This post is in that series of posts I recently said I would be writing in response to Roger Olson’s article at Christianity Today, the one where he sketches, a bit, our kind of Evangelical Calvinism. In this post I want to address a question that not just Olson, but others have been pressing as well. It is this question, here is how Roger Olson asks it:
How, they ask, can one affirm the universality of electing grace and deny free will with regard to being elected, while also affirming free will to reject the truth of one’s election?
That is a good question!
We, as the type of Evangelical Calvinists that we are, at least Myk and I, following Thomas Torrance, would want to emphasize what the New Testament does, what the self revelation of God in Christ does; the life of Christ. We usually assert that a person who has been objectively elected in Christ (‘carnally’) will also be spiritually united, as in the particular and concretizing humanity of Christ. That God’s Yes and No have been realized in Christ’s vicarious humanity of Christ, and thus salvation is both objectified and subjectified in Christ’s for us. But this leaves a nagging question, the question that Olson and others are asking. If we have such a strong sense of the objective and absolute work of God in Christ in salvation, then what of those who ultimately reject what is theirs in Christ? Our thinking would suggest that all humanity (because of Christ’s archetypal humanity as supreme over all of creation, Col. 1.15ff) is elect, and that their (our) reprobation has been taken care of by Christ becoming sin for us (II Cor. 5.21)—the so called ‘wonderful exchange’.
Here is what Myk and I offer in one of our theses from our book on election (this little snippet, there is more written in this thesis than what I offer here, but this bit are my words):
[T]hus election is grounded in a personal union with Christ through his “carnal union” with humanity in the Incarnation, and our “spiritual union” with him through his vicarious faith for us by the Holy Spirit. Christ, in this framework, is known to be the one who elects our humanity for himself; by so doing he takes our reprobation, wherein the “Great Exchange” inheres: “by his poverty we are made rich.” [Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, Evangelical Calvinism, 433.]
But Olson wants to know, if this is true, how it is that there are still people—and this is empirically observable—that subjectively, in themselves, reject their election from Christ. From whence is this capacity latent within them (or is it)?
Karl Barth would see the capacity within people as something that has been provided through the liberating humanity of Christ. That a person is now free. But for Barth, human freedom, grounded in Christ as it is (as it is for Torrance, and me, and I think the Apostle Paul, and Jesus in his dominical teaching), is freedom for God (not for the self). So the drag is still present, even for Barth’s opining; can someone reject their election, if in fact it is a Christ conditioned election, an election of Christ’s humanity for us, an objective thing that shapes God’s life to not be God without us in an through the elected humanity of Christ? We have freedom, but it is for God; how does this allow space for an existence, ultimately, that can be a no-God experience?
I usually respond (along with Myk Habets and Thomas Torrance), that given the conditions that have been shaped by the reality of a Christ conditioned election that it would seem that all people would respond in Christ’s Yes; that they too would say yes to God and no to themselves through the no of God’s contradiction of themselves in the elected reprobate humanity of Christ for us (II Cor. 5.21; Rom. 8.3). And so, ironically, using a ‘mathism’ we respond by saying that this is a surd, that there is really no conceptual space for them to say NO to their election in Christ; but they do, so there is no explanation other than to relegate this surdness to the abyss and inscrutable mystery of evil that is yet pervasive in and through creation (which longs to released from its futility).
Roger Olson thinks this represents an inconsistency in our method, that there is a requisite madness to our approach; that there is an absence of analytic and modal heft. But we are dialecticians, which means that we have room in our method to be dialectic. That we can speak of things which appear to be mutually implicating of each other, but in reality are not necessarily. We can speak of things that APPEAR to be mutually implicating, but recognize that they are actually mutually exclusive; that they are on different planes, even if they appear to be on the same one. We walk by faith, not sight; not irrationalism, but realism that finds its reality in the dynamic of God’s life in Christ. We could posit a double-election of sorts, that within the universal election of all of humanity, that there is an elect-elect. But I don’t know that I am totally comfortable with this; this reduces down to a classic double predestination, I think; and thus not an actual election of all humanity in Christ.
Does this really answer the question the way Olson wants it answered? No. Does it even satisfy my questions about this? No. But it seems like what we have left to us, revealed to us (Deut. 29.29). That said, I want more than this too! I plan on doing research on this (on the works of the Holy Spirit) for our next EC book (yes we have another one planned … one that will deal with questions of “so what?!).
I would still maintain that Roger Olson is wrong in holding that us EC’rs our inconsistent. We are only inconsistent if we follow Olson’s prolegomena, his theological method and resource. But if we don’t, and we don’t, and our approach leaves room for the kind of maneuvering that we do, then we are not inconsistent (self-referentially) vis-á-vis our prior theological methodological commitments.