Limited Atonement

As Dabney points out, the very term “atonement” is unclear. What do we mean by this word? It comes from the older English, literally at-one-ment, which would imply reconciliation. We can also recall various “atonement models,” which include Christus Victor, the ransom theory, and penal substitution. Dabney, as well as Warfield, also include postmillennialism in many of their understandings of the “world” passages, and thus we could add the cosmic eschatological atonement to our list.

Most people, however, (at least in Reformed circles) usually mean “expiation” when they say atonement. If this is the definition, then we most certainly do not hold to “limited atonement.” Dort is clear on this matter:

Since, however, we ourselves cannot give this satisfaction or deliver ourselves from God’s anger, God in his boundless mercy has given us as a guarantee his only begotten Son, who was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place, on the cross, in order that he might give satisfaction for us.

It continues:

This death of God’s Son is the only and entirely complete sacrifice and satisfaction for sins; it is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.

And it gives a reason for this infinite value. It is not due to an amount of deeds, but rather the value of the single divine person:

This death is of such great value and worth for the reason that the person who suffered it is–as was necessary to be our Savior–not only a true and perfectly holy man, but also the only begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Another reason is that this death was accompanied by the experience of God’s anger and curse, which we by our sins had fully deserved.

This is, consequently, one reason why we need to have proper Christology prior to engaging in the question over the “extent of the atonement.” Christ’s “merit” or his “worth” ultimately stems from his deity, a fact that Calvin was keenly aware of (see here and here).

This infinite satisfaction is to preached to the whole world:

Moreover, it is the promise of the gospel that whoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish but have eternal life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel.

Notice that the call is to believe in Christ crucified. The Marrow Men of a later period would implore people to believe that “Christ is dead for you.” Similarly, Luther, Calvin, and the vast majority of the Reformed orthodox taught that to believe the gospel was to believe that you were forgiven. Faith is a particular thing. To doubt is not to believe, and thus the inclusion of assurance within the definition of faith by the early Reformed and Continental Confessions is fully consistent with their understanding of the free offer of the gospel. It really was for everyone.

Dort squarely places the blame for damnation on the unbelievers:

However, that many who have been called through the gospel do not repent or believe in Christ but perish in unbelief is not because the sacrifice of Christ offered on the cross is deficient or insufficient, but because they themselves are at fault.

At this point is important to review the 1st head of doctrine. So far I’ve been in the 2nd, but at this point we need the context. Dort initially begins with this:

Since all people have sinned in Adam and have come under the sentence of the curse and eternal death, God would have done no one an injustice if it had been his will to leave the entire human race in sin and under the curse, and to condemn them on account of their sin. As the apostle says: The whole world is liable to the condemnation of God (Rom. 3:19), All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).

It then gives the message of God’s love:

But this is how God showed his love: he sent his only begotten Son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

And again, Dort states the free offer:

In order that people may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends proclaimers of this very joyful message to the people he wishes and at the time he wishes. By this ministry people are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. For how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching? And how shall they preach unless they have been sent? (Rom. 10:14-15).

We must note once more that the faith is in Christ crucified. That is what, or perhaps who, sinners are called to put their trust in. The very fact that you are preaching to them gives the implication that the message is for them.

And to prevent any impious and blasphemous doctrine from cropping up around the truth of particular election, which all Calvinists and Augustinians affirm, Dort adds this qualifier:

The cause or blame for this unbelief, as well as for all other sins, is not at all in God, but in man.


The fact that some receive from God the gift of faith within time, and that others do not, stems from his eternal decision. For all his works are known to God from eternity (Acts 15:18; Eph. 1:11). In accordance with this decision he graciously softens the hearts, however hard, of his chosen ones and inclines them to believe, but by his just judgment he leaves in their wickedness and hardness of heart those who have not been chosen. And in this especially is disclosed to us his act–unfathomable, and as merciful as it is just–of distinguishing between people equally lost. This is the well-known decision of election and reprobation revealed in God’s Word. This decision the wicked, impure, and unstable distort to their own ruin, but it provides holy and godly souls with comfort beyond words.

Dort adds more:

Moreover, Holy Scripture most especially highlights this eternal and undeserved grace of our election and brings it out more clearly for us, in that it further bears witness that not all people have been chosen but that some have not been chosen or have been passed by in God’s eternal election– those, that is, concerning whom God, on the basis of his entirely free, most just, irreproachable, and unchangeable good pleasure, made the following decision: to leave them in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves; not to grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but finally to condemn and eternally punish them (having been left in their own ways and under his just judgment), not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice. And this is the decision of reprobation, which does not at all make God the author of sin (a blasphemous thought!) but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger.

