Election

An Evangelical Calvinist Critique of the Theology that Funds 5 Point Calvinism: A Critique of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Discussion about Calvinism (and Arminianism) really hasn’t waned, even if my blog posts in that regard have. The original motivation for this blog, The Evangelical Calvinist, was to be a place where I offered critique of what I have called “classical Calvinism,” in line with the classical Theism it is derived from. I originally started this blog as a 2nd blog, where, indeed, my aim was to only discuss things revolving around all things Calvinism; and then to offer an alternative account of Calvinism, so: Evangelical Calvinism. After awhile though this blog turned into my primary and only blog, and as a result it morphed into a catch-all where I discuss a variety and sundry things theological. I say all that to simply note that this post will be an old-school Evangelical Calvinist post where we look at T.F. Torrance’s critique of an aspect of classical Calvinism as codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

Just recently I offered a spate of posts (three of them: 1, 2, 3) where I offered criticism of the idiosyncratic form of John MacArthur’s 5 point Calvinism. Even though his appropriation of a “soteriological” Calvinism is indeed idiosyncratic, where he appropriates it from is not.[1] MacArthur et al. take their marching orders from the theology articulated and codified, indeed, in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. It is this Confession that can be said to kind of represent the flowering of Post Reformed Orthodoxy as that developed post-magisterial Reformation (i.e. Luther, Calvin, Bullinger, et al.). It is a Confession oriented around a concept of God that is decretal—that God relates to his creation as the impassible/immutable one through impersonal decrees [decretum absolutum] in order to keep him untouched and “unmoved” by his creation—wherein God predestines out of the massa[2] of humanity that some particular and individual people are elected to eternal life while others are reprobated and condemned to an eternal conscious torment in hell (some of the classically Reformed hold a passive idea in regard to the reprobate). J.N.D. Kelly comments on the ancient theo-logic provided for by St. Augustine, it is this type of logic that gets further developed in the medieval and Post Reformed orthodox periods, which finally blossoms in the Westminster Confession of the Faith. Kelly writes critically of Augustine and his view of predestination:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented. God’s choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on His foreknowledge of their future merits, for whatever good deeds they will do will themselves be the fruit of grace. In so far as His foreknowledge is involved, what He foreknows is what He Himself is going to do. Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.[3]

Here’s how the Westminster Confession of Faith articulates this type of thinking as it was resident in 17th century Puritan England and in parts of the surrounding continent:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

  1. God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
  2. Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass upon all supposed conditions; yet has He not decreed anything because He foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.

III. By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.

  1. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.
  2. Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving Him thereunto;  and all to the praise of His glorious grace.
  3. As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ, are effectually called unto faith in Christ by His Spirit working in due season, are justified, adopted, sanctified, and kept by His power, through faith, unto salvation. Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.

VII. The rest of mankind God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of His own will, whereby He extends or withholds mercy, as He pleases, for the glory of His sovereign power over His creatures, to pass by; and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of His glorious justice.

VIII. The doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care, that men, attending the will of God revealed in His Word, and yielding obedience thereunto, may, from the certainty of their effectual vocation, be assured of their eternal election. So shall this doctrine afford matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God; and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the Gospel.[4]

This is hard teaching! That’s what the Federal/Westminster Calvinist would want you to think; i.e. that the reason this might cause people to stumble is because the Gospel itself causes people to stumble. They might want you to think of John 6 when Jesus just finished teaching about the requirement of his disciples to feed on his flesh and drink of his blood, when the text there says:

60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” 61 But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Manascending to where he was before? 63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) 65 And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

If you have a hard time at the teaching offered by Augustine, and the theology in the Westminster Confession of Faith, just like those fickle disciples of Jesus in John 6 you must not be a true disciple who has been granted to come to Christ by the Father.

