The Character of God in Election. Miscellanies

At a personal existential level thought about election and reprobation is no small matter, or it shouldn’t be. It says much about whom God is; viz. the way God works in this area, or at least the way we conceive of God working in this area, indicates how it is that we conceive of God in the first place. This is why, at least for Karl Barth, to think a doctrine of God is not abstract from election/reprobation, but central to it. When we think of election it ought to conjure up the way we think of a God-world relation; i.e. election speaks to, again, the character of God, to the ways of God, and with whom he has to do. It is interesting, then, that this teaching often gets relegated to the bin of abstraction and speculation. True, the technical dogmatic words of ‘election’ and ‘reprobation’ are not found in Holy Scripture; but then again, neither is the word: ‘Trinity.’ So this is a matter of theological import, but not one that is not present in Scripture, rather it is “hidden” within the inner-logic of Scripture and allows Scripture to assert the things it does, one way or the other, about justification before God, so on and so forth.

As noted, for Barth, election became central to his doctrine of God and its development. It has a rather radical edge to it, particularly if we follow Bruce McCormack’s distillation and development of it. Indeed, McCormack’s development of Barth’s doctrine of election vis-à-vis doctrine of God has caused no small controversy. At first this ‘controversy’ was called the Companion Controversy, because McCormack’s chapter offering to The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth was the sort of watershed definitive point wherein McCormack drew out what he sees as the implications of Barth’s reformulation of a doctrine of election (juxtaposed with the classical position found in someone like John Calvin); it more recently has come to be called the ‘Barth Wars.’ George Hunsinger, Paul Molnar et al. have countered McCormack’s proposal, and attempted to keep Barth more ‘classical’ in his orientation when it comes to a doctrine of election. Hunsinger goes so far as to label the McCormack school as ‘the revisionists,’ whereas he calls his position ‘textual’ (i.e. implying that he is faithfully following the contours of Barth’s thought found concretely in the Church Dogmatics). This issue, for those involved in Barth studies, is well worn, and I would say almost passé; but only in a festering type of way. In other words, while this controversy has sort of warmed over, simply because of the passing of time and attention spans, doesn’t mean that anything has been resolved between the two sides. If you aren’t aware of all this, and even if you are, I thought I would share some insight into the history of this debate, as well as some of its material locutions; along with providing some perspective towards the background of McCormack’s own development and reception of Barth’s theology in this area. For help here I will enlist one of McCormack’s former PhD students, David Congdon. In David’s big book on Bultmann he offers the kind of detail I am hoping to provide, and so to his summary of these things we turn:

The debate surrounds McCormack’s now famous argument that Barth’s later theology, if it is to be consistent with his doctrine of election in KD 2.2, ought to make election logically prior to triunity: “The decision for the covenant of grace is the ground of God’s triunity and, therefore, of the eternal generation of the Son and of the eternal procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son. In other words, the works of God ad intra (the trinitarian processions) find their ground in the first of the works of God ad extra (viz., election).” See Bruce L. McCormack, “Grace and Being: The Role of God’s Gracious Election in Karl Barth’s Theological Ontology,” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 92–110, at 103. See also Bruce McCormack, “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology: Just How ‘Chalcedonian’ Is It?” in Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 201–33, originally published in German in 2002, where he says that “it is precisely the primal decision of God in election which constitutes the event in which God differentiates himself into three modes of being. Election thus has a certain logical priority even over the triunity of God” (ibid., 218).

