The God Who Is Love and the Incoherence of Calvinism

by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D. 


When I first began to wonder how the Calvinists might interpret the Johannine declaration that God is love (see 1 John 4:8 and 16), I turned immediately to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, large portions of which I had already read—had indeed examined line by line and with great intensity—during my own seminary days. But to my surprise, I discovered that Calvin evidently did not regard either of these texts as important enough even to mention in this his most systematic and exhaustive exposition of Christian doctrine and practice. I found this especially surprising because I could not think of any other ethically or theologically significant New Testament text that he ignored altogether in this massive work. So, to satisfy my own curiosity, I then turned to his commentary on First John, where I knew that he would have no choice but to comment on these particular texts. What I found in the commentary, however, befuddled me even further because his remarks there appeared to be flatly self-contradictory, at least to me.

Now I made similar remarks in a personal letter to Jerry Walls who had called my attention to James A. Gibson’s critique of Walls’ own book Does God Love Everyone? and I subsequently published that letter here on my Timeline in a post entitled “A Case of Theological Obfuscation?” Accordingly, having made that letter public myself, it is no surprise, perhaps, and certainly fair that Gibson should reply to it, which he does in this blog article: “A Rejoinder to Thomas Talbott on Calvin.”

As I have reflected on both Gibson’s original critique of Walls and his rejoinder to my letter that I made public, two issues, which I shall deal with in two separate posts, seem to me worthy of further comment. One of them, which will be the subject of a subsequent post, concerns the deeply flawed nature, as I see it, of Gibson’s historical survey. But first—and this may be a more technical philosophical issue—I want to explain again the apparently self-contradictory nature of Calvin’s remarks on 1 John 4:8.

According to Gibson, the “contradiction [that I attribute to Calvin] is supposed to arise from the fact that Calvin cites that God is love, but then goes on to apply the love of God specifically to the elect. Suppose you thought that the statement ‘God is love’ obviously entails God desires every person be saved. Then you would not limit it only to the elect in the context of 1 John 4. So the contradiction is something like, Calvin affirms some statement P that has as its obvious entailment Q, but he then applies P such that ~Q [i.e., not-Q]. And then he skips away from the scene without resolving the contradiction.”

But that, I think it fair to say, misconstrues entirely the apparent contradiction I had in mind. For the record, I do believe that

(a) God is love

attributes an essential property to the individual who is God, the Father, and hence that (a) entails

(b) God wills or desires that “every person be saved.”

But why on earth would I attribute that deduction to a man, such as Calvin, who quite obviously rejects it? If I wanted to persuade a Christian of the truth of (b), moreover, I would simply point out that 1 Timothy 2:4 explicitly states that (b) is true, and I would then examine some of the absurd ways, as I see them, in which Augustine and Calvin both try to explain this text away. I would have no need, in other words, to rely on the more complicated and controversial claim that (a) entails (b). In any case, the contradiction I had in mind arises directly from Calvin’s own words and not from some deduction that I have imposed upon him. For within the context of two or three sentences, he appears to embrace a proposition of the form p and not-p. Right after telling us that 1 John 4:8 expresses “a general principle or truth, that God is love, that is, that his nature is to love men,” Calvin appears immediately to take it back, telling us that 1 John 4:8 “does not speak of the essence [or the nature] of God” after all. He appears to embrace, in other words, both the proposition, 1 John 4:8 expresses a truth about the very essence of God, and the proposition, It is not the case that 1 John 4:8 expresses a truth about the very essence of God.

Now one way to avoid my conclusion that Calvin flatly contradicted himself here would be to insist that he had in mind a sharp distinction between God’s nature and his essence; and because I was aware of such a possibility, as unlikely as it may seem, I was careful to say that his remarks appear to be self-contradictory. But if we suppose, first, that the nature of God includes all and only those properties essential to his divinity, and second, that being divine is itself an essential property of God, the Father, then it is God’s nature to love persons only if it follows from his very essence that he loves them—in which case I see no way to avoid the conclusion that Calvin’s remarks were indeed self-contradictory.

So why is this important? Because it simply cannot be true that the same verse both expresses a truth about the nature of God and says nothing about the essence of God. And furthermore, if lovingkindness is indeed one of God’s essential perfections and therefore part of his very essence, then it is logically impossible that God should fail to love someone in the sense of willing the very best for that person. This follows from the very nature of an essential property. If omniscience is one of God’s essential perfections, for example, then it is logically impossible that he should ever believe a false proposition; if justice is one of his essential perfections, then it is logically impossible that he should ever treat someone unjustly; and similarly, if lovingkindness is one of his essential perfections, then it is logically impossible, contrary to what Jonathan Edwards once wrote, that in “hell God manifests his being and perfections only in hatred and wrath, and hatred without love.”

