Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John CalvinGrace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin by B.A. Gerrish
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Grace and Gratitude is an impressive, scholarly examination of Calvin’s Doctrine on the Lord’s Supper, beginning in a seemingly unusual place. Starting with creation and God as the Fountain of All Good and a Benevolent Father, Gerrish takes up wider themes in Calvin’s theology, showing how these themes preoccupied Calvin the theologian and naturally played dominant roles in the shape of his Eucharistic theology.

Overall, Gerrish ably guides his readers through apt quotations of Calvin’s work. He also shows a superb conversance with the relevant background. Gerrish is particularly good in the early chapters at setting out Calvin’s intellectual world as well as the general history of thought on the goodness of God.

Gerrish occasionally reveals his bias as a mainline historical theologian of the 20th century, complete with ecumenical preoccupations. Even so, I am impressed that he mostly sets aside quibbles and modern critical concerns so that Calvin and his Reformation context receive deep appreciation.

The scope of this work makes it particularly valuable. Gerrish sets the stage with a statement of the issues and an exploration of Calvin’s “Sum of Piety” in the introductory chapter. Moving on through Calvin’s conception of a Benevolent Creator to Calvin’s theology of the Means of Grace and then his thought on Adoption, we finally get into the Lord’s Supper in the last two chapters only after discussing Calvin’s theology of baptism. Readers will enjoy the way the background on the major Calvinistic themes leads naturally to Calvin’s complex and poetic Eucharistic theology.

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The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom TheologyThe Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology by John M. Frame
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The subtitle of John Frame’s book misleads the potential reader. This book is a little about Two-Kingdom theology and a lot about Frame’s antipathy toward Reformed critiques of evangelicalism and his animosity toward his colleagues. Frame has burdened us with a specious construct– a bogeyman. This bogeyman runs against his reputation for irenicism. In fact, “John Frame, the irenic polemicist” (the title of a tribute to Frame among the book’s introductory matter) is a reputation in serious need of repair in the aftermath of The Escondido Theology: A Reformed Response to Two Kingdom Theology.

The most interesting of the chapters (most of them book reviews) is Frame’s reading of Meredith Kline’s Kingdom Prologue. Sadly, even here, Frame’s criticisms are usually shallow and perfunctory. Frame displays a lack of understanding of the Biblical foundations of the Covenant of Works and the distinction between Law and Gospel. Throughout the book, Frame shows an overarching penchant for attempting syntheses of Biblical interpretations that are not compatible. Such syntheses are usually unfavorable to the so-called Escondido theologians; Frame’s strong desire is to sound an alarm against what for him is an extreme version of Reformed theology. Since Frame makes it clear that just about every other form of Christian theology should be read charitably and get the benefit of the doubt, one comes away wondering how coherent Frame’s “irenicism” really is.

Frame offers Abraham Kuyper as an antidote to the alleged errors of his colleagues at one point. He even claims that his own thought follows in the line of Kuyper. Yet he never adduces Kuyper’s important distinction between the church as organism and the church as institute. Nor does he consider the potential this distinction has for making sense of the Two Kingdom vs. One Kingdom debate.

Frame asks questions, even if obvious ones, of the specifically “Two-Kingdom” books he impugns (Van Drunen’s, Stellman’s, Hart’s) that would be illuminating for Reformed 2K proponents to answer. Sadly, Frame frequently wastes his readers’ time by repeating certain weak criticisms in book review after book review. For example, Frame habitually appeals to I Corinthians 10:31 in support of Christian social activism and against distinctions between cult and culture. He thereby grossly oversimplifies the issues and seriously miscalculates in turning repeatedly to this text as his “silver bullet.” This is just one example of the crude proof-texting that Frame employs among other unhelpful lines of attack. The authors Frame covers surely deserve a more fruitful engagement than what he offers here. Not recommended.

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Westminster Seminary California: A New Old SchoolWestminster Seminary California: A New Old School by W. Robert Godfrey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A warm, engaging history written by two men who have taught at Westminster Seminary California. D.G. Hart has moved on to other positions but Robert Godfrey has been President for twenty years. This book covers the seminary faculty and some of the staff from the beginnings in the late 1970’s until today. This history focuses on Westminster’s commitment to confessional Reformed theology in a world in which it often faces opposition. The authors don’t shy away from controversy. In fact, this book will help anyone wondering about the stance of the seminary in a host of matters controversial in Evangelicalism and the Reformed churches. Godfrey and Hart also provide many insights into the trends in American Evangelicalism and American Reformed theology, adding humor from time to time. Overall, this history is a happy tribute to the Lord’s faithfulness to Westminster Seminary California.

