatic rank such an important task. It’s that key tool in the toolkit that allows us to keep ecumenism properly confessional and confessionalism properly ecumenical.

There’s more to say than I can here. Obviously, I share his hope that Evangelicals will take this time to dig deep into Protestant history and do more than pat themselves on the back. I guess I’m just more sanguine about the prospects.

Soli Deo Gloria

P.S. On this whole subject, Kevin Vanhoozer’s forthcoming Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestantism is relevant on a number of these issues.

Calvin on Forgiveness and Perfectionism in the Church

church-stepsThere has always been a temptation towards perfectionism in the Church.

And this is understandable. Rightly we are reminded in the Creed that the Church is “holy.” Invoking the word of YHWH in Leviticus, Peter commands his church to “be holy” as the Lord their God is holy (1 Peter 1:16). The Church of God is a set apart people who are to live set apart lives as they honor the Lord who set himself apart in order to redeem them (John 17:19).

And yet, as with every biblical prerogative, when there is sin, pride, myopia, and folly, even the good commands of the Lord can be taken and distorted.

While it may surprise some, Calvin spends a great deal of time in the Institutes warning against a false perfectionism that would tempt people to draw away from fellowship with true churches despite the fact that they preach the Word and administer the sacraments. (Note: he has a section on right division when these marks are absent).

Many times, in the case of great scandal in the church, people are tempted to be discouraged or disgusted with the church, pick up their pews in a huff, and head towards the back door. But Calvin urges us that “in bearing with the imperfections of life we ought to be more considerate” (4.1.13).

He notes a couple of impulses that drive us towards the exit.

First, he there have always been those who “imbued with a false conviction of their own perfect sanctity, as if they had already become a sort of airy spirits, spurned association with all men in whom they discern any remnant of human nature.” In other words, plain, old-fashioned pride and blindness towards your own sin, will cause you to self-righteously separate from the body.

Second, he notes a “very legitimate complaint”, which comes more from an “ill-advised zeal for righteousness than out of insane pride.” In this case, a person might look around a church and see that they quality of life doesn’t seem to match the “doctrine of the gospel” and so they conclude that there is no true Church there.

There he says that churches should bear some responsibility in our slowness to encourage people towards fidelity and obedience. But even still, Calvin says that this latter group is still sinning in cutting ties with the church because “they do not know how to restrain their disfavor.” Indeed, they act foolishly because “where the Lord requires kindness, they neglect it and give themselves over completely to immoderate severity.”

Instead, Calvin reminds his readers of Jesus parables of the net which catches all kinds of fish (Matt 13:47-58), or that of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24), and calls them to understand that though the church is holy (Eph. 5:26), “if the Lord declares that the church is to labor under this evil—to be weighed down with the mixture of the wicked—until the Day of Judgment, they are vainly seeking a church besmirched with no blemish.”

He continues on for several sub-chapters noting the example of Paul’s patience with his own congregations (especially the Corinthians whose sins run the gamut), the prophets of old who did not separate themselves from Israel, and, of course, Christ himself. Paul didn’t tell people to examine the congregation to see whether they should partake, but rather that individuals should examine themselves. To not partake of the Supper for fear of eating with an unworthy person is to be “much more rigid than Paul” (4.1.16).

Among the various wise counsels Calvin offer, it is noteworthy that he sees failure within the church as an opportunity for Christian discipleship. This is so in at least two ways.

First, he sees it as an opportunity for gracious correction, he quotes Augustine saying, “Holy Scripture bids us correct our brothers’ vices with more moderate care, while preserving sincerity of love and unity of peace…Mercifully correct what they can; patiently to bear and lovingly to bewail and mourn what they cannot; until God either amends or corrects or in the harvest uproots the tares and winnows the chaff.”

Second, in another section ponder the true meaning of the forgiveness of sins: “I admit that in urging men to perfection we must not toil slowly or listlessly, much less give up. However, I say it is a devilish invention for our minds, while as yet we are in the earthly race, to be cocksure about our perfection. Thus in the Creed forgiveness of sins appropriately follows mention of the church” (4.1.20)

Indeed, this is why the power of the keys have been given to the church. No one comes into the family of God except through baptism and the forgiveness of sins: “Forgiveness of sins, then, is for us the first entry into the church and Kingdom of God.” And this is a continual ministry of the church: “Not only does the Lord through forgiveness of sins receive and adopt us once for all into the church, but through the same means he preserves and protects us there” (4.1.21).

