Election. John Owen in Conversation with Barth and Torrance

Here’s a post I found in my drafts from 2013, not sure if I ever posted this.

Election. Election has been such a source of consternation for so many of us unclesamthrough 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 locus. 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)

6 thoughts on “Election. John Owen in Conversation with Barth and Torrance

  1. This is an intriguing presentation (by which I am brought up short by the self-realization of my deficiencies for theological “heavy lifting”). Nevertheless, I will press on, for “I know (at least “in part”) in whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted until that day”… Therefore, “I (will) hold fast to the pattern of sound words” which I heard (from his witnesses and apostles), “in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus, and I guard the good deposit through the Holy Spirit who lives in [me]” (and all who know and are known by Him).

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  2. Wonderful. Dr. Grow – thanks for helping me emerge from the blinding shade of Aristotelean determinism endorsed by classical 5-point Calvinism that clouded my theological vision and pointing me toward a thoroughly Christocentric and Biblically Trinitarian way of construing God that still maintains its place within the historical Reformed tradition. I thought for too long that Nicaea was about something that it was not – and this blog has, through Barth, mediated by way of Torrance and both undergirded by Athanasius and the ὁμοούσιον, helped lift that veil from my eyes, freeing me from my rigid reliance upon externally obtained philosophical importations onto my conception of God. You’re doing good work here. I am a seminarian considering eventual PhD work and have fairly radically reoriented the focus of my studies because of the concepts and writers this blog has introduced me to. I previously identified with the ‘retrieval’ movement overtaking much of evangelicalism at the moment, deriving influence primarily from the likes of Craig Carter, James Dolezal and Matthew Barrett, but have been forced to reconsider my philosophical allegiances and confront the extent to which my thinking was informed more by Plato, and Aristotle and Thomas than it was by the Christ of Scripture. I happened upon this blog as something of an accident, and though was of course familiar with Barth and Torrance, had only encountered their thought in polemical contexts. I have begun a deep dive into Torrance, Athanasius and other Greek fathers because of your use of them on this blog. I still think some kind of ‘retrieval’ needs to take place within the Church, just that it needs to be Christologically rather than philosophically conditioned and mediated by the right thinkers. All that to say: thanks for your writing here. Please continue to do the work you do, even if it ever feels like your influence is small. You have certainly affected at least me, and surely many others have benefited immensely as well.

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  3. @Anon., Always like getting comments like yours, so thank you! I am encouraged to hear that something at the blog here has re-directed you into a more Christologically conditioned way of thinking theologically. I agree that retrieval needs to happen, but of course there is a way to do that; there is a hermeneutic behind that. Many of the folks in the realm you mentioned have only been taught that the Reformed trad is a monolith, that to be orthodox you must retrieve (or repristinate) the Post Reformed orthodox; particularly of Thomist flavor. But this just isn’t the case, and I’m glad you’ve come to see that. The work I’ve been doing, and EC has been doing in general, is all based on theology of retrieval; it’s just that we don’t think the modern period is all evil, and that there are constructive voices and teachers to help us along the way such as TFT and Barth represent. Look forward to seeing how you proceed. Are you at Midwestern?


  4. @Bobby, precisely – retrieval remains something we must engage in, but it does not mean dispensing with the whole of modernity or attaching ourselves to the methodology of a particular era uncritically simply because that’s how things were done in yesteryears. I think many in the “retrieval” movement who unquestioningly adopt Thomist thought are simply fetishizing the past, perhaps even to the point of identifying with an aesthetic rather than a theology. Similar, in some sense, to what happened in the YRR movement. Perhaps this new obsession with classical theism is merely the most logical outworking of the groundwork laid by the “New Calvinists.” Anyways, I digress – no, I am not at Midwestern. I’m actually at Westminster Philly, which has its own problems with the “classical” tribe, but in my opinion its criticisms come from an equally problematic place, and both are of course working from the same basic assumptions despite the verbiage they use to denote their positions. I am enjoying my time here, but of course feel like I have to hold many of my opinions in private lest I be met with swift disapproval and derision. Regardless, I am hoping to be able to do a masters thesis here comparing the epistemological systems of TF Torrance and Cornelius Van Til, and then I hope to leave the evangelical bubble to do my ThM or PhD. Princeton would be wonderful, though I’m sure it would be difficult to get accepted and I suspect I’d find the progressivism of much of the faculty and students even more distasteful than I often find Westminster’s fundamentalism.


  5. @Anon., yes retrieval, for any good theologian, is of necessity. Okay, I have a friend attending Westminster in Philly. I’ve tried to explain to him the errors of it all, but he doesn’t see it. I have had many interactions with WTS guys, particularly the Van Tilians over at Reformed Forum (and really only with Jim Cassidy, and some with Jeff Waddington). They definitely have similar problems as the Thomists, but of course from a different angle as you note (ie Van Til). Yeah, I also new many PTS PhD students (who are now PhDs), and even profs (like McCormack and Hunsinger). They are hyper progressive when it comes to EVERYTHING these days. I did some continuing education coursework with them 8 yrs ago, and dropped out early because of that ethos (even tho I knew what I was getting into). Anyway, let me know where you end up someday.


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