But what if the teaching on election and reprobation as articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith is causing you to stumble at its harshness because instead of fickleness you have theological and spiritual discernment? That’s what us Evangelical Calvinists contend, and believe; you stumble at this Westminster teaching because you should, it is theologically unsound and anemic. This is what Evangelical Calvinist par excellence, T.F. Torrance thinks; here he offers critique of the WCF in this regard, his critique on this comes on the heels of prior critique he had just offered on the doctrine of God offered up by the WCF. His critique on its doctrine of God has to do with its lack of Trinitarian character as it separates the Oneness of God from the Threeness, which in turn, as he argues, creates an abstract impersonal concept of God which leads to this harsh and impersonal and abstract understanding of election and reprobation as articulated in the WCF. This section, in particular from Torrance, is focusing not only on election, but how the concept of covenant within the Federal system ended up lending itself to a contractual and rigid understanding of God and his relation to creation as exemplified in an impersonal and individualistic understanding of election. Torrance writes:

The ideas that the relations between God and mankind were governed by covenant had both a disadvantage and an advantage. On the one hand, through the notion of a covenant of works it not only altered the biblical notion of law (torah) and covenant (berith), but built into the background of Westminster theology a contractual framework of law (understood in the Latin sense as lex) that pervaded and gave a forensic and condition slant even to the presentation of the truths of the Gospel. On the other hand, the primary place given to the covenant of grace directed the focus of attention upon the fact that God calls people into fellowship with himself, addresses them personally asks for their response in worship and love, within a covenanted correspondence of the whole universe to its creator. At the same time the way in which God’s eternal decrees and the effectual calling of grace were conceived, in terms of election narrowed down to the selection of only some people for redemption, meant that the relation between God and man was conceived in a particularist or individualist way without adequate attention to the corporate nature of salvation in Christ. While the doctrine of election rightly entailed a view of grace as objective and unconditional, the hard conception of double predestination was biblically and evangelically unfortunate. On the one hand, it rested on a mistaken Calvinist interpretation of the teaching of St Paul, ‘Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated’ taken out of its context of the doctrine of the remnant in Old Testament salvation history. On the other hand, it introduced a deep-seated uncertainty into faith which was not adequately met by the later chapter ‘Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation’. As the history of theology in Scotland was to show again and again the lack of assurance in saving grace was due to the idea, as expressed by David Dickson, that ‘Christ died only for his own sheep, viz. intentionally and efficaciously’. The rigidly contractual concept of God as lawgiver together with a necessitarian concept of immutable  divine activity allied to double predestination, with its inescapable implication of a doctrine of limited atonement, set the Church with a serious problem as to its interpretation of biblical statements about the offer of the Gospel freely to all people. Moreover, through a strictly forensic notion of justification in which a judicial relation substituted for an intimate union with Christ, faith failed to be grounder properly in the Person of Christ and inwardly linked in him with the assurance of salvation which he embodied.[5]

According to Torrance et al., and what we as Evangelical Calvinists affirm, Westminster Calvinism because of its lackluster conception of God (i.e. not starting with the Triunity of God in its Confession[s]) ends up offering a rigid conception of God wherein he relates to his creation through, as we noted, impersonal decrees within a juridical or forensic relationship of law-like execution (which is concordant with, and flows directly from the Aristotelian concept of God that informs the theology of Westminster—an impersonal non-relational non-love understanding).

The reason the WCF’s and 5 point Calvinism’s understanding of election and reprobation comes off so harshly (and indeed is harsh), is because its understanding of God, the brute Sovereign conception that typifies their theology, is equally harsh. Contrariwise, Evangelical Calvinists emphasize and start with God’s Triune life of love and grace as the basis for his reason to create, and this basis then colors everything else.

Conclusion

I still think this matters immensely. In many ways, particularly through movements like The Gospel Coalition, and through the winsome personality of someone no less than Tim Keller et al. Westminster theology is making a serious comeback among evangelicals in the main. This has impact, and not positively so, upon many real life people (not just academics and scholars) who are sitting out in the pews. It has impact on how people think about sanctification, spirituality, and just how they go about their daily lives before God. If they think of him in a Westminsterian way, even if only from subtle hues, this conception will have deleterious effect upon their lives. How one thinks of God determines everything else following; that’s why this remains a vital issue of contention.

 

[1] This post is not intended to engage with MacArthur any further.

[2] See Augustine.

[3] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 368-69.

[4] WCF/III, accessed 03-07-2017 from CRTA.

[5] Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 136-37.

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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).

Barth’s Doctrine of Double Predestination as an Encouragement

The doctrine of predestination (involving election/reprobation) can be a source of much consternation for many people; especially if people believe that the only alternatives can be found in the poles of classical Calvinism or Arminianism. But of course here at the evangelical Calvinist we have found what we think is a better way; a way that may deploy the same nomenclature as what
barthglasseswe find in the classical language, but within a recasted or reified frame of reference — a Christologically concentrated reference.