201203_044_lovelimitWhat Calvin’s overall theology requires, then, is that we accept one of his two inconsistent claims—namely, that 1 John 4:8 “does not speak of the essence [or the nature] of God” at all—and reject the other; it requires, in other words, that we treat lovingkindness as something other than an essential perfection of God. If we do that—if (in philosophical parlance) we treat lovingkindness as at most an accidental property of God—then we can consistently hold that God freely chooses to withhold his elective love from some people, such as the non-elect and those destined for hell. But even if we adopt such a move as that, we must still do justice to the way in which love ties the interests of people together. If in obedience to the command of Jesus, for example, I should successfully love both of my children even as I love myself, then any evil that befalls one of them is an evil that likewise befalls me; as Jesus himself put it, “just as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren [i.e., to one of those I love] you did it to me” (Matt 25:40—RSV). Hence God cannot will the best for me unless he also wills the best for both of my children. That is but the first step in an argument that will finally lead, I believe, to this inescapable conclusion: either God wills the very best for all of us, or he does not will the best for any of us (see The Inescapable Love of God, pp. 126-129, for the full argument). Or, to put it in a slightly different way, a doctrine of limited election is a logical (or metaphysical) impossibility.

In his book Does God Love Everyone? Jerry Walls comments, “Unfortunately, Calvinists sometimes [my emphasis] seem to have a blind spot for the love of God” (p.4). And he provides several illustrations of his point, the first of which is the following quotation from Arthur W. Pink: “When we say that God is sovereign in the exercise of His love, we mean that He loves whom he chooses. He does not love everybody” (quoted on p. 3). But of course Walls could have chosen from any number of similar examples, such as the declaration of Jonathan Edwards and Hermann Hoeksema that from the beginning the non-elect are an object of “God’s eternal hatred.” Or, he could also have quoted Calvin himself: “If God wills that all be saved, how does it come to pass that he does not open the door of repentance to the miserable men who would be better prepared to receive grace [than some who do receive it]? . . . But experience teaches that God wills the repentance of those whom he invites to himself, in such a way that he does not touch the hearts of all” (Institutes, bk. 3, ch. 24, sec. 15—my emphasis). Here one wonders how, according to Calvin, our limited and impoverished experience of such matters is even relevant to what God will do in the end? How is it even relevant to the interpretation of any given text in the Bible?

As a further illustration of the point, Walls also observes that in his Institutes of the Christian Religion John Calvin never once cited 1 John 4:8 or 1 John 4:16 and never once considered the Johannine declaration that God is love important enough even to discuss. Although Walls presents this as but one illustration among several of his point about blindness and rests no argument of substance upon it, James A. Gibson evidently felt compelled to defend Calvin with an historical survey, which in a subsequent reply to me he summarized this way:

“In response [to Walls], I point out that almost no one in the ecclesiastical corpus cited those verses, and moreover, only one person among all those who cited the verses had the slightest chance of thinking the verses might mean what Walls took them to mean. Furthermore, almost every commentator minus one had the same interpretation of 1 John 4 as did Calvin. As a result, it would be strange to think that Calvin goofed in not citing the verses as possible contrary evidence to his other views; and it is certainly not stunning that he did not cite them.” [But see “Calvin and the Love of God in 1 John” for the full explanation of his survey.]

Personally, I would never claim that Calvin “goofed in not citing these verses”; I suspect he knew exactly what he was doing. In any case, Gibson’s claim that “almost every commentator minus one had the same interpretation of 1 John 4 as did Calvin” seems to me altogether vacuous. For how are we to determine Calvin’s interpretation? If it is flatly self-contradictory, then it entails any interpretation you please and excludes none whatsoever. But perhaps we can here let that pass and focus on three fatal flaws, as I view them, in Gibson’s historical survey.

First, Gibson seems utterly oblivious of the major impact that Augustine had on the Western theological tradition and the changes he introduced into it. Gibson therefore writes, as if he were scoring a point: “Striking, isn’t it, that Augustine does not take the fact that ‘God is love’ to imply that God is actively aiming at the salvation of every single person?” But that, of course, is just what one would expect. Was not Augustine (the later Augustine, at least) the very first “Calvinist,” so to speak, the first Christian to invent the idea of a limited elect drawn from all classes of people? And was not Calvin a follower of Augustine in this regard, even to the point of using Augustine’s own phraseology to explain away a text such as 1 Timothy 2:4? The index of references to Augustine in my copy of the Institutes is seven pages of small print with two columns per page, and it is simply inconceivable that Calvin might have interpreted the Johannine declaration that God is love any differently than Augustine did. So why treat this similarity between two proponents of limited election as if it were some kind of important discovery in the present context? The challenge for Gibson would be to name a single Christian before Augustine—and before Augustine perverted the early Christian understanding of divine love—who denied that “God is actively aiming at the salvation of every single person.”

Second, Gibson systematically confuses the belief that “God is actively aiming at the salvation of every single person,” which Walls accepts, with a belief that Walls and many others reject: the belief that God will successfully win over every single person. Concerning Clement of Alexandria, for example, Gibson writes: “What Clement declares is that love is an excellence of God’s. From this, we see that God makes men righteous. Every man? That’s not in the text” (i.e., not in Clement’s brief comment on 1 John 1:5). But does Gibson seriously doubt that, according to Clement, God’s love is all-inclusive, that it is always and everywhere active, in the next life no less than in this one, in hell no less than in heaven? Although Clement may never have explicitly endorsed Origen’s idea that God’s love will successfully win over every person, he clearly did hold that God’s love would never cease striving towards that end. Another example: Gibson quotes Cyprian to the effect that liars, murderers, and those filled with hatred for others do not have the love of God abiding in them. He then comments, “How strange it should be that not everyone has this love when it is thought that 1 John 4:8 has the implication that God loves and aims to convert every person.” But good heavens, why should anyone think that strange at all? When Saul of Tarsus was dragging Christians from their homes and consenting to the murder of Stephen, would Gibson think it strange that he was motivated by something other than a perfect love for these Christians? And would Gibson draw the further inference that God was not, therefore, “actively aiming at the salvation” of Saul? I certainly hope not.

