Reflecting on an old debate

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).

Monothelite

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.

Tritheism

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.

Iconoclasm

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.

Paganism

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?

Pelagianism

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.

Relativism

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.

Conclusion

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.

Towards a Reformed Anthropology

I meant to include this in my post on Answering the Anchorites, but time prevented it.  Often one hears that the Reformed doctrine of “Total Depravity” (TD) is completely alien to the early church.  What do we make of this?   Part of the confusion rests on what TD really is.  When we say TD we are not implying that we see the face of Stalin in our newborn child.  We are not implying that man is utterly sinful.  The original phrase had the word radix in it, implying that sin touches the root of our actions.  This is the most important post I have ever written.

Some Propeudatic Points

Some points to consider (taken from Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms):

  1. Thus sin is not a substance, but a stain (macula) or a fault (reatus) [137]
  2. Will is distinct from intellect (intellectus) [330].  The intellect is that which knows objects, and the will is that which has a desire for them.  Will and intellect are the two highest spiritual powers.  The question immediately arises as to which of these faculties stands prior to the other.  The Protestant Orthodox frequently state the problem of priority without really solving it (but also avoiding Thomist and Scotist difficulties, though I personally lean towards the Thomist reading).  The Reformed acknowledge the relationship between intellect and will and focus on the problem of fallen man.
  3. Will, defined as the appetitive faculty of man, must also be distinguished from choice.  Will is the faculty that chooses.  Arbitrium (choice) is the capacity of will to make a choice or decision.  Thus, the will can be described, even post-fall, as “free” and unconstrained but nonetheless limited by its own capacity to choose particular things.
  4. Charles Hodge, in glossing original sin and nature, writes, “Although original sin corrupts our whole nature, yet the essence or susbstance of the soul is one thing, and original sin another…Original sin is said to be an accidens quod non per se subsistit, sed in aliqua substantia est, et ab ea discerni potest (II: 229, 230)
  5. We deny any “gift” or superadded qualities to man in his original state, purus naturalibus (Turretin I: 463).  It is called this pure nature state by a negative, not positive purity.
  6. The pure nature has a relation of negation, the fallen a relation of privation (Turretin, Ibid).
  7. We say “pure nature” to deny superadded gifts, not to suggest man was created completely neutral, for he was created in the image of God.

Rome and the Superadditum

Rome, pace Bellarmine (“De Gratia prime hominis,” 5, 6 in Opera [1858], 4:23-29, quoted in Turretin, I:471), viewed in natural man a contest between flesh and spirit, and God’s superadded gift is like a “golden bridle” to reign in the flesh. Endnote 1.   By contrast, Turretin notes that if original righteousness were an added gift, then man’s nature would have been inherently lacking.  Rome places concupiscence before the fall; Protestants place it after the fall.  At this point Rome cannot escape the age-old stereotype that matter is “not quite bad.”  If concupiscence is natural to man’s created state before the fall, then ultimately man’s problem isn’t sin but finitude. (Endnote 2)  The inevitable conclusion is that God made man’s very matter one of disorder (472).   Protestants do believe in concupiscence, though.   We see it as an inclination to sin after the fall. Still, we reject a positive principal of sin in the human nature.   This rejection, plain and simple, precludes any possibility of a so-called Manicheanism.

The Image of God and Human Nature

One of the stronger arguments that anchorites use is that if the Reformed deny a superadditum of God’s image to man’s original nature, but rather place the image of God in man’s nature, then any fall in the garden has to result in either a loss of God’s image or a positive principal of sin in that image, thus the imago satanis of the extreme Lutheran Flacius Illyricus.  (It is true, pace Pelikan, that Luther hinted at such a doctrine and some early Lutherans did espouse it.  They were rebutted by Melanchton and their doctrine was never formally accepted, Pelikan, 145). This is not what the Reformed state, though.  We make several distinctions (which in my reading I never see acknowledged).   Drake notes,

The essential attributes to man’s nature is his rational faculty not his morality. Charles Hodge said,

