Problem and Promise of Effectual Calling

The smarter Anchorites will not open the debate on predestination.  Reformed live to debate that topic, and many Anchorites  probably realize that they themselves are logical open theists on that point.  No, they will open the move on effectual calling, stating that it involves a coercion of the will, which means–if there is a 1:1 correspondence between our humanity and Christ’s–that Christ didn’t have a fully human will.

They are correct that the key point is effectual calling.   Effectual calling, as Kevin Vanhoozer aptly summarizes, illustrates the problem of a causal nexus between God and the world.   Every theology must own up to this.   Ever since Descartes’ insights about the mind-body dualism, philosophers and theologians had to face the question:  that there is a distinction between Creator and creature (or mind and body for that matter), how can one affect/effect the other?

For all of the problems and difficulties with the Reformed answer, it can at least answer this question.  I doubt Anchorites can.

The logic of judicial calvinism

My antipathy towards TULIP as a designation is well-known.   Still, I suppose the moniker “Calvinism” has its uses.

Paul writes,

What if God, willing to show his wrath and make his power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath fitted for destruction (Romans 9:22)

The standard (and correct) Reformed inference is that God is absolutely sovereign over salvation.   The judicial Reformer makes another inference:  the vessels of wrath get progressively smashed in history.

A Theological Ellipsis, part one


This essay is not meant to be an attack on Eastern Orthodox theology.  I have utmost respect for it.    It is merely documenting why I am cannot currently go this route.  Since it is not meant to be a rebuttal or refutation, it likewise cannot be critiqued as such.  I am not advancing a particular thesis nor am I giving a defense of Protestant distinctive.   A sharp Orthodox apologist could present numerous cogent objections to Protetantism and I probably wouldn’t have a good response to them.  Notwithstanding, I do think I have a few cogent reasons why it is difficult or impossible to go the Orthodox route right now.

I do not want to be like those who study a little bit of Orthodoxy and then devote their entire internet careers stalking Orthodox websites.  I really don’t have time fro the “blog wars.”  One wit has rightly described hell as “the comment section of a theological blog.”

As with Scripture, so with Tradition

One of the more popular arguments I had used against sola scriptura was that it demanded the premise that “Scripture interprets Scripture.”  The problem, though, is one of circularity.   How could one even begin the process?   One is assuming a priori that there is a given Scripture that interprets the less clear ones.  But who gets to determine which is the given and which the less clear ahead of time?  Unfortunately, I think, this same problem can be advanced against the Traditionalist approach.  While I don’t believe the Fathers “contradict each other” (at least not outright), one must admit that there are troubling passages.   Therefore, the same problematic applies:  which interprets which?  How do you know?       For example, St John Chrysostom says that the True Faith is found where the Bible is truly believed.  This, at least on the surface level, is a far claim from the standard traditionalist approach.   Who gets to determine how “the bible is truly believed”?   The proper answer is “The tradition.”  John Chrysostom, however, doesn’t say that (at least not in that passage).

You will see some internet Calvinists say that “Oh yeah, well the Fathers contradict each other.”  You can be sure of two things:  99.99% of internet Calvinists making this claim have never read the Fathers outside of some citation of Augustine.”  Secondly, they probably don’t know what a contradiction really is.  I don’t think the Fathers “contradict” each other, but there are some difficulties.   I don’t have my set with me right now, but here is an exercise.  St Athanasius said that the Son was the Father’s will, or act of willing.  Yet, later neo-Palamites will critique Rome for making the Holy Spirit an energy and product of Father and Son.  Here is what I mean.   Person is not nature; person is not operation.  Yet, it appears that Athanasius identified the person of the Son as an operation of the Father.

Audio dealing with limited atonement

Part of the problem with “refutations of Calvinism” is that said refutations usually focus on how mean it makes God look.   While that is a problem with the doctrine of God, and unhistorical, too, that isn’t really a logical refutation.

Calvinism is a strong, powerful system.   It withstands blows that would fell lesser systems (e.g, dispensationalism).   However, it is susceptible to internal critiques that can function as potent defeaters.      It’s better to deal with problems in Calvinist Christology than debate predestination with a Calvinist.  They live for debating that point.