In the later section on “rejecting the gospel,” Dort states:

The fact that many who are called through the ministry of the gospel do not come and are not brought to conversion must not be blamed on the gospel, nor on Christ, who is offered through the gospel, nor on God, who calls them through the gospel and even bestows various gifts on them, but on the people themselves who are called. Some in self-assurance do not even entertain the Word of life; others do entertain it but do not take it to heart, and for that reason, after the fleeting joy of a temporary faith, they relapse; others choke the seed of the Word with the thorns of life’s cares and with the pleasures of the world and bring forth no fruits. This our Savior teaches in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13).

Let us clearly note that Dort says that Christ is offered through the gospel. Christ is the gospel. And reprobation is a way of describing the truth that certain people will reject the gospel (or never hear it- in the absence of preacher, in which case their sin is ample ground for condemnation).

When dealing with assurance it is worth noting that Dort begins with the the promises of God. The gospel is the primary ground of assurance:

Accordingly, this assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word, but from faith in the promises of God which he has very plentifully revealed in his Word for our comfort, from the testimony of the Holy Spirit testifying with our spirit that we are God’s children and heirs (Rom. 8:16-17), and finally from a serious and holy pursuit of a clear conscience and of good works. And if God’s chosen ones in this world did not have this well-founded comfort that the victory will be theirs and this reliable guarantee of eternal glory, they would be of all people most miserable.

It seems that Dort understands the testimony of the Holy Spirit to be directly associated, if not fully identified, with the revealed Word of God, since it excludes private revelation. Thus we are not relying on how we feel the Spirit to be working, but rather in the Spirit’s objective testimony in the Word.

This is why assurance is included in the definition of faith. Dort later acknowledges that believers can fall into times of doubt, but assurance is still objective, and it is part of what doubters are called back to. Believe it because it is the case.

This understanding of the atonement is consistent with Dabney’s teaching which I posted yesterday, and I think it is of immense importance that we understand this today.  The decree to call specific individuals is limited, but the expiation provided by Christ’s death is unlimited.  Since Christ’s death infinitely satisfies God’s wrath and the decree is secret, thus we have no access to it, we should point all men to Christ crucified.  We should ask them to believe that Christ is for them.  They must repent and believe, and the thing that they are to believe is that Christ has brought them salvation.  Whenever doubt arises, the gospel is there to combat it.  Just say no to hyper-Calvinism.


Dabney on Trinitarian Thought

We find ourselves speaking almost inevitably of 1st, 2d, and 3d persons; thus implying some order in the persons. No orthodox Christian, of course, understands this order as relating to a priority of time, or of essential dignity. To what, then, does it relate? And is there any substantial reason for assigning such an order at all? We reply: There must be; when we find that where the three persons are mentioned by Scripture, in connection, as in Matt. xxviii:19, &c., &c., they are usually mentioned as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and not in reversed order; that in all allusions to the properties and relations of the three, the Father is always spoken of (e.g. the word Father) by some term or trait implying primary rank, and the other two, by some implying secondariness; as Christ is His Son, the Holy Ghost His Spirit; they are sent, He the Sender; and in their working, there is always a sort of reference to the Father’s primariness, (if I may coin a word,) directing their operation. See also Jno. v; 26; x:38; xiv:11; xvii:21; Heb. i:3.

But if it be asked, what is the primariness, the answer is not so easy. It was the usual answer of the ante-Nicene, and especially the Greek Fathers, that it indicated the order of derivation, that the personality of the Son is from that of the Father, not the Father’s from the Son; and so of the Holy Ghost. (And so far, it must be allowed, the fair force of the Scripture facts just stated, carries them properly enough.) The Father they regarded as anaitios, as pege theou, or arche theou, the Son and Holy Ghost as aitiaitoi, theoi ek theou, and as deriving their personal subsistence from the eternal act of the Father in communicating the divine essence to them in those modes of subsistence. And this view was embodied in both forms of the Nicene Creed, of A.D. 325 and 381, where the Son is called, “God of God, Light of Light, and very God of very God;” language never applied to the Father as to the Son. Their idea is, that the Father, the original Godhead, eternally generates the person, not the substance of the Son, and produces by procession the person, not the substance of the Holy Ghost, by inscrutably communicating the whole indivisible divine substance, essentially identical with Himself in these two modes of subsistence; thus eternally causing the two persons, by causing the two additional modes of subsistence. This statement, they suppose, was virtually implied in the very relation of terms, Father and His Son, Father and His pneuma, by the primariness of order always assigned to the Father, and by the distinction in the order of working. And they relied upon this view to vindicate the doctrine of the Trinity from the charge of tritheism.

