There goes Tullian Tchividjian under the bus! I can certainly wish that Greenbaggins would be one blog above cheapshots about some sort of, maybe, kind of connection between Tullian’s fall and his doctrine of sanctification. Lane Keister, after all, knows well what it’s like to go into the lion’s den and get utterly smeared by the PCA’s liberals. I hate to say it, but I think Lane has taken the line of poor taste and used Tullian’s personal flop as a chance to write off his views on sanctification. We get all we need from Lane’s piece– which is nothing. He doesn’t try to demonstrate a causal link between Tullian’s views and his affair because there isn’t one. It’s all very confusing and sad when a minister (especially a prominent one) falls into sin. But at another level it’s rather simple. Tullian certainly knows just as much as his critics that having an affair is wrong. He blew it. Do we really want to go this way? I mean, is every ministerial scandal an occasion for the poor chump’s ideological opponents to say “See, I told you so!”? Well somebody could bring up Mark Driscoll but the Mars Hill debacle is really about a long string of unforced errors.

Lane ought to remember that this same thing played out after Jason Stellman shocked his supporters and gratified his enemies by joining the false church of Rome. Failures like those of Tullian and Stellman just confirm that they were flawed men fighting for a good cause. It’s sad that their theology has to get the blame for their personal failures. We are witnessing that popular fallacy– the circumstantial ad hominem– in all it’s glory. Those of us who want to challenge burgeoning legalism in Reformed circles can’t give up before one of the classic cheapshots. We certainly have a lesson to learn here. Not the platitudes like “But for the grace of God go I” but rather “Vain is the help of man.” We feel the blow of Stellman’s sell-out and Tullian’s scandal just so far as we’ve bought into the folly that the justness of our cause depends on the spotless reputation of our point men. We might as well give in and join the legalists if outward appearance matters so much to us. After all, those who think they can stand before God in their own works are the masters of hypocrisy, the gurus of appearance. But that’s not what we stand for. We know man looks at the appearance but God looks at the heart and in that way we know we have to stand in Christ or fall in our works.

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So I was looking around on the web trying to figure out the Tullian Tchividjian controversy. Basically he was under accusation of taking the Law-Gospel distinction too far toward the error of antinomianism. The news says that he was asked to hurry up and move on with a ministry initiative called Liberate. The upshot is that the Presbyterian grandson of Billy Graham has taken his clout elsewhere and the The Gospel Coalition is free of a resident trouble maker. I get the sense that Tchividjian as a mega-church, ministry empire type guy is simply too busy to respond to all the doctrinal heavy hitters that have been challenging him to a debate. I’m curious to see where the controversy goes because the matters of Law/Gospel, the Law in the Christian life, sanctification, assurance and grace are fascinating in their own right. But the potential pitfalls are serious.

Some would say that antinomianism is the error besetting the church. If only that were true. It’s important that we get it right because confusion on either side, whether Law or Gospel, is possible. The confessional heritage of the Reformed churches shows that the Law has a place in the Christian life beyond just showing us our sin and need of a Savior. On the other hand, I’ve heard preaching in Reformed churches that takes the dialectical route (theology by balancing two equally ultimate truths). The results are confusing at best. You’ll just have to take the preacher’s word for it that he affirms justification by faith alone. That’s hard to swallow coming from someone who says that your salvation depends on what you do, period, and that those who show forth Christ in the Old Testament are in error.

The latest “antinomian” controversy calls this blogger, at least, to patiently and diligently attend to the Bible. One resource for making sense of the flourishing debate comes from a wise pastor. When we’re talking about Law and Gospel, we need clarity about whether we’re thinking of Law as a covenant or as a principle. Scripture certainly speaks highly of the Law as a guide for life but we’re warned against marrying ourselves to the Mosaic Covenant rather than to Christ. Now that’s food for thought!

Peter Leithart has served up another excrement sandwich for those concerned about his controversial doctrinal formulations. Dr. Leithart, with copious name-dropping, has extolled the virtues of “Reformational catholicism” over plain old Protestantism. The latter is apparently the denizen of (among others) the “confessionalists” in his own denomination that took umbrage rather than applaud his comprehensive overhaul of Reformed theology in tandem with the Federal Vision “conversation” (by the way, everyone involved in the FV should consider Prof. Clark’s Form for the Confession of Sin). Leithart’s lopsided post (unless you’re Roman Catholic or Mainline Presbyterian) has already been expertly answered and also diagnosed as a symptom of More-Cosmopolitan-than-Thou. The post you are reading expands upon those blog entries to identify the Leithart Fallacy. This fallacy is really a cluster of muddled thinking and sophistry. Here is how you’ll know it when you see it (I remember Leithart’s colleagues in Presbytery claiming to know error when they see it, but that’s contested):

1.  First, combine a generous amount of straw man representations of Protestantism or Presbyterian confessionalists with outrageous imputations to the same.