I am not an Amryauldian.   However, there is a lot of audio distinguishing this system from Calvinism and why they reject Classic Calvinism.   It might be worth your time for these people have stood within the Reformed tradition, and thus their critique, whether they realize it or not, is an internal critique.

Audio here.

Christ and the Decree

Part of this post is a book review of Muller’s Christ and the Decree.  The other part is a critique of Calvinist Christology.

Richard Muller’s work begins on a promising note:  he refuses to view election in any way apart from the Person of Christ, specifically regarding the role of the mediator.   Part of the difficulty in this review is noting what is Muller’s own view and what is John Calvin’s.    Assuming Muller wants to identify his position with Calvin’s, I will use “Muller” and “Calvin/Calvin’s contemporaries” interchangeably.   One of the so-called caricatures of Reformed theology is that it posits an angry Father making an arbitrary decision on who gets to go to hell and to heaven.   Muller reconstructs Calvin’s work to show that Calvin spoke of election in the context of Christology; therefore, election and the saving work of Christ can never be separated.  By the end of the review one will see how successful Muller was.

This review will examine the historical development of Reformed perspectives on predestination as they relate to a specifically Reformed approach to Christology.   The reviewer intends to offer a critical evaluation at the end of the review, documenting shortcomings in Reformed Christology.   Until then it is the reviewer’s intent to use a fairly appreciative tone and highlight some very important arguments Calvinists have made on this topic.  Also, whether or not the doctrine of unconditional election is true or false is independent of Muller’s historical thesis.   If election is false, that in no way validates whether Muller’s reconstruction of these Reformers is true or false.

Muller begins his book with a review and reconstruction of Calvin’s Christology.  There are some difficulties in evaluating Muller’s line of argument on Calvin.   When Muller speaks of the “church fathers,” it is not always clear to whom he is referring.   Sometimes by “fathers” he means simply Augustine.    Occasionally he will contrast Calvin and Augustine with “the Eastern Fathers,” but then he arbitrarily divides “the Eastern Fathers” from “Hilary of Poitiers,” who did his most formative work in the East.

As to the Christology itself, Calvin distinguishes the Person of the Son from the Son as God, which leads to the Reformed doctrine of aseity and autotheos (Muller 29).  Much of the book will hinge on the connections between aseity, autotheos, and extra calvinisticum. This leads to Calvin’s important doctrine of mediation, which is framed according to the Son’s two natures.   Muller claims that Calvin’s Christology is a historical Christology that focuses on the covenant-keeping God who acts in history to save man.   Muller claims this is a genuine innovation.  In fact, it is the covenant-keeping Christology that sets Calvin apart from the Eastern and Chalcedonian Christology (33).  Presumably, the East is more interested in a Divine Person who assumes a human nature to himself, whereas Calvin is more interested in the mediator who acts in history to save his people.  (By the end of the review one will see if this claim can be substantiated.)

The rest of Muller’s book tracing the development from Peter Martyr Vermigli to William Perkins documents how these writers viewed election “in Christ.”   There is no such thing as a nude Deos absconditus who makes deals “behind the back” of the Son.   Starting with Vermigli, we see an emphasis on grace as mediated (57), putting a Reformed slant on a very Roman Catholic doctrine and structure (showing how much a child of Rome Protestantism truly is). One side-note related to this, and important for Muller’s thesis, is that election is mediated by Christ while reprobation is im-mediate (80).   In other words, Christ actively saves the elect while no person actively damns the reprobate.   Obviously, Muller is putting a very infralapsarian spin on the matter.