Was it objected, that they represented the 2d and 3d persons as beginning to exist, and thus robbed them of a true self-existence and eternity? These Fathers could answer with justice: No; the processes of personal derivation were eternal, immanent processes, and the Father has a personal priority, not in time, but only in causation; e.g. the sun’s rays have existed precisely as long as he has; yet the rays are from the sun and not the sun from the rays. And the 2d. person may be derived as to His personality, thoes ek theou, and yet self-existent God; because His essence is the one self-existent essence, and it is only His personality which is derived. They regard self-existence as an attribute of essence, not of person.

Was it objected that these derived personalities were unequal to the 1st person? They answer: No; because the Father put His whole essence in the two other modes of subsistence. Was it said, that then the personal subsistence of the 2d. and 3d. was dependent on the good pleasure of the 1st.; and therefore, revocable at His pleasure? They answered, that the generation and procession were not free, contingent acts, but necessary and essential acts, free indeed, yet necessitated by the very perfection of the eternal substance. You will perceive that I have not used the word subordination, but derivation, to express this personal relation. If you ask me whether I adopt the Patristic view, thus cleared, as my own, I reply, that there seems to me nothing in it inconsistent with revealed truth; yet it seems to me rather a rational explanation of revealed facts, than a revealed fact itself.

~Lectures in Systematic Theology pg. 204

Dabney is here a better historical source than Hodge and Warfield, and though he might lament the “rational explanation” to a point, I can’t imagine a better or more straightforward explanation.

Dabney also mentions a “peculiar view of some Trinitarians” in which the sonship of Christ is given “a merely temporal meaning.” Among these are “the notorious Alex. Campbell.”

Dabney on Unlimited Expiation

Dabney is certainly sympathetic to the Amyraldians. He doesn’t agree with Hodge’s criticisms, though he does believe that the Amyraldian solutions fail to achieve what they set out to do. For Dabney, the “limitation” of the atonement (this is a word he doesn’t much care for either) comes in the covenant of redemption and not in the content of Christ’s expiation. Dabney critiques the Amyraldians for failing to affirm that Christ purchases effectual calling for the elect, but I have to admit that I’m having trouble understanding how the purchase of effectual calling relates with the expiation, of which Dabney admits is unlimited. It seems to me that the covenant of redemption is wholly bound up in God’s secret will, and thus we ought not say too much about how it comes about. I think that Dabney comes out pretty close to “hypothetical universalism,” whatever that actually is. Perhaps Flynn will enlighten us all.

To begin with, he notes the genuine offer of the gospel to all, stating that God really does desire, in a true sense of that word, that even the reprobate would be saved, even though He has not decreed it to come about. Dabney says that limited atonement is analogous to election, but is quick to state, “redemption is limited precisely by the decree, and by nothing else” (Systematic Theology pg. 527).

Dabney gets into the more specific question of the content of Christ’s death, and his distinctions are very helpful:

Now Christ is a true substitute. His suffereings were penal and vicarious, and made a true satisfaction for all those who actually embrace them by faith. But the conception charged on us seems to be, as though Christ’s expiation were a web of the garment of righteousness, to be cut into definite pieces, and distributed out, so much to each person of the elect; whence, of course, it must have a definite aggregate length, and had God seen fit to add any to the number of elect, He must have had an additional extent of web woven. This is all incorrect. Satisfaction was Christ’s indivisible act, and inseparable vicarious merit, infinite in moral value, the whole in its unity and completeness, imputed to every believing elect man, without numerical division, subtraction or exhaustion.