In Shao Kai Tseng’s new book Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920–1953 Tseng argues that Barth is “basically infralapsarian.” This claim is quite controversial, particularly because Barth saw himself as a “purified supralapsarian.” These are heady discussions, and ones that have significant import for how one construes their respective doctrine of God, but for our purposes we will avoid getting into the nitty gritty of that in this post and, instead, focus on a description (by Tseng) of Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election—which if you have read my blog for any amount of time at all you will recognize that we have covered this ground over and over again—nevertheless, I think Tseng offers a good reiteration and description of Barth’s doctrine of election/reprobation and how Barth grounds that in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ.

Tseng writes of Barth’s doctrine of election:

From 1936 (Gottes Gnadenwahl) onward, Barth would describe Christ as vicariously reprobated for the sin of all humankind, so that all humankind, partaking of Christ, may be elected in him, therefore by and with him as he is electing God and elected human. The vicarious reprobation Christ suffered, of which Christ is both the subject and the object, is for Barth God’s eternal, a priori (zum Vornherein) negation of humanity’s sin, and this negation of negation is sublated in God’s gracious election-in-Christ, which presupposes and in a sense preserves the rationality of divine reprobation as manifested in Golgotha. Barth’s understanding of election as the Christocentric Aufhebung of fallen humanity history (the historical aspect of election-in-Christ is especially emphasized in CD IV/1) and divine reprobation is basically in line with infralapsarianism: double predestination deals with the element of sin, and the human race elected in and with Christ is homo lapsus. Again, as a caveat, this basically infralapsarian orientation must not be understood in simple, but in a dialectical manner: Christ as the proper obiectum praedestinationis who took on the sin of all humankind is without sin in himself.

For Barth, God’s No is not the “caprice of a tyrant” arbitrarily deciding from all eternity to send the reprobate to hell forever (to set the record straight, I do not think Barth is entirely fair to historic Reformed orthodoxy when he thinks of it in these terms). Rather, with his basically infralapsarian formulation of election-in-Christ, Barth portrays reprobation as a gracious word of God against the sin that assails God’s covenant partner, a No in Christ negatively posited in order to be sublated for the sake of the Yes, which is God’s gracious election of all humankind in Christo.[1]

As you can see, Tseng is shaping things up towards further developing his thesis that Barth was a “basic infralapsarian,” and honestly I think I am going to still prefer Barth’s self-designation of a “purified supralapsarian.” That’s a technical discussion which we will have to have in another post.

What I wanted to reiterate though through sharing Tseng’s description of Barth’s election/reprobation was the vicarious nature of what Barth believed God in Christ has done for us (and I believe it too!). Barth is attempting to evangelically alleviate the pressure and anxiety fostered by the classical (Augustinian) discussions surrounding election and reprobation. He is wanting to discard the usual discussion that is grounded in God’s decretum absolutum (absolute decree), relative to determining the elect and reprobate, and instead move that discussion to the personal reality of His own Triune life in Jesus Christ. Barth wants to remove the possibility of thinking about anything and in abstraction from Christ. The cash out of this, if Jesus is both electing God, and elected human, is that there is no decree behind the back of Jesus; in other words, when people want to reflect on whether or not they are elect or reprobate they don’t have to think about such questions through decrees, instead they can look to God directly in the face of Jesus Christ and think from there. They can know that when they see the Son they see the will of the Father; they see His being in act, and can understand that there is only love demonstrated and not potential wrath concealed (for the reprobate).

What I have just described is one implication of Barth’s reformulation of election/reprobation, there are other important aspects of this; primarily what it does to “our” doctrine of God. But we will have to explore that more next time, or some time. We will also have to define, better, what supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism entail (Tseng’s quote implicitly does that a bit for the attentive reader).

[1] Shao Kai Tseng, Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920–1953 (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), 36-7.

Election

Election continues to be a point of discussion, and contention, among thinking Christians. In this short post I would like to offer a distinction between a classical understanding of election (held among classical Calvinists), and then an evangelical Calvinist understanding of election; the latter of which I hold to, of course! The evangelical Calvinist understanding, at least for me, is Karl Barth electionand Thomas Torrance inspired. This will be an off-the-top post where I simply try to explain things in an impromptu kind of way.

Classical

In eternity past God, by absolute decree, elected a select group of individuals throughout all of salvation history whom He would die for (in Christ), pay for by the blood of Christ, and ensure their eternal justification/sanctification/glorification by persevering grace.