And so this offers motive for people not to depart from the church. For one thing, they themselves regularly need to hear the forgiveness of sins pronounced. But they also need to be regularly invited to practice the forgiveness of sins towards their brothers and sisters.

While there’s much more to say from these rich subsections, I’d like close on a significant chunk in which Calvin calls us to remember just how limited our judgment in these matters can be:

Let them ponder that in a great multitude there are many men, truly holy and innocent in the Lord’s sight, who escape their notice. Let them ponder that even among those who seem diseased there are many who in no wise are pleased with, or flatter themselves in, their faults, but aroused again and again by a profound fear of the Lord, aspire to a more upright life. Let them ponder that a man is not to be judged for one deed, inasmuch as the holiest sometimes undergo a most grievous fall. Let them ponder how much more important both the ministry of the Word and participation in the sacred mysteries are for the gathering of the church than the possibility that this whole power may be dissipated through the guilt of certain ungodly men. Finally, let them realize that in estimating the true church divine judgment is of more weight than human. (4.16)

Soli Deo Gloria

 

Calvin: Troubler of Israel?

Calvin trouble.jpgIt seems obvious enough to say that trouble is often a matter of perspective. In a marriage, one spouse might think everything is hunky-dory (a phrase whose original meaning still escapes me), while the other is thoroughly convinced that things are in need of an intervention.

From another angle, even when you both may agree that there is trouble, that there are “tumults”, but there’s no consensus about who the main “troubler” is. Indeed, some of our biggest disputes from childhood on revolve around the question “who started it?”

Concerns such as these are, in part, what motivated John Calvin to write his Institutes of the Christian Religion. While later editions were intended for a variety of purposes like introducing theological students to the proper entryway for reading Scripture, he initially wrote his brief outline of the Christian faith as a defense, an apologia, of the new Evangelical faith of his fellow-believers against violent persecution, especially in France.

Indeed, in his preface to King Francis I, he states this is part of his goal, and then within the preface he sets about answering a number of the charges typically lodged against the Reformation of his day such as novelty, the violation of custom, and so forth. The preface as a whole is classic Calvin and worth your time. (I enjoy the section on the Fathers, in particular).

What caught my eye this read through was his segment on the charge that the Reformation brought about “disturbances, tumults, and contentions” that preaching Evangelical doctrine seemed to produce. In the eyes of their critics, Medieval and contemporary, the Evangelical reform was a destructive event, disturbing the peace of the Church. Obviously, true doctrine would not have such negative effects on the holy Church of God.

Calvin’s response is instructive.

First, Calvin takes the objection and flips it. He says that instead of blaming the Evangelicals, critics should have blamed “Satan’s malice.” Because it is “a certain characteristic of the divine Word, that it never comes forth while Satan is at rest and sleeping.” While the Word was buried, Satan “lay idle and luxuriated in deep repose.” But now, one of clearest signs that this Evangelical preaching is the work of God is precisely the tumults that the Word is provoking! Just as it was in the days of Jesus, when the strong man assaulted the kingdom of darkness, so now, Satan stirs up trouble from all sectors to stop the movement of the kingdom of God.

Second, and this is the part that caught my eye, Calvin notes that it’s frequently the case that the Word of God stirs up accusation against it.

Elijah was asked if it was not he who was troubling Israel [1 Kings 18:17]. To the Jews, Christ was seditious [Luke 23:5; John 19:7 ff.]. The charge of stirring up the people was laid against the apostles [Acts 24:5 ff.]. What else are they doing who blame us today for all the disturbances, tumults, and contentions that boil up against us? Elijah taught us what we ought to reply to such charges: it is not we who either spread errors abroad or incite tumults; but it is they who contend against God’s power [1 Kings 18:18].

When Elijah went preaching in Israel and proclaimed the drought against it for its idolatries under Ahab and Jezebel, Ahab called him “you troubler of Israel.” In Ahab’s mind, if Elijah weren’t around, things would be running smoothly. The drought is Elijah’s fault. A similar situation was true of the apostles’ preaching and, of course, Jesus himself.

But Calvin’s point is that the critics have it exactly backwards. The truth is not the source of the trouble. It only shines a light on the darkness, exposing what has hitherto gone unnoticed. Yes, it is the occasion of outrage, but it is not the true cause. Ahab and the Baals he supported were the true troublers of Israel. Or again, it wasn’t Christ who troubled Israel, but the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law who had the people following the traditions of men as the Law of God. It wasn’t the apostles who were at fault for proclaiming the true God in the face of the pagan idols, but the idolaters.