Criticisms of Calvin’s Christology

It is curious that Muller thinks Calvin’s Christology is robustly historical, while the Eastern Christology is more concerned with abstract speculations.  Is it true that the East does not focus on the “historical dimension” of Christology?    In his landmark study on Cyril of Alexandria, John McGuckin notes concerning the Alexandrian tradition, “It began its consideration of all theology in terms of the narrative of the eternal Lord’s acts of salvation towards his people” (McGuckin, 176, emphasis added).   Elsewhere Brian Daley notes, commenting on the pre-Nicene and Nicene theological method, that the Fathers did speak of the work of Christ in a historical manner, “he [Eusebius of Caesarea] distinguishes such language from the narrative of what God has done in history through Jesus, the plan that he calls ‘the economy’” (Daley 42, emphasis added).   One could object that McGuckin and Daley are offering reconstructions of older Christologies in newer terminologies.   Fair enough, though if that is true then Muller is doing the same thing with Calvin.
Joseph P. Farrell writes concerning what he calls “First Europe” (Eastern and Western Patristic Orthodoxy), that the God they speak of is this God who does these things for His people.   Concerning St Ambrose Farrell writes, “For him, the ultimate reference in this passage is to God the Son, Christ in his Incarnation.  This fact gives the context an historical specificity” (Farrell 3-4, emphasis author’s).  Therefore, one must conclude that Muller’s assertion that the Fathers were not concerned with the historical dimension of Christology is simply false.

The Problems of Triadology and Christology are Inter-connected

One of the more common complaints against Calvinist Christology is the specifically Nestorian structure it takes.   In other words, Reformed Christology has a tendency to speak of the separate natures of Christ as ultimately (and logically and temporally) prior to the Person of the Son.    The Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter eight, paragraph six, speaks of the Person of the Son as both “divine and human.” It says this because it sees the two natures constituting the Person, rather than simply the divine person assuming a human nature.

Calvin gives this specifically Antiochene Christology a more rigid structure.   Starting with Calvin we see the office of mediator replacing, if only in emphasis but likely exceeding that, the Person of the Son.  In other words, as Muller hints, “Office has replaced person” (180-181).  This is not accidental.  If the extra-calvinisticum be true, if there is the divine nature still outside of the Person of the Son, then there has to be, for Muller, priority on the office of the Mediator.  But more importantly, this goes back to the Reformed emphasis on the finite non capax infiniti:  the finiti cannot contain the infinite.

The most Nestorian moment in Reformed Christology is the idea that the two natures constitute the Person.    This is seen specifically in the Westminster Confession of Faith, but also in the Reformed Scholastics.  Peter Martyr Vermigli says “Christ is constituted out of both natures” (Muller 59).   Theodore Beza calls Christ a medius, a mean between the two natures (92).   Ursinus will go even further and assert that the Logos is not the whole Person of the Mediator (102).   Interestingly, although Muller does not draw this out, we see here a connection between the doctrine of autotheos—the Son as fully God in and of himself—a Nestorian structure of the hypostasis, and the extra-Calvinisticum.  Anglican John Milbank summarizes this admirably by noting that Calvin’s Christology “…has a somewhat Antiochean dynamic interaction between the divine and human natures of Christ, as if this were some kind of schizophrenic interplayof different persons” (Milbank 33).

With the heavy emphasis on the extra-Calvinisticum and the doctrine of autotheos, it is questionable if Reformed Christology can remain faithful to Nicea.  Nicea said Christ was “God of God,” emphasizing that Christ does derive his divinity from the Father.  In fact, it is precisely this that the Niceans meant by “God.”  God was ho theos kai pater tou Iesou Christou.   We call upon God as Father, not as simplicity itself.  The doctrine of the extra-Calvinisticum falls prey to the same problems that St Gregory of Nazianzus noted of earlier, problematic doctrines of the Trinity:  it lacks a personal principle of unity.   True, the Reformers do want to confess that the Son is of the Father, but they immediately confess that he is also God of himself.    At best this is very confusing.  Somewhat worse, and more likely, it is simply contradictory, at worst…

St Gregory notes, and his argument is worth quoting in full,

“The three most ancient opinions concerning God are anarchia, polyarchia, and monarchia.   The first two are the sport of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so.  For anarchy is a thing without order, and the rule of many [polyarchia ] is factios, and thus disorderly, and thus anarchia.  For both of these tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and this to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution.
But monarchia is what we hold in order…” (Gregory of Nazianzus 301).

