God is Salvation. The Idea of Two Classes of People Rather than One in Christ

I once wrote a post that touched upon what I will further elaborate on in this post; i.e. the idea that the classical/Augustinian concept of election has some very damaging consequences for thinking about humanity/people in general, and for thinking about salvation and a thus a doctrine of God in particular. Most people associate this kind of thinking—election for some to salvation and active (or even passive) reprobation for most to an eternal conscious tormented hell for the many—with John Calvin; but of course that would be too reductionistic. Yes, Calvin did hold to a double braziljesuspredestination, but he was only reflecting the dominate belief of his day inherited from the Augustinian/Latin heritage that shaped the whole of the Western (Roman Catholic and Protestant) church. It is this type of thinking that remains pervasive today, particularly in and among ‘conservative’ evangelical theology (think of the type of theology promoted by the popular Gospel Coalition); which itself is funded by the classical Reformed and/or what is known as Post-Reformed orthodoxy, and its categories (given definitive expression in the Westminster Confession of Faith and its Longer/Shorter catechisms). For some reason it is this expression (conscious or not) that is considered the only orthodox way for rigorously understanding things salvific for evangelicals (at least for many; I obviously generalize here). For some reason there is something sacrosanct about thinking about Divinely determined classes of people; the elect and reprobate; the saved and the damned. And unfortunately, I would contend, when this perspective is adopted it can have a deleterious effect upon those who view the world this way. Even at an unconscious level, when this view is allowed to inform people’s daily lives as the reality, even at a sub-conscious level, we start looking at people, at the massa of humanity with harder tones rather than softer ones; divisive and class oriented even. We begin to use this lens, at an ethical level, to view the world as us and them; using this lens to explain why most of the world seems like it is living like hell because from our perspective (if we hold to this type of determinist perception of reality) most of this world is in fact the damned; that’s just who they are (in their very being without any hope otherwise), and thus that’s just what they do—i.e. live like hell.

But Jesus, and the Gospel operate from a different metaphysic, from a different doctrine of creation, from a different anthropology, from a different soteriology, from a different doctrine of God and election (I would contend). Tom Greggs (University of Aberdeen professor) agrees with me, and gets at this in a much more elegant and precise way than me; he writes (as he explains the motivation for his book, which I’m quoting from here):

The primary motivation for engaging in this research is to understand salvation better. In an age in which fundamentalism is being so loudly articulated, the divisive and binary nature of certain understandings of salvation is being clearly heard. The sense that being a member of a community of faith separates and divides is not only heard in sermons but also in the explosion of bombs directed at causing terror for those unbelievers who await the terrors of hell anyway. It is, after all, only a short step from stating that God wills eternal terror for those opposed to His will and uses that terror in the world among those understood to be against God’s will in order to influence their decision-making in the present. Salvation needs, therefore, to be expressed in a way which does not divide humanity into binary groupings, but which allows for a simultaneous discussion of the salvific plan of God for all humanity as well as those who profess faith. In an age of multiculturalism in which our neighbours are people of many faiths and none, this is of paramount importance.

The division of humanity into saved or damned, elect or reject, awaiting heaven or hell is not only dangerous in its implications for the way in which humanity is seen, but it is also dangerous in terms of its doctrine of God: it presents a doctrine of God in which the will of God is separated from His love, or else is flouted by the sinful choices of humans, or else is cajoled into conditional love (which is no love at all) by the faith of humans. This can lead to an almost modalist approach to the doctrine of God: the second and third persons of the Trinity can seem to come to exist to save humanity from its failings. Moreover, such a view of salvation imprisons God in human constructs of justice and love, creating in God the failings all too evident in humanity (to love only when first we are loved, wrath etc.) instead of allowing the doctrine of God to define these points. God is salvation: it is not simply an action He performs; this action is an act in which one can understand His being. Thus, the contrary is also true: if one fails to understand salvation, one will fail to understand God.[1]

It is true that the Bible itself speaks of ‘those being saved’ and ‘those being destroyed’ (as active realities, see I Corinthians 1.18 etc.), but it does not do so in static or absolute ways; nor does it do so in metaphysical ways. In other words, the conditions for dynamism and change relative to one’s personal orientation to the Gospel remain open for all ‘who will’ (to use the Bible’s language cf. Jn 3.16).

Theologically the Bible’s disclosure is focused upon Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 5.39) in rather intense, and dare I say ‘principial’ ways. If we think from the logic of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, if we think from the hypostatic union and the Chalcedonian pattern of God and humanity unified fully in the eternal Son, Jesus Christ (unio personalis); we will have to re-think the binaries spoken of above, we will have to rethink the Augustinian division of an elect status of people over against an reprobate people. If we allow Jesus Christ, and the reality of his life as Theanthropos (the ‘God-man’) to impose itself upon our thought patterns we will have to think God’s election/reprobation from there; in particular from Christ’s vicarious humanity in-the-stead of and representative of all humanity. If we do this we will not look out at humanity as a great abstract mass, some of whom God has chosen to redeem, and others he has arbitrarily chosen to damn to eternal hell. Instead we will look out on the mass of humanity from the concrete humanity of God in Jesus Christ; we will think universally and globally about humanity from the particularity of God’s humanity given for us in the eternal Son’s choice to be for us and with us as one of us, instead of against us. We will think of all of humanity, not in principle, but in concrete fact from God’s love (cf. Rom 5.8); as if the mass of humanity is God’s humanity (cf. Acts 20.28) taken up in the Son (Phil. 2.5-8; II Cor 5.21)—the Son who the Father said ‘is dearly beloved.’