Finally, Gibson’s survey of pre-Augustine Christian writers, using the search terms “1 John 4” and “God is love,” results in little more than an unfortunate argument from silence. Take a look at his list of ten for whom his search turned up nothing. Ignatius, who was (apparently) martyred in Rome sometime around the year 110, wrote seven known letters (possibly before 1 John was even composed), and Polycarp, who was burned at the stake sometime around the year 156, wrote one epistle, which was to the Philippians. Unlike Calvin, neither of these martyrs was a scholar aiming to interpret an existing New Testament canon; in fact, the church had not yet settled upon one at the time of their deaths. Or consider John Chrysostom (c. 347-407) who wrote commentaries on all of the Pauline epistles. Although he reportedly had written commentaries on the whole Bible, we have none on Mark, Luke, or any of the Catholic Epistles including 1 John. So the absence of a specific comment on 1 John 4:8 in the available literature is no more surprising than the absence of one on 2 Peter 3:9. It is important to see, moreover, that the pre-Augustine theological milieu was very different from what we find after Augustine in effect endorsed the idea of limited election. Prior to Augustine, there were Christological controversies aplenty and growing divisions between Arians and Trinitarians. But no one of significance had even contemplated the idea of limited election, much less that of divine reprobation, as Chrysostom’s own comments on Romans 9 illustrate nicely. Because virtually all Christians understood St. Paul’s contention that God’s grace extends to both Jews and Gentiles alike to imply that God loves all of humanity equally, it would most likely have seemed to them utterly pointless to cite 1 John 4:8 in support of a claim that no Christian had yet disputed. Indeed, most thoughtful Christians had far more immediate controversies on their minds—concerning, for example, the nature of the Incarnation.

In conclusion, Calvin’s Institutes is a monumental work of over 1500 pages; in it he sought to provide a comprehensive summary of Christian doctrine, as he understood it, along with an exhaustive examination of the biblical support for it. And for that reason alone, what we find (or do not find) in far less comprehensive works, written before Augustine radically altered the Western theological tradition, has no power at all to dissuade me of this: Calvin’s failure even to mention the Johannine declaration that God is love is indeed a glaring omission.

* * *

Dr Thomas Talbott is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon

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by George MacDonald


REMEMBER, Lord, thou hast not made me good.
Or if thou didst, it was so long ago
I have forgotten–and never understood,
I humbly think. At best it was a crude,
A rough-hewn goodness, that did need this woe,
This sin, these harms of all kinds fierce and rude,
To shape it out, making it live and grow.


But thou art making me, I thank thee, sire.
What thou hast done and doest thou know’st well,
And I will help thee:–gently in thy fire
I will lie burning; on thy potter’s-wheel
I will whirl patient, though my brain should reel;
Thy grace shall be enough the grief to quell,
And growing strength perfect through weakness dire.


I have not knowledge, wisdom, insight, thought,
Nor understanding, fit to justify
Thee in thy work, O Perfect. Thou hast brought
Me up to this–and, lo! what thou hast wrought,
I cannot call it good. But I can cry–
“O enemy, the maker hath not done;
One day thou shalt behold, and from the sight wilt run.”


The faith I will, aside is easily bent;
But of thy love, my God, one glimpse alone
Can make me absolutely confident–
With faith, hope, joy, in love responsive blent.
My soul then, in the vision mighty grown,
Its father and its fate securely known,
Falls on thy bosom with exultant moan.


Thou workest perfectly. And if it seem
Some things are not so well, ’tis but because
They are too loving-deep, too lofty-wise,
For me, poor child, to understand their laws:
My highest wisdom half is but a dream;
My love runs helpless like a falling stream:
Thy good embraces ill, and lo! its illness dies!


From sleep I wake, and wake to think of thee.
But wherefore not with sudden glorious glee?
Why burst not gracious on me heaven and earth
In all the splendour of a new-day-birth?
Why hangs a cloud betwixt my lord and me?
The moment that my eyes the morning greet,
My soul should panting rush to clasp thy father-feet.


Is it because it is not thou I see,
But only my poor, blotted fancy of thee?
Oh! never till thyself reveal thy face,
Shall I be flooded with life’s vital grace.
Oh make my mirror-heart thy shining-place,
And then my soul, awaking with the morn,
Shall be a waking joy, eternally new-born.


Lord, in my silver is much metal base,
Else should my being by this time have shown
Thee thy own self therein. Therefore do I
Wake in the furnace. I know thou sittest by,
Refining–look, keep looking in to try
Thy silver; master, look and see thy face,
Else here I lie for ever, blank as any stone.


But when in the dim silver thou dost look,
I do behold thy face, though blurred and faint.
Oh joy! no flaw in me thy grace will brook,
But still refine: slow shall the silver pass
From bright to brighter, till, sans spot or taint,
Love, well content, shall see no speck of brass,
And I his perfect face shall hold as in a glass.


With every morn my life afresh must break
The crust of self, gathered about me fresh;
That thy wind-spirit may rush in and shake
The darkness out of me, and rend the mesh
The spider-devils spin out of the flesh–
Eager to net the soul before it wake,
That it may slumberous lie, and listen to the snake.