In summary. The classical perspective believes that there are particularly elect individuals (and some in the classic camp believe that this applies to the reprobate as well; i.e. that God actively decreed that there would be reprobate individual people, in fact the majority of humanity [e.g. the ‘broad way’]) for whom Christ died, and that He did not die for all of humanity (so what is called limited atonement or definite atonement).

Evangelical

In eternity past God, by gracious interpenetrating love, elected to become human in the eternal Son (Deus incarnatus) assuming humanity for all of humanity. He chose an individual for eternal salvation in the elect humanity of the Son. In this assumption of humanity, in its execution in the incarnation (assumptio carnis), Jesus Christ by virtue of the ‘type’ of humanity He assumed–i.e. ‘fallen humanity’–became reprobate for us (cf. II Cor. 5.21; 8.9), the ‘One for the many.’ In His death, burial, and resurrection (cf. Romans 6.1-4; I Cor. 15.1-4), in His elect and exalted status, He is ‘elect humanity par excellence’ for all of humanity by virtue of the fact that He is not just fully man, but fully God.

Closing

The classic position focuses on individual people in its doctrine of election, and works primarily from a soteriological vantage point (prior to Christology). The evangelical position focuses on the individuality of Christ’s humanity in its doctrine of election, and works primarily from a Christological vantage point (prior to soteriology).

I am evangelical.

Jürgen Moltmann on Karl Barth’s Predestination at Princeton

For Karl Barth the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel; he writes (in CD §32): ‘the doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all the words that can be said or heard it is the best: that moltmannGod elects humanity; that God is for humanity too the One who loves in freedom’. This is a beautiful thing, really. It stands in relief to what many an Augustinian believes about predestination; not that the Augustinian doesn’t try and persuade herself that (in its medieval expression) double predestination isn’t a beautiful thing. No. It stands in relief precisely because it does not have to tell itself that it is a beautiful thing; it simply is. The Augustinian assures themselves that because they are one of the elect for whom Christ died and gave his life, that they should be grateful to be counted as such. J.N.D. Kelly makes the Augustinian position clear:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented….[1]

Augustine’s position became the norming norm of how this doctrine continued to develop and be conceived. By time it got to Calvin, who adopted the basic gist of Augustine, it had developed into a full blown conception of double predestination where there were the elect and reprobate (for some this became a matter of active and passive action on God’s part, but nevertheless it was there). Understanding the problem, theologically, that this presented (insofar as it caused anxiety in a person’s self-perception relative to whether they were elect or reprobate) Barth critiqued Calvin’s view (and the whole company) this way:

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

If you would like to hear more about this, about Barth’s view of predestination/election then you can watch Jürgen Moltmann deliver his paper on this topic at the Karl Barth Conference 2015 currently underway at Princeton Theological Seminary. Thanks to my friend Jason Goroncy for pointing us to this video of Moltmann.

 

 

 

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (San Franciso: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978), 368-69.

[2] Karl Barth, “CDII/2,” 111 cited by Oliver D. Crisp, “I Do Teach It, but I Also Do Not Teach It: The Universalism of Karl Barth (1886-1968),” in ed. Gregory MacDonald, All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universalism and Christian Theology, from Origen to Moltmann (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 355.

 

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.

Thesis Thirteen. There is no legitimate theological concept of double predestination as construed in the tradition of Reformed Scholasticism.

This is thesis thirteen from Myk Habets’ and my 2012 edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Reformation of the Church. Myk and I cowrote chapter fifteen of this volume which is made up of fifteen theological theses that reflect the style of Evangelical Calvinism that Myk Habets and myself endorse. Pay attention to this particular thesis, it is an important one!

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Thesis Thirteen. There is no legitimate theological concept of double predestination as construed in the tradition of Reformed Scholasticism.

reflectionofjesusinmirrorFollowing immediately on from the previous thesis we deny any form of double predestination as traditionally construed by Classical Calvinism; specifically, that there is a mass of humanity predestined by God from all time to Hell. Those who are on the “broad way” to destruction have experienced the love and grace of God for them in Christ only to have rejected such grace, and as such have damned themselves to an eternal separation from God.[1]

In commenting on the Scottish Evangelical Calvinist, James Fraser of Brea, Torrance writes:

Fraser held that Christ died for all people, the unbelieving as well as the believing, the damned as well as the saved, the reprobate as well as the elected. How, then, did he think that the death of Christ, not least his atoning satisfaction for sin, bears upon those who reject Christ and bring damnation upon themselves? This was one of the basic issues where James Fraser sided with the teaching of John Calvin, rather than with that of those “Protestant Divines” who, he complained, had not followed the old road. The particular point we must take into account here is that according to St. Paul the knowledge of Christ is to some people a “savour of life unto life,” but to others it can be a “savour of death unto death.” In that light it may be said that while the preaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified for all mankind is meant for their salvation, it can also have the unintended effect of blinding and damning people—it becomes a “savour of death unto death.” That is how Fraser regarded what happened to the reprobates in becoming “the vessels of wrath.”[2]

With Scripture, Calvin, Fraser, Barth, and Torrance, Evangelical Calvinism holds that Christ is the mirror of election and thus he is the elect “man” for others. It is Christ, therefore, and not some divine decree enacted in a pre-temporal decision, that becomes the center of predestination—Christ is both God’s “Yes” and “No” in himself. As Suzanne McDonald has convincingly articulated, election has to do primarily with representation—of God to humanity and humanity to God—and thus Christ is the primary subject and object of such election.[3] The consequence, then, is that both the elect and reprobate find their orientation in Christ. In other words, all of humanity is elect in Christ, and their reprobation becomes a reality per accidens[4] as they reject, inscrutably, their election in Christ. To reiterate an earlier point, an Evangelical Calvinist may confidently assert that: “There is no wrath of God that is not first experienced as the love of God for you.”[5]

[1] This thesis is not to deny that double predestination may be construed along radically dissimilar lines to that of Federal Calvinism, as for instance in the account of Karl Barth, who gave a radically new Christological reformulation of the Reformed doctrine of double predestination in CD, II/2, §32–33, 3–506, wherein he argues for a single election but a double predestination—Jesus is the elect and the reprobate.

[2] Torrance, Scottish Theology, 199–200.

[3] McDonald, Re-Imaging Election.

[4] John Calvin says in his commentary on 2 Corinthians 2:15: “. . . Thus Christ came not into the world to condemn the world (John iii. 17,) for what need was there of this, inasmuch as without him we are all condemned? Yet he sends his apostles to bind, as well as to loose, and to retain sins, as well as remit them. (Matt. Xviii. 18; John xx. 23.) He is the light of the world, (John vii. 12,) but he blinds unbelievers. (John ix. 39.) He is a Rock, for a foundation, but he is also to many a stone of stumbling. (Isaiah viii. 14.) We must always, therefore, distinguish between the proper office of the Gospel, and the accidental one (so to speak) which must be imputed to the depravity of mankind, to which it is owing, that life to them is turned into death.” Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, 161.

[5] Cf. Thesis 8. According to Torrance, When Christ Comes, 188, “That is why we are afraid of God—because He wants to give Himself to us in love, and His love is our judgment. Because we are afraid, our guilty conscience distorts the face of God for us and makes us afraid to look upon Him. We are trapped in the pit of our own fears, and run away from the very One who really loves and the only One who can forgive us.” Torrance proceeds to exposit the “wonderful exchange” wrought by God in Christ whereby Christ takes our judgment and our place that we might be given his place (184).

From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: John Piper on the Definite Atonement and Feeling Loved

The following is an interview with John Piper, and he is discussing the chapter he wrote (for the book: From Heaven He Came and Sought Her) on the glorious nature of limited atonement (definite atonement) and how it should be understood as a precious thing by both pastor and parishoner alike (if you don’t know what limited atonement entails, it entails the idea that God predestined and elected certain individual people for salvation; and further, that God in Christ only died for these people and not all of humanity, thus procuring salvation for them). I am going to briefly respond to Piper in this post. So in order for this post to have the full effect, you will need to watch this 4 minute video, and then engage with me as we consider what Piper communicates.

The thing I want to focus on is what Piper addresses towards the end of the video. That is, his belief that definite atonement assures the elect that God loves them, personally, definitely, and particularly.

It is easy to understand why his appeal, from this kind of ‘felt’ center in us, is appealing. We all want to be loved unconditionally, and in a way that is focused, and indeed, felt. Interestingly, the vantage point Piper “argues” from on this really has nothing to do with a biblical conception of what it means to be human; instead, he starts from two entry points: 1) What does it mean to be an ‘individual’ loved by God, and 2) How does this feel?

