A Brave New World for Predestination and Election: Getting Beyond ‘the dark-patch’ Behind the Back of Jesus

Something that I really think makes what we are offering in Evangelical Calvinism fruitful, among many things, is the unique and yet Reformed, but reworked understanding of the doctrine of election. I think maybe that what we are attempting to highlight for the church might get lost sometimes in the politics of my own jesusjesusblogging, and maybe because some of what we offer necessarily comes with some strong critique of what heretofore has passed as the only Reformed understanding of a doctrine of election relative to a Christian conception of salvation. I hope you have been able to keep your eye on the ball relative to the type of nuancing we are attempting to offer with Evangelical Calvinism; especially with reference to the Trinitarian and Christological focuses as we attempt to provide that in a uniquely Christ-centered principled and intensive way. Within the mood of what I just wrote above I want to offer you a really (I believe) awesome understanding of predestination and election that I don’t think you will find articulated anywhere else within the teachings of the Christian church (a grand claim,  I know). So the rest of this post is going to be a very long quotation of Thomas Torrance and his development of what I believe is a right and faithful explication of predestination and election. I am quoting this at length for your benefit and for future reference for myself. Here it is:

Now what became of this doctrine of election in Protestant Scholasticism within the determinate yet dualist framework of the Augustinian-Aristotelian thought which it developed soon after the Reformation and then of the Augustinian-Newtonian thought which succeeded it? Reformed theology rightly stressed the priority of provenience or unsurpassability of God’s Grace and often preferred the term ‘predestination’ to the term ‘election’, but what did it mean by the pre in predestination? Originally it was intended to make the point that the Grace by which we are saved is grounded in the inner Life of God himself, and that we are saved by the Grace of God alone. Predestination means therefore that no matter what a man thinks or does he cannot constitute himself a being under Grace, he cannot constitute himself a man loved by God, for he is that already. That is to say, the pre in predestination emphasizes the sheer objectivity of God’s Grace. However, a different view began to emerge in which election could be spoken of as ‘preceding grace’, in line which predestination could be regarded as a causal antecedent to our salvation in time. That is what happened. Within the framework of Augustinian-Aristotelian thought and its combination of St. Augustine’s notion of irresistible grace with an Aristotelian doctrine of final cause, the concept of predestination took on a strong determinist slant. And within the framework of Augustinian-Newtonian thought, in which absolute mathematical time and space were clamped down upon relative phenomenal time and space, causally and logically conditioning them, the kind of prius with which, it was thought, we operate in our temporal-spatial and logical-causal connections was read back into divine predestination, yet in an ‘absolute’ or ‘inertial’ way, so that there arose the doctrine of so-called ‘absolute particular predestination’. But to interpret pre-destination in this way, as an absolute-temporal and absolute-causal prius, gave rise to very grave problems.

On the one hand, it traced predestination back to an eternal irresistible decree in God which by-passes, so to speak, the incarnation and the cross, grounding it in some arcane ‘dark patch’ in God behind the back of Jesus Christ. This had the effect of driving a deep wedge between Jesus Christ and God, thereby introducing by the back door an element of Nestorianism into Calvinist Christology, which called in question any final and essential relation between the incarnate Son and God the Father and threatened to extinguish the light of the Gospel. It is hardly surprising that a Calvinism of this kind which stressed the utter impassibility and immutability of God should have given rise again and again to a heretical liberal theology with its denial of the Deity of Christ. Yet such a position is far removed from that which Calvin himself adopted, when he insisted that Christ himself is the ‘mirror of election’, for it takes place in him in such a way that he is the Origin and the End, the Agent and the Substance of election—that is, if Aristotelian language is to be used, Christ himself is to be thought of as the Cause of election in all four senses of ‘cause’, the formal and final, the efficient and the material. Hence Calvin insisted that to think of predestination as taking place somehow apart from Christ is to plunge into an inextricable ‘labyrinth’ of error and darkness.