‘Tis that I am not good–that is enough;
I pry no farther–that is not the way.
Here, O my potter, is thy making stuff!
Set thy wheel going; let it whir and play.
The chips in me, the stones, the straws, the sand,
Cast them out with fine separating hand,
And make a vessel of thy yielding clay.


What if it take a thousand years to make me,
So me he leave not, angry, on the floor!–
Nay, thou art never angry!–that would break me!
Would I tried never thy dear patience sore,
But were as good as thou couldst well expect me,
Whilst thou dost make, I mar, and thou correct me!
Then were I now content, waiting for something more.


Only, my God, see thou that I content thee–
Oh, take thy own content upon me, God!
Ah, never, never, sure, wilt thou repent thee,
That thou hast called thy Adam from the clod!
Yet must I mourn that thou shouldst ever find me
One moment sluggish, needing more of the rod
Than thou didst think when thy desire designed me.


My God, it troubles me I am not better.
More help, I pray, still more. Thy perfect debtor
I shall be when thy perfect child I am grown.
My Father, help me–am I not thine own?
Lo, other lords have had dominion o’er me,
But now thy will alone I set before me:
Thy own heart’s life–Lord, thou wilt not abhor me!


In youth, when once again I had set out
To find thee, Lord, my life, my liberty,
A window now and then, clouds all about,
Would open into heaven: my heart forlorn
First all would tremble with a solemn glee,
Then, whelmed in peace, rest like a man outworn,
That sees the dawn slow part the closed lids of the morn.


Now I grow old, and the soft-gathered years
Have calmed, yea dulled the heart’s swift fluttering beat;
But a quiet hope that keeps its household seat
Is better than recurrent glories fleet.
To know thee, Lord, is worth a many tears;
And when this mildew, age, has dried away,
My heart will beat again as young and strong and gay.


Stronger and gayer tenfold!–but, O friends,
Not for itself, nor any hoarded bliss.
I see but vaguely whither my being tends,
All vaguely spy a glory shadow-blent,
Vaguely desire the “individual kiss;”
But when I think of God, a large content
Fills the dull air of my gray cloudy tent.


Father of me, thou art my bliss secure.
Make of me, maker, whatsoe’er thou wilt.
Let fancy’s wings hang moulting, hope grow poor,
And doubt steam up from where a joy was spilt–
I lose no time to reason it plain and clear,
But fly to thee, my life’s perfection dear:–
Not what I think, but what thou art, makes sure.


This utterance of spirit through still thought,
This forming of heart-stuff in moulds of brain,
Is helpful to the soul by which ’tis wrought,
The shape reacting on the heart again;
But when I am quite old, and words are slow,
Like dying things that keep their holes for woe,
And memory’s withering tendrils clasp with effort vain?


Thou, then as now, no less wilt be my life,
And I shall know it better than before,
Praying and trusting, hoping, claiming more.
From effort vain, sick foil, and bootless strife,
I shall, with childness fresh, look up to thee;
Thou, seeing thy child with age encumbered sore,
Wilt round him bend thine arm more carefully.


And when grim Death doth take me by the throat,
Thou wilt have pity on thy handiwork;
Thou wilt not let him on my suffering gloat,
But draw my soul out–gladder than man or boy,
When thy saved creatures from the narrow ark
Rushed out, and leaped and laughed and cried for joy,
And the great rainbow strode across the dark.


Against my fears, my doubts, my ignorance,
I trust in thee, O father of my Lord!
The world went on in this same broken dance,
When, worn and mocked, he trusted and adored:
I too will trust, and gather my poor best
To face the truth-faced false. So in his nest
I shall awake at length, a little scarred and scored.


Things cannot look all right so long as I
Am not all right who see–therefore not right
Can see. The lamp within sends out the light
Which shows the things; and if its rays go wry,
Or are not white, they must part show a lie.
The man, half-cured, did men not trees conclude,
Because he moving saw what else had seemed a wood.


Give me, take from me, as thou wilt. I learn–
Slowly and stubbornly I learn to yield
With a strange hopefulness. As from the field
Of hard-fought battle won, the victor chief
Turns thankfully, although his heart do yearn,
So from my old things to thy new I turn,
With sad, thee-trusting heart, and not in grief.


If with my father I did wander free,
Floating o’er hill and field where’er we would,
And, lighting on the sward before the door,
Strange faces through the window-panes should see,
And strange feet standing where the loved had stood,
The dear old place theirs all, as ours before–
Should I be sorrowful, father, having thee?


So, Lord, if thou tak’st from me all the rest,
Thyself with each resumption drawing nigher,
It shall but hurt me as the thorn of the briar,
When I reach to the pale flower in its breast.
To have thee, Lord, is to have all thy best,
Holding it by its very life divine–
To let my friend’s hand go, and take his heart in mine.


Take from me leisure, all familiar places;
Take all the lovely things of earth and air
Take from me books; take all my precious faces;
Take words melodious, and their songful linking;
Take scents, and sounds, and all thy outsides fair;
Draw nearer, taking, and, to my sober thinking,
Thou bring’st them nearer all, and ready to my prayer.


No place on earth henceforth I shall count strange,
For every place belongeth to my Christ.
I will go calm where’er thou bid’st me range;
Whoe’er my neighbour, thou art still my nighest.
Oh my heart’s life, my owner, will of my being!
Into my soul thou every moment diest,
In thee my life thus evermore decreeing.


