The ‘evangelical’ in the Calvinism: No God or Decree Behind the Back of Jesus in Predestination

Thomas F. Torrance, the patron saint of evangelical Calvinists articulates his Reformed view and reformulated articulation of predestination better than anyone else could; so here he is in his own voice from a lecture from him I’d never read before.

slenderjesusPredestination means the anchoring of all God’s ways and works in his own eternal being and will. While the term “predestination” refers everything back to the eternal purpose of God’s love for humankind, the cognate term “election” refers more to the fulfillment of that purpose in space and time, patiently worked out by God in the history of Israel and brought to its consummation in Jesus Christ. Thus predestination is not to be understood in terms of some timeless decree in God, but as the electing activity of God providentially and savingly at work in what Calvin called the “history of redemption.” Behind it all is to be discerned the unvarying faithfulness or dynamic constancy of God, for in choosing humankind for fellowship with himself the electing God thereby wills to set aside everything contrary to this eternal purpose. In his faithfulness, God never says “yes” and “no” to us, but only “yes.” That is the way in which Calvin understood the couplet “predestination” and “reprobation. ” If predestination is to be traced back not just to faith as its “manifest cause” but to the “yes” of God’s grace as its “hidden cause,” so reprobation is to be traced back not just to unbelief as its “manifest cause” but to the “yes” of God’s grace as its “hidden cause” as well, and not to some alleged “no” in God. There are not two wills in God, but only the one eternal will of God’s electing love. It is by the constancy of that love that all who reject God are judged.

The gospel tells us that it is only in Jesus Christ that election takes place. Christ embodies the electing love of God in his own divine-human person. That is why, to refer to Calvin again, he insisted that we must think of Christ as the “cause” of election in all four traditional senses of “cause”: the efficient and the material, the formal and the final. Christ is at once the agent and the content of election, its beginning and its end. Hence it is only in Christ that we may discern the ground and purpose of election in God’s unchanging being, and also how election operates in God’s creative, providential, and redemptive activity. In Christ the whole electing and covenanting of love of God is gathered up to a head and launched into history. Before Christ, apart from him, or without him God does not will or do anything, for there is no God behind the back of Jesus Christ.

This identity of eternal election and divine providence in Jesus Christ generated in the Reformed tradition its well-known conjunction of repose in God and active obedience to God in the service of Christ’s kingdom. However, if that repose in God is referred, as has happened only too often in the history of Reformed churches, to an inertial ground in the eternal being of God, then there opens up a split in people’s understanding between predestination and the saving activity of Christ in space and time, e.g., in the notion of election as “antecedent to grace.” That would seem to be the source of a tendency toward a Nestorian view of Christ that keeps cropping up in Calvinist theology. This is very evident in misguided attempts to construe the “pre” in “predestination” in a logical, causal, or temporal way, and then to project it back into an absolute decree behind the back of Jesus and thus to introduce a division into the very person of Christ. It is one of Karl Barth’s prime contributions to Reformed theology that he has decisively exposed and rejected such a damaging way of thought.[1]

Without further elaboration, this is what puts the ‘evangelical’ in the Calvinism we articulate; i.e. that there is no God or decree behind the back of Jesus.

[1] Thomas F. Torrance, “The Distinctive Character of the Reformed Tradition” (The Donnell Lecture delivered at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary, October 6, 1988).

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Election, Evangelical Calvinism, Predestination, Salvation, T. F. Torrance, Thomas F. Torrance. Bookmark the permalink.