Dabney also adds, “Remember, the limitation is precisely in the decree, and no where else.” He states the the real limitation is in the personal relationships decreed to come about. His conclusion is of vast importance:

The only New Testament sense the word atonement has is that of katallage, reconciliation.  But expiation is another idea.  Katallage is personal.  Exilasmos [expiation] is impersonal.  Katallage is multiplied, being repeated as often as a sinner comes to the expiatory blood: exilasmos is single, unique, complete; and, in itself considered, has no more relationship to one man’s sins than another.  As it is applied in effectual calling, it becomes personal, and receives a limitation.  But in itself, limitation is irrelevant to it.  Hence, when men use the word atonement, as they so often do, in the sense of expiation, the phrases, “limited atonement,” “particular atonement,” have no meaning. Redemption is limited, i.e., to true believers, and is particular. Expiation is not limited.

Now Dabney’s discussion is wholly concerned with penal substitution. There is no mention made of Christus Victor, which, were such written today, would be a glaring omission, but in Dabney’s day the neglect was standard and can perhaps be forgiven.

As I understand it, the “limited” only applies to the secret will of God and the covenant of redemption. Being secret, it seems a hard doctrine to preach directly to people, and I think Dabney admits as much. The entire issue is basically one of the via negativa. Given that it was a rejection of a contrary proposal, this makes good sense.

The gospel is part of God’s revealed will though, and as such I think we are free to speak of it to all. Dabney is more reserved on what this looks like, although I can’t see wherein he and I would really disagree, especially if broader atonement models are figured in. That Christ has satisfied God’s wrath and in him is peace and reconciliation ought to be the very object of our faith. That is what we are to believe. In Christ, we are reconciled to God.

How Can God Both Desire Your Salvation and Condemn You?

R L Dabney answered this question by an analogy:

The direction in which the answers are conceived to lie may be best indicated by an analogical instance. A human ruler may have full power and authority over the punishment of a culprit, may declare consistently his sincere compassion for him, and may yet freely elect to destroy him. A concrete case will make the point more distinct. Chief-Justice Marshall, in his Life of Washington (Vol. 4., Chap. 6.), says with reference to the death-warrant of the rash and unfortunate Major André “Perhaps on no occasion of his life did the commander-in-chief obey with more reluctance the stern mandates of duty and of policy.” In this historical instance we have these facts: Washington had plenary power to kill or to save alive. His compassion for the criminal was real and profound. Yet he signed his death-warrant with spontaneous decision. The solution is not the least difficult either for philosophy or common sense. Every deliberate rational volition is regulated by the agent’s dominant subjective disposition, and prompted by his own subjective motive. But that motive is a complex, not a simple modification of spirit. The simplest motive of man’s rational volition is a complex of two elements: a desire or propension of some subjective optative power, and a judgment of the intelligence as to the true and preferable. The motive of a single decision may be far more complex than this, involving many intellectual considerations of prudence, or righteous policy, and several distinct and even competing propensions of the optative powers. The resultant volition arises out of a deliberation, in which the prevalent judgment and appetency counterpoise the inferior ones. To return to our instance Washington’s volition to sign the death-warrant of André did not arise from the fact that his compassion was slight or feigned; but from the fact that it was rationally counterpoised by a complex of superior judgments and propensions of wisdom, duty, patriotism, and moral indignation. Let us suppose that one of André’s intercessors (and he had them, even among the Americans) standing by, and hearing the commanding general say, as he took up the pen to sign the fatal paper, “I do this with the deepest reluctance and pity,” should have retorted, “Since you are supreme in this matter, and have full bodily ability to throw down that pen, we shall know by your signing this warrant that your pity is hypocritical.” The petulance of this charge would have been equal to its folly. The pity was real; but was restrained by superior elements of motive. Washington had official and bodily power to discharge the criminal; but he had not the sanction of his own wisdom and justice. Thus his pity was genuine, and yet his volition not to indulge it free and sovereign.

Certainly aware of objections, Dabney proceeded to answer them in this lengthy essay. One of the more interesting aspects of the essay is Dabney’s criticism of Thomistic versions of divine simplicity. Hodge agreed with him in this respect, though it seems a historical oddity.

