Contract God verses Covenant God

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By far, one of the best books I’ve read this year is The Claim of Humanity in Christ by Alexandra S. Radcliffe. This is a simple yet magnificent overview of the theology of the Torrance brothers JB and TF. Strangely enough, the book hasn’t gotten much love over at Amazon. I would highly encourage people to read this as an intro to the Torrances’ theology, and to an overall introduction into what is popularly called “evangelical Calvinism”.

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Thomas F Torrance

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James B Torrance

The Torrance’s were Scottish Presbyterians, and yet they were greater than their own tradition, challenging many of the categories of the Westminster Confession. In fact, much of their theological framework was informed, as Alexandra Radcliffe rightly informs us, by Eastern Patristic theologians like the Cappedocians and Athanasis and Cyril of Alexandria. These theologians had radically differing ideas from common Presbyterian theology.

I want to give a brief overview of Torrancian theology from this great . Radcliffe has her chapters laid out magnificently in 6 short theses. I summarize the theses in three points below:

  1. God the Father as Covenant vs Contract
  2. God the Son as Ontological vs External
  3. Participation in the Spirit as Objective vs Subjective

There is more to her book than these three, but most of the heavy lifting is done with these three points. In this post (I’m hoping to extend this overview to three posts! We will see :)) I want to consider the first of three theses: God the Father as a covenant God rather than a contractual God.

To understand this thesis, we must take a step back to understand much of the doctrine posited by Westminsterian theology: this is called federal theology or federal headship theology:

Federal theology was the prevailing preaching and teaching of the Torrances’ Scottish Reformed tradition in their time. Federal theology has had a history of dominance in the perspective of those wishing to adhere to Calvinism and it continues to have an abiding authority toady. It currently governs the North American Reformed perspective and “is considered, by many, to be the only orthodox Reformed theology acceptable”. According to Federal Calvinism , God made a covenant with Adam as the “federal” head of the human race. God created Adam to discern the laws of nature by reason and, if Adam was obedient, God would give him eternal life. If he was disobedient, it would lead to death. Adam disobeyed the law and, as federal head of the human race, his curse affected all of humanity. Out of his love, God made a new covenant, electing some to be saved by Christ. In order to forgive humanity, God had to satisfy his righteousness and justice and Christ therefore became a penal substitionary sacrifice to atone for the sins of the elect. This federal scheme is expressed confessionally in the Irish articles and the Westminster confession. (p 16)

This is a pretty basic overview of the gospel for those who know the Westminster confession. However, this construal of the gospel was totally abhorrent to the Torrances. JB Torrance in particular wrote a now infamous article known as “Covenant vs Contract”, in which he outlined how this construal is not only biblically inaccurate, but it turns the gospel on its head.

But how does it turn the gospel on its head?

Both Torrances believed that federal theology overturned the gospel by making God a Judge primarily and a Father only secondarily. Put another way: God is primarily  judge of mankind. He judges them according to works, and they must perform them rightly to stay in his good graces. For the Torrance’s, this meant that mankind’s relationship to God is one of law, conditions, and works over grace, communion, participation. Radcliffe expounds:

TF believes that an overarching legal framework distorts the nature of the Father, presenting him primarily as a Judge and Lawgiver and only a Father to those who satisfy the requirements of the law. If you begin with a concept of God as Lawgiver, JB considers, there is the tendency to understand salvation in terms of God being conditioned into being gracious by human works or by Christ satisfying the conditions of the law…

JB also perceives that a legal framework leads to a distortion of our understanding of humanity. He writes, “the federal scheme has substituted a legal understanding of man for filial. That is, God’s prime purpose for for man is legal, not filial, but this yields an impersonal view of man as the object of justice rather than as primarily the object of love. (p 21)

In the Torrances’ view, federal theology leads to a strict view of God who demands obedience and performance. Man owes God obedience not because of a loving relationship, but simply because God is judge!