McCormack’s views on this matter find their origin in Jüngel’s  Gottes Sein ist im Werden. In this monograph Jüngel argues that God’s being is a historical event constituted by God’s free decision. “Decision,” Jüngel says, “does not belong to the being of God as something additional [Hinzutretendes] to this being, but rather, as event, God’s being is God’s own decision. ‘The fact that God’s being is event, the event of God’s act, must . . . mean that it is God’s own conscious, willed, and accomplished decision’ [KD 2.1:304/271]. What the doctrine of the Trinity already worked out is now confirmed by working out a concept of being appropriate to God: God’s being is constituted through historicity [Geschichtlichkeit].” Eberhard Jüngel,  Gottes Sein ist im Werden: Verantwortliche Rede vom Sein Gottes bei Karl Barth: Eine Paraphrase, 4th ed. (Tübingen: Mohr, 1986), 80. Later, in a reflection on the significance of Barth’s statement that “Jesus Christ is the electing God,” Jüngel states even more provocatively that “God has thus determined Godself in the second mode of being of the Trinity to be the electing God. ‘Jesus Christ is the electing God’ [KD 2.2:111/103]. In that here one of the three modes of being is determined to be the electing God, we have to understand God’s primal decision as an event in the being of God that differentiates the modes of God’s being” (ibid., 85).

McCormack’s argument in “Grace and Being” has initiated an intense debate within Barth studies regarding the relation between triunity and election, and specifically the nature of divine freedom. Many of these contributions are collected in Michael T. Dempsey, ed., Trinity and Election in Contemporary Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). The most significant critique and response are George Hunsinger, “Election and the Trinity: Twenty-Five Theses on the Theology of Karl Barth,” Modern Theology 24, no. 2 (2008): 179–98, and Bruce L. McCormack, “Election and the Trinity: Theses in Response to George Hunsinger,” Scottish Journal of Theology 63, no. 2 (2010): 203–24. See also Bruce L. McCormack, “Trinity and Election: A Progress Report,” in Ontmoetingen: Tijdgenoten en getuigen: Studies aangeboden aan Gerrit Neven, ed. Akke van der Kooi, Volker Küster, and Rinse Reeling Brouwer (Kampen: Kok, 2009), 14–35; Bruce L. McCormack, “Let’s Speak Plainly: A Response to Paul Molnar,” Theology Today 67, no. 1 (2010): 57–65.[1]

There is much to consider here, but at this point I only want to underscore Hunsinger’s (and Molnar’s) primary critique of McCormack’s thesis. They both hone in on the apparent problem present in McCormack’s thesis: i.e. that he appears to make God’s being (his very inner life) contingent upon creation; upon God’s choice to not be God without his election of humanity for himself in Christ. The critique, ultimately, is that McCormack’s ‘Barthian’ presentation here suffers from a type of panentheism. Not only that, Hunsinger, in particular, goes after McCormack’s placement of election prior to God’s being as Triune; this, suggests Hunsinger, seems even logically (not just chronologically) implausible.

The above noted let me reign this in a bit. I started this post out with noting the idea that the doctrine of election is or should be a rather personal and existentialist reality. I suggested that this doctrine is inimical to one’s understanding of God and his relation to the world (particularly to creatures); that it is ultimately inimical to the way we think of God’s character. I then introduced us to an innovative way that election and theology proper were related in Barth’s theology; further detailing this move by way of introducing us to an internecine debate among Barth scholars involved in Barth studies. I want to now conclude this exercise by highlighting why I think wrestling through these issues remains seriously important; e.g. so engaging with why I think the personal-existential aspect of this doctrine is important for all those who by the Spirit say that Jesus is Lord.

Election is Christological, as such it is soteriological, as such it touches upon what it means to be alive (human) before God; it touches upon every waking aspect of who we are as creatures living before a Holy a God. It is important, therefore, to have a doctrine of election that has the ability to be concrete; that has the capaciousness to recognize how central God is to this reality; and what this doctrine, in particular, says about the character of God. Does God only love a select group of people based upon an absolute decree? Does God have to construct such a mechanism, as decrees, in order to ensure that his Pure Being status remains untouched by his creation; to ensure that he has no passions, that he has no moving parts in his inner life that might be unregulated by his simple being? Or does our doctrine of election start it’s thinking about a God-world relation in and from God’s personal self-givennness for us in the gift of the Son for the World; does our doctrine of election start from a person (and this is personal), or does it start from a set of propositions intended to ensure God’s status as the actual infinite?