One would think Gregory is simply discussing different political systems.  While that is in the background, and Gregory’s presentation of sacerdotal monarchy is certainly to be preferred, he is primarily talking about the doctrine of God.  It is true that he defines monarchia as the Holy Trinity in one sense, but in another Gregory is simply restating the traditional view that the Father is the monarchia of the Son and Spirit.

Finally, given the doctrine of autotheos, one is reminded of the often standard confusion of person and nature.   Given Calvin’s construal of the Son of God per his autotheotic divinity and the Son of God the Father, it is often difficult to know concerning which “Son” Calvin is speaking.  The charges of Nestorianism are not groundless.

On a side note, Muller does admit that Calvinism has a Scotist and nominalist structure:  God’s will is prior to his goodness (89).


The problems in Reformed Christology notwithstanding, Muller’s book deserves high praise.   He has done yeoman’s work synthesizing a large amount of material, the nature of which is prohibitive to the average layman.   On the other hand, many will have trouble with Muller’s turgid prose.   There are a few problems, however.   In the background of the book is the recent “Calvin vs. the Calvinist Debates,” which posits that the later Reformed scholastics warped Calvin’s pure message.   I am not competent to discuss the ins and outs of the debate, nor is it relevant to the current review.  Muller wants to posit a clear continuum between Calvin and the scholastics, and he makes a convincing case.  On the other hand, every time he comes across contrary material which seems to posit election within the arbitrary decrees of God, Muller simply brushes it aside, often with no more than a few words of argument, if that much.

Secondly, while Muller highlights the interconnections between various Reformed loci, and he rightly places the Reformers in their Anselmic and Augustinian contexts, he does not seem to be aware of some the main implications of an Augustinian ontology.   Augustine was famous for saying that God is his attributes. He writes, “The Godhead is absolutely simple essence, and therefore to be is then the same as to be wise” (Augustine 106).   Therefore, if God’s attributes = his essence, and his essence is immutable, then an attribute such as “will” is also immutable. Consider the argument, understanding “simplicity” to be a great “=” sign.  If A = B, and B = C, then A =D.    Further, per this Augustinian gloss, then one must come to the conclusion that “to foreknow = to predestine.”   If foreknow then equals predestine, and God foreknew the damned to reprobation, then given Augustinian simplicity one must conclude that God also predestined the damned to hell.  This forces a reevaluation of the earlier claim that election is mediate while reprobation is immediate.
Future Reformed historical theologians need to come to grips with a number of questions:   given Augustinian simplicity entails the filioque, and given that Reformed Christological and soteriological distinctives stem from said simplicity, how then does the filioque impact Reformed soteriology.    I do not fault Muller for not dealing with these questions.  The scope of his work is simple (no pun intended) enough.   Further, it is to his credit that he notes the connections between simplicity, extra-calvinisticum, and autotheos.  It remains to future Reformed historians to face the challenges to Augustinian simplicity.

Works Cited

Augustine.  “On the Trinity.”  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (First Series).  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing Co., 1994.

Daley, Brian.  Gregory of Nazianzus.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

Farrell, Joseph P.  God, History and Dialectic: The Theological Foundations of the Two Europes, no publisher, 1995.

Gregory of Nazianzus.  “The Five Theological Orations.”  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Volume 7. (Second Series).  Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishing Co., 1994.

McGuckin, John.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy.  Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004.

Milbank, John.   “Alternative Protestantism.”  Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Traditon. eds. Smith, James K. A. and Olthuis, James H.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005.

Muller, Richard.  Christ and the Decree:   Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 1986 [2008].

Evolution of a theological hit-man

I’m always wary of doing biographical posts, but this one is sufficiently vague and helps me see from whence I came.   I stole the title from the book Confessions of an Economic Hit-Man.  I haven’t read the book, but that is probably the best title of any book, ever.