2. Stir in fluff about how the “Reformational catholic” is so much more widely read, so sophisticated, so full of brotherly love across the unfortunate chasm separating Romanism and the “Reformational catholics” who seek rapprochement with Rome. Speaking of the divide Rome between Protestantism, Leithart’s piece presumptuously minimizes it and unfairly loads the blame for its continuation on Protestants (whom he doesn’t fairly represent). In contrast to Protestants, you’ll know the Reformational catholic’s savoir vivre and urbanity by the fact that he’s beyond reading Louis Berkhof, Charles Hodge, J. H. Thornwell and Jonathan Edwards and now loves Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox thinkers like Yves Congar and Alexander Schmemann. He has taken up distinctive ministerial attire similar to High Church Anglican, Mainline Methodist and Lutheran clerics in (and out of) worship, complete with clerical collar and accoutrements of varying colors to match seasons of the Church Year. He is so beyond the two-kingdom debate that he is certain that Constantinianism is the way to go (I suppose the doctrine of the Spirituality of the Church is one of those unfortunate results of finding flaws with the Roman Communion, by which the pioneer Reformers risked the Papal Bull or the fiery stake).

3. Now for the main ingredient: Add the amorphous, vague “consensus” around “mere Christianity.” Say to your gauche fundamentalist friends “I answer to a higher power. Judge me not according to your weak, juvenile Protestant confessions. I stand in the strain of Orthodoxy with a capital O!” 

The main ingredient is where we find the principal error. “Orthodoxy” and “the Catholic Tradition” are grand abstractions unless tempered with some historical perspective. All Christians affirm the doctrines associated with this thing called “Orthodoxy” because if it means anything it means affirmation of the doctrinal advances of the great Ecumenical Councils, the historic, unifying statements about the doctrines of God and the person of Jesus Christ. These doctrines are vitally important and a great starting place for seeking agreement but the kind of common ground that Leithart imagines exists with his Roman brothers and sisters is a fantasy. Leithart styles himself as a vanguard of ecumenical development but isn’t joining the Roman Communion and dismisses the Reformed tradition as locked in anachronistic protest. We ought to consider instead the fuller confession to the two traditions to see if Leithart’s tertium quid offers more.

Rome and the Protestant churches have dogmas on many other points besides the resolutions of the early Trinitarian and Christological controversies. Rome and the Reformed churches have never reduced the teaching of the church to the Nicene Creed or the Definition of Chalcedon. So what is Leithart advocating? He emerges from this metamorphosis not readily Roman Catholic, not contentedly Reformed, but holding a distinctive trait of the Evangelicalism against which the Federal Vision overreacts. Evangelicalism necessarily reduces Christianity to the lowest doctrinal common denominator. Evangelicalism is where historic creeds and confessions are are minimized and replaced by sketchy laundry lists of doctrinal affirmations that can appeal to the widest constituency. The Evangelical world is where it’s spiritual success to please most of the people all of the time. That’s the kind of spiritual tradition that results from occupying the inevitably fluid middle. There are strange consequences for rejecting the Reformed faith for who-knows-what.

T. F. Torrance, Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, ed. Robert Walker (Downers Grove, IN: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009) pp.181-192.

Torrance’s Atonement is a large study, transcribed from his dogmatics lectures at New College, Edinburgh. I look forward to reading the whole of this study. I am almost half way through and the material is mostly good. Torrance approaches the Atonement of Christ exegetically. His method synthesizes scriptural data while following the course of Redemptive History and this often in an original way. He also relies on inferences from the nature and purpose of the Incarnation of the Son of God, which is dealt with in the companion text Incarnation. This latter part of Torrance’s method also has a liability which will be addressed below.

Torrance’s discussion of the Extent of the Atonement (section 2 of Chapter 6, “Atonement as Redemption”) disappoints the reader looking for a solid interaction with the historic and confessional Reformed doctrine of limited atonement (or particular redemption). Before addressing the infelicities of his description of the Reformed view, which he rejects, let’s see what Torrance propounds under the subheading “Positive affirmations on the range of the atonement” on page 188 and 189:

We must affirm resolutely that Christ died for all humanity – that is a fact that cannot be undone. All men and women were represented by Christ in life and death, in his advocacy and substitution in their place. That is a finished work and not a mere possibility. It is an accomplished reality, for in Christ, in the incarnation and in his death on the cross, God has once and for all poured himself out in love for all mankind, has taken the cause of all mankind therefore upon himself. And that love has once and for all been enacted in the substitutionary work on the cross, and has become fact – nothing can undo it. That means that God has taken the great positive decision for man, the decision of love translated into fact. But because the work and person of Christ are one, that finished work is identical with the self-giving of God to all humanity which he extends to everyone in the living Christ. God does not withhold himself from any one, but he gives himself to all whether they will or not – even if they will not have him, he gives himself to them, for he has once and for all given himself, and therefore giving of himself in the cross when opposed by the will of man inevitably opposes that will of man and is its judgement [sic]. As we saw, it is the positive will of God in loving humanity that becomes humanity’s judgement [sic] when they refuse it.