On the other hand, by reading back (in some kind of way) into God temporal, causal and logical relations from our experience in this world, Calvinism was forced to connect the relative apparent distinctions between the believing and unbelieving, the obedient and disobedient, to the absolute decree of God. Hence predestination had to be construed (in the ‘inertial’ way noted above) into the double form of ‘election’ and ‘reprobation’. This entailed, however, a duality in God himself, an ultimate ‘Yes’ and an ultimate ‘No’, which could not be explained away by claiming, as was often done, that the ‘No’ of reprobation was only a ‘passing over’ of some people rather than a deliberate damnation of them. At this point Calvinism is trapped in its own logic. There is an important sense in which we may speak of ‘the logic of grace’, i.e., the pattern exhibited by God’s Grace in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ, all through which he acted under the freely accepted constraint of his unreserved self-giving for our salvation. But to construe that in terms of necessary, logical connections is to convert grace into something quite other than it is, for it would imply, for example, that there is not a free contingent relation between the self-giving of Christ for us on the cross and our salvation, but a logico-causal relation. It is on the basis of just a logical-causal understanding of divine Grace and the twin errors of ‘limited atonement’ and ‘universal salvation’ arise. Thus it is argued, a posteriori, that if as a matter of fact some people believe in Christ and are saved and others reject Christ and are damned, then Christ must have died only for the believing and not for the unbelieving. But it is also argued, a priori, that if Christ died for all people, then all people must be and will be saved. But of course if we had to depend on a logical relation between the death of Jesus and the forgiveness of our sins, we would all be unforgiven whether we believe or not.

Calvin himself had taken a different position, in accordance with which he held with St. Paul that there is not a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’ in God but only the ‘Yes’ of his Grace which he speaks equally to all, the just and the unjust alike. Hence if it happens that some people do not believe and perish, that can be understood only as as [sic] an ‘accidental’ or ‘adventitious’ result, for Jesus Christ came to save and not to condemn, and it is of the nature of the Gospel to bring life and not death, just as it is the nature of light to enlighten and not bring blindness or darkness. That is to say, we cannot think this matter out on a logical basis, as if there had to be a kind of logical balance between election and reprobation, for in both the activity of God must be construed as Grace alone. It was for this reason that Calvin refused to agree that condemnation or reprobation should be inserted into a Christian confession of faith for it is an irrational and inexplicable happening, contrary to the intention Christ and his Gospel.

Sufficient has been said to indicate that when the grace of election is submitted to interpretation within a dualist and determinate framework of thought governed by the primacy of  number in which time and movement are transmuted into mathematical and mechanical patterns, the basic equilibrium of thought is disrupted and understanding of election ends up in contradictions and absurdities. Moreover, the concept of predestination with its stress upon the objectivity of Grace is turned on its head, for instead of being thought of as the dynamic self-movement of God’s love into our human existence in the incarnation of his eternal Son, it is distorted into a mythological projection into the realm of God’s Being and Activity of culture-conditioned concepts and creaturely distinctions. Thus a radically objectivist notion of election or predestination passes over into its opposite.[1]

This is a deep development that has a lot of context going into it. But I am hopeful that with the amount of context I provided for it (just given the length) that you are able to appreciate this alternative and Christ concentrated understanding of election or predestination.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Christian Theology & Scientific Culture (Belfast, Christian Journals Limited, 1980), 128-32.

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6 Responses to A Brave New World for Predestination and Election: Getting Beyond ‘the dark-patch’ Behind the Back of Jesus

  1. cal says:

    I guess I missed how this is “new”! Isn’t this a hearty Augustinian position, unmoored from Aristotle and scholastic theology? I’d appreciate more elaboration!


  2. Bobby Grow says:

    Uh, grounding election and Reprobation solely in Christ for all of humanity isn’t old; unless you think Barth is old.


  3. Bobby Grow says:

    How would you frame this as a hearty Augustinian position? That somewhat confuses me. Especially when Torrance just got done ripping the Aigustinian trad.


  4. Cal says:

    Torrance doesn’t reference, in this passage at least, anything like Barth’s doctrine that Christ has assumed God’s reprobation. He rips up the confluence of Augustinian themes with Aristotelian-Thomist or Newtonian frameworks. He attacks particular uses of Augustine, but it’s not clear to me (again, in this passage) that he is finished with the bishop.

    As far as I understand, Augustine himself did not argue for a direct, logical, polarity between election and reprobation. However, Augustine tends towards the wrath, vis. the type of Passover, where wrath falls on all, but grace is in the blood that saves. But if the inverse is proposed, that’s just a development of Augustine, not a rejection.



  5. Bobby Grow says:

    Well, Cal, let me assure you, TFT rips Auggie pretty good all over the place; he even calls what Auggie gave the church the Latin Heresy. And TFT’s doctrine of election is very Barth actually. It doesn’t play the same role in TFT’s theology as it does for Barth, but he follows Barth’s recasting of election reprobation in a supra way in Christ.


  6. Cal says:

    Fair enough! 🙂


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