Constantine’s Christology

I’m doing a good bit of reading in and about the 4th century, and it has really been enlightening. One unexpected tidbit that I stumbled across was a letter from Constantine in which he clearly espouses an orthodox theology. It is one that is quite contrary to Eusebius’ presentation of him. Here’s a portion of it:

Constantine Augustus to the Catholic Church of Nicomedia-

You all, beloved brothers, obviously know very well that the Lord God and Christ the Savior are Father and Son- Father without beginning and without end, parent of the world itself, and Son, that is, the will of the Father, which has not been comprehended by any human conception nor received through any extraneous essence for the completion of his works. He who understands this and keeps it in his mind will have indefatigable endurance of every sort of affliction. But Christ, the Son of God, the creator of all and supplier of immortality itself, was begotten- or rather, he who also is ever in the Father came forth for the ordering of what he had created- Christ was begotten by an indivisible coming forth, for will is both permanently fixed in its dwelling place and acts on and arranges the things which need different attention according to the nature of each one. What then is there between God the Father and God the Son? Obviously nothing…

What dreadful brigandage has been revealed, which denies that the Son of God has come forth from the indivisible essence of the Father? Is God not everywhere, and do we not perceive his presence ever with us? Does not the harmony of the universe exist through his power, without the deprivation of separation?

(from Timothy D. Barnes Constantine and Eusebius pg. 242-243)

Barnes concludes that Eusebius exaggerated, if not wholly forged, most of his records in regards to Constantine. Having probably not conversed directly with Constantine more than four times, he was certainly not an immediate counselor. And though it is true that Constantine desired peace and unity for stability’s sake, it is also the case that he was a true supporter of Athanasius.

Righteousness Obtained by Resurrection

Calvin comments on Rom. 4:25-

Who was delivered for our offences, etc. He expands and illustrates more at large the doctrine to which I have just referred. It indeed greatly concerns us, not only to have our minds directed to Christ, but also to have it distinctly made known how he attained salvation for us. And though Scripture, when it treats of our salvation, dwells especially on the death of Christ, yet the Apostle now proceeds farther: for as his purpose was more explicitly to set forth the cause of our salvation, he mentions its two parts; and says, first, that our sins were expiated by the death of Christ, — and secondly, that by his resurrection was obtained our righteousness. But the meaning is, that when we possess the benefit of Christ’s death and resurrection, there is nothing wanting to the completion of perfect righteousness. By separating his death from his resurrection, he no doubt accommodates what he says to our ignorance; for it is also true that righteousness has been obtained for us by that obedience of Christ, which he exhibited in his death, as the Apostle himself teaches us in the following chapter. But as Christ, by rising from the dead, made known how much he had effected by his death, this distinction is calculated to teach us that our salvation was begun by the sacrifice, by which our sins were expiated, and was at length completed by his resurrection: for the beginning of righteousness is to be reconciled to God, and its completion is to attain life by having death abolished. Paul then means, that satisfaction for our sins was given on the cross: for it was necessary, in order that Christ might restore us to the Father’s favor, that our sins should be abolished by him; which could not have been done had he not on their account suffered the punishment, which we were not equal to endure. Hence Isaiah says, that the chastisement of our peace was upon him. (Isaiah 53:5.) But he says that he was delivered, and not, that he died; for expiation depended on the eternal goodwill of God, who purposed to be in this way pacified.

And was raised again for our justification. As it would not have been enough for Christ to undergo the wrath and judgment of God, and to endure the curse due to our sins, without his coming forth a conqueror, and without being received into celestial glory, that by his intercession he might reconcile God to us, the efficacy of justification is ascribed to his resurrection, by which death was overcome; not that the sacrifice of the cross, by which we are reconciled to God, contributes nothing towards our justification, but that the completeness of his favor appears more clear by his coming to life again.

But I cannot assent to those who refer this second clause to newness of life; for of that the Apostle has not begun to speak; and further, it is certain that both clauses refer to the same thing. For if justification means renovation, then that he died for our sins must be taken in the same sense, as signifying that he acquired for us grace to mortify the flesh; which no one admits. Then, as he is said to have died for our sins, because he delivered us from the evil of death by suffering death as a punishment for our sins; so he is now said to have been raised for our justification, because he fully restored life to us by his resurrection: for he was first smitten by the hand of God, that in the person of the sinner he might sustain the misery of sin; and then he was raised to life, that he might freely grant to his people righteousness and life. He therefore still speaks of imputative justification; and this will be confirmed by what immediately follows in the next chapter.