While they don’t disagree that God is a judge, for the Torrances, God’s first and primarily identity is one of Father. And as such, he creates mankind for loving communion with him in the Son:

However, if you begin with the God revealed by Jesus as the triune God of grace, you will see his unconditional filial purposes whereby he draws us as his son into communion with Him… God’s primary purpose for humanity is filial, not just judicial, where we have been created in the image of God to find our true being-in-communion, in sonship, in the mutual relations of love (p 21)

Put another way, God is concerned not primarily with our conditioned obedience to him as a judge would be. Rather, his purpose for creating mankind is to draw us into loving communion by the Spirit through the Son into his own triune love. His primary identity is one of Father: he wants mankind to participate as imaged sons in the Son by the Spirit. Obedience is a necessary corollary of being family. But, man obeys not to condition God; rather, mankind obeys because God is Father and he is son!

The Torrances take this identity of God-as-Father, as man-created-for-sonship, and move next to God’s means of relating to mankind. JB Torrance, particularly, says that because God is a Father, he does not relate to man conditionally, as in a contract, but rather covenantally, as in a family. Radcliffe explains:

JB defines a contract “as a legal relationship in which two people or two parties bind themselves together on mutual conditions to effect some future result”… The Torrances identify contractual thinking in Federal theology when salvation is made dependent upon our personal response. Although God’s grace may be upheld, contractual thinking can unintentionally steal in when forgiveness is made conditional upon repentance, with devastating consequences for assurance of salvation. (p 22)

Thinking of God contractually, in the Torrances’ mind, means that salvation is thought in terms of “do this, then…”. If I do this, then God will accept me. If I repent; if I have enough faith; then God will accept me. Instead, the Torrance’s explain that God primarily relates to man through a covenant. While covenant is likened to a contract, it is fundamentally different. A contract is a mutual exchange of properties and obligations. A covenant is an exchange of persons, and it creates a familial relationship. It creates a blood-bond. It creates a family bond not of merit and reward, but of communion and fellowship.

God makes successive covenants with mankind throughout the biblical narrative precisely because he wants to be our Father. It is not a works based contract that he creates with us, but a familial covenant. This covenanting of God culminates with the sending of the Son who performs both sides of the covenant–as perfect human Son and as faithful God–through the incarnation death and resurrection. In his coming, Christ creates a bondedness between man and God that allows man to participate in Christ’s own Sonship through the Holy Spirit. In my next post, I want to discuss how the Torrance’s understand the atonement as objective, universal, and actually accomplished in the person of the incarnate Son.

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God’s Wrath as Loving Consent

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This post is part of a series of articles in which I “show my cards” on my theological positions. In this post I want to consider the biblical concept of wrath; what wrath means, how it can be said that God is a God of wrath, and the implications therein.

What I want to argue here is that when the Bible uses the term wrath, it uses it as an anthropomorphism to describe the divine consent to man’s determination to continue in his own sin. Put more simply, wrath is not a passion of God, (like a man who bursts into fits of anger) but is rather God’s sorrowful “yes” to man’s final “no” to him. It is a subset of love, because love allows man to say “yes” or “no” to the divine love. Should man set his face toward sin, even upon the greatest of persuasion by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God will release him and allow sin to destroy him. He does this in great sorrow, because God loves all mankind and desires that they be saved. But he refuses to force or coerce love, for the very nature of love is to allow freedom of choice.

I want to argue this in three steps: First, I want to establish a biblical definition of wrath from foundational theological principles and from Romans 1. Second, I’ll provide examples of wrath from famous biblical stories that support my view of wrath. Lastly, I want to consider the cross in connection to this definition of wrath.

First, defining wrath. As I said above, I take wrath to mean God’s consent to sin and self-destruction. God is decisive but passive and passionless in this process. The reason for this is because, theologically speaking, God is impassible, unchangeable, simple. Put another way, God does not experience change. He does not get impassioned. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus God cannot become angry in the human sense. Wrath must thus an anthropomorphism, something we attribute to God to understand him from our human experience.

Another important theological principle to consider is the fact that God is love, as 1 John 4:8 tells us. He is not wrath. He is not anger. He isn’t even mercy. God is love. Augustine tells us rightly that the Trinity informs our view of God as love. God is a community of Lover, Beloved, and Love. Within God there is a life of perfect love and self-sacrifice. God the Father begets the Son, and the Son responds with eucharistia to God the Father, and the Spirit binds the two together. God’s essence is thus love. Thus, when we talk about wrath, it must be placed within the context of Trinitarian love; any action he takes on behalf of the world must be subsumed under that love.