Here is his response to that issue:

The attempt to illustrate the action of the divine will from the rise of rational volition in man, has doubtless been prejudiced by the scholastic explanations of God’s absolute simplicity. They would have us believe, not only that this excludes all composition and aggregation of quantitative parts, but all true distinction of essence and attributes. They would have the idea of God as absolutely devoid of construction in thought as his substance is of construction in reality. We must, in his case, identify essence and attributes. God is actus purus [pure impulse]. Any attribute is God; and hence one attribute is differentiated from another only by our apprehension of it. With him cognition and effectuation are identical. It does not satisfy them to say that God is an infinite monad, as the rational human soul is a finite monad; and that his attributes, like man’s essential powers of intelligence, sensibility, and will, are not limbs or parts attached to the spirit, but essential modes of functions with which it is endued. They require us to identify God’s attributes with his essence in a way inconceivably closer than we do man’s essential powers with his essence. Now, if this speculation be correct, the attempt to apprehend the action of the divine will by the human must be wholly erroneous. There could be no such distinction, as is true of man, between motive and volition, or between the optative powers and the power of choice. Nor could there be any sense whatsoever in which God’s subjective motive could be complex.
    But we deny that the speculation is correct, susceptible of proof, or possible to be valid to the human mind. Evidently the cognition of such a being is inaccessible to man’s intelligence. The only way he has of knowing substance is through its attributes; and the only cognition we have of it is as the intuitive notion, which the reason necessarily supplies, of the subjectum to which the attributes perceived must be referred. Hence, to require us to think substance as literally identical with each attribute rationally referred to it, is to forbid us to think it at all. Again, reason forbids us to think different attributes as identical. We intuitively know that thought is not conation, and conation is not sensibility; it is as impossible to think these actually identical in God as in ourselves. Last, this speculation brings us too near the awful verge of pantheism. Were it true, then, it would be the shortest and most natural of steps to conclude that God has no other being than the series of activities of the several attributes with which they seek to identify the being. Thus we have the form of pantheism next to the gulf of nihilism. If the attributes are identical with the being of God and with each other, and if it be thus shown that God’s thought makes the object thereof, then, since God is eternally, necessarily, and infinitely intelligent, these results must rigidly follow: That all objective being known to God must be also as eternal and necessary as God; and that it must be as infinite as he is. What more would Spinoza have desired to found his mathematical proof of pantheism? The speculation is not true any more than it is scriptural. The Bible always speaks of God’s attributes as distinct, and yet not dividing his unity; of his intelligence and will as different; of his wrath, love, pity, wisdom, as not the same activities of the Infinite Spirit. We are taught that each of these is inconceivably higher than the principle in man which bears the corresponding name; but if the Scriptures do not mean to teach us that they are distinguishable in God, as truly as in man, and that this is as consistent with his being an infinite monad as with our souls’ being finite monads, then they are unmeaning.

A great essay if you’ve got the fortitude. Dabney should be read more often!

Dabney’s Solution to the Lapsarian Debate

This is worth quoting in detail. I’m very intrigued by Dabney’s particular understanding of divine simplicity, as he and Hodge were both very critical of the more Thomistic definition.

The attempt to illustrate the action of the divine will from the rise of rational volition in man, has doubtless been prejudiced by the scholastic explanations of God’s absolute simplicity. They would have us believe, not only that this excludes all composition and aggregation of quantitative parts, but all true distinction of essence and attributes. They would have the idea of God as absolutely devoid of construction in thought as his substance is of construction in reality. We must, in his case, identify essence and attributes. God is actus purus [pure impulse]. Any attribute is God; and hence one attribute is differentiated from another only by our apprehension of it. With him cognition and effectuation are identical. It does not satisfy them to say that God is an infinite monad, as the rational human soul is a finite monad; and that his attributes, like man’s essential powers of intelligence, sensibility, and will, are not limbs or parts attached to the spirit, but essential modes of functions with which it is endued. They require us to identify God’s attributes with his essence in a way inconceivably closer than we do man’s essential powers with his essence. Now, if this speculation be correct, the attempt to apprehend the action of the divine will by the human must be wholly erroneous. There could be no such distinction, as is true of man, between motive and volition, or between the optative powers and the power of choice. Nor could there be any sense whatsoever in which God’s subjective motive could be complex. Continue reading

Ayres and “Pro-Nicene”

A major component of Lewis Ayres’ Nicea and its Legacy is the specific historical narrative that it presents. The protagonists are called “Pro-Nicenes,” and Ayres identifies a Pro-Nicene as possessing three distinctives:

1. a clear version of the person and nature distinction, entailing the principle that whatever is predicated of the divine nature is predicated of the three persons equally and understood to be one (this distinction may or may not be articulated via a consistent technical terminology);

2. clear expression that the eternal generation of the Son occurs within the unitary and incomprehensible divine being;

3. clear expression of the doctrine that the persons work inseparably.