In other words, “we didn’t start the fire.”

Calvin’s counterpoint is interesting because the charge against the Reformation of inciting “tumult” of various sorts is still with us. Only now we’ve got scholarly monographs arguing that the Reformation with its doctrines of the clarity of Scripture, sola Scriptura, and so forth, unleashed tumults of a different sort: individualism, skepticism, rationalism, and the evils of the Enlightenment. Brad Gregory’s widely-influential (even among Protestants prone towards guilty conscience) and widely-criticized The Unintended Reformation is one such work.

In an older review to which I return regularly with great delight, Carl Trueman makes a Calvinian point about Gregory’s criticism of all the ills following the interpretive diversity fostered by the doctrines of sola scriptura and the clarity of Scripture. He points out a number of objective, unpleasant facts about the Papacy of the Medieval period prior to the Reformation (disorder, multiple popes, corruption, etc). And then he drops this humdinger of a paragraph:

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer.   One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

In other words, even if you grant that the Reformation troubled the Church, it was the trouble that follows another, arguably deeper trouble by way of response.

I wouldn’t dare claim that the Reformation was without its faults. Nor do I think that Luther, Calvin, and the crew were necessarily on par with the apostles. Nor am comparing the whole Medieval Catholic Church to the teachers of the Law, or Israel under Ahab. (And actually, in that same preface, Calvin himself refutes the idea that the Church was absent until the Reformation.)

That conceded, I do think it’s worth stopping and considering whether in our dismay about some of the ills of Western Christendom, we have paid enough attention to Calvin’s logic in defense of the Evangelicals: when the Word of God goes forth, we ought to expect tumults, both from the light it shines as well as the opposition it provokes.

I’ve written about moving past my shame-faced Protestantism before, so I guess what I’m saying is that the more I read and study, the less I’m convinced we ought to buy the line that Luther and Calvin were the troublers of God’s Israel, the Church.

Soli Deo Gloria  

Luther’s Extra-Calvinisticum? (Updated)

martin-lutherStudying theology is largely a matter of learning nerdy, specialized jargon. Well, maybe not. Still, it feels that way sometimes. “Extra-Calvinisticum” (the Calvinistic extra) is one of those super-nerdy, theological terms.  (Pro-tip: learning these and throwing them out randomly at parties does not make you cooler–not even in seminary). It comes from the debates of the post-Reformation period where Reformed (Calvinist) theologians were going back and forth with the Lutherans over the nature of the Lord’s Supper and the Christology (view of Christ’s nature as the Godman) that shapes it.

The Lutherans came up with the term to describe what they took to be the distinctively Calvinist view of the union of Christ’s human and divine natures in one person. Richard Muller helpfully summarizes it for us:

extra calvinisticum: The Calvinistic extra; a term used by the Lutherans to refer to the Reformed insistence on the utter transcendence of the human nature of Christ by the Second Person of the Trinity in and during the incarnation. The Reformed argued that the Word is fully united to but never totally contained within the human nature and, therefore, even in the incarnation is to be conceived of as beyond or outside of (extra) the human nature.
In response to the Calvinistic extra, the Lutherans taught the maxim, Logos non extra carnem. It is clear that the so-called extra calvinisticum is not the invention of the Calvinists but is a christological concept, safeguarding both the transcendence of Christ’s divinity and the integrity of Christ’s humanity, known to and used by the fathers of the first five centuries, including Athanasius and Augustine.
It is also clear (1) that Reformed emphasis on the concept arose out of the tendency of Reformed christology to teach acommunicatio idiomatum in concreto over against the perceived Lutheran emphasis upon acommunicatio idiomatum in abstracto and (2) that the polarization of Lutheran and Reformed Christologies owed much to the debate over the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper, in which the Lutherans emphasized the real but illocal presence of Christ’s body and blood by reason of the communicated omnipresence of the Logos and the Reformed emphasized the transcendence of the divine and the heavenly location of Christ’s body. Against the Lutherans, the Reformed interpreted the extra calvinisticum in terms of the maxim Finitum non capax infiniti, the finite is incapable of the infinite. In other words, the finite humanity of Christ is incapable of receiving or grasping infinite attributes such as omnipresence, omnipotence, or omniscience.”
Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 111.