I read the Amazon Kindle edition. I hope it will be revised because I noticed more than a few typos.

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Continued from post on 7/26/2013…

Torrance introduces a red herring about limited atonement leaving some sin to be dealt with on page 185. He speaks of divorcing the Atonement from the final judgment. There is no real issue here because the final judgment does indeed address sin. Men are judged according to their works and since unbelievers have not the covering of the righteousness of Christ, nor the renewing to live aright in Christ, they have nothing to withstand that judgment. There is no conflict at all here with limited atonement. In fact, a final judgment following a truly universal atonement is senseless.

Calvinists are not the only objects of Torrance’s penchant for disturbing conclusions about views he does not hold. Arminians, according to Torrance, “divorce the action of the cross from the love of God, dismember Christ, separate his person from his work and destroy the atonement and the incarnation.” At this point he takes up a popular form of rhetorically charged but logically weak reasoning. The Arminians and the advocates of limited atonement are, says Torrance, two extremes of rationalism. He is not arguing much better here than, “If you disagree with me, you haven’t bowed your reason before God.” He even says so. The old chestnut applies here about the preacher writing a marginal note to himself in the text of his sermon, “Argument weak here: pound pulpit with fist!”

Torrance also refers to “the Scholastic Calvinist” and discusses the view that the Atonement was sufficient for all– efficient for the elect. The term “scholastic” may be forgivable because he references Wolleb (Johannes Wollebius) at this point. However, on the following page, Torrance dismisses the Reformed view that the extent of the atonement is rooted in God’s eternal counsel by talking of “a philosophical or metaphysical conception of irresistible grace and of absolute divine causality.” This is again unfair and pedantic; the Reformed tradition has adduced strong Biblical arguments for the design of the atonement grounded in election of the church in Christ. Advocates of limited atonement also have a strong case based on the substitutionary nature of the Atonement. Torrance’s polemics softens its task by panning other theological views with the label “philosophical.” In contrasting Scottish theologians Samuel Rutherford and John Brown of Wamphray on the one hand and English non-conformist John Owen on the other, Torrance again makes the bizarre accusation that Owen’s view (that the Atonement flows from the nature of God) attacks the nature of God. As with many of his accusations against limited atonement advocates in this section, this conclusion about Owen’s view is suspended in air.

Torrance makes some formulations with which the Calvinist can agree. Torrance and Calvinists are on the same page when he discusses the relation of the Atonement to the church. Yet, he fails to accurately describe the Reformed view. He only succeeds in attaching ambiguous labels and falsely implicating limited atonement in various hideous errors. To say that he stretches in his critique of limited atonement would put it mildly. In the end, Torrance’s discussion fails to remove limited atonement from serious consideration in the doctrine of the Cross.

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…

God's Word in Servant Form: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck and the Doctrine of ScriptureGod’s Word in Servant Form: Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck and the Doctrine of Scripture by Richard B. Gaffin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Prof. Richard Gaffin takes his readers through major portions of Abraham Kuyper’s and Herman Bavinck’s writing on Scripture. Gaffin brings the fruit of research into these great Dutch theologians in their original language, using his own translations for the benefit of English readers. This is a substantive study of Kuyper and Bavinck on matters such as biblical authority, inspiration and inerrancy. Gaffin shows how both of his subjects argued for an “organic” view of inspiration. He also sets them in the context of the conservative and liberal theologies of their day. The book thoughtfully enters contemporary debate, contrasting the Rogers/McKim view of Kuyper and Bavinck on Scripture with a more careful reading of Principles of Sacred Theology, Dictaten Dogmatiek, The Work of the Holy Spirit and Reformed Dogmatics. Highly recommended.