Ayres further explains:

The first and second of these points represent two of the fundamental themes whose development enabled the emergence of pro-Nicene theology. The unity of nature was understood to imply that the three persons were of equal ontological standing– all possessed the fullness of what it was to be God. It was also assumed by pro-Nicenes that the particular characteristics of the three persons still enabled us to speak of a certain order of progression within the Godhead. At the same time, new clarity about the simplicity and immateriality of the Godhead enabled a clear insistence that the generation of the Son (and the ‘spiration’ of the Spirit) did not involve a dividing of the divine being. Michel Barnes helpfully distinguishes between earlier fourth-century usage in which the Father/Son relationship is used to show continuity of nature and fully pro-Nicene usage in which the Father/Son relationship is used only to show that the persons are distinct because now the eternal generation occurs a priori within the unitary and simple Godhead.

My use of the term pro-Nicene is initially defined against those accounts that present the fourth-century Trinitarian controversies as having one solution: the clearer restatement of an original Nicene theology. This theology is understood as defended (if not defined) by Athanasius, taken up and given more precision by the Cappadocians, and passed to a naturally well-disposed west in transition and with inevitable misunderstanding. The main problem with such accounts is that the evidence for the crucial shifts in and assumptions of this narrative is weak. There is no one original Nicene theology that continues unchanged through the century. Extensive influence of Athanasius’ theology on the Cappadocians is difficult to prove. Western accounts are not simply dependent on eastern translations and there was a significant and persistent non-Nicene presence in parts of the west. The theologies that constitute pro-Nicene orthodoxy are not reducible to one point of original or to one form of expression.

The other significant way of considering the solution to the fourth-century controversies has been to suggest the Trinitarian theologies of the Cappadocians represent a retreat from the Nicene theology of Athanasius. This thesis was advocated by the German Protestant scholars Theodor Zahn and Friedrich Loofs in the late nineteenth century and taken up strongly by Adolf von Harnack (and henceforth I will refer to it as the ‘Harnack thesis’). For Harnack ‘Cappadocian’ theology, which he treats as a unity, is just an adapted Homoiousian theology. Whereas Athanasius argued that homoousios meant unity of substance, ‘Cappadocian’ theology focuses on the three beings who share a common substance, rather than on the divine unity which is mysteriously threefold. Because the Cappadocians also insist on the Father’s person as the source of the Trinity, Harnack sees them as offering a modified version of Origen’s Trinitarian theology, not Athanasius’ original ‘Nicene’ theology. (236-237)

Ayres elsewhere notes that if forced to use the older paradigm, one would find himself in the uncomfortable position of putting Athanasius in the “Western” category.  The homoians would be closer to “social Trinitarians,” with their aversion to all that ousia language.

Michel Barnes’ Critique of Augustine’s Modern Critics

In a highly influential 1995 article in Theological Studies, Michel Barnes levels a damning critique on much of what the 20th century has had to say about Augustine. Whether or not we can credit this wholly to Barnes, it seems to be the case that with the publication of Ayres’ Nicaea and its Legacy, the recent Fordham conference, and the Spring edition of the Harvard Theological Review, the coffin has been shut on de Regnon’s hyperactive children. The interesting part of all this, however, is that though rejecting folk like Rahner and Barth’s criticisms, the new appreciation of Augustine comes to similar conclusions on what trinitarian doctrine ought to be. Ayres and Hart are two names whose writings provide help for that question.

Barnes’ begins his critique by explaining his suspicions. He notes that the Latin=1/Greek=3 paradigm creates a historical problem for our understanding of tradition. He states, “Whether it accurately describes the doctrines it purports to describe, what is certain is that only theologians of the last one hundred years have ever thought it was true.” The problem becomes even worse when Barnes explains what such a discontinuity thesis entails:

The more one tends to speak of a real division between Greek and Latin trinitarian theologies in the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries, the more one must acknowledge and explain a fundamental shift away form the mid-fourth-century synthetic theology of Alexandria and Rome. The more one postulates a turn-of-the-century opposition between Greek and Latin theologies, the more one implicitly claims the loss of the prior consensus, and a dominant consensus at that, found in the theologies of Rome and Alexandria, a consensus that was above all “Nicene.”

The discontinuity metanarrative seems even more implausible when we consider the extreme importance of Rome in the monophysite and monothelite controversies. Who, after all, did Maximus the Confessor rely on for backup but the church at Rome? To whom does Chalcedon owe the most direct dependency but Leo? The Cappadocians would be an odd parenthesis in history.