“While, therefore, the Scriptures make the original moral perfection of man the most prominent element of that likeness to God in which he was created, it is no less true that they recognize man as a child of God in virtue of his rational nature. He is the image of God, and bears and reflects the divine likeness among the inhabitants of the earth, because he is a spirit, an intelligent, voluntary agent; and as such he is rightfully invested with universal dominion. This is what the Reformed theologians were accustomed to call the essential image of God, as distinguished from the accidental. The one consisting in the very nature of the soul, the other in its accidental endowments, that is, such as might be lost without the loss of humanity itself.Systematic Theology Vol 2 pg. 99

Towards a Reformed Psychology

The problem with the term “psychology” is that it has a nasty secular baggage today.  Even on a more neutral reading in theology, few people are willing to spend time on it.  Admittedly, talking about grace is much more exciting. But a faulty psychology, or lacking the tools to defend the Reformed view, will leave one open to a number of potentially penetrating criticisms.  When Jay Dyer and the dreadlords (that is a reference to Robert Jordan; it was a joke, please do not read it in a pejorative manner) began to attack Reformed theology, they didn’t so much focus on predestination and soteriology, but constructed a string of reductios based on a perceived faulty anthropology.  Reformed apologists by and larger were unable to resist the onslaught.  I speak as a survivor.  It is imperative, therefore, to construct a Reformed Psychology, without which a Reformed Anthropology fails, using the best of Protestant Scholasticism and seeking roots in its medieval heritage.

Man’s soul can be divided into two parts (rhetorically speaking, not actually, since the soul is simple): will and intellect.  It is debatable which has priority, as noted above.

A Federal Ontology

Pop apologists often accuse the Reformed of being philosophical nominalists, believing that the forms of things are simply names.   This argument is used to set the stage for the claim that Reformed theology leads to secularism.   The truth, however, is much more complex.   There are both realist and nominalist elements in Reformed theology for good reason: a hard core realism is silly and a hard core nominalism is equally false.  Both, however, can make good, subordinate claims which need to be taken seriously.  For example, did the Logos assume the realist form of human nature, or did he assume a human body?

Michael Horton notes that “A covenantal ontology suggests that this [our union and communion with Christ–BH] is more like the relation of a commonwealth and its monarch…than a fusion of essences” (Horton, 202).  The following are key points of a covenantal (or federal) ontology, taken from Horton:

  1. Mediation is not a principle or process, but a person, Jesus (183).  This explicitly denies participationist ontologies, ladders, chain-of-being, etc.
  2. The relationship which God guarantees to his people by means of Covenant is seen in the term echo, “having” (184).
  3. For example, we have “eternal life” (John 5:24), the Spirit of Christ as the deposit of the consummation.
  4. Our union with Christ is by the Spirit and not a fusion of essences.
  5. Eschatology is the locus of a federal ontology.  It is an announcement of the good news from afar off (Isaiah 52:7ff).   Participation (realist?) ontologies, by contrast, struggle with the concept of good news. Horton writes, “It is unclear how the gospel as good news would figure into his [John Milbank, but also any Dionysian construction–BH] account of redemption, since ‘news’ implies an extrinsic annoucnement of something new, something that does not simply derive from the nature of things (169).  What he means is that those who who hold to participationist ontologies–chain of being–see a continuum between God and man.  Any saving that happens to man happens within that continuum.   The announcement of good news, by contrast, comes from without.   To borrow Horton’s delightful phrase, a federal ontology is meeting a stranger, whereas a participationist ontology is overcoming estrangement.

The issue of a Federal ontology is important to the relation of Christ, human nature, and sin.  The anchorite will ask, “How can Christ have a real, representative human nature if he never sinned and transgressed the law?   Drake has helpfully answered,

The passages in the scripture which mention the fall of mankind and the imputation of Adam’s sin never mention Eve as playing any kind of federal role, they always mention Adam. All the Reformed authors that I have read teach that if Adam had obeyed God and not given into temptation he would have secured justifying life in the covenant of works and given access to the tree of life (The Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 20 speaks of the tree of life as a pledge). Therefore, we can infer from this that the curse of the covenant of works/original sin is through the male line, not the female. Therefore, Mary could not have passed a sinful soul under the curse of the covenant of works to Jesus but she did pass a mortal body. Therefore, the curse being both physical and spiritual; the physical aspect concerns mortality, the spiritual aspect concerns original sin. In this case only the physical aspects of the curse fall to Jesus, in that he dies and suffers hunger and pain etc.