On the first entry point, the reason this is a wrong move is because the Bible, and God in Christ is not focused on individual people abstracted from all of humanity; instead, the Bible focuses on all of humanity (as loved by God), as refracted from the humanity of Christ for us. So the starting point for God, and the way he conceives of humanity, necessarily starts from the Son, who is the image of God (cf. Col. 1:15) who we are recreated in. The biblical motif follows the ‘one for the many’, not the ‘many for the one’. The bible grounds what it means to be human from the triune life of God; we are a communion of persons, created in the image of a personal triune God. So the personalizing component does not come from how we ‘feel’, or how we perceive a special elect status from God; instead, God’s love is personal and direct, because it comes from His personal life of love. And as we participate in this ineffable reality, through Christ by the Spirit, we are able to spread this life to others. And so the personalizing effect comes through lives that are in communion with God, who is personal; it does not come from a certain kind of socialized notion of ‘feeling’ (which is more in line with Schleiermacher’s ‘Liberal theology’ and his aesthetic conception of ‘feeling’).

I will have to engage with the second entry point in my next post; i.e. the point I identify in Piper as ‘feeling’. And I have already started to hint at how I will get into that further.

Miscellanies: On the Extent of the Atonement, ‘From Heaven He Came and Sought Her’, The Power of Dogmatic, and Galatians 3:16

I am still reading David Gibson’s and Johnathan Gibson’s just recently released book on ‘Definite Atonement’ (aka Limited AtonementFrom Heaven He Came and Sought Her. I am at chapter 8, but skipped ahead and brownjesusskimmed Jonny Gibson’s first (of two) chapter, which attempts to deal with the particularistic texts as well as the universalistic texts offered by Scripture. I am not going to review what he has written, yet (because I haven’t finished his chapters in full, yet). I will say, though, that my general impression is (and unsurprisingly) that Gibson’s theological assumptions are largely framing his way into his exegesis of said passages, and thus his exegetical conclusions—although to be fair he takes a less triumphalistic approach, and simply argues from a more minimalist (and easier) thesis, which is that even if he can’t definitively prove that definite atonement is present in the universalistic passages, that at least in a complementary way, these passages can be read together with the particularistic passages in a way that, at least, demonstrates that they are open to the more definitive particularistic passages (which is where Gibson’s theology comes in again; i.e. his privileging of ‘definite atonement’ theology, which becomes the frame for him).

Anyway, this is as far as I am going to get into commenting on his chapter at this point. In lieu of further commentary on the aforementioned book, and to make this post even more disjointed (even if thematically it is coherent); let me share something I posted on my Facebook wall last night off the top (as a quick reflection on the topic of limited atonement as it related to my Scripture reading last night, and in particular involving Galatians 3:16). Here is what I wrote:

Limited atonement/particular redemption/definite atonement; my view in summary:

“Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed, He does not say, And to seeds, as referring to many, but rather to one, And to your seed, that is, Christ.” Galatians 3:16

Atonement is limited to Christ’s life, not to the many. Atonement, the resurrection life that is produced by dying, going into the ground, and rising up as the first fruits of the harvest, the firstborn from the dead is the One particular Person who reconciles all into the Father by His shed blood. Atonement is definitely limited to Christ alone, and Christ is for all without exception, or He is for none. The Father’s choice was limited to His Son, and His Son’s choice was for humanity; His assumed, and in His assumed, ours.

My way into this discussion, then, in contrast to Jonny Gibson’s way in, is going to start with Christ as the ‘analogy of faith’ by which I order and regulate my reading of Scripture. Some might argue that this is a dogmatic/systematic theological imposition and thus eisogetical approach toward engagement with the text of Scripture. But I would counter by agreeing that, indeed, it is a kind of dogmatic or confessional engagement with the Text, but then, so is everyone’s engagement with the Text. And for my money, if engagement with the Text of Scripture is necessarily Dogmatic (as it is, indeed: even reading Scripture as Scripture admits and presupposes that we are starting from a necessarily Dogmatic or Confessional frame with a our respective doctrines of Scripture), then it is best to be intentional about that, and to be as Christianly Dogmatic about such things—while honoring the integrity and contours of the Text—as we can. It seems better to me, then, to start things out (when approaching Scripture), with a doctrine of God, which leads to and from (dialectically) a doctrine of Christ, which leads then to a doctrine of creation, which leads then to a doctrine of theo-anthropology, which leads then to a doctrine of Scripture, etc. In other words, lets be very up front about what informs our Confessionalism (and Gibson is, really), and proceed from there. It just happens, then, that if we follow the theology of Jonny Gibson’s Dogmatic theology out to its conclusion, that there is a major flaw (one that Thomas Torrance and Karl Barth never tire of calling out); viz. (for Gibson’s approach) that creation predicates God’s grace instead of vice versa (I would have to argue for this later, and have done so suggestively in other posts ad infinitum).