In the early 2000s I went from a Baptist mindset to a Reformed Baptist mindset.   From then, as was natural with 95% of Reformed Baptists, I went full Reformed paedobaptist.  As a Presbyterian, I was a student of Van Til and Bahnsen.   Because I majored in American history in college, and had an interest in cultural apologetics, I became a student of Rushdoony (circa 2004 to 2007).

While Rushdoony had problems, he wrote well, exposed Reformed pietism for what it was, and sought to think Christianly about every arena in which he could live his life.   As long as one understands the Christological problems he got into because of his Calvinism, I think one can certainly read Rushdoony with profit.

Between him and Bahnsen I must have listened to over 1,000 lectures on philosophy, law, theology, and apologetics.  I do not boast.  I speak as a fool.

I knew, though, in order to be fully competent in apologetics, I needed to have a good handle on philosophy.   While Van Til specialized in rebutting Hegelian Idealism, and Bahnsen looket at Wittgenstein, and Rushdoony at Berkeley, I thought, whether rightly or wrongly, that my reading would go with the European Continental philosophers.   In order to read them, I started reading Dooyeweerd.  However, since Mellen Press was then selling Dooyeweerd for the cheap price of $400, and that after volume 1 Dooyeweerd was basically incomprehensible, I decided to settle for reading some of his leading interpreters, namely James K. A. Smith.

Smith is an engaging thinker.   He took many of Dooyeweerd’s thoughts, placed them into the Radical Orthodoxy matrix, and mix it with a heavy dose of postmodern liturgical theology.  Much of Smith’s project, while superior to the rest of Calvinism, suffers from most of the bizarre inanity in the Emergent Church movement.  It is one thing to critique George W. Bush and pretend you are the Prophet Jeremiah in doing so, it is another to offer a hermeneutics and ethics that doesn’t deconstruct (pun intended) into literary and ethical relativism.

Fortunately, though, Smith got me reading Robert Webber. Webber introduced me to the idea of Christus Victor.    Around the same time I started reading more of the Fathers and Orthodox guys, though I must admit I didn’t know much of what I was talking about and reading back then.

Conversion stories: look while you are leaping

The guy who currently blogs at ViatorChristianus (or something like that; I don’t like linking to guys who were at one time associated with the Federal Vision movement.  It attracts unnecessary traffic and old wars are brought up) did some really good posts on the reasons why one would leave Evangelical and Reformed communities for the epistemological certainty that Roman Catholicism and/or Orthodoxy brings.   And to be fair, he had a lot of good points.  Many guys do convert to Rome/Orthodoxy for some very bad and shallow reasons.

This post is about conversion stories, though not mine:  I have yet to convert to anything.  I am going to get everybody angry in this post, though in a rather unique way.   Orthodox guys will get angry because they will think I am attacking Orthodoxy.  I am doing no such thing.  If anything, I am actually offering something of an apology for looking into Orthodoxy.  Further, I agree with Orthodoxy, but it is still hard to undo 20 years of Evangelical subculture and the expectations that culture brings.   I do ask your pardon.  This post is simply a snapshot of someone along the way (and in one sense it is no different from Fr Peter Gilquist’s experience when he led some evangelicals to Orthodoxy).

Evangelicals will be tempted to say, upon reading of some of my disappointments, “Aha!  We told you it was a dead church and not biblical and not faithful to our American Conservative Republican Christian distinctives.”  To which I urge silence:  Evangelical theology is flawed on the structural level and cannot mount anything resembling a defense.

Anglicans might be tempted to say, “Well, join Anglicanism.  We have liturgy and we are sensitive, sometimes it appears more so, to many Western liturgical concerns.”  That might be true, but the leader of the Anglican church is still hesitant to say that butt-sex is wrong, and he ordains women.   So, no die.  Perhaps one can see Anglicanism as a stopgap on the way to Orthodox, barring any other liturgical alternative in the community–I can follow that line of reasoning, but no more.

I’ve talked with some facebook friends on my–and others Reformed inquisitors–experience with Orthodoxy.   In what follows I will be told that I should not import Western Evangelical expectations onto the life of the church.  While I still have some questions–based on reading Eastern fathers and noting severe disjuncts between said fathers and what I experienced in Liturgy–I will agree for the moment.  I cannot stand in judgment upon the church, but I can’t pretend I have a blank slate mind as well.