I would like to add one more point:  Christ really does represent us because he federally represents us (Romans 5:12-21).  This is not a legal fiction because, among other things, it is a real proposition in the mind of God (so if folks want a realism, there it is).   People may object that such a view is false and is not true justice.   If they accept that, then they need to scrap Romans 5 from their Bibles and stop voting in Western legal political systems, both of which are predicated on a federal ontology.

Endnotes

1. This is why the Protestant Orthodox deny that the Covenant of Works had a grace-principle in it.  If the Covenant of Works had grace in it, the question immediately arises:  why did it have grace in it?  Was it because man’s nature was defective (not fallen, mind you, but naturally weak) that it needed grace to hold it up?  This is another area where the Federal Vision inadvertently ends in at Rome.

2.  This sheds light on the theosis debate: who was the first being in history to say that man’s finitude could be solved?

Addendum

One important point that I did not deal with is the charge that the Reformed view is Nestorian because the Father “cuts off” the Son.   The question is in what sense did the Father cut off the Son?  Admittedly, recent Reformed theologians have done an inadequate job of addressing this.  If the Son is “cut off” in the sense of natural communion with the Father, then it is Nestorianism.  I don’t see the Reformed as obligated to accept this for a number of reasons:

  1. “cutting off” is covenantal language (Genesis 15, 17, passim)
  2. Scripture explicitly says the Messiah is “cut off” (Isaiah 53:8)
  3. The Reformed ontology, as noted above, is neither realist or nominalist, but Federalist.   The complaints of “cutting off” and Nestorianism come from those with a strong realist tradition.

Works Cited

Bellarmine, “De Gratia prime hominis,” 5, 6 in Opera [1858], 4:23-29.
Hodge, Charles.  Systematic Theology vol. 2.
Horton, Michael.  Covenant and Salvation: Union with Christ.  Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007.
Muller, Richard A. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Sources.  Grand Rapids, Baker Academic.
Pelikan, Jaroslav. Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Turretin, Francis.  Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing.

Theonomy Files, no. 5: The After-Calvin Source Failure

One of the reasons theonomy failed as a movement, and this reason perhaps dovetails with why theonomy went Federal Vision and also failed to work out a coherent alternative, is that theonomists generally did not read the Protestant Scholastic sources carefully, to the degree they read them at all.  This is not entirely theonomy’s fault.  Reformed publishers have tone a woefully terrible job at making these (life-and-death important) sources available (yes, Baker Academic, I am talking about you!).

Nevertheless, some sources are available and Theonomists should have availed themselves of that.   That raises another problem:  reading these sources required reading these sources on the sources’ terms.  Theonomists usually viewed anyone who disagreed with them as a “natural law adherent,” defining natural law as a mix of Locke, Newton, and Aquinas.  Here is an experiment for you:  pick up a theonomic text and find a fair definition of natural law on Reformed terms.  Bahnsen avoids it in TiCE (though to be fair to Bahnsen, he never really opposed natural law).   Gary North slams it but never really defines (or explains how modern Reformed accept natural law).   The real villain, I think, is Kuyperianism (though, ironically, Kuyper himself was a pluralist).   The result was the no-neutrality concept was applied to areas which really didn’t make sense in a practical way (yes, we should do math and plumbing to the glory of God, but there really isn’t a Christian praxis to Christian plumbing).

If you read Reformed natural law sources carefully, you will note that 1) they don’t necessarily contradict Moses [many advocated using the Mosaic judicials because of the wisdom found therein; as to what kind of theory they employed for which judicials were to be used is anybody’s guess], 2) they aren’t using the term “nature” to mean butterflies and puppies [which is how I had usually glossed it], and modern advocates of natural law theory even concede that theonomists were correct to raise a lot of these issues.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, reading the Protestant Scholastic sources on their own terms will also bring the reader face-to-face with their teachings on covenant and justification, areas which modern theonomists are painfully weak.  For all of my previous criticisms of van Drunen and RS Clark, which I have now retracted, it is interesting to note that these guys adamantly insisted on the Protestant Scholastic teaching on natural law as thoroughly as said teaching on covenant theology.   The two seemed to go together (I don’t think there is a 1:1 correlation, but a lot of people have speculated on the Federal implications of both Covenant Theology and federal politics ala Althusius).