Theology, like any ideas, has a creeping effect in our lives. It is given expression in manifest, and often unconscious or un-intentional ways. There are examples of how thinking about humanity in two different classes gets expressed; one example can be as extreme as apartheid in South Africa (which was in many ways funded by the importation of Dutch Reformed theology into its civil and governmental life and policies). But more typically it can be expressed more subtly in our daily lives by having less compassion for people than we ought; this ‘less compassion’ though can lead to sinister things like nationalism so on and so forth.

Ultimately the problem with viewing humanity this way, though, is that it is not coordinate with the Gospel or God’s life revealed in Christ. God is for humanity in all-inclusive ways, even if his way remains exclusive, but only because that is limited to his life in the Son; thus he remains the only way, but he remains the only way for all not some. Ultimately if we think from the Gospel, from Jesus, we will understand that what it means to be human is ontologically grounded in Jesus Christ’s humanity; that his humanity grounds all of humanity. And that because he has united that humanity to his divine life in the Triune life, all of humanity is represented before the Father; which leads to the reality that all of humanity has the opening and invitation to participate in the life that God has given for them in his own life in the Son’s humanity. Our job, as Christians then, is to bear witness as ambassadors to the world of what true humanity looks like (i.e. their humanity too) as it actively participates in and from the Son’s real life humanity for them, for us.

[1] Tom Greggs, Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 2-3.

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10 comments

  1. I’m glad you brought up the Apartheid example. Of course, the Augustinian notion of election will cry that this is a deviant, and that’s true. But it’s only a deviancy in logic in that it accepts the notion that one can divide. In this case, it was as easy as dark skin from light. The question of who the elect is is a terrible one, only ameliorated by Calvin’s insistence to ignorance and to ward away his fellows from prying. The cosmic beauty of the Gospel, in this system, is only a lie. When we ask “Who is elect?” the answer should be, as you say as much, “Jesus Christ, the New Adam”.

    I’m not a Universalist, but there’s something beautiful in “When I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself”. Any attempt to qualify that should be rejected. The Christ is Event is the center event of the cosmos, an end of the Age and the beginning of a new one.

    cal

    PS. Everyone should read Maximus!!

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  2. My chapter for our forthcoming EC book is assurance of salvation; it gets further into this, in particular in critique of Calvin. But at the same time constructive reception of Calvin’s union with Christ and double grace theology mediated through Barth and TFT.

    Yes, I think the mood of the Gospel is absolutely without a doubt universal in orientation (i.e. Rom 8 etc.); I make no apologies for that. Praise the Lord!

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  3. Ivan Lau · ·

    Jurgen Moltmann made similar comments on how the Calvin’s concept of election lends itself to a divisive view of humanity.

    I think the Biblical narrative (from Genesis to Revelation) itself is universal in orientation. And I’m not even a universalist.

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  4. Ivan, I’m not a universalist either; but I agree, the Gospel is universal in orientation.

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  5. I’ve wrestled with this somewhat as well, in the context of Richard Muller’s explanation of the Reformed tradition on predestination:

    http://russwarren.blogspot.com/2015/10/more-on-reprobation-and-damnation.html

    Good to find a kindred spirit, as it were. I’ll have to pick up Dr. Gregg’s book at some point.

    RVW

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  6. Hi Russ,

    Which book from Muller are you referring to (I’ll read your post later)? I’ve read most of his published works and am currently working my way through his PRRD volumes (on V2 now).

    Have you read other stuff from Greggs? Or have you heard of him before? I “know” guys from Aberdeen who have studied with him.

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  7. Bobby,

    “Christ and the Decree”, if I remember the title correctly.

    I’ve not read Greggs, or heard of him, before this: but I do know folks who would be interested in his work, especially as it intersects with Barth (I work at a largely Barthian Anglican seminary).

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  8. Oh yeah. That’s his published PhD dissertation and is insightful into his views and post reformed orthodox theology in general.

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  9. David Swanger · ·

    Awesome insight as always Bobby. If you or anyone is interested, we can even see plainly from the text of Ephesians 1:3-4 that God does not choose us TO BE in Christ, but rather chooses us IN CHRIST for a purpose (i.e. to be holy and blameless before him in love). This post helped me a lot (https://redeeminggod.com/sermons/ephesians/ephesians-1_3-4/), and made me realize just how simple the gospel message really is when we look at God through his revelation in Christ. Keep doing the Lord’s work Bobby, this is exactly what I needed to read today! 🙂

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  10. Thank you, David! I’ll read that post,thanks for the link! And yes, I totally agree about the purpose we’ve been chosen in Christ for (Eph 2.10).

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