Election. Election has been such a source of consternation for so many of us through our own theological years. The battle continues to fray on and on between the rascally classical Calvinists and Arminians—at least in its most popular expression—there is a trading of proof texts that sail right past each other as two ships in the dark navigate precariously past one another. There is a more sophisticated way to engage with this tumultuous topic. I like to think that Myk Habets and I have offered such an offering in our edited book Evangelical Calvinism:Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church; Myk in fact offering a whole chapter dedicated to such a loci. There are others who have obviously dealt with this issue in more sophisticated ways; David Gibson in his published PhD dissertation entitled has, his book is entitled Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth. And surely there are many many other treatments of this issue that I obviously cannot index here. But one other, and one important other is Suzanne McDonald’s research on this topic of election. She also has a PhD published dissertation entitled Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God; her work in this book is highly constructive and prescient as she brings Puritan theologian, John Owen into conversation with Dialectic theologian, Karl Barth—she also brings others into the conversation, among them, N.T. Wright. I am just finishing up Bruce McCormack’s and Clifford Anderson’s edited book Karl Barth And American Evangelicalism; Suzanne McDonald is one of the contributors to this book. In it, her offering is basically a compression of her full development of this topic found in the aforementioned book of her’s. Since I have her chapter at hand at the moment, I thought I would illustrate how she goes about comparing and contrasting John Owen’s most basic proposal on election and salvation with Karl Barth’s.
[A]s Owen has illustrated, the historic Reformed tradition therefore maintains a delicate balance between Christology and pneumatology in election, in which Christ’s work and the Spirit’s are both mutually interdependent and equally determinative. There is no election in Christ that can in any way bypass the Spirit’s work in uniting us to him by faith. As such, as we have seen, it is the Spirit’s work in uniting us to him by faith. As such, as we have seen, it is the Spirit’s work upon which Christ’s completed work depends for its fulfillment in the economic unfolding of election. This is a reflection both of the implications of the scriptural witness and the expression in the economy of inner-Trinitarian relations, such that while the work of the Spirit is wholly dependent upon that of the Father and the Son, that of the Father and the Son is also wholly dependent upon the Spirit.
By contrast, Barth’s radical concentration of the whole of election in Christ means that the outworking of the filioque effectively issues in a subordination of pneumatology to Christology in election. The pattern of the dual procession still holds: the Spirit remains the one who brings the electing determination of the Father and Son to bear in the economy. Nevertheless, the significance of the Spirit’s role has been radically relativized. Election as it relates to humanity is less clearly a fully Triune act, in which the Spirit’s work is co-determinative with that of the Father and the Son; rather it is a reality that has already been accomplished for all in God’s self-election in Christ, which may or may not be made known to individuals by the Spirit. Barth is clear that the participation of all in Christ’s election need not include the Spirit’s work. The Spirit’s work simply delineates one manner of that participation but not the other. [Suzanne McDonald, Evangelical Questioning of Election in Barth: A Pneumatological Perspective from the Reformed Heritage, 262-63 in McCormack & Anderson.]
This imbalance in Barth may or may not be present; I withhold judgment in lieu of further reading on my part—I say I withhold judgment on Barth, because his view of God as self replicating could have notions of subordination associated with it, economically. Although I am not wholly comfortable with reading God’s being and act, being in becoming from a soteriological lens—as McDonald is attempting—and then concluding that Barth’s doctrine of God is ultimately defunct. Indeed, this is the exact theological ordering that Barth re-orders; he reads creation/history of salvation concerns starting from a center in God’s covenant life, it seems to me that McDonald’s critique starts where Barth intentionally does not start, and then she ends somewhere different than Barth ends—which might be a sophisticated way of equivocating.
One thing that is appreciated, at least by me, is the emphasis that McDonald places on pneumatology and the need for the Spirit. I think though that a corrective, and a way to “get around” McDonald’s critique of Barth’s apparent dearth, is by, as we do, emphasizing a Christ conditioned view of election. The lineaments of this are directly provided for in Barth’s proposal of things, and Thomas Torrance works with this from his style of Scottish Reformed theology. The Spirit’s work, instead of being located in individually elect people, such as Owen applies this, could (and should) be located in the vicarious humanity of Christ. The ground of Spirit election then cannot be thought of as abstracted and refracted in individual particular people; instead, Spirit election must be thought of as coming with the anointed and vicarious humanity of Christ for us (pro nobis). Here is where the issue of theological order pops its head up again. Is our understanding of salvation and the Spirit’s creative work going to be thought of a part from Christ’s humanity as determinative of all other things (including individual salvation), or from Christ’s humanity as determinative. Once we acquiesce to McDonald’s point vis-à-vis Owen, there is a sense of indeterminacy introduced into the scheme of things, such that the Spirit becomes relegated to his act upon certain individual people instead of all of creation. I say indeterminacy because now the humanity of individual (elect) people becomes determinative of what elect Spirit anointed humanity looks like instead of the homoousion Spirit shaped humanity of Jesus Christ.
I will have to leave this dangling here. Here is how Myk Habets describes some of this in the theology of Thomas Torrance (the piece I quote is the original piece that Myk wrote in the essay that eventually was used as his chapter in our edited book on the topic of election and predestination):
Because election is bound up with Christ, it must not be thought of in any impersonal or deterministic sense.19 The encounter between God and humanity in Christ is the exact antithesis of determinism; it is the ‘acute personalization’ of all relations with God in spite of sin. Interestingly, because Christ is the ground of election there can be no thought of indeterminism in relation to the encounter between God and humanity either.20 Owing to the adoption into Protestant scholasticism of deterministic thinking, something Torrance attributes to an artificial importation of Greek determinism, election is often thought of in terms of cause or force, and so forth.21 But this is to transpose onto God our thought and in the process distort the doctrine of election. It is here Torrance becomes most animated: ‘Thus, for example, in the doctrine of “absolute particular predestination” the tendency is to think of God as a “force majeure” bearing down upon particular individuals. That is to operate with a view of omnipotence that has little more significance than an empty mathematical symbol.’22 Evident in this statement is Torrance’s methodological commitment to work from an a posteriori basis rather than an a priori one, and so reject a natural theology.23 Omnipotence, for instance, is what God does, not what God is thought to be able to do because of some hypothetical metaphysical can. What God does is seen in Christ. What then does the ‘pre’ stand for in ‘predestination’? asks Torrance. Originally it made the point that the grace by which we are saved is grounded in the inner life of the Trinity.24 ‘That is to say, the pre in predestination emphasises the sheer objectivity of God’s Grace.’25 It was this view of the priority of divine grace which fell away in scholastic Calvinism so that predestination could be spoken of as ‘preceding grace’ and election came to be regarded as a causal antecedent to our salvation in time. The result of this shift was a strong determinist slant.26 (Myk Habets, “The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study,” Irish Theological Quarterly 73 , 335-38)