So there you have it. The Calvinistic “extra” means that while the Son is really and truly present through his human nature–it is precisely his human nature–he is not limited or boxed in by it. He transcends beyond it as he always has. Now, again, I’d emphasize here that recent scholarship has shown this “extra” isn’t just a Calvinistic quirk. It can be found in Athanasius, Augustine, and others. As some scholars have noted, it might just as well have been called the extra-Patristicum.

Here’s the really funny bit, though. It seems like it wasn’t just something the Fathers or the Reformed taught, contra the Lutherans. It actually appears Luther himself might taught it–even though he came to different conclusions with respect to the communication of attributes and the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

I ran across this passage in my reading this last week and though I’m clearly not a Luther scholar this seems like clear statement of the “extra” nature of the Son’s divinity:

Now we revert to our text, which is easily understood on the basis of what we have said: “No one has ascended into heaven but He who descended from heaven.” Here Christ is really pointing to His two natures, which dwell in one person. He indicates that His Father is God and that His mother is human, that both have the one and the same Son, our dear Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, as our Creed also teaches. Inasmuch as Christ is God, He is in heaven above from eternity, together with the Father. When He was born of the Virgin Mary, however, He descended from heaven; but at the same time He remained in heaven. He also ascended into heaven, but He was also in heaven before His ascension.

-Luther’s Works, Volume 22: Sermons on the Gospel of John, 1-4, p. 324-325 

Here we see that the unity of the divine and human natures in Christ in no way means that the divine nature is limited to the location of the human nature. So, though the eternal Son of God was born by the Virgin Mary and lay in a manger as an infant, walked around the Sea of Galilee, and was subject to all the regular constraints and limitations of human finitude, Luther says that in no ways means that he ceased being the omnipresent, eternal, infinite one according to his divine nature.

Why does this matter? Is this really just an excuse to learn a bit of history and a nerdy, theological term? Well, not only that. First, historically–if I’m not totally misreading things–there were even more similarities between Calvin and Luther than some might be tempted to believe.

Second, at the very least, it simply offers us another excuse to wonder at and worship the glorious person of Jesus. Jesus is the eternal Son, who, while he sustained the world, holding all things into being, is the one who was simultaneously humbled, taking upon himself human form, submitting to all the vicissitudes and tragedies of our existences, so that he might endure, overcome, and transform them for us and our salvation.

Soli Deo Gloria 

P.S. I am open to correction this from students/scholars of Luther. Just reporting what I read here.

Update: Kyle Drake, a Ph.D. student work on the development of the extra-Calvinisticum over at Saint Louis University very helpfully (and charitably) wrote me a counter-reading of the text in Luther I highlighted. Not being a Luther expert–or an expert of any sort, for that matter–I thought it worth sharing. I’m not sure I’m going to quickly decide against my own reading, but this is certainly an important dimension worth considering.

The quote that you have supplied from Luther is indeed interesting especially considering that the Sermon appears to be from 1538. However, it is not properly referring to the extra because of Luther’s understanding of the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature. He say “Inasmuch as Christ is God, He is in heaven above from eternity, together with the Father.” This is one component of the extra that Christ exists before the incarnation as the logos asarkos, this is one of the elements of the doctrine that Barth denied. However, how Luther continues things gets more unclear, “When He was born of the Virgin Mary, however, He descended from heaven; but at the same time He remained in heaven. He also ascended into heaven, but He was also in heaven before His ascension.” Luther gives no indication here how Christ “remains in heaven” or is “in heaven before His ascension.”  Because of his doctrine of the ubiquity of Christ, that the human body of Christ really partakes of the divine property of omnipresence, it is possibly that he holds that the human nature of Christ is in heaven as well from the moment of incarnation. This was actually a heated debate in later Lutheranism over the interpretation of Luther’s understanding of ubiquity. Johann Brenz argued that Luther intended to teach a necessary ubiquity of the humanity from the moment of incarnation. While Martin Chemnitz argued that the body became omnipresent after the glorification and then only when Christ willed it to be so. I think that this quote from Luther could be interpreted along either Brenzian or Chemnitzian lines.

Triune Justification, Again (Or, is a Reformed view of Salvation Sub-Trinitarian?)

trinityI’ve noted before the way that Protestant theologies of salvation, especially of the Reformed variety, are occasionally criticized as being sub-trinitarian due to their narrow focus on forensic or legal categories. Whether because of an allegedly blinkered view of the cross, or an “overly-individualistic” transaction model of justification by faith, Reformed theology apparently can’t compare to more Catholic, Orthodox, or some more metaphysically-inclined Anglican proposals flirting with Radical Orthodoxy. (To be honest, the critiques all sort of blur together.)