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Christ the Sacrament of the Encounter with GodChrist the Sacrament of the Encounter with God by Edward Schillebeeckx
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A concise statement of the modern Roman Catholic doctrine of the Sacraments. Schillebeeckx explains the incarnation of sacramental life in the Roman Catholic Church. His book surveys Rome’s seven sacraments. Each of the seven receives some discussion though Baptism, the Eucharist, Confession and Confirmation seem to get the most face time. Schillebeeckx’s perspective is heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas. The reader will find Aquinas referred to throughout the volume, with footnotes in Latin. Schillebeeckx refers to many other theologians as well (especially Karl Rahner) showing the spectrum of views on some of the finer points of sacramental theology within the Roman Communion. The prose is clear with many engaging passages while others are a bit dry. There is also some unnecessary repetition of certain ideas. Schillebeeckx develops his doctrine with both Scripture and Tradition in mind, but the latter sets the agenda and provides the terminology. Protestants, especially those of the Reformed persuasion, will find his section on the validity of Protestant sacraments interesting. Schillebeeckx seeks a fair statement of the Protestant position, with special attention to the Reformed view. It’s likely he focuses on the Reformed churches due to his context in the Netherlands. He even gives a detailed outline of a Reformed communion service he attended. I would recommend this book to those with theological background that want to better understand the Roman Catholic view of the sacraments. That said, the grid through which this book handles sacramental theology is disappointing from an Evangelical perspective, both in scope and methodology.

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By Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of SalvationBy Faith, Not by Sight: Paul and the Order of Salvation by Richard B. Gaffin Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gaffin has produced a fine study of Paul’s thought, showing how the tensions between the already/the not-yet and this-age/the-age-to-come are integral to Paul’s teaching on salvation. By unpacking texts such as II Corinthians 4:16 and Colossians 3:1-4, Gaffin explains how sanctification and justification come into their full Biblical light when seen in what Christ has done and what He will do for us, even until He comes again. Basically, Gaffin brings out the significance of Christ’s resurrection for justification and sanctification, brilliantly holding historia salutis and ordo salutis together. The integration of systematic theology and biblical studies set out in By Faith, Not by Sight is not only impressive in itself. It is a model for how to benefit from two disciplines in concert that are often pitted against each other. Probably no part of the book better illustrates this than the forth chapter, in which Gaffin makes a stunning proposal regarding the difficult issue of the relation of justification by faith and the judgement according to works at the Last Day. Gaffin guides the reader through the shoals with wisdom, boldly taking on the matter of a future aspect of justification without foundering on a legalistic recasting of individual justification. Excellent!

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Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedLove Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book has been treated to some detailed, lengthy responses but that has more to do with the celebrity of the author and his influence than the substance of the book. That’s because it has so little substance. The book immediately insults anyone opening it, as it is formatted more like a child’s night time story book. The large amount of blank space on each page fits the hollowness of Bell’s argument. A few barely coherent paragraphs break up monotonous lists of rhetorical questions and emotional appeals.

Bell sets himself an easy task by building sad caricatures of eternal punishment. Bell holds a dazzling sideshow of specious and incomplete inferences while most of the relevant Scriptural passages are ignored entirely. On the other hand, Bell does provide some interesting historical background theories for some of the Biblical passages cited, but the relevance and decisiveness of such material is doubtful. Add a generous measure of sarcasm, a clichéd overuse of rhetorical questions, and a few heavily one-sided anecdotes and you have the structure of Bell’s argument for how eventually everyone will be saved and no one will be treated to endless divine retribution. It can’t be overstressed how Bell’s crusade to have a supposedly more loving Christianity crumbles under the weight of Biblical data that he conveniently avoids in these sparsely printed pages. Bell needs to decide whether such a controversial question is settled on the basis of the Bible or because of emotional and personal preference served by cheap rhetorical tricks. This book wants to have it both ways but fizzles out on one side.

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Getting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on PaulGetting the Gospel Right: Assessing the Reformation and New Perspectives on Paul by Cornelis P. Venema
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fine introduction to and mini critique of the New Perspectives on Paul. Right from the start, Cornelis Venema carefully distinguishes among New “Perspectives,” noting that proponents like E.P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N.T. Wright each make a distinctive contribution to a supposedly fresh view of Paul’s doctrine of justification. Venema’s approach moves by briefly stating the Reformation view, presenting the arguments of the scholars listed above, and concluding with a thoughtful engagement with the New Perspectives. Venema’s book stays clear and to-the-point throughout. The book also helpfully avoids lopsidedness, observing helpful insights in the New Perspectives. The footnotes provide enough relevant literature so that the reader will have a good springboard into deeper study. The strength of Venema’s critique lies in its Biblical basis. If you wonder what this controversy is about, start here.

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