He has similar thoughts regarding 1 Cor. 15:4-

That Christ died, etc. See now more clearly whence he received it, for he quotes the Scriptures in proof. In the first place, he makes mention of the death of Christ, nay also of his burial, that we may infer, that, as he was like us in these things, he is so also in his resurrection. He has, therefore, died with us that we may rise with him. In his burial, too, the reality of the death in which he has taken part with us, is made more clearly apparent. Now there are many passages of Scripture in which Christ’s death and resurrection are predicted, but nowhere more plainly than in Isaiah 53, in Daniel 9:26, and in Psalm 22

For our sins That is, that by taking our curse upon him he might redeem us from it. For what else was Christ’s death, but a sacrifice for expiating our sins — what but a satisfactory penalty, by which we might be reconciled to God — what but the condemnation of one, for the purpose of obtaining forgiveness for us? He speaks also in the same manner in Romans 4:25, but in that passage, on the other hand, he ascribes it also to the resurrection as its effect — that it confers righteousness upon us; for as sin was done away through the death of Christ, so righteousness is procured through his resurrection. This distinction must be carefully observed, that we may know what we must look for from the death of Christ, and what from his resurrection. When, however, the Scripture in other places makes mention only of his death, let us understand that in those cases his resurrection is included in his death, but when they are mentioned separately, the commencement of our salvation is (as we see) in the one, and the consummation of it in the other.

On Dort, Again

I would like to offer a few observations about Dort that should make us question certain pop-Calvinism interpretations. Some of these may seem self-evident, but in my own personal experience, I found them enlightening, if not startling.

1)- The Canons of Dort do not actually give “5 points.” The Remonstrants had written 5 points, and Dort’s job was to respond to those points. Dort combines points 3 and 4 into one category, and thus when one reads the Canons, he will only cover four sections. Furthermore, S. Vandergugten states that the more important emphasis of the Canons were the individual articles, of which there were 93. Vandergrugten writes:

The chairs and tables of the Arminians were put away. Synod now began to examine their opinions from available writings, concentrating on the Five Articles of the Remonstrance of 1610. The reading of the various judgments of the eighteen committees concerning these Five Articles took place from March 7 to 21 and from March 25 to April 16. The Canons were formulated in ninety-three separate articles. These were signed by all the delegates on April 23, 1619, and solemnly promulgated in the Great Church on May 6 before a large congregation.

And so as one reads Dort, he really ought not look for the famous “5 points.” Rather, he ought to take careful notice of the individual articles, which use very careful wording.

2)- The Canons of Dort do not follow the order of TULIP. In fact, the acronym TULIP only even works in English! It has become a popular catechetical tool in North America, but this should not be allowed to distort our historical understanding. In fact, I have been unable to find an early usage of TULIP than Loraine Boettner.

The Canons of Dort are laid out in this order: i) Divine Election and Reprobation, ii) Christ’s Death and Human Redemption Through It, iii & iv) Human Corruption, Conversion To God and the Way It Occurs, and v) Perseverance of the Saints.

3)- Dort teaches that Reprobation is due to God’s decision to “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.” In other words, reprobation is a decision NOT to do something. The condemnation is due to personal guilt.

4)- Dort does not use the language of Christ simply dying “for” one group, but not “for” another. Instead, it treats his death as being “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.” It presents the limitation in the sovereign, secret, and eternal decree to give the elect faith: “For it was the entirely free plan and very gracious will and intention of God the Father that the enlivening and saving effectiveness of his Son’s costly death should work itself out in all his chosen ones, in order that he might grant justifying faith to them only and thereby lead them without fail to salvation.”

Faith is a receptive instrument. It leads you elsewhere. Thus, God’s decision to grant justifying faith to the elect is the vehicle which he then leads them to the sacrifice of Christ. That sacrifice is then applied, and the benefits of it become efficient.

This type of explanation is important because it does not limit Christ’s own value or worth. Him being divine, his merit was necessarily infinite.

It also does not make faith the ground of forgiveness. If that were so, we’d be right back into a form of Semi-Pelagianism. Faith is something we use to take us to Christ.

Predestination is not determinism or fatalism either. However mysterious it may be, we must confess that there is genuine human responsibility and the use of it has full integrity. We have the atonement applied in history, through God’s ordained means. The cross did not simply zap all the elect into the right-standing box. If this were so all missions would be mere appendices.

And finally, this understanding of the atonement is necessary to preserve the free offer of the gospel and the legitimate grounds to say to the unbeliever that it is his faithlessness that is at fault, and not God. It is pastorally essential. We must be willing to say to all men that God desires their salvation, according to His revealed will, and we must be willing to weep over those who reject the gospel. “What more could I have done for my vineyard?” the LORD says.

Ursinus on the Sufficient/ Efficient Distinction

Zacharius Ursinus explains what the Heidelberg Catechism means by its 37th question and answer in his fine commentary. The Catechism reads:

Question 37. What dost thou understand by the words, “He suffered”?