I think God is personal; that his inner life is onto-relationally related in such a way that his inner being as God is given shape by his self-givenness (love) for the other in his own life. I think that this is the primal basis from whence we ought to think of a God-world relation; i.e. of election. We ought to think God from the way God decided we should think of him: from his Self Revelation and exegesis in the Son. If tradition gets in the way of that, or thwarts that, then that is bad tradition. Any tradition that nullifies the Word of God is bad tradition (cf. Mt. 15). In these instances the tradition needs to take a back-seat (subordinate) place relative to God’s Word.

What is primarily important to me about Barth’s reformulated doctrine of election—apart from the more technical issues in the ‘Barth Wars’—is how he focuses election (as everything else) in and around Jesus Christ in a very intense and concentrated manner. I.e. For Barth, election means: that Jesus Christ is both the electing God and elected human; that in his election to be human he elects all of humanity in a vicarious way, such that he takes on humanity’s “reprobate” status (cf. II Cor. 5.21). The wonderful exchange takes place (cf. II Cor. 8.9), and we, by God’s grace in Christ, receive his elect status for us as he takes our reprobate status with him into the grave and resurrects us with him in his elect status as the first fruits the first-born from the dead as the human for all of humanity. This says something about God’s character; it says that ‘God so loved the WORLD that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting/eternal life. It says that God loves humanity, and that he loves all of humanity with the same love that he loves his dearly beloved Son. This is meaningful to me.

And this now ends these rather fragmented, but hopefully at some level coherent, thoughts.

[1] David W. Congdon, The Mission of Demythologizing: Rudolf Bultmann’s Dialectical Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), 173 n. 335.

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Thinking Election from Jesus not a Decree: Thomas Torrance’s Alternative Engagement with the Trad

Election continues to be a contentious issue for many in the orthodox Christian church; I don’t intend on alleviating that tension here. In this post I will focus on contrasting the classical Reformed understanding of election with Thomas Torrance’s classically Christologically concentrated orientation of election (the reason I say ‘classically’ in regard to Torrance is because his doctrine reaches back into the patristic period with particular inspiration provided by none other than Athanasius).

The Westminster Confession of Faith says this with reference to election/reprobation:

Chapter III

Of God’s Eternal Decree

I. 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.

II. 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.

IV. 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.

V. 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.

VI. 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.[1]

Pretty common stuff for anyone who has had any exposure to classical Calvinism, five-point-calvinism so on and so forth. The focus of election is on particular individual people from the mass (as Augustine would say) of humanity. Beyond just its assertion as the biblical reality what stands behind the classical soteriological understanding is a theory of causation primarily given legs by Aristotelian modus in its late medieval and post-medieval forms. In other words what we get is a pretty mechanical understanding of how God relates to his creation (through decrees). The driving requirement for this type of relationship between God and humanity, in regard to its mechanical logico-causal nature, is a need to keep God immutable, impassible, and simple as that is defined not by Revelation but by Hellenistic categories relative to Pure Being.

Contrariwise, Thomas Torrance offers a doctrine of election that is genuinely shaped by God’s Self-revelation and the relational, personalist, dynamic reality inherent therein. Torrance also appeals to a certain theory of cosmology when he speaks of election, but he does so more in the negative rather than the positive. What I mean is that he uses Einstein’s theory of relativity to relativize something like what we get in Ptolemaic or Newtonian understandings of causality vis-à-vis the universe when we think of how God might engage with the creation (as illustrated by electromagnetic field theory etc.). As a result Torrance has the means by which to offer a theory of election that can indeed be driven by a Logocentric understanding of God’s relation to a world which he created out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo) thus being fully contingent upon his Word in which the logoi participate in and from his Logos. Torrance writes:

Eternal election becomes temporal event confronting people in Jesus

Once again, we cannot now pursue this further into the doctrine of the church, which is the doctrine of the corporate election moving into history as the body of Christ. But at this point we must look back again at the incarnate life of Jesus Christ in light of the threefold mysterion, prosthesis and koinonia. The eternal prothesis of God has become incarnate in Jesus Christ, has become history. In Jesus Christ, the prothesis became encounter, became decision in the living temporal relations with which we men and women have to do in our interactions with one another. Election is the person of Christ, true God and true man in one person, the union of the Father and the Son in eternal love incarnated in our flesh, and bodied forth among sinners. And so men and women in history, in their temporal actions and relations, in the midst of their temporal choices and decisions, are confronted by the Word made flesh, with the eternal decision of God’s eternal love. In Jesus Christ, therefore, eternal election has become temporal event.

Election is thus not some static act in a still point of eternity. Election is eternal pre-destination, moving out of its eternal prius into time as living act that from moment to moment confronts people in Jesus Christ. This is living act that cannot be abstracted from the person of Christ. On the contrary, here the person and act of Jesus Christ are one. Election is Christ the beloved son of the Father, and the act of election in him is once and for all, a perfectum praesens, an eternal decision that is ever present. God’s eternal decision does not halt or come to rest at any particular point or result, but is dynamic , and ever takes the field in its identity with the living person of Christ. As such election is contemporary with us, acting upon us and acting upon us through our reactions in the personal relations of men and women which it invades and which it sets into crisis. It does that by facing them with the ultimate decision which God has already taken in his love on our behalf and now sets forth in Jesus Christ, but it confronts us with that ultimate decision in such a way that we are summoned in decision before it. What do you think of Christ? Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am? Who do you say that I am? That is precisely what we see taking place in the whole ministry of Jesus as he penetrated into people’s lives by his compassion, and revelation, and confronted them as the truth in the form of personal being, as election in the form of personal being.

That is the dimension of depth in which we are to see everything that Jesus did and said and was during the three years of his ministry as he pressed toward the cross, and the cross itself we see supremely in its setting in that context of the divine mysterion, prothesis, and koinonia.[2]

Clearly an alternative way to think election, but not one that is foreign to the tradition in the church; we just must look back further beyond medieval times; we must look back to certain patristics, primarily Athanasius (and later, Maximus the Confessor).

It’s not as subjective though as it might seem. If Torrance is right to appeal to Einstein rather than Ptolemy (and Aristotle) when it comes to thinking about cosmogony and causation relative to its application in Christian theology, then to think of the world from purely mechanical means (and thus not personal)  is much too reductionistic and not correlate with the way the universe, relative to the order (taxis) God has placed within it, works.

From God’s Self-Revelation in Jesus Christ we know that God relates and mediates himself to the world, and us creatures in it, not through decrees, but through his dearly beloved Son, Jesus Christ. Rather than being droned into the belief in order to be “orthodox” one must simply follow the normal means of theological inquiry ostensibly provided for by some sort of monolith reading and appropriation of the trad[ition], it is advisable, and Protestant, to continuously engage with the tradition of the church through, yes the patterns provided by something like Chalcedon, but to understand that such patterns are pregnant and inchoate in such a way that they can be continuously life giving and reinvigorating for the theological task. I submit to you that Torrance’s offering of election is an example of how one can engage from withIN the trad, but not allow certain accretions of that trad to out-dictate what the pressures of God’s own life, and its implicates, ought to dictate as we continuously are pushed up against him in dialogical mode (prayer) and encounter with his glorious Self in the face of Jesus Christ.

 

[1] Westminster Confession of Faith, Center for Reformed Theology and Apologetics, accessed 12-17-2017.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 179-80.