Torrance labels the statement above as the objective aspect of the atonement and goes on to discuss the Baptism of the Spirit as the subjective aspect and “the community of the covenant” (the church) as the middle term (pp. 189-192). By taking the church into account, he argues that there is “a twofold range of the covenant, as universal, and yet as particular reaching out to the universal.”

Torrance’s solution to the universal and particular aspects of the atonement is intriguing and not entirely uncongenial to a Reformed perspective. The purpose here, however, is to look at Torrance’s polemical tactics. In other words, we are discussing how he defines and rejects the Reformed doctrine of limited atonement. He begins by reasoning that the Atonement has the same range as the Incarnation. He also asserts that only way that the Atonement can have a limited representation is if it can be separated from the Incarnation. Evidently, Torrance is referring to conclusions already reached in his lectures on the Incarnation. Even so, the rule that he wants to lay down at this point is highly debatable. Torrance asserts a false dilemma by arguing that you can have limited atonement, or you can have an Atonement united to the Incarnation, but you cannot have both. When we read of the Incarnation in the Gospel of Matthew we are told that the Lord will be named Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). The historic Reformed view argues that there is indeed a universal aspect of the Atonement. Christ received a people from the Father drawn from all the nations of the earth. With His Incarnation and Atonement, Christ fulfills the promise to Abraham and blesses the whole world. This is all true without losing or downplaying the fact that Christ saves humanity by atoning for a new humanity united to Him in the church.

Torrance makes more cumbersome attempts to dismiss the Reformed view besides his argument about supposed separation of the Atonement and Incarnation. He introduces another false dilemma on page 184, this time also launching unhelpful rhetorical devices. Torrance speaks of how the “hyper-Calvinist… argues in this way, that in Christ’s life and especially in his death on the cross, the deity of Christ was in repose. He suffered only in his humanity.” Torrance proceeds to argue that we must say that God the Judge was himself judged in our place. Now, this is true as long as it is understood that Christ bore our sins in the unity of his person, as the God-Man (theanthropos). Nevertheless, it is not true that asserting that Christ suffered in his humanity is Nestorianism (as Torrance does) or some other kind of error. We assert that God purchased His church with His own blood (Acts 20:28). (Note again, incidentally, that the universalism of the atonement is qualified by the eternal purpose to effectually purchase the church!). Yet orthodox Christians assert that Christ suffered and died according to the human nature. If Torrance affirms that the Son of God died according to the divine nature he would deny the immutability of God. Christ, in his Incarnation, acts as a divine-human person, but not all actions are according to both natures. The Lord does not die according to his Divinity.

We can thus rebuff Torrance’s attack upon the Reformed on two counts. First, he wrongly attributes Nestorianism to advocates of limited atonement. Secondly, he fails to nuance or qualify his assertion that Christ acted according to both natures on the cross, thus committing a theological blunder.

On top of both those problems is the unnecessary confusion Torrance adds by using the term “hyper-Calvinist.” It appears that with the straw-man Torrance erects he refutes a distortion of Calvinism but it is in effect his own distortion. Limited atonement is not a distinctive doctrine of hyper-Calvinism but of the historic, confessional Calvinism of the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession.

The more the “hyper-Calvinist” label flies around, the less meaning it has. He will employ it a second time on page 187. It is not only a stick with which people within the Reformed tradition beat each other as in Torrance’s case. Non-Calvinists sometimes describe Calvinism as hyper-Calvinism. One example is a statement of faith held by churches within the Calvary Chapel movement. Among a list of “errors” that are rejected is Five Point Calvinism which the statement describes as, among other things, “hyper-Calvinistic.” “Hyper-Calvinist” is little more than a misleading label if Reformed theologians use it against each other and others outside the Reformed tradition use it to describe Calvinism as it is expressed in the living confessions of the Reformed churches. The term is virtually meaningless used, as it often is, as an abusive ad hominem. Torrance’s use is quite ironic seeing that he stands, nominally, within the Reformed tradition.

To be continued…

I’m about 50 pages in and I thought this paragraph had something to chew on:

This is not to say that there are not severe theological crises within the evangelical communion. Both Open Theism and a late-to-the-cultural-dance but unabashed embrace of postmodernism have recently enthused certain self-proclaimed evangelicals, thus sobering even the most upbeat boosters of the cause. The lack of resolve in other quarters to responds clearly and convictionally to crises such as same-gender marriage shows just how deep the problems go. A cottage industry of books now consumes itself with various screeds about the current state of affairs within evangelical churches on matters both theoretical and practical. Trenchant critique certainly has a place in intra-ecclesial apologetics. But the various dirges may be offering, however unwittingly, a better critique of Protestantism than even the New Oxford Review could mount.

Gregory Alan Thornbury, Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry, Wheaton: Crossway, 2013, 43.