OK, now to Romans 1, a key text on wrath. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). Ungodly men know that God exists, Paul tells us, and yet they replace him by worshipping created things rather than Creator (v. 23). For this reason, God reveals his wrath to them. But, the question is: what does his wrath look like? We are told by Paul that God’s wrath looks like a divine-giving-up. Paul tells us three times that “God gave them up” (v. 24, 26, 28) to their passions and sins. And this giving up is the “due penalty for their error” (v. 27).

Thus for Paul, wrath is not passionate, angry venting. It is not violent. It is rather a divine-giving-up. Or, put another way, it is a divine consent to sin. Brad Jersak explains:

[I]n the Bible, where we see or hear of God’s wrath, we are usually, actually seeing God’s nonviolent consent to the natural and supernatural forces of the world and of human freedom. God’s wrath is consent to allowing, and not sparing, the powerful consequences of these forces to take their course

[I]n Romans 1 (picking up from Isa. 64:5–7), Paul clarifies: what had been described in the narrative metaphorically as a seemingly active wrath is in fact the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of rebellious people to their own self-destructive trajectories—even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on innocents! When in Romans 5 we read that God in Christ was saving us from ‘the wrath,’ we are not to believe that Jesus is saving us from God, but from the consequences of sin (death, according to Rom. 6:23) imbedded in the very order of the universe. (source)

Wrath is thus “God’s nonviolent consent” to man’s willful sinful choices. In consenting to man’s sin, he is also permitting the consequences of sin to destroy us. Wrath is not the “retribution of a willful God, but [is rather] a metaphor for the consequences of God’s consent to our self-will and non-consent” to him (ibid, above). Thus all the consequences of sin in the Bible are not coerced by God. Rather, they are consented to.

But why does he do this? Because God is love. Love, if it is to be love, must be freely given and freely received. God recklessly creates man free so that man may freely return love to him. Hans Urs von Balthasar calls this gift of freedom a kenosis (self-denial) of the Godhead; a giving up of his own autonomous freedom to dependent beings so that they may respond in free love to Him:

It is possible to call this creation, together with the covenant associated with it—in Noah, and more patently in Abraham and Moses—a new “kenosis” on God’s part, since he is thereby restricted, implicitly by creaturely freedom and explicitly by the covenant with its stated terms. …[H]uman freedom [thus] participates in the divine autonomy, both when it says Yes and when it says No. (von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 4: The Action. Kindle Locations 4925-4930)

Balthasar concludes, “man’s refusal is possible because of the trinitarian ‘recklessness’ of divine love, which, in its self-giving, observed no limits and had no regard for itself” (ibid, kindle 4941-4942).

Moving on to my second point, I want to consider a few OT stories. Because at this point we must still ask: what about the places in the Bible where it seems like God “pours out” his wrath? What about the stories where God seems very angry?

Brad Jersak again explains:

What of God’s active wrath? Did God not slaughter Egypt’s firstborn (Exod. 12)? Did God not massacre the Jewish grumblers in the wilderness (Num. 26)? Did God not incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) or repeatedly reduce Jerusalem to smoking rubble (Jer. 52)? Did God not strike down Ananias and Sapphira at Peter’s feet (Acts 5) or eat Herod alive with worms (Acts 12:23)?

No. And Yes.

First, no. Were these acts of violent intervention by an angry and punitive God who was reacting to sin? No. The causes of death are ascribed to ‘the Destroyer,’ to angelic or human agents of violence, or to Satan (Exod. 12:23; Gen. 19:13; Jer. 4:7; 1 Cor. 10:9–10; Acts 5:3). God protects or ceases to harbour potential victims, depending on someone’s consent (or not) through repentance, surrender, or intercession (cf. Abraham in Gen. 18, or Moses in Exod. 33).