(And before we get started I just have to add, St Gregory of Nazianzus delayed baptism for ten years, while holding to something like Orthodox belief.  Cf. Brian Daley’s St Gregory of Nazianzus).  The following is adapted from several emails with several friends.

I’ll be honest with you–and I’ve told Mr. _______ as much–but I don’t know if I can keep going to St _______’s.  I certainly can’t bring my family there.    Most of the service now seems to be in Greek, and even then isn’t always following the book (so I have no idea what is going on half the time, and while I can read and understand Greek; my wife would be completely lost).   The kids at the church are out of control, and the parents make no effort to discipline them;  I would give examples, but it would seem like I am exaggerating (I am not).  I understand that telling a parent how to discipline their kids is about as awkward as giving sex advice, but still….  It is distracting to see (hear?) a kid playing his Nintendo DS with the volume up, or another kid walking down the aisle gathering liturgy books (and dropping them), or throwing models cars across the room (I am listing the things I have seen).  Add this to the general confusion I feel, and no doubt my wife would feel, I can’t help but recall St Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians about worshipping God in a way you really don’t understand, and confusion, and chaos in order.

I’ve been told that I shouldn’t bring Evangelical expectations of corporate singing and judge the Church based on my understanding of what I want it to be.  Fair enough.  Let’s put it into context.   There were about eight to ten people there, and I think maybe two were chanting (yours’ truly being one of them).   Is this what the Psalmist meant when he alluded to corporate singing?  It could be.  I don’t know.

  There was no homily the last time I was there.  I realize the homily/sermon doesn’t have the same import as in Protestantism, but St Paul did say something like “preach the word.”  How do we go from St John Chrysostom to having no homily at all?  And no, before one points out, this was not merely a prayer service. With the last priest at this service there were homilies, and fairly decent ones, too.
I don’t want to be one of those guys who gets all interested in Orthodox theology, but rejects the church because it didn’t meet his expectations.  I’ve had friends reject Christianity on that point.  I realize I don’t have the right to judge the church based on my expectations, but on the other hand, I’m no idiot in Church history either.   Gregory Nazianzus’ sermons were over an hour in length.  I don’t want to sit through an hour long sermon, but how do we go from that to having no sermon at all?
I don’t really expect–nor do I judge them harshly on this–an older, largely Greek community that is very small to engage in active missionary evangelism to Western potential converts (though if the OCA or Antiochians came in with a “Western Rite” church in North Louisiana, it would have HUGE potential.    Yet, there is a substantial undercurrent of resistance to the Western Rite among many Orthodox–see for example, Fr Alexander Schmemann).
 Well, that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately.   I’m not rejecting Orthodoxy, but am remembering something that Joseph Farrell said, “When you enter Orthodoxy, enter with your eyes open to the problems in modern World Orthodoxy“).
I have another reason for writing this–it serves as a cautionary tale to guys who read a few books on Orthodoxy, internet debate a few Calvinists, and think they are “truly Orthodox.”  No, we are not.  We are still learning, and there are numerous considerations which are far more difficult than simply trying to follow a Greek-spoken liturgy:
  • Which branch of the Orthodox church is the true one:  Coptic, Armenian, Chalcedonian, etc.? How do you know?
  • How come always deletes threads that ask questions about Freemasonry and the Ecumenical Movement?
  • Which Calendar is correct?
  • If we have to move from our current location, possibly hundreds of miles simply to find the right bishop, doesn’t this also imply that Orthodoxy will never truly come to this region?
  • Is this the approach the Man from Macedonia took?
Even though I am open with my thoughts on this topic, the above reasons are also why I don’t debate Calvinists and Catholics on Orthodoxy.  Most importantly, I don’t want to pull a Jay Dyer and reject Orthodoxy because SCOBA has a weak view of the Old Testament precepts, or whatever Jay’s reasons were.
So yes, I am still very much interested, but the above is a snapshot of life on the way.