Home » Election » Election. John Owen in Conversation with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance

Election. John Owen in Conversation with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance

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. electionexperienceI 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 BarthAnd 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 Godher 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 EvangelicalismSuzanne 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 [2008], 335-38)


8 thoughts on “Election. John Owen in Conversation with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance

  1. Bobby, have you had a chance to read David Gibson’s book yet? I’d be curious to read your thoughts on it, and obviously it relates to a primary topic on this blog. I met Gibson briefly while I was at Aberdeen (he had just finished his dissertation and was associate pastor at High Church, Hilton, where I attended for a few months). If I remember correctly, he sides with Calvin against Barth.


  2. Hi Kevin,

    Yes, I read it a couple of years ago now. To be honest this book really helped clarify things for me. Gibson’s usage of Muller’s distinction between Barth and Calvin (i.e. Barth as principial intensive Christocentrically, and Calvin as extensively soteriologically Christocentric–really helped me to better categorize and coneptualize the two disparate approaches). I will say that over time now, that I dont think these approaches need to be as disparate and competitive as I once thought, and as many think. I think we can be principled christocentric in our hermeneutic, and soteriological at the same time; the vicarious humanity of Christ, I think, can bridge this gap.

    I have some posts I did on Gibsons book, I’ll link those tomorrow when I’m not on my Nook and on the computer.


  3. Ah, yes, I probably read those posts and forgot about them. As you would expect, I don’t think the two approaches are as disparate either, which is why I think Torrance overreaches in his own articulation of the differences (similar to his tendency to divide East and West, Cyril and Augustine, Greek and Latin, non-dualist v. dualist, and such, though these categories can be helpful). That’s not to undermine the differences, especially whether we begin with revelation or natural law, but I see Barth as very much working within the Reformed scholastic tradition, albeit in rather creative and eccentric ways. This scholastic orientation in Barth’s thought is what separated him from his dialectical colleagues (E. Brunner, R. Bultmann, etc.) who criticized him for departing from his original, “radical” and existential orientation. Brunner and Bultmann remained basically Kantian their whole career, whereas Barth consciously moved in a separate direction. Thus, I’m weary about McCormack’s students’ enthusiasm for “radical” everything (exegesis, social theory, critical theory, gender theory, etc.). Well, I clearly need to write some posts of my own on this!


  4. Kevin,

    I am definitely warming to the idea that the antitheses that TFT and others make do not hold as much weight as I once thought they could. Lewis Ayres work, for example, helps to illustrate something like this.

    I agree that Barth is basically a neo-Scholastic theologian. I once read a good essay in the edited book scholasticism Reformed, on Barth’s appropriation of Amandus Polanus relative to a doctrine of God. Anyway, that helps illustrate the reach that scholasticism has into Barth’s own project.

    It is rather peculiar to me, Kevin, with some of McCormack’s students (as you and I both know some of them) have become so “radical” in orientation. I don’t get that when I listen to McCormack lecture or read what he writes, but there must be something present in the ethos at PTS that garners such trajectory for his students. Although I wonder if this isn’t a post hoc reading of his students and him; in other words, there could be other “causal” factors present at Princeton, in general, that are contributing to this “radical” turn instead of McCormack being the source of it himself.

    Yes, write some more posts! 🙂


  5. There is some causal connection originating from McCormack, insofar as he favors the “radical” side to Barth and locates him primarily within German Idealism. And McCormack’s own constructive dogmatics is, from his perspective, a “more consistent” appropriation of Barth’s rejection of classical theism (i.e., more consistent than Barth!). By contrast, John Webster (and Paul Molnar) appreciate Barth’s connections with classical theism, and Webster in particular has been recognizing the importance of Barth’s use of scholastic theology. I shouldn’t overemphasize these differences between the two “camps” of Barth scholars — neither Webster nor myself would deny that Barth remained a dialectical theologian his whole career — but I very much agree with Balthasar’s overall thesis (which Barth agreed with!) that there is a decisive turn in Barth’s thought toward the creature and the human response. Balthasar got the timeline wrong (it happened when Barth was at Munster, prior to his book on Anselm), but the substance of his thesis is correct…and, once again, Barth agreed with it.

    As for other causal factors at PTS, I can only speculate. The mainline seminaries have long imbibed liberation theology and its corollaries (feminist theology, queer theology), which has a surface-level agreement with Barth’s rejection of natural theology. My “Gender and Theology” series, back in January, touches upon some of this. I am nearly the only student of Barth who agrees with his interpretation of “man and woman” in CD III.4, and I read it as perfectly consistent with the rest of his theology. In fact, those who think it is inconsistent have failed to fundamentally grasp Barth’s use of analogy (analogia fidei) and his doctrine of creation, which brings us back to Balthasar and why he was correct and why Barth agreed with him.


  6. Kevin,

    I am aware of the division among Barth scholars; i.e. McCormack V. Hunsinger/Molnar/Webster et al., in fact I have had personal correspondence with Molnar in the past about this very thing. The funny thing is that Barth also agreed with Torrance’s assessment of his theology as well, not just Balthasar’s; which again takes him back to a more scholastic classical theist side of things. I have read 1/3 of McCormack’s ‘Critically Realistic Dialectic (all I could get for free as a sample on my nook), but I read enough to understand his basic thesis and argument in re. to Barth’s movement theologically (and I have read Webster on Barth many times over now). But all of this, as interesting as it is, doesn’t necessarily explain the situation with McCormack’s students. I totally see the drift you highlighted earlier among his students, but I don’t see it in McCormack himself (in other words, he still seems much more conservative than many of his students … culturally etc.).

    Yeah, I can see more of the influence being as you mention, the impulses provided by Liberation Theology etc that is present at mainline institutions, in general.

    So do you consider yourself a Barth scholar, Kevin?


  7. Yes, you are right that McCormack is not as liberal, as indicated by his opening comments for the Kantzer Lectures (where he jabs the mainline and heavily alludes to the gay marriage crisis), but I think his theology has provided some of the impetus for the direction that his students have taken. By the way, my own seminary (Union Presbyterian – Charlotte) is hosting Paul Molnar for our spring lectures next year.

    A Barth scholar? Perhaps, in the broad sense of the term, but I would never go around saying, “I’m a Barth scholar.” I would probably need a doctorate and/or some publications to justify that claim. I may still do a doctorate after ordination, but I have not decided. My heart is still for the local church. As for my studies of Barth, I have learned an immense amount through a Barth reading group here in Charlotte, organized by my pastor, myself, and the dean of Union-Charlotte. We now have some other Presbyterian pastors in the area who attend every month, and it is a wonderful time together. It’s a fantastic exercise to force oneself to articulate Barth in a group setting. I really do feel like I am grasping Barth at a fundamental level. Perhaps your pastor and yourself could organize a Barth reading group and invite other pastors and students in the area.


  8. Also in his comments in his edited book (in one of his chapters therein) “Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism,” he makes a comment about his view of biblical inspiration that likewise makes him sound much more conservative than many of his students that I have come across. Although I can see how his more ‘radical’ constructive reading of Barth could lend itself to a trajectory that some of his students have taken.

    You should do a doctorate. You could have a heart for the local church and do a doctorate 😉 … that’s my plan. I could see how a reading group could be hugely beneficial; sounds like you guys are having a fruitful time. My new pastor seems to like TFT much better, and I think a TFT group might be in the works. So that is the road I will potentially travel (hopefully) in our new church situation.


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