What though things change and pass, nor come again!
Thou, the life-heart of all things, changest never.
The sun shines on; the fair clouds turn to rain,
And glad the earth with many a spring and river.
The hearts that answer change with chill and shiver,
That mourn the past, sad-sick, with hopeless pain,
They know not thee, our changeless heart and brain.


My halting words will some day turn to song–
Some far-off day, in holy other times!
The melody now prisoned in my rimes
Will one day break aloft, and from the throng
Of wrestling thoughts and words spring up the air;
As from the flower its colour’s sweet despair
Issues in odour, and the sky’s low levels climbs.


My surgent thought shoots lark-like up to thee.
Thou like the heaven art all about the lark.
Whatever I surmise or know in me,
Idea, or but symbol on the dark,
Is living, working, thought-creating power
In thee, the timeless father of the hour.
I am thy book, thy song–thy child would be.

Posted in Inklings & Company | 4 Comments

Judas Iscariot: Apostle to the Reprobate

In these days he went out to the mountain to pray; and all night he continued in prayer to God. And when it was day, he called his disciples, and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles; Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. (Luke 6:12-16)

Ray Anderson invites us to imagine the scene. Jesus goes up the mountain to pray. It is time to select the men who will serve as the eschatological representatives of the twelve tribes of Israel. Through the night he prays. He has many followers. Perhaps he names each of them before the Father, asking for guidance, illumination, confirmation. In the morning he calls his disciples together and announces his election of the Twelve. Each one is an answer to prayer, including Judas Iscariot!

Perhaps we might have counseled Jesus differently. “Are you sure about Judas,” we ask him. “It would probably be wise to do a background check. A more thorough vetting couldn’t hurt.” But Jesus did not ask us; he asked only his Father:

What is clear and unavoidable in this account of the choosing of the twelve is that Jesus prayed all night and then chose the twelve in full assurance that these twelve had been given by him by the Father in answer to prayer. However difficult and unreliable the twelve might have become, Jesus would always consider them given to him by the Father. Yet they were also chosen, as he often liked to remind them. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide” (John 15:16). Jesus later acknowledged in his prayer to the Father that they had been given to him: “I have manifested thy name to the men whom thou gavest me out of the world; thine they were, and thou gavest them to me, and they have kept thy word. … I am praying for them” (John 16: 6, 9).

Judas, the one who became a traitor, was an answer to prayer. This man was given to Jesus by the Father in heaven. (The Gospel According to Judas, p. 46)

Upon his election Judas is irrevocably tied to Jesus in mission to Israel and the world. From that moment on, his life no longer belongs to himself but to the Father and the Son. He is no longer just the son of Simon. He is now an Apostle of the Messiah and one of the Twelve.

“But Judas became a traitor!” we retort. “He betrayed the Lord and forfeited his apostolic privileges; his office was filled by Matthias (Acts 2:15-26). What role can he possibly play in God’s plan of salvation, except perhaps as an example of eternal reprobation?” But Anderson proposes an alternative vision for Judas. Do not forget, he reminds us, that Judas—like Peter, James, John, and the others—was an answer to prayer and therefore “had been grasped by an intentionality that could not be shaken by his act of betrayal” (p. 49). Divine election precedes and grounds human freedom and destiny. Despite his perfidy, Judas has been assimilated into the mission of Jesus and is everlastingly intended by the divine mercy and providence. God may use evil to redeem evil. We must not think that God has now cast Judas into the garbage heap of Gehenna, as if admitting that he took a gamble on him that just didn’t pay off. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable,” the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches in Rome (11:29). Judas did not cease to be the elect of Christ because of his treason; but by the grace of God, suggests Anderson, he is given a different role in the work of salvation:

Judas is not only one representative of the twelve tribes of Israel chosen as the elect of God; Judas is a representative of every one who is the non-elect. Judas stands as the disqualified one, who forfeited his election and squandered his inheritance. Judas stands as the apostate Jew and the uncircumcised Gentile. The placing of Judas within the divine election by which the Son is beloved of the Father and the Father loved by the Son is an answer to prayer for all humanity. (p. 49)

If Judas became enemy and reprobate, he became so for the good of that world that stands under the judgment of the cross. The words of Paul regarding disobedient Israel surely applies to the Jew who betrayed his King:

As regards the gospel they are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may receive mercy. For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. (Rom 11:28-32)

To meditate on the tragic figure of the Iscariot is to enter into the mystery of sin and divine providence. If we use the occasion to retreat into scholastic disputation on the conundrums of predestination and human freedom, we obscure the terrifying mystery that is Judas. How was it possible for a man chosen by the incarnate Son, a man who had left behind everyone and everything to follow the Lord, who was privy to his Master’s mind and heart, to betray Jesus to his enemies? Surely this is the “impossible possibility” of which Karl Barth wrote in his Church Dogmatics: “sin can only ever be the impossible possibility” (II/1:505). Called and embraced by absolute Love, his feet washed by Incarnate Grace, Judas inexplicably, self-destructively gives his God over to crucifixion and death. “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). His perfidy cannot be minimized. Judas perverted his apostolic office and executed the violence of Satan upon the Son of God, and yet in so doing, he paradoxically accomplishes the atoning work of God:

We have seen what was involved in the case of Judas. He brought Jesus into the situation where nobody but God could help Him. He seems to have perverted his apostolic function into its opposite by this act. He seems to have served the devil. And not only seems—for if we look at this act as such, its intention, execution, and consequence in the sphere of the human history of Jesus and his own history, we must undoubtedly say that he actually did this. He revealed and willingly and wittingly executed the final consequences of the fact that the Word of God became flesh, willing to have and actually having a human history, the history of one man among others. By his action he completed the reaction of these other men to the man who was the Son of God. He condemned this very man, and in that way revealed the justice of the condemnation which lies on all other men. He decisively confirmed that the world of men into which God sent His Son is the kingdom of Satan: the kingdom of misused creaturely freedom; the kingdom of enmity to the will and resistance to the work of its Creator. …

The act of Judas cannot, therefore, be considered as an unfortunate episode, much less as the manifestation of a dark realm beyond the will and work of God, but in every respect (and at a particularly conspicuous place) as one element of the divine will and work. In what he himself wills and carries out, Judas does what God wills to be done. He and not Pilate is the executor Novi Testamenti. But with his vile betrayal of Jesus to His enemies he is also the executor of the surrender which God has resolved to make and is now making for the benefit of hostile man, and therefore for his benefit. … For this reason, although the earlier saying of Jesus to Judas: “That thou doest, do quickly,” is the bitter judgment upon him, it is also the clear command with which Jesus, as it were, takes from his hand that which he is planning, Himself deciding that what Judas intends to do with Him shall actually be done. It could not remain undone. In one sense Judas is the most important figure in the New Testament apart from Jesus. For he, and he alone of the apostles, was actively at work in this decisive situation, in the accomplishment of what was God’s will and what became the content of the Gospel. (Barth, CD, II/2:501-502)

By his free decision and intent, the Apostle chosen by Christ to serve the mission of the gospel becomes the chosen Reprobate. His halo is black. Yet he remains an answer to the prayer of Jesus.

We find it easy to despise and condemn Judas. But was his infidelity really so unusual? “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me,” Jesus told the Twelve at the Last Supper. In sorrow and perplexity, they looked at him and asked, “Is it I, Lord?” (Matt 26:20-22). When Jesus chose Judas, he knew that he was a potential traitor and saboteur … but so were the others … so are we all.

Kyrie eleison.


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The Repudiationists Ride Again

It felt like a gathering of old gunslingers. After 25 years the authors of the Baltimore Declaration came together this past weekend to reminisce and renew friendships. A glad time was had by all. The only thing we repudiated was the food served by this particular pub, whose name I have already deleted from my memory.


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Christian Platonism by Peter Kreeft

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The Baltimore Declaration Revisited

repudiationistsI have been invited, along with my fellow “Repudiationists,” to attend a conference sponsored by Trinity School for Ministry in Baltimore, Maryland this weekend. They are commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Baltimore Declaration. I am shocked that anyone remembers it—but even more shocked, and honored, that anyone wants to commemorate it. I am looking forward to seeing again my old friends Fr Gregory Mathewes Green, Fr William McKeachie, Fr Ron Fisher, and Fr Fred Ramsay. The Rev. Fleming Rutledge will be the keynoter. Alas, my dear friend Fr Philip Roulette will not be with us, having fallen asleep in the Lord a year ago.

It was a Saturday evening, the 11th of May 1991. I had chosen to skip the final day of the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. Late that afternoon the telephone rang. At the other end was Phil Roulette. “The Diocese of Maryland has denied our Lord,” he whispered. “We must do something.” I had no idea what Philip was talking about. Apparently a resolution asking the diocese to affirm Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life had been submitted to the convention and a majority of the delegates had rejected it.

The next three weeks were a whirlwind. Philip and I were part of a monthly clergy support group, with four other priests. We immediately got to work to compose a response to the failure of our diocese to reaffirm a central article of the Christian faith. I wrote the initial draft and then circulated it to the other members of the group. It was a collaborative effort. Within a couple of weeks we finalized the document. We entitled it “The Baltimore Declaration.” We sent it to all active bishops and priests of the Episcopal Church. Later that summer I attended the General Convention in Phoenix, Arizona and distributed copies of the Declaration to the deputies. Our tiny ecclesiastical world exploded.

My wife, Christine, presented us with black t-shirts, with the Repudianist shield on the front and an appropriate title on the back: Philip the Rude, Gary the Good, Ronald the Sensitive, William the Patrician, Frederick the Populist, and … Alvin the Execrator. 

Throughout the history of the Christian Church, there have been times when the integrity and substance of the Gospel have come under powerful cultural, philosophical, and religious attack. At such times, it has been necessary for Christian believers, and especially for pastors and preachers, to confess clearly, unequivocally, and publicly “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), and to define this faith over against the heresies and theological errors infiltrating the Church. Thus the Church is led into a deeper comprehension of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the communal identity of the Church is strengthened in its mission to the world.

We, the undersigned, who are baptized members of the Episcopal Church of the United States, believe that such a time has now come upon the Church which we serve. We are now witnessing a thoroughgoing revision of the faith inconsistent with the evangelical, apostolic and catholic witness, a revision increasingly embraced by ecclesiastical leaders, both ordained and lay. In the name of inclusivity and pluralism, we are presented with a new theological paradigm which rejects, explicitly or implicitly, the doctrinal norms of the historic creeds and ecumenical councils, and which seeks to relativize, if not abolish, the formative and evangelical authority of the Holy Scriptures. This paradigm introduces into the Church a new story, a new language, a new grammar. The “revelations” of modernity, infinitely self-generating and never-ending, supplant and critique that historic revelation which God the Holy Trinity has communicated by word and deed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Israelite.