Pierre Maury, “An Election without Christology,” and The Evangelical Calvinist Way Explained

John Calvin calls the reality of the absolute decree in regard to predestination a “labyrinth;” others in the tradition have equally voiced concern about election as if it is a secret thing bound up in the hidden will of God in eternity. Not to get too overstated, many of these same folks, mostly Calvin, offered relief to the terror that God’s predestination could cause if it wasn’t chained close enough to Jesus; indeed Calvin, even though operating under the Augustinian way began to turn this discussion Christward. If nothing else Calvin provided some of the trajectory and grammar required to develop a better more fully aware Christological account of election. People like John McLeod Campbell, Thomas Torrance, and Pierre Maury were only too ready to pick up the baton and do the kind of developmental work that us Evangelical Calvinists are also keen in developing for the church of God in Jesus Christ. As an example of someone who not only identifies this lacuna in the works of Augustine, Calvin, et al. Pierre Maury, a French theologian of no ill-repute, has this to say:

An Election without Christology

How has it been possible to develop a doctrine full of what Pascal called “false windows”—those windows painted on the facades of some old houses in order to achieve an apparent symmetry? This is what we now need to look into.

We shall see here again the weakness, which we have noted several times, of a doctrine of election that is independent—I mean unconnected to Christology, or rather one that sees in the redemptive Person of Christ nothing but the executor of a purpose formed without him in the darkness of the mystery of God.

If St Augustine, St Thomas, Calvin, Luther, and Pascal had seen more clearly that God has no other thought, no other will, no other action than Jesus Christ, that he dwells in Christ in the fullness of the Godhead, if they had, like St John of the Cross, repeated the famous sentence, “God never speaks any word but one, and that is his Son,” doubtless they would have given us a description of “the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:1) by the decision of God, a description that would not make us tremble, but would fill our troubled hearts with peace. And if they had known more clearly that to be elected is to be elected in Christ, and that this election of which we are the object is as freely sovereign, and as independent of any merit on our part, as the absolute decree whose power they venerated, but could not praise, because it was utterly hidden from them, doubtless they would not have caused so many misunderstandings, nor such anxiety in the consciences it was their intention to reassure, and in the long run such ignorance—relative at least—of the love of God and of his Son.[1]

If you sense antecedents, or if you hear echoes of Karl Barth here, or Thomas Torrance, it is because, as I noted in another post, Pierre Maury served, according to Barth, as a decisive impetus to Barth’s own Christologically concentrated understanding of election. This particular essay of Maury’s, “Predestination,” was written after Barth had developed his own understanding in CD II/2; but these thoughts are original to Maury, per his own unique movement towards an development of a Christologically conditioned doctrine of election. Even here in the essay we can see his reference back to St John of the Cross; and this is something I want to alert all of us to. In the history of interpretation prior to Barth or modern developments we have antecedent theologies wherein a doctrine of election that is Christologically steeped is latent. The proof of that is what we see right here in Maury’s essay, or in the work of Thomas Torrance with his constant reference back to Athanasius.

The Evangelical Calvinist Way

My desire as a young (43yrs) and impassioned theologian is to offer an alternative account of evangelical theology to the church catholic. As a North American, whatever I write will be tinted by that location, but hopefully because what I write is so rooted in the transcendent but scandalous particularity of God in Christ, the reach it has will be greater than my own particularity and have some capacity to edify the church catholic.

As Evangelical Calvinists we see a real lacuna in what evangelical Christians are being offered in regard to the type of theology they are being fed through the collaborative work of movements like The Gospel Coalition. I remain very unsatisfied with what is being offered, theologically, by TGC, and so because of that, and because I know I’m not alone, I want to offer alternative ways into Reformed theology that are present in the history of interpretation; Maury being a good example of this alternative way. I want to continue to offer an alternative to the Covenantal theology that the Young, Restless, and Reformed are feeding their churches Sunday in, Sunday out. I believe there is a better way; it’s not a way, as even Maury illustrates, that leaves behind what the past has offered. No, on the contrary, it is attempting to be more creative, more industrious in the resourccement process; looking for thinkers scattered throughout the tapestry of the history of Reformed theology (and beyond) who can be brought to bear, and help us develop an ‘always reforming’ theology that is given regulative and normative reality in and from Jesus Christ; let him alone be the regula fidei (rule of faith)!