Second, yes. These were acts of God’s wrath in that God consented to allow natural and supernatural destruction to take its course through events set in motion by human decisions. In that sense, we read that God is seen to have ‘sent’ the destroyer and ‘sent’ the destruction—God is perceived as commissioning the destruction or even as the destroyer (Exod. 12:29; Gen. 19:14; Num. 21:6). (ibid, source above)

A first picturesque example of Jersak’s definition of wrath and divine consent is the story of Israel’s exile. Ezekiel connects the exile with the glory of the Lord leaving the temple (Ezekiel 10-11). The Shekinah cloud which had guided Israel out of bondage to Egypt, which had brought them to the Promised Land, which had overshadowed the mercy seat, which had been Israel’s crowning glory, had departed. And why did God’s glory leave the temple? It is because Israel had committed gross idolatry and mingled with the nations such that God could no longer dwell there. They had made themselves unclean. Thus, the covering left; and it was this divine-leaving that signaled Israel’s militaristic defeat and dispersion into the nations. God, in other words, was Israel’s protector. His presence and glory kept them in tact. But now that the glory had left, Israel’s protection was gone, and she was subsequently defeated and captured.

A second example is the story of the fall. The early church fathers understood Israel’s exile to be a micro-story of the entire cosmos. The earth was created to be filled with the glory of God as the temple was filled by the cloud. When God created Adam and Eve, he breathed his Spirit into them, and filled them with the divine-life; or put another way, he filled them with the Shekinah cloud and sustained them by his power. Adam was tasked as priest and king with spreading the glory of God over the world, offering to God the entire creation in eucharistia. Thus all of creation was created to participate in the Trinitarian life, created to be YHWH’s earth-temple. When Adam sinned, God’s glory left his earth-temple, and the entire world was left desolate and corrupt, left to die and descend into nothingness apart from the energizing glory of God. Mankind, even the entire cosmos, “fell” from the divine life and was left alone in its finitude.

One last example is the flood. The flood was obviously a judgment of God. God saw that the world was unclean with sin, and could not bare it any longer. However, the normal way people envision the flood story is that God forced the clouds to rain for days upon end. It is my contention that the flood story is better understood as God’s removal of his divine hand of protection from the world, and allowing the world to collapse into itself. Often overlooked, Genesis 7:11 tells us, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” Genesis 8:2 says that in order to stop the flood, he “closed” the gates of the deep and the windows of the heaven. What does this mean?

We can understand by looking at the creation narrative in Genesis 1:6ff. Within the biblical account of creation, it is said on day two that God separated the waters from the sky and the earth, and placed a “firmament” between the two. Ancient near Eastern peoples understood there to be a solid dome-like structure holding the waters in heaven from destroying the earth, and the solid ground to be holding the waters from gushing upwards (source); and the flood was understood to be a removal of those guards, allowing the earth to collapse in on itself. The point here is not to critique Ancient near Eastern world views, and even more importantly, to fit our modern view of science into this story. The point rather is to say that the flood story is about God removing his hand of protection from the earth, allowing his creation to become formless and void again, allowing it to become what it was before he shaped and ordered the universe. The cosmos, without God’s help, will collapse into nothingness. And had not God preserved Noah and his family, there would be nothing left!

So then, these stories demonstrate wrath as divine consent; as God removing his hand and allowing sin to do what sin does: corrupt, destroy, kill, envelop in on itself. He does this reluctantly and with sorrow, but it must be done. He allows the “no” of man’s sin to have its effect. Hell then must be understood as the final “no” to God. It is life without God. It is the eternal sorrow of having at last outrun God. It is living autonomously, without the divine life and love, collapsing in on the self forever and ever.

Now, as we end, on to the atonement. To continue from my last post, given this biblical definition of wrath, we may say in a qualified sense that Jesus experienced wrath. Christ lovingly, voluntarily, entered into our fallen state and into the effects of death by the incarnation, and was consequently cut off from life at the cross. The Father is said to have given up “his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to the powers of this age; and he did not intervene to save him (as he did when Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son). He removed his hand of protection and allowed his Son to be enveloped by the deluge of sin and evil; he allowed his Son to experience Israel’s exile; he allowed his Son experience the full corruption and death of the adamic state of affairs. He became a curse for us and with us; he completely united himself to our sufferings. And, if you wish to call that penal substitution, well, then OK.

