Calvin: Right and Wrong on Predestination, Election
November 12, 2012
Calvin was right and wrong on that most controversial issue that still plagues the Church of Jesus Christ in some quarters. Of course, the issue which I am referring to is the doctrine of God’s eternal Predestination (of which election and reprobation serve as prominent places under this umbrella teaching). Calvin wrote A Treatise of the Eternal Predestination of God, which was his diatribe against his interlocutors, Pighius & Georgius; both who forwarded a doctrine of Predestination and election that would look more like what we would consider Arminian today. Here is what Calvin writes in his Treatise:
[W]hat my mind on this momentous subject is, my “Institute” furnishes a full and abundant testimony, even if I should now add nothing more. I would, in the first place, entreat my readers carefully to bear in memory the admonition which I there offer: that this great subject is not, as many imagine, a mere thorny and noisy disputation, nor a speculation which wearies the minds of men without any profit; but a solid discussion eminently adapted to the service of the godly, because it builds us up soundly in the faith, trains us to humility, and lifts us up into an admiration of the unbounded goodness of God towards us, while it elevates us to praise this goodness in our highest strains. For there is not a more effectual means of building up faith than the giving our open ears to the election of God which the Holy Spirit seals upon our heart while we hear, shewing us that it stands in the eternal and immutable goodwill of God towards us; and that, therefore, it cannot be moved or altered by any storms of the world, by any assaults of Satan, by any changes, or by any fluctuations or weaknesses of the flesh. For our salvation is then sure to us, when we find the cause of it in the breast of God. Thus, when we lay hold of life in Christ, made manifest to our faith, the same faith being still our leader and guide, our sight is permitted to penetrate much farther, and to see from what source that life proceeded. Our confidence of salvation is rooted in Christ, and rests on the promises of the Gospel. But it is no weak prop to our confidence, when we are brought to believe in Christ, to hear that all was originally given to us of God, and that we were as much ordained to faith in Christ before the foundation of the world, as we were chosen to the inheritance of eternal life in Christ. [John Calvin, A Treatise of the Eternal Predestination of God, (Barnes & Noble Nook edition, p. 3-4]
Calvin was mostly right, since he attempts to ground election in Christ. But where he is wrong is where Karl Barth identified where he was wrong; by operating with a view of election that in the end does not ground election in Christ, in principle. That is to say, that Calvin still is working from a soteriological V. christological paradigm of how to construe predestination and election; such that people are seen as either in election or out based upon an arbitrary choice of God in his secret will (remote). And yet, if we were truly to ground election in Christ, we would think through the implications of what has been called the homoousion person of Jesus Christ. So that in the incarnation we have the exemplification of what God had already pre-destined for himself, in Christ, by choosing our humanity for himself, and in so doing choosing our reprobate status (all of humanity) for himself; and by virtue of this he in the atonement takes this sinful humanity to death, and in his resurrection-recreation gives us his first fruits of election to be children and participants with him (by grace and adoption, on our end) in the glory he shared with the Father before the creation of all things.
So in line with, and to Calvin’s credit, we have a set of contours that would make Calvin happy, I think. This includes an emphasis on God’s choice in salvation for all of humanity, God’s grace as the basis for this salvation in Christ, and God’s acting this out for us in the mediating (priestly) humanity of Jesus Christ. All we can do is leave Calvin where he left us, but that’s not to say that we can’t constructively work After Calvin in a way that honors his own thinking and emphases. This notwithstanding, we still have a Calvin who thinks in very Augustinian terms when it comes to this issue; we have a Calvin who sees this doctrine (for the ‘elect’) as something that is pastorally edifying for the laity to consider relative to the surety of their own salvation, won for them in Christ (and this was how Augustine tried to spin his teaching on predestination, in a way that was positive for the faithful and/or elect).
It would be really interesting to have Calvin come into the 21st century and see what he thinks about the kind of ‘Christ-grounded’ view of predestination and election that I have sketched above (which, basically, is from within the Barthian realm—Myk Habets offers a really good chapter on this in our soon to be released book). I actually think he might call those who advocate what I sketch above ‘unclean beasts’ as he calls his two interlocutors, Pighius and Georgius; but on second thought, if Calvin came into the 21st century now, he would have already been talking to Barth, and been set straight, so he might just say amen.
No matter what Calvin might say today; this issue remains a contentious issue amongst many within the Christian faith. And yet, if we are going to follow a view that takes serious the incarnation & atonement of Christ (and its attendant implications), then we must see election and reprobation grounded in Jesus Christ alone (instead of thinking of some people elect and the rest reprobate—this seems to make a dogmatic mistake by way of misconstruing a proper order—i.e. christology ought to precede and inform soteriological concerns, instead of vice versa [which is the usual way to construe this i.e. reading soteriological questions back into christological questions, and thus shaping Christ through that lens instead of having Christ shape the questions of salvation]). I think EC has something substantial to offer towards our consideration of this issue …