In many ways this venture is a lonely one; it is prone to be misunderstood; or to be associated with other movements of theological development that evangelicals are suspicious of. This way seems reckless to the mainstream of evangelical and mainline theologies, because it seems to not care so much about fitting into usual modes of theological and ecclesial being; people fear that the Evangelical Calvinist mode is a wayward one. The way I see all of this, what we are attempting to do with Evangelical Calvinism, is just what I’ve been noting above; we want to follow a Christ conditioned approach that actually works against many of the more church-centered and soteriologically driven (in abstraction) bases for doing the theological work of the church. We aren’t as concerned with the period of church history we resource, instead it’s more about what we resource relative to the truth of it all; i.e. the truth and implications required by the Gospel reality itself. Here is part of what I wrote in the co-written section of our newest Evangelical Calvinist Vol2 book:

In Scholasticism Reformed: Essays in Honor of Willem J. van Asselt, Martijn Bac and Theo Pleizier offer a chapter entitled “Teaching Reformed Scholasticism in the Contemporary Classroom.” Bac and Pleizer outline how scholasticism should be taught today in theological classrooms and they develop how scholastics of the past retrieved authoritative voices for their own material and theological purposes. More than simply reconstructing the history of ideas and theological development, proper scholastic method was concerned to engage the concepts of prior voices from the tradition by appropriating themes and motifs that fit broader theological concerns, and all in order to forward the cause of theological truth. In other words, the greater concern was to organically move within the trajectory and mood set out by the past in order to constructively engage the present and future by developing the ideas of these past voices by placing them within the burgeoning and developing movement of Reformed theology. What Bac and Pleizer highlight is that the scholastic mode of retrieval is very much like Evangelical Calvinism’s method; which ironically runs counter to the typical critique of Evangelical Calvinism as illustrated by Muller. Here is what Bac and Pleizer write in regard to the scholastic method, and what was called “reverential exposition”:

Reformed theologians did not read their sources of Scripture and tradition in a historical sense, i.e., as part of an ongoing tradition, but rather as ‘authorities’ of truth. Until the breakdown of scholasticism and the historical revolution, sources were not quoted in a historical way, be they the Bible, Aristotle, Augustine, or Thomas Aquinas. A quotation did not indicate a correct historical understanding of what its original author had meant, but was read systematically as bearer of truth. From this it follows that contradictions among authorities were solved logically rather than hermeneutically.[2]

There is a real irony to what we’re doing; as I argued further in our book, and you get a sense of above, what we are attempting to do is work within the spirit of the Reformed faith—even more pointedly, the scholasticism Reformed faith. This is ironic because it is folks like TGC and other movements popular in the Reformed evangelical world who see themselves as being faithful to resourcing the Protestant theology of the 16th and 17th centuries; and yet they aren’t really operating in that spirit at all. What is currently underway in the evangelical world (and I’ll keep picking on The Gospel Coalition) is not just a resourcing project (which is the real “scholastic and Reformed” way), but instead a repristination project; a project that is simply seeking to replicate the theology of the past, as they perceive it, driven not by any kind of intentional hermeneutic other than one of piety.

Piety isn’t bad, but it’s not enough; and it’s not thick enough to provide a real hermeneutic and intention from whence to resource from. This is what I am hoping to get across; Evangelical Calvinism as a “resource movement,” as a movement that genuinely does work from the ‘always reforming’ spirit of the Reformed scholastic past, has a center. The center isn’t a piety derived from an individualistically grounded conception of election and the church, instead we are resourcing with the goal of developing theology that is intensively grounded in and from Jesus Christ; radically so.