Barnes explains how such a view, as unsustainable as it now seems, was able to capture the imaginations of the previous century’s brightest lights in terms of methodological assumptions. “These contemporary appropriations share the same two presuppositions: the first is that characterizations based on polar contrasts are borne out in the details that are revealed clearly and distinctly through the contrasts…” He explains this point more in stating, “In short, there is a penchant among systematic theologians for categories of polar oppositions, grounded in the belief that ideas ‘out there’ in the past really existed in polarities, and that polar oppositions accurately describe the contents and relationships of these ideas.”

Another major influence on the modern methodology has been the over-confidence in paradigm analysis. Barnes writes, “The confidence to speak in architectonic narrative forms reflects a general sense that details matter less than perspective, that historical facts are only epiphenomena of an architectonic paradigm or hermeneutic, so that a sufficient knowledge of ‘facts’ can be acquired solely through the practice of a hermeneutical or an ideological critique in itself, since any ‘fact’ can itself be reduced to an expression or the symptom of a hermeneutical ideology.”

Thus we find that the 20th century marshals an army of systematic theologians and philosophers engaging Augustine in battle, and leveling charges of historical infidelity. Augustine is the one who is supposed to have been isolated and ignorant of the 4th century thought.

That the anti-Augustine current has conveniently used its conclusions to answer the questions of modern trinitarian thought is not lost on Barnes either. While not objecting to interaction between the two fields, he does note that the particular handling of the data has lead to poor historiography. He laments, “The dialogue between systematic theology and historical theology is transformed into a conversation between a ventriloquist and her or his prop.”

This is a problem that is not limited to the specific question of Augustine. Anselm, Luther, and Calvin are treated similarly, and Reformed circles are certainly familiar with such a methodology in our contemporary debates.

Knowing what is the case prior to interacting with the particulars of Augustine’s writings, particularly evidenced by the simple lack of certain available translations, has led to a position of less self-awareness and worse scholarship. Barnes states that it is not uncommon to interact with a “Reading of Augustine” that has itself never actually read Augustine. Rather than addressing an “Augustine problem,” the modern critics simply create a new and more serious problem.

Barnes’ article is over ten years old now too. Perhaps in another decade or so we can expect polemicists and professors to catch up.

Ayres on Eunomius

Eunomius does describe the Son as created, but he is concerned to show that the Son is distinct from the creation we inhabit: the Son is a product unlike other products and stands in the relationship of maker to all other things.  The Son holds a unique status because he is a uniquely direct product of the Father’s will.  Again, Eunomius carefully distinguishes activity (energeia) and will from essence.  He makes use of a causal hierarchy to consider the relationships between the persons that we can schematize as essence-activity-product.  In this sequence Eunomius is at pains to argue that activity is not coterminus with essence: an activity is distinct from an essence and is temporary.  Only by understanding that God’s activity is an effortless willing without any consequences for his existence can we appropriately preserve the unity and simplicity of God.  The Son is thus a product of the Father’s will and is the image of the Father’s will: but he is the Father’s power only in being an image of his power and activity.  The Spirit is understood on the same schema, not as an activity of God that is somehow also an essence, but as a product of the divine will created through the Son and inferior to the Son. 

~ Lewis Ayres Nicaea and its Legacy pg. 148

Zanchi’s Interprative Maximalism

Zanchi is an interesting fellow because he is both a predestinarian scholastic and a liturgical-sacramental exegete. Just check out this exert from Of the Spiritual Marriage Between Christ and the Church:

The Position

  1. Eve, whom god would have to be the wife of Adam, was created not of any other, than of Adam himself.
  2. The manner of her creation was this: the Lord sent a heavy sleep upon Adam, and he took from him sleeping, a rib: the void place he filled with flesh: of the rib he framed and made a woman.
  3. The cause why eve was made of the rib of Adam was showed a little before; to wit, because god would not have the beginning whence mankind should come to be of a diverse kind. Therefore would he have Eve to be taken also out of Adam alone, that all men might come from one.
  4. Herein Adam was a true type and figure of Christ: because, as out of him Eve and all mankind hath proceeded, and still proceeds: so of this second Adam, which is Christ, as of one only principle and beginning the whole Church was, and even to this day still is begotten. And this is it, that the Apostle interpreting those words of Adam, says, “That we are flesh of the flesh of Christ, and bone of his bones.”
  5. Therefore, the spouse has nothing but that which she has received from Christ her husband and head, and she is partaker of his nature.