Answer: That he, all the time that he lived on earth, but especially at the end of his life, sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind: that so by his passion, as the only propitiatory sacrifice, he might redeem our body and soul from everlasting damnation, and obtain for us the favor of God, righteousness and eternal life.

Ursinus explains:

Christ satisfied for all, as it respects the sufficiency of the satisfaction which he made, but not as it respects the application thereof; for he fulfilled the law in a two-fold respect. First, by his own righteousness; and secondly, by making satisfaction for our sins, each of which is most perfect. But the satisfaction is made ours by an application, which is also two-fold; the former of which is made by God, when he justifies us on account of the merit of his Son, and brings it to pass that we cease from sin; the latter is accomplished by us through faith. For we apply unto ourselves, that merit of Christ, when by a true faith, we are fully persuaded that God for the sake of the satisfaction of his Son, remits unto us our sins. Without this application, the satisfaction of Christ is of no benfit to us. (pg. 215)

He also takes up the specifics around Q&A 40 in regards to whom Christ died for. This is quite helpful in understanding the logic behind Ursinus’s view of penal substitution and limited atonement:

They affirm, therefore, that Christ died for all, and that he did not die for all; but in different respects. He died for all, as touching the sufficiency of the ransom which he paid; and not for all; but only for the elect, or those that believe, as touching the application and efficacy thereof. The reason of the former lies in this, that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for expiating all the sins of all men, or of the whole world, if only all men will make application thereof unto themselves by faith. For it cannot be said to be insufficient, unless we give countenance to that horrible blasphemy (which God forbid!) that some blame of the destruction of the ungodly results from a defect in the merit of the mediator. The reason of the latter is, because all the elect, or such as believe, and they alone, do apply unto themselves by faith the merit of Christ’s death, together with the efficacy thereof, by which they obtain righteousness, and life according as it is said, “He that believeth on the Son of God, hath everlasting life.” (John 3:36.) The rest are excluded from this efficacy of Christ’s death by their own unbelief, as it is again said, “He that believeth not shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him.” (John 3:36.) Those, therefore, whom the Scriptures exclude form the efficacy of Christ’s death, cannot be said to be included in the number of those for whom he died as it respects the efficacy of his death, but only as to its sufficiency; because the death of Christ is also sufficient for their salvation, if they will but believe; and the only reason of their exclusion arises from their unbelief.

It is in the same way, that is, by making the same distinction that we reply to those who ask concerning the purpose of Christ, Did he will to die for all? For just as he died, so also he willed to die. Therefore, as he died for all, in respect to the sufficiency of his ransom; and for the faithful alone in respect to the efficacy of the same, so also he willed to die for all in general, as touching the sufficiency of his merit, that is, he willed to merit by his death, grace, righteousness, and life in the most abundant manner for all; because he would not that any thing should be wanting as far as he and his merits are concerned, so that all the wicked who perish may be without excuse. But he willed to die for the elect alone as touching the efficacy of his death, that is, he would not only sufficiently merit grace and life for them alone, but also effectually confers these upon them, grants faith, and the holy Spirit, and brings it to pass that they apply to themselves, by faith, the benefits of his death, and so obtain for themselves the efficacy of his merits. (pg. 223)

Now it is important to keep a few distinctions in mind. Those communions who subscribe to the Heidelberg catechism are confessionally bound to teach that Jesus “sustained in body and soul, the wrath of God against the sins of all mankind.” This much is simply a statement of fact.

They may turn to Ursinus’s commentary for an explanation of how to interpret this statement, of course, and that would be what any responsible student ought to do. Let us then review Ursinus’s logic.

First, Christ satisfied for all in regards to sufficiency. This has to do with the content of the actual death. The “stuff” of the cross, if we may be permitted to use such language for now. This satisfaction is objective and “enough” to remit the sins of the whole world if individuals would but apply the satisfaction. This satisfaction includes the merit of Christ’s death, grace, righteousness, and life. This is the content of Christ’s satisfaction, and it is rightly preached to be “for all” so that no one can complain or evade personal responsibility for not possessing it. The satisfaction is made, and all are invited to apply it by faith.

The limitation, according to Ursinus, occurs in the effectual call of the elect. Christ not only provides the satisfaction, but also “effectually confers these upon them [the elect], grants faith, and the holy Spirit, and brings it to pass that they apply to themselves, by faith, the benefits of his death, and so obtain for themselves the efficacy of his merits.”

That which is conferred is the same in content as that which is made by Christ. The distinction is in the application.

This is important for a number of reasons. It provides a basis for the free offer of the gospel, as well as the ability to state that all are without excuse if they do not make application of Christ’s satisfaction.  This reading is consistent with Dort, and thus explains how Dabney could claim his position as the Reformed position centuries later.