Conclusion

I submit to you the Pierre Maury example of the type of theology we are attempting to resource for the church of God in Jesus Christ. It’s a more catholic way because it thinks from Christ, the Lord of the church, rather than simply from a particular expression or instantiation of the church that we find present in the local theology of the Protestant Reformed orthodox theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries. We aren’t attempting to promote a certain piety in the church, we are seeking God in Christ first and realizing that all these things [including a healthy piety] will be added unto us from there; as we seek Christ in regulative ways, first.

All of this sounds audacious; I know! But it is the way I am committed to, and a way that I believe an evangelical Christian would rather follow. We aren’t just a receiving faith, we are a speaking faith; and we believe that God in Christ continues to speak to his church afresh and anew today. It is this reality that we work from.

 

[1] Pierre Maury, “Predestination,” in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 2115, 2123, 2130.

[2] Myk Habets and Bobby Grow, “Introduction: On Dogmatics and Devotion in the Christian Life,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene,OR: Pickwick Publications, 2017), 8.

How Karl Barth Ensnared me With His Doctrine of Election and The Pierre Maury French Connection: With Some Response to William B. Evans

Karl Barth and Pierre Maury © Collection Privée
Let me just say one more thing about Barth. William B. Evans over at his blog, The Ecclesial Calvinist, has picked up on what started online as a result of my posts (presumably) on Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum. Evans is a Reformed theologian, and has written some helpful stuff, in particular, on union with Christ. I’ve had some spotty correspondence with him, here and there over the years; the first correspondence was some comments he made at my blog with reference to Karl Barth. I don’t remember exactly what the post was about, but he was respectfully telling me how he had early in his theological studies career been attracted to Barth; but then he realized Barth wasn’t for him, that Barth was just a “cool”-kid phase. In his comments he was trying to persuade me to move on, as I recall, and go onto bigger and more orthodox things. In his most recent post, at his blog, this one, he somewhat rehashes what I just communicated about his approach to Barth, and why he indeed moved away from him. He isn’t using the revelation[s] from the Tietz essay as a bludgeon to beat Barth around the ears with, but he is rightfully disturbed by it all.

I introduce you to Evans, and his post, because he has this way of characterizing folks who are attracted to Barth’s theology; it’s the same sentiment he communicated to me so many years ago. He writes:

I’ll also admit that I went through a phase in seminary when I thought Barth was “cool.” He is fun to read, especially as he interacts with so much of the Christian tradition.  But I found it necessary to move on, in large measure because I was finding his soteriology and ecclesiology to be less than helpful (more on this below).  Many of my graduate school professors had gone through (sometimes passionate) Barthian phases before moving leftward to other forms of theology.  One thing I had in common with my mostly liberal professors was distaste for Barth, though for somewhat different reasons.

The current preoccupation with Barth seems to be to some extent a “younger evangelical” phenomenon. Reasons are not terribly difficult to discern—fatigue with the older generation’s framing of issues, a desire for more interpretive “wiggle room” on certain matters, a concern to do greater justice to the humanity of Scripture, and so forth. In various ways Barth seems to some to provide a “third way” that avoids the pitfalls of both fundamentalism and liberalism.[1]

I’m not sure I fit into the “younger evangelical” crowd (I’m 43) that Evans references (probably), but I don’t fully agree with his characterization. I mean in some ways his characterization does fit some folks at a certain level I’d imagine, but my sole attraction to Karl Barth’s theology had to do not just with a “third way” or a via media, but with a brand-new way of thinking about election/reprobation and the doctrine of predestination. Without this type of reformulation in Barth’s theology I probably never would have been attracted to him. Does this fit into Evans’ characterization of “wiggle room?” Not for me. What Barth offered was a way to think about election/reprobation that was fully grounded in Jesus Christ; so that both election and reprobation were dual realities that could be singularly located in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ—i.e. he elected humanity for himself, and in his election of humanity he assumed our reprobate (fallen) status—giving us his elect status as sons and daughters of God by participating in his resurrected/recreated humanity by grace (something he had/has by nature).