  6. But what does this manner of creating Eve from Adam mean? God indeed could have taken a rib from Adam when he was awake, and made Eve thereof: but he would not for the mystery of things to come, whereof the Apostle says, “this is a great mystery.”
  7. For sleep, or that deep and heavy sleep which God caused to fall upon Adam himself, was a type or figure of the death of Christ. For if the sleep of David, whereof you may read, Psalm 3.5, was a type of the death of Christ, as Augustine and after him Luther, and others do expound that place of the death and resurrection of Christ, much more shall this heavy sleep of the first Adam be a type of the death of the second Adam.
  8. For sleep is the image of death: whereupon they that are dead, are said in the holy scriptures to sleep.
  9. Therefore, as the matter whereof Eve was framed and made, was taken out of Adam sleeping, so also there issued and came forth blood and water out of Christ being dead upon the cross, wherewith the Church was washed from her sins, and was conceived and born anew, and was made flesh of the flesh of Christ, and bone of his bones and this new birth is through the bleed of Christ: the washing is by the water.
  10. But whereas I say, that the Church is taken and created out of the side of Christ being dead; that has a double meaning: First we may understand, that it is by the way of merit, because then, Christ with his blood did merit and obtain of his father remission of sins, and regeneration unto eternal life for all the elect which ever were or shall be to the end of the world, of whom alone the Church consists.
  11. Secondly, we may understand, that it is by the way of communication, which we have in baptism.
  12. For baptism is a sacrament of regeneration, and the matter of our regeneration or new birth is the blood of Christ dead for us.
  13. Therefore the Apostle says in the sixth chapter to the Romans: “Know ye not that so many of us as are baptized into Christ Jesus, we are baptized into his death?”
  14. Therefore, because in true baptism, which is by water and by the spirit, the force and efficacy of the death and blood of Christ is communicated unto us, whereby we put off the old man, and put on the new man, and are made a new creature: therefore every one of us are then said truly and in very deed to be made bone of the bones of Christ, and flesh of the flesh of Christ, when we are regenerate and born anew in baptism.
  15. Behold now the mystery of Eve made of the rib of Adam, which was taken out of his side when he was cast in a heavy sleep.

  16. hereto belongs that which Isaiah says, “When he,” that is the Messiah, “shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, his long seed.”
  17. And with this agrees that saying of our savior Christ, “Except the grain of corn, falling into the ground dies, it abides alone: but if it dies, it brings forth fruit.”
  18. This much fruit is the Church, which being of the same nature with the dead grain of corn, is by participation of the death and blood of Christ made flesh of his flesh.

  19. And it is a mystery, that Eve was made of the rib of Adam which was a hard bone: and that the void place was filled up with flesh.
  20. The rib (as also the godly fathers do interpret it) signified the strength and force of the godhead of Christ, and by the flesh is signified the infirmity of his human nature. Christ communicates unto us his divine nature (as Peter says) and makes us strong and on the other side he takes upon him our infirmities.
  21. By the bone therefore is signified, the divine nature of Christ: and by the flesh, his humanity. Therefore the Apostle mentions both, in saying, “Bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh” because in regeneration, both we are made partakers of his divine nature, and our flesh, that is, our nature is renewed and sanctified, and is made another flesh that is to say, the flesh of Christ.
  22. The word also which Moses uses there of “building”, where he says, “And the Lord God built the rib into a woman,” hath its mystery: for thereby is signified the building of this most large temple, which is the Church. Of which building the Apostle speaks, Ephesians 2, “In whom ye also are built together to be the habitation of God by the spirit, etc.” And I. Corinthians 3, “You are the temple or building of God.”
  23. The foundation of this building is that most strong rock Christ, whose force and strength was signified (as I said before) by the rib.

And thus much of the second part of that history taken out of the second chapter of Genesis, wherein the creation of Eve is described, and the regeneration of the Church is shadowed out unto us.
Good to see that typology ain’t nothin new.


I’ve been reading through the works of Girolamo Zanchi recently.  He studied in Geneva under Beza and then went to Heidelberg to follow up Ursinus’ tenure at the university.   Up until recently Zanchi’s works have remained mostly untranslated and difficult to find. Given this, I was pretty excited to find this project online.

You should definitely check out The Spiritual Marriage Between Christ and the Church.