About three or four years ago, “J.D.” issued a number of challenges to Reformed Theology that he figured were deal-breakers. They were along the lines of “if you believe this, then the following absurd results come.” These challenges had some teeth at one time. They were different from the standard Roman and Arminian claims. They’ve since been answered by folks of varying degree. A few years later they began to lose some of their “bite,” because the gentleman in question began investing in a theological tradition, only to attack it some months later. Still, I want to offer my own comments on them. Turretin fan did a decent job with them, though my answers will be different.
The Nestorian Accusation
1) “[A consistent Calvinist must be] Nestorian, in that the Logos cannot assume a fallen human nature.”
The thrust of the challenge is this: does a “fallen” human nature = a sinful one? If yes, then Jesus has a sin nature. If no, then one must give up certain claims about Reformed anthropology.
Response: We need to first make a distinction about man’s essential qualities and his accidental qualities. Pace the essential qualities, man does not have a positive principle of sin in him. Hodge is very clear on this. Man can take a “blow to his morality” with regard to original sin and yet his essential human qualities remain in tact (e.g., rational creature, etc). With regard to our identification in Christ, all that the Reformed need to do is demonstrate that Christ has the same essential human nature as we do (rational faculty, etc) and yet identifies with us in terms of federal representation.
The Manichean Accusation
2) “[A consistent Calvinist must be] Manichaean, in that nature is inherently evil.”
We’ve already rebutted this: we do not posit that man has a positive principle of sin. To the degree that we say human nature is “evil,” we are simply using Scriptural language (Ephesians 2:3). The question is what do we mean by nature and evil. If we want to see who is really Manichean, ask how some traditions view sexual pleasure in marriage (here an EO theologian openly admits his tradition is Manichean in practice).
3) “[A consistent Calvinist must be] A Monothelite, in that in conversion, the divine will supplants the human will. And this would go for Christ’s divine will as well.”
This one is tricky because any answer denies a “package deal.” At the most basic the 6th ecumenical council said there are two wills in the person of Christ. We agree. The problem is that a lot of the theology and argumentation under girding this claim doesn’t hold water for more than five minutes, and historic Reformed theologians were very wise not to put all their eggs in this basket. The specific challenge is wrong because for Reformed theology, conversion, salvation, and regeneration are not synonymous terms. We believe that the will is passive in regeneration but very active (sometimes) in conversion. This is a very elementary mistake. The apologist in question comes (originally) from the Federal Vision tradition, which has a very shaky understanding of good Reformed theology.
4) “[A consistent Calvinist must be] A tri-theist, because God the Father cuts off His own Son in the crucifixion (and maybe the Holy Spirit as well?): but Jesus, in all orthodox Trinitarianism, shares the same divine will as His Father.”
This is an an example of where refined, Patristic metaphysics simply fails on Scripture. The Bible routinely talks about the Messiah being “cut off.” His problem is that he is reading the language of “cutting off” in almost a physical-ontology manner. Cutting off is covenantal language, and since these chain-of-being theologies do not have a concept for a robust federalism, they really can’t incorporate this idea. Even worse, what do we make of Jesus’ cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”? We do not believe that the divine nature was separated from the human nature, but we do believe (as Scripture teaches) that the person was cut off (covenantally judged). To reject this is to make hash of the Bible.
5) “[A consistent Calvinist must be] A gnostic iconoclast, because the Logos cannot be imaged.”
Close (except for the gnostic charge). A better way would be, “The Logos cannot be imagined by those to whom he has not hypostatically appeared.” And as we know, an imagined Christology is a docetic Christology. Here is where the debate between the two sides turns into a Mexican standoff. The Reformed accuse the iconodule of Nestorianism, since they are separating the divine nature from the human. The iconodules accuse the Reformed of Nestorianism for precisely the same point. Neither side acknowledges the elephant in the room: the doctrine of enhypostasia. This implication of Chalcedon means that all natures have to be in a hypostasis. So the issue then becomes: are you truly imaging the divine person? No. The divine nature can only be imaged in the hypostasis of the Word. Is the Word locally present in the icon? Obviously not. This is where the Nestorian charge returns: by imaging the human nature of Christ apart from the hypostasis of the Logos, you are dividing the two natures.
6) “[A consistent Calvinist must be] A pagan, in that the Father can damn the Son of His love in wrath, splitting the Trinity: something more akin to Zeus.”
I think we have already dealt with this: there is a “cutting off of the Son” in some sense, for Scripture says precisely that. I admit that Patristic metaphysics is very neat and beautiful at times, but that’s the problem: it is too neat and cannot account for the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. I will acknowledge Jay’s point on one thing, though: Reformed (mainly English-speaking) dogmatics haven’t really dealt with this issue after Hodge. We have already established that the Father “cuts off” the Son in some sense. The question remains as to the mode of the cutting off. Francis Turretin’s comments are beautiful (vol 2, section 13):
- The desertion is not absolute, but temporal and relative.
- It is not according to the union of the nature, but in respect to the joy and felicity of the Son to the Father.
- In defending Calvin from Bellarmine, Turretin notes: But:(1) who does not see that ‘damnation’ is put here for ‘condemnation,’ according tothe most customary style of the French language at that time? (2) If Christ is called ‘a curse,’ why cannot damnation be ascribed to him?
7) “[A consistent Calvinist must be] A Pelagian, in that you have the same view of pre-lapsarian man as Pelagius, and what must be lost is human nature, because nature is grace.”
This is actually an excellent critique of the Federal Vision. By admixing faith and works, the Federal Visionist mixes nature and grace. We do acknowledge a works-principle in the pre-lapsarian Covenant, but that’s not particularly the charge J.D. makes. He doesn’t develop the charge, but I think he is saying that if we have a 1:1 identity with Adam, and Adam lost something in the fall, and Christ is the second Adam, then either Christ is representing us according to a pristine human nature (which we don’t have) or a fallen human nature (which pre-lapsarian Adam didn’t have). That’s the essence of the critique, though he never really explains it.
In response we may say, again quoting Hodge, that there is a distinction between the essential imago Dei and the accidental imago Dei. The latter is not necessary to human nature. Further, the Pelagians denied man was created originally righteous because this would violate man’s neutrality towards good-evil.
8) “[A consistent Calvinist must be] An ecclesiastical relativist, because there is no authoritative Church.”
Depends on what we mean by “authoritative Church.” If unity is glossed as “everybody under the same expression of praxis and authority, then we do not share their view of a united Church. Nor is it apparent from Scripture that we should. It’s ironic that the EO reject absolute divine simplicity, but affirm it with regard to the unity of the church. However, I can blunt the charge entirely: The Scottish Covenanters believed in an established church.
Each of these points can be developed more fully. The gentleman in question was originally a Federal Vision Reformed, then Roman Catholic, then Eastern Orthodox, then ???? He recently invited me to a debate at his website. I don’t have time for it at the moment so I had to decline. My goal here was to give a decent enough rebuttal to these original attacks. They are far sharper attacks than what Reformed people normally deal with. About three years ago these attacks caught a number of Reformed people with their pants down. I think now Reformed folks are learning their older theology which in having dealt with Roman Catholic theologians like Bellarmine, are now able to respond to these neo-Palamite attacks.