Triune Justification, Again

Again, while that may be true of some popular Reformed or general ‘Evangelical’ preaching, that’s certainly not the case with classical Reformed theology such as that of Bavinck who lays out a beautifully trinitarian conception of justification. But some may wonder if that’s simply because with Bavinck we are dealing with an exceptional Reformed theologian, a jewel in the tradition who is unrepresentative of the broader whole?

Well, actually no. Once again, I ran across this little gem in Thomas Watson’s commentary on the Westminster Catechism’s treatment of justification. Watson is dealing with the various “causes” of salvation, such as faith which receives it, Christ’s righteous life and death as its ground, and so on. He moves to ask about the “efficient cause” or author of our justification:

What is the efficient cause of our justification?

The whole Trinity. All the persons in the blessed Trinity have a hand in the justification of a sinner: opera Trinitatis ad extra sunt indivisa. God the Father is said to justify. ‘It is God that justifieth.’ (Rom 8:83). God the Son is said to justify. ‘By him all that believe are justified.’ (Acts 13:39). God the Holy Ghost is said to justify. ‘But ye are justified by the Spirit of our God.’ (I Cor 6:61). God the Father justifies, as he pronounces us righteous; God the Son justifies, as he imputes his righteousness to us; and God the Holy Ghost justifies, as he clears up our justification, and seals us up to the day of redemption.

There you have it. Drawing on the classical trinitarian logic that all of the Trinity’s ad extra or “outward” works are undivided, Watson traces the triune shape of God’s one justifying action in Christ. There’s absolutely nothing “sub-trinitarian” about even the very clearly forensic or legal dimension to a Reformed account of God’s saving work.

But Even Beyond Justification

It also bears pointing out that much of the confusion comes when we miss the fact that a Reformed view of salvation is not limited to justification by faith. It gladly encompasses it, but free justification and the forgiveness of sins is not the sum total of the gospel, nor of the benefits that make up our salvation. No, arguably, the larger category to keep in view is the doctrine of union with Christ, whereby in faith we are united legally, spiritually, morally, mystically, and vitally with Jesus and all of his benefits, which ends up giving us far more than justification alone. It’s also the broader picture that completely destroys the sub-trinitarian charge.

Instead, union with Christ expands to include things like the effectual calling out of darkness into light which precedes justification. Then also come the gifts of adoption into Father’s family, with all of the spiritual privileges that come with being a child of God such as access in prayer, peace, and the assurance of the Spirit. We are also given the sanctification and growth in holiness which inevitably follows as we received the gift of the Holy Spirit in our union. Finally, we are promised glorification, or the perfection of our salvation when we are resurrected anew by the Spirit and the process of sanctification is complete as we are fully and finally conformed to the Image of the Son, the Resurrected Jesus, in order that we might look upon the face of God in glory.

Theologian Todd Billings had an excellent little article on this recently, articulating all this as an expression of what we might (carefully) call a Reformed doctrine of deification. I’ll quote Billings at length:

Nevertheless, classical Reformed theologians do not hesitate in speaking about the uniting communion that we experience now – and will experience in fullness – in Christ. As Calvin asserts, in our present life of union with Christ by the Spirit – which is nourished through the preached and sacramental Word in community – believers are “participants not only in all his benefits but also in himself.” Indeed, “day by day, he grows more and more into one body with us, until he becomes completely one with us” (Institutes 3.2.24). Moreover, believers are “fully and firmly joined with God only when Christ joins us with him” (Institutes 2.16.3). Yet this union with Christ is impossible without a participation in the Spirit, who unites the believer to Christ (Institutes 3.1.2). Indeed, through the Spirit “we come to a participation in God (in Dei participationem venimus)” (Institutes 1.13.14). As the “perfection of human happiness is to be united to God,” this union takes place in redemption (Institutes 1.15.6). Yet this union does not make us “consubstantial with God” like a fourth member of the Godhead, but it is in Christ, through “the grace and power of the Spirit” (Institutes 1.15.5).

