Theology – Other
Calvin is awesome. I never get tired of reading Calvin. I have been making my way through the Institutes slowly. My goal for 2013 was to read Book III. (I plan to read Book IV In 2014.) Book III is titled: “The mode of obtaining the grace of Christ. The benefits it confers, and the effects resulting from it.” One thing that stood out to me was that I have doubts as to whether a certain reading of Book III promoted by Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia is correct. They argue that for Calvin, union with Christ is ultimate, and the benefits that flow from union with Christ (which can be broadly summarized as forensic and transformative benefits, i.e., justification and adoption on the one hand, and regeneration and sanctification, on the other) are received simultaneously and without any prioritization of the forensic over the transformative. All the benefits of union with Christ are “equally basic” and are received “simultaneously, distinctly, inseparably, and without priority.” (See the 2011 audio lectures, “Alive in Christ: Saving Union With Christ”).
It is true that Calvin regards union with Christ as ultimate, and sees all the benefits of salvation as flowing from union with Christ. But the next step (placing the forensic and the transformative on an equal footing without any priority given to the forensic) is not one that I read Calvin making. At the very least, one would have to agree that Calvin does not explicitly take that next step. In fact, he seems to move in a somewhat different direction when he says things like this: “That repentance not only always follows faith, but is produced by it, ought to be without controversy ... Those who think that repentance precedes faith instead of flowing from, or being produced by it, as the fruit by the tree, have never understood its nature” (3.3.1). Calvin defines repentance as “a real conversion of life unto God ... consisting in the mortification of our flesh and the old man, and the quickening of the Spirit” (3.3.5). So it is essentially the same as what we would call progressive sanctification. But while Calvin acknowledges that justification and regeneration/sanctification are “conjoined by a perpetual and inseparable tie” (3.16.1), he also says that only those who are assured of their justification can make any progress in sanctification. “A man cannot seriously engage in repentance unless he know that he is of God. But no man is truly persuaded that he is of God until he have embraced his offered favor” (3.3.2). (Quotes from the Beveridge translation.)
This slim volume originated as lectures that were delivered at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, WTS in Philadelphia, and in France. Carson’s main point is that the Christological title, “Son of God,” while it does have Davidic-messianic overtones, cannot be limited to that background since it involves something deeper and more ontological. To equate “Son of God” with “Messiah” would be an “unjustified reductionism” (p. 74). For Carson, an important motivating factor for these lectures and this book is the debate over Muslim Idiom Translations, some of which have in fact replaced “Son of God” with other terms, such as “Messiah” or “Beloved of God,” to avoid giving offense to Muslims who think that the Christian doctrine that Jesus is God’s Son is blasphemous because (they think) it implies that God had sex with Mary. Carson rightly concludes that Bible translators err if they change the translation because “some culture or other can or cannot accept this or that,” an argument which “becomes an excuse for unwittingly removing from the message itself things that are clearly taught in the Bible and are therefore simply nonnegotiable” (p. 104).
McCall’s primary concern is that, contrary to many popular presentations in sermons, the relationship between the Father and the Son was not ruptured when Christ cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” His main argument is that if the relationship were in fact ruptured, then that would mean that the Trinity was broken, which is unthinkable. It would mean that God had ceased to be God. McCall provides other ways of interpreting Jesus’ cry of dereliction. His argument here was convincing. I think I needed to hear this, because I am pretty sure I have fallen into careless language myself when preaching.
However, as much as I appreciated this corrective, I can’t really recommend the book as a whole. There are strands in his thought that seemed too influenced by less than orthodox theology. For example, he argues, reminiscent of Ritschlian liberalism, that God’s wrath is actually an expression of his love (pp. 80-86). He also holds a libertarian view of free-will, which causes him to shrink from stating that God sovereignly decreed that Judas and the Sanhedrin would hand Jesus over to be killed. He acknowledges that it was part of God’s foreknowledge, and that God used the evil of men to bring about his redemptive plan, but he is afraid of “determinism” with respect to the crucifixion (p. 101). In his presentation of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, he affirms it but then goes on to quote favorably too many theologians who are critical of the received doctrine and who want to emphasize other “models” of the atonement, such as the Christus Victor theory. Finally, McCall seems to have a somewhat Wesleyan view of soteriology. While he acknowledges that justification and sanctification are distinct, he spends more time showing how they are “aspects of one and the same union with Christ,” quoting the Methodist theologian William Pope (p. 137).