So I digressed. What I put up on Facebook was simply to note that God’s choice in election (to use the classical language), has to do with His choice of His Son, and both of their choice for the Son to elect humanity for Himself. This is where the “tension” of Scripture finds repose and resonance, and this is where this discussion ought to stay; in Christ. I’ll leave this here for now.

Biblical Theology of the word ‘Election’

*This is a repost that I’m almost sure none of you have read; I did this quite some time ago. But I thought I would post this prompted by the new book that just came out from David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, which I spoke of in my last post.

Theology of Election in the New Testament

εκλεκτος

Election as those who are saved from God’s wrath during the “Tribulation”: Mt. 24.22; 24.24; 24.31; Mk. 13.20; Mk. 13.27

Election referring to people who are on God’s side versus Man’s side during the “Tribulation”: Mt. 24.24; 24.31; Mk. 13.20; 13.22; 13.27

Election referring to people God has “chosen”: Mk. 13.20; 13.22; II Tim. 2.10; Tit. 1.1; Rom. 9.11; 11.28; II Pet. 1.10

Election refers to the nation of Israel’s “vocation” as God’s chosen means to bring salvation to the world: Rom. 11.7; Rom. 9.11; 11.28

Election in reference to God’s “chosen” Angels: I Tim. 5.21

Election refers to a “class” of people who are considered “chosen” in a brute (economic) sense: II Tim. 2.10; Tit. 1.1; Rom. 9.11; 11.28

Election referring to people who are chosen to obey God in sanctification: I Pet. 1.1; II Pet. 1.10


Theological Implications

The word εκλεκτος in the “Theological English,” translated “elect” or “election” or “chosen” has taken on a highly charged and technical bit of connotation. Which is why I engaged upon doing a basic “Biblical Theology” of this word and its usage in the New Testament (studying it in its LXX or Septuagintal usage would make for an interesting study as well). To my surprise this word is scant in its usage in the actual text of Scripture; from the theological baggage surrounding this word, a person would think that the New Testament would be full of this word, but instead it is only used 14 times.

As can be seen it has quite a semantic range, with of course over-lap in its various contexts and usage. It is used a few times in the context of the events that Jesus refers to in the Olivet Discourse (I have labeled this the “Tribulation” period); and then we see it simply as a usage in reference to God’s (apparent) arbitrary choice of people or groups of people; then we see it used in reference to Israel’s vocation and role as mediating salvation to the nations; further, we see it in reference to God’s Angel’s (with the supposition that there must then be those “Angels” who are “non-elect”); then I have labeled a category that appear to be called chosen or “elect” in a non-technical (or “theological”) sense, in the sense that they are simply part of that group of people who belong to God (which includes vocational purposes in regards to mediating salvation to others); and finally we see a reference to those who have been “chosen” to obey God as they grow in salvation and holiness.

What this study concludes, is that if an particular exegete or theologian was seeking to establish the “technical” and/or “theological” sense of the word “elect” or “election” that we see referred to in so many “systems” of Theology; he/she would be unable to do this, based simply upon the usage of this word in its various Biblical contexts. In other words, there is more necessary to draw the conclusions that people do about election (like the assumptions assumed about election in the TULIP or the Arminian FACTS) than what is provided by merely studying its semantic and lexical usage in its various Biblical contexts. In short, if we are going to come to the conclusions that we do about “election” in its connotative and “theological” sense; then those must be arrived at organically and theo-logically, by endeavoring to “lay bare” what the text might be assuming per its various contextual and occasional usages in the text of Scripture. P.S Issues of “causation” and such just simply are not present in the text of Scripture; so anyone who claims that they are “just” arriving at their conclusions on election by “just” reading Scripture — and then these same folks somehow end up with a metaphysic and causal structure (or theory of “causation”) that goes beyond the text; we must conclude that these kinds of exegetes or people are naively importing something into the text that the text (prima facie) simply does not communicate or support (at least in regards to the “word,” “election”).