Fully aware of our own sinfulness, as well as the spiritual dangers inherent in issuing such a call, we humbly and prayerfully summon the Church to return to and remain steadfast in that Gospel entrusted to it by the Apostles of Jesus Christ. We also summon the clergy of the Church to stand up boldly and declare that Trinitarian faith which they have sworn at their ordinations to uphold and preach. We are well aware of the possible personal and professional costs of such a confession in the present situation; but we are convinced that the integrity and substance of the Gospel, that Gospel which is the only hope and salvation of the world, are at stake. The Lord is calling us to fidelity to him and to him alone.

We offer, therefore, the following Declaration of Faith. This is not a comprehensive confession. It addresses those critical theological issues which we believe to be at the heart of the present crisis.


“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-20).

By the command and mandate of her risen Lord, the Church of Jesus Christ is commissioned to baptize disciples into the revealed name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This proper name faithfully identifies the Savior and Lord of the Holy Scriptures. While human linguistic formulae cannot exhaust the mystery of the ineffable Deity, the threefold appellation – given to us in the resurrection of Jesus – truly names and designates the three Persons of the Holy Trinity as disclosed in the biblical narrative, and summarizes the apostolic experience of God in Christ. To reject, disregard, or marginalize the Trinitarian naming is to cut ourselves off from that story which shapes and defines the identity of the Church; ultimately, it is to cut ourselves off from the God of Israel himself. The confession of the triune name is required in the celebration of Christian baptism, and it properly structures the liturgy and prayer of the Christian community: We rightly pray to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. As St. Basil the Great declared: “For we are bound to be baptized in the terms we have received and to profess belief in the terms in which we are baptized, and as we have professed belief in, so to give glory to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

We repudiate the false teaching that God has not definitively and uniquely named himself in Jesus Christ, that we are free to ignore or suppress the revealed name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and worship the Deity with names and images created by our fallen imaginations or supplied by secular culture, unreformed by the Gospel and the biblical revelation.


“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said. . .” (Gen. 1: I-3).

“Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. They will perish, but you endure; they will all wear out like a garment. You change them like clothing, and they pass away, but you are the same, and your years have no end” (Ps. 102: 25-27).

The triune God is the holy creator who freely speaks the universe into contingent existence out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo). He is the sovereign Lord, utterly transcending his creation, yet actively immanent within it, guiding and directing it to its eschatological fulfillment in the Kingdom. As creator, God is free to act within his universe, both providentially and miraculously, to accomplish his purposes and ends.

We repudiate the false teaching of monism, which indissolubly unites deity and cosmos into an interdependent whole, the world being construed as God’s body, born of the substance of deity, and thus divine. On the other hand, we repudiate the false teaching of deism, which distances the creator from active involvement in the preservation, redemption, and consummation of his creation.


“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. … From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:1-4,14,16-18).

“All things have been handed over to me by my Father and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matt. 11:27).

Jesus of Nazareth is God. He is the Word made flesh, the incarnation and embodiment of the divine Son, truly God and truly human, “of one being” (homoousios) with the Father and the Spirit. In this wondrous union of deity and humanity, the triune God is perfectly and definitively revealed. In Christ, and in him alone, we are freely given true apprehension of God in his immanent reality, freely given to share in the Son’s knowledge of the Father in the Holy Spirit. The crucified and risen Lord, in all of his historical particularity, is thus the source and foundation of our knowledge of the living God. We rejoice in the triune God’s gift of himself in Jesus Christ, and declare Jesus as the eternal Word who judges all preachings, teachings, theologies, actions, prayers and rituals. We acknowledge that God is free to communicate himself in many and diverse ways to the peoples of the world; but we confess that saving and authentic knowledge of the Deity in his inner Trinitarian life is possible only in and through the incarnate Son, Jesus Christ, the God-man.

We repudiate the false teaching that Jesus Christ is only one revelation or manifestation of God, that there are other revelations and other experiences (political, ideological, cultural, or religious) to which we may look or must look to gain knowledge of the true God.


“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:11-12).

By his incarnation in Jesus the Israelite, the eternal Son of God has assumed to himself our human nature, cleansing and healing it by the power of the Spirit, redeeming it from sin and death by the cross of Calvary, raising it to everlasting life in his resurrection, and incorporating it into the triune life of the Godhead by his ascension to the right hand of the Father. Thus this Jesus, who is called the Christ, is the Savior of the world, the one mediator between God and humanity, in whom, by faith, repentance and baptism, we find forgiveness, rebirth in the Spirit, and eternal life in the Kingdom. While we do not presume to judge how the all-holy and all-merciful God will or will not bring to salvation those who do not hear and believe the preached Gospel, we do emphatically declare Jesus the rightful Lord and Savior of all humanity, and we embrace the Great Commission of our Lord to proclaim with evangelical fervor his Good News to the world. To deny this historic conviction in the absolute lordship of Christ Jesus and his exclusive mediation of salvation is to eviscerate the heart and vitality of the Church’s evangelistic mission.