But — and this must be emphasized — even though we may say that Jesus experienced wrath, we may not say that the Father was ever against the Son, or that the Father vented his anger on the Son. In fact, even while the Son experienced this divine-giving-up by the Father, the Father was with him by the Holy Spirit; and pleased with him, rejoicing in the cross-event. And why? Because in the cross, Christ gave himself in an act of selfless love; of love for man and for God, and in so doing, fulfilled the whole of the law. This made the Father exceedingly glad because in giving himself in love, Christ was embodying, fulfilling, completing the Torah. His self-sacrifice of love was what the Torah demanded, and subsequently what merited our salvation! It was the obedience and love that the Father always wanted!

In fact — and this is important — while the world was against Christ, murdering him, hating him, finding him guilty, the Father saw in him justice and goodness and perfect agape love because of his solidarity with our death. And because of that very justice and righteousness and innocence, the Father is said to have pronounced him innocent and just, and thus vindicated and raised him up in glory. The resurrection means principally that the Father pronounced a verdict of innocent, and in pronouncing this innocence, the Father delivered him from death. Taken a level deeper, by our union with Christ, we are said to participate in Christ’s vindication and resurrection. This is how Christ is said to have merited our salvation.

In this paradoxical way, the cross is both a place of divine-giving-up and a divine-filling-up. In the cross Christ at once united himself with our death and filled our death with his love. In my next post I will consider the doctrine of theosis from the fathers.

 

The Incarnation and the Physical

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One of the most central doctrines of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the incarnation. The claim that God the Son not only came into our world, but united himself with our world. The claim that God not only revealed himself to us, as he had already done in the OT, but that God became one of us. That God became truly human. That he came here physically. That he was born of a woman (Gal 4:4), that he lived and breathed, that he worked, that he walked and talked, that he ate and drank, that he slept, that God was truly human in every sense of the word.

The incarnation tells us that God not only came into our physical universe, but put on the physical. That he put on flesh. 

But what is so important about this fact? What is so important about God becoming truly man, being physical and material? Certainly the realness of Jesus’ humanity was important to the cross. Jesus had to literally (not spiritually) die and rise for our salvation. Had he not truly died, then we would not be saved. And had he not truly risen, we would have no hope.

But is the significance of the incarnation limited only to salvation? I would answer “no”. In fact, I would say that the incarnation speaks volumes about who God is and what he cares about. Let me explain.

I think that incarnation says something very important about God’s attitude toward the physical; toward the material. Namely, that God loves his material creation; that he thinks it “is good”; that his interest in our universe isn’t simply to get us out, or to remove us from the world. God doesn’t want to “rapture” us out of the world, in other words.

Actually, what the incarnation explains is that God wants to come into this world, not to get us out of it, but to transform it into a dwelling place for himself and for his creation. The reality of the incarnation tells us that God and the physical aren’t enemies, and that the great goal of God is that he would dwell on the earth, with his people.

In other words, the very reality that Jesus is the God-man, tells us that God has created the physical universe as a home for both him and man. He created the cosmos, that “the dwelling place of God…[would be] with man” (Rev 21:3). And so the incarnation tells us that the physical is inherently “good”, and that God doesn’t desire to remove us from it, but to enhance and beautify it! It tells us that God doesn’t want to do away with our physical bodies, but he wants to glorify them.

In short, God loves material, and we should too! That, is the beauty of the incarnation; the beauty of the God-man.

Theologian Robert Barron has much to add to this thought. He sees the incarnation as the central tenet of Christianity. Barron says this about the incarnation:

The incarnation tells central truths about God and us. If God became human without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature that he became, God must not be a competitor with his creation… God… enters into our creation, [and] the world is thereby enhanced and elevated. The God capable of the incarnation is not a competitive supreme being but rather, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, the sheer act of being itself, that which grounds and sustains all of creation, the way a singer sustains a song.

And the incarnation tells us the most important truth about ourselves: we are destined for divinization. The church fathers never tired of repeating this phrase as a sort of summary of Christian belief: Deus fit homo ut homo fieret Dues (God became human so that humans might become God). God condescended to enter into flesh that our flesh might partake of the divine life, that we might participate in the love that holds the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in communion. And this is why Christianity is the greatest humanism that has ever appeared, indeed that could ever appear.

God became a man, that his entire creation might be redeemed. This is the truth of the incarnation: that God cares about his creation, and means to bring us into the “divine life”.