Calvin also speaks of a coming beatific vision, a “direct vision” of the Godhead, “when as partakers in heavenly glory we shall see God as he is” (Institutes 2.14.3). This final, temporal end is in fact “the end of the gospel,” that is, “to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us” (commentary on 2 Peter 1:4). For Calvin, the present and future scope of God’s work in salvation requires us to go beyond looking at how we receive salvation and what salvation saves us from. All of this takes place for the sake of union and communion with God. Salvation not only restores what is lost by the fall; it incorporates creatures into the glorious life of the Triune God.

I’d recommend going and reading the whole of the article and maybe picking up his book Union with Christor this free article on Calvin’s view of salvation focused on the way union with Christ organizes things along trinitarian, Christocentric, and non-reductive lines, if you’re curious about more along these lines.

At the end of all this, though, it should be enough to dispel the very misguided charge that a Reformed view of salvation is sub-trinitarian due to its legal flavor. Not only does that misconstrue what the Reformed actually say about justification, it misses the much broader trinitarian context of salvation in union with Christ that justification is set within. Honestly, if I wanted to, I could have gone through and shown the trinitarian shape of each of those gifts (calling, sanctification, etc) in detail from the Reformed sources. But this enough to reflect on for now.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Trifecta of Joy Commands

joyThere is a delightful little trifecta of commands in the middle of Paul’s laundry list of exhortations towards the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)

In that little burst of admonition, Paul gives us a snapshot of the life of joy that God intends for his children. Not only his children in easy circumstances, but even those like the Thessalonians who were under serious threat of harm, persecution, and loss.

What does it mean to rejoice, though, and how can we do it always? Well, Calvin points out its parallel passage in Philippians 4:

In like manner, in Philippians 4:4, having said,

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known to all. Be not anxious as to anything. The Lord is at hand.

He afterwards points out the means of this—

but in every prayer let your requests be made known to God, with giving of thanks.

In light of this, he says that rejoicing always, or being filled with joy regularly is, “moderation of spirit, when the mind keeps itself in calmness under adversity, and does not give indulgence to grief.” That is not to say that a person never grieves, nor that the person is slap-happy all the time, burying their emotions and plastering a fake smile on their face. He says that the person doesn’t “give indulgence”, doesn’t coddle, doesn’t nurse, doesn’t cultivate grief in the soul in every situation, nor even in those that might tempt us to despair. Instead, Paul “presents as a source of joy a calm and composed mind, that is not unduly disturbed by injuries or adversities.”

How do we do this, though? Well, through prayer. Calvin knows that it is very easy to be “borne down by grief, sorrow, anxiety, and fear”, so he says Paul “bids us repose in the providence of God.” What’s more:

as doubts frequently obtrude themselves as to whether God cares for us, he also prescribes the remedy — that by prayer we disburden our anxieties, as it were, into his bosom, as David commands us to do in Psalm 37:5 and Psalm 55:22; and Peter also, after his example. (1 Peter 5:7.)

Prayer brings us into the gentle presence of our Fatherly God. Prayer reminds us that all things are in the hands of the Lord of History. What’s more, it actually effects change as the prayer moves the God who moves all things. Once we do this, “giving thanks in all circumstances” becomes a thinkable reality. As Calvin expounds it,

For, in the first place, he would have us hold God’s benefits in such esteem, that the recognition of them and meditation upon them shall overcome all sorrow. And, unquestionably, if we consider what Christ has conferred upon us, there will be no bitterness of grief so intense as may not be alleviated, and give way to spiritual joy. For if this joy does not reign in us, the kingdom of God is at the same time banished from us, or we from it. And very ungrateful is that man to God, who does not set so high a value on the righteousness of Christ and the hope of eternal life, as to rejoice in the midst of sorrow. As, however, our minds are easily dispirited, until they give way to impatience, we must observe the remedy that he subjoins immediately afterwards. For on being cast down and laid low we are raised up again by prayers, because we lay upon God what burdened us.

Prayer reminds us of our many benefits in Christ, which allows us to consider the joyful, thanks-inducing reality beyond the current circumstances. There is always reason for joy for the Christian and so Paul tells us to constantly be praying, unburdening ourselves, and tapping into the deep reservoir of comfort we have in Christ.

Finally, we need to remember that this is all God’s will towards us in Christ. God’s intention is for us to live a life of constant joy, in all situations, in prayerful communion with him, pouring out thanksgiving for all of his manifold blessings. These are not burdensome commands. These are, as John Piper has put it, the “duty of delight.” This, indeed, is the endgoal of both God’s commands and his promises: our delight in his glory.

So then, today, remember the trifecta of joy commands: rejoice, pray, and give thanks.

Soli Deo Gloria