We repudiate the false teaching that the salvation of humanity by the sovereign action and grace of God is unnecessary or that salvation may be ultimately found apart from the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We repudiate the false teaching that Jesus is merely one savior among many – the savior of Christians but not of humankind.


“The hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (John 4:21-23).

“So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; … As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all” (Romans 11:25-26, 28-32).

By the call of Abraham and the covenant of Moses enacted on Mount Sinai, the triune God has gathered to himself the people of Israel to be his holy nation and royal priesthood, consecrated to his service in the redemption of the world. To them he has entrusted his Torah, Wisdom, and prophetic Word. From this people God has brought forth his Messiah, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary, Jesus the Jew, the son of David, who is the fulfillment of the promises of God to Israel and the Savior of humanity and of all creation. For these majestic reasons, the Jews are to be regarded by Christians as a reverend and blessed people. Following the teaching of the New Testament, we eagerly look forward to that time when Gentile and Jew will be fully reconciled and made one people in eternal communion with the crucified and risen Messiah in the New Jerusalem.

We repudiate the false teaching that the Jews may be persecuted by Christians and we especially repudiate the repugnant and fallacious charge of “Christ-killers,” which has been used by Christians down the centuries as an excuse for hatred, bigotry, and violence against the Jews. All anti-Semitism in thought, word, or deed is vicious and is to be decried and condemned by Christians. But we also repudiate the false teaching that eternal salvation is already given to the chosen people of Israel through the covenant of Abraham and Moses, independently of the crucified Christ, and the inference that the Gospel of Jesus the Messiah need not be proclaimed to them.


“But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Romans 3:21-25).

“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).

The Gospel is the proclamation of the unconditional love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God the Father, mediated through Christ crucified, in the power of the Spirit. The Father nurtures, protects, and cares for his children like a nursing mother: he strengthens, directs, and disciplines them like a steadfast father. His love embraces all humankind equally, female and male, and is communicated to us in the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments, received by the faith granted us in the gift of the Gospel. This love cannot be earned nor bought: We are freely justified by the grace given to us through Christ in his sacrificial death and victorious resurrection, not by our religious, political, psychological, or moral works.

We repudiate the false teaching that God is male (except in the incarnate Christ) and that men are consequently superior to women, or that God has institutionalized in family, society, or the Church the authoritarian and sexist domination of women by men. We repudiate the false teaching that God the Father is the oppressor and subjugator of women, or that the divine Fatherhood is rightly construed as the psychological projection upon the Deity of the experience of human fatherhood. We therefore repudiate the false teaching that the Father of Jesus Christ is inaccessible or unavailable to contemporary women.


“Do you think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matt. 5:17-18).

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3: 16-17).

We confess the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation. The Holy Spirit, the ultimate author of God’s Word written, was active both in the inspiration of the sinful human writers, redactors, and editors and in the process of canonization. Interpreted within the tradition and community of the Christian Church, with the use of responsible biblical criticism – always under the guidance and lordship of the Spirit – the Scriptures, in their entirety, are the reliable, trustworthy, and canonical witness to God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and are our primary and decisive authority in matters of faith and morals. Through the Holy Scriptures the Church hears anew every day that Word who frees us from the tyranny of the fashionable, the divine Word who renews and inspires, teaches and corrects, judges and saves.

We repudiate the false teaching that the plain testimony of the Holy Scriptures may, in whole or part, be supplanted by the images, views, philosophies, and values of secular culture. We repudiate the false teaching that only those sayings of the pre-resurrection Jesus which can be demonstrated to be certain or probable by historical criticism are authoritative for the life and mission of the Church. We repudiate the false teaching that the Old Testament is not to be interpreted in light of its messianic fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ as witnessed in the New Testament, or that the Old and New Testaments stand hermeneutically, materially, and formally independent of each other.

Pray for the Church

The Rev. Ronald S. Fisher
The Rev. Alvin F. Kimel, Jr.
The Rev. R. Gary Mathewes-Green
The Rev. William N. McKeachie
The Rev. Frederick J. Ramsay
The Rev. Philip Burwell Roulette

The Feast of the Holy Trinity
26 May 1991

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Prayer Book of the Early Christians

As readers of Eclectic Orthodoxy know, my wife and I offer the Office of Matins each day from the Holy Transfiguration Prayer Book. We like its structure, rhythm, and balance. It only provides one psalm, so we substitute others from the Psalter, which we are reading in course. It all works quite nicely.

Recently, we have begun incorporating into our morning prayers one of the Twelve Prayers of Dawn from the Prayer Book of the Early Christians. And that brings me to the point of this post. I strongly recommend this little book not only to Orthodox Christians but to everyone who might feel drawn to pray the Eastern Offices. Edited by the fine patristics and Byzantine Christianity scholar Fr John McGuckin, this is a high quality hardcover at an affordable price (with ribbon!). The prayers are presented in contemporary but dignified language, which is a plus for some and a negative for others. I tend to prefer a traditional idiom (thee’s and thou’s and that sort of thing), but I know I’m in an ever-diminishing minority, particularly when it comes to the offering of prayers in one’s home. Regardless, all will find this book useful.

And remember—be flexible. If you find, say, Vespers too long, then trim it down until it becomes an office that works for you. In the oft-quoted maxim of Dom John Chapman: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” The monks in heaven are not grading you. The important thing is to pray.

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