It was this that hooked me to Barth’s theology (what you’ll find fully articulated in his CD II/2). But now, of course, I’ve been struggling to reconcile Barth’s theology with his chosen lifestyle (i.e. choosing to live a life with his “concubine,” Charlotte von Kirschbaum). For me this means that, as I’ve noted, I’ll be stepping back from Barth’s theology in direct ways (at least for the foreseeable future). But that does not mean there aren’t indirect ways to engage with his theology, and it is these ways that I have already been engaging with for longer than I have been with Barth’s theology; i.e. in other words, the way into Barth’s theology for me has always already been through his best English speaking student’s work, Thomas Torrance.

So I will continue to work with many of the “Barthian” categories, particularly revolving around the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ as that is a related doctrine to Barth’s reformulation of the classical understanding and grammar of election/reprobation and/or double predestination. Interestingly, in this vein, I just picked up a book (which I’ve been wanting to read for quite awhile—since it came out in 2016) entitled: Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election. Pierre Maury was a Frenchman, and friend of Barth’s, who presented a paper in 1936 entitled Election and Faith at the Geneva Calvinist Congress. Here is what Barth wrote of this, as he later read the text of that address:

As long ago as 1936 Pierre Maury had delivered an address entitled “Election and Faith” on the occasion of the Geneva Calvinist Congress; that address, which appeared in the same year in the review Foi et Vie, was published in German in 1940 in the Theologische Studien series. Most of those present at the Calvinist Congress were neither prepared, nor apt to receive in their hearts, nor even just simply to register in their brains, what Pierre Maury was saying to them then. There were but few who had any idea of the implications of his thesis in the course of the years that followed, when preoccupations of a political nature loomed so large that they scarcely left time or energy for theological reflection of this sort. But I remember one person who read the text of that address with the greatest attention: myself! It so happened that in the autumn of the same year, 1936, I had to give a course of lectures on the subject of predestination (in Hungary). Pierre Maury and I had of course often spoken of this problem; nevertheless, his 1936 address at once made a profound impression on me. And when a few years later I had occasion to return to the subject in a wider context, I did not merely refer to Pierre Maury’s pamphlet, but stressed that it ought to be considered as one of the best contributions made towards the understanding of the problem. That is why, as I said at the time (CD II/2, 154f), Pierre Maury must be ranked with the rare theologians of the past who, because of the Christological basis of their doctrine, seem to me to have remained here on solid ground (such were Athanasius, Augustine, John Knox, and Johannes Coccejus). One can certainly say that it was he who contributed decisively to giving my thoughts on this point their fundamental orientation. Before I read his study, I had met no one who had dealt with the question so freshly and boldly.[2]

For me, it is good to come across resources like this, and realize that even prior to Barth reformulation of double predestination had already started to take place; Pierre Maury being a prime example of this type of work. Yes, Athanasius, and even Calvin (who Maury is glossing in much of his paper) offered the type of bedrock one would need to proceed as Maury and then as Barth did; and so it is exciting for me to think about pressing further into the antecedents of Barth’s theology itself (which of course Calvin and Athanasius et al. are prime suspects in such an endeavor and are people I’ve spent quite a bit of time with already).

Anyway, I just wanted to register what attracted me to Barth in the first place; it was a particular doctrinal locus. For an evangelical, such as myself, the only alternatives, grammatically offered, was the usual classical Calvinist and Arminian binary of how to navigate election and reprobation. I was never satisfied with that. So Barth and Torrance offered a way out of that whole penumbra by offering, in my view, an illumined way of thinking about a doctrine of election through the sunshine of God in Jesus Christ. Without this offering Barth would have never been on my radar to begin with; but with it, his theological reformulation, as it intensively settled on Jesus Christ, gave me great joy to involve myself in the theological endeavor.

 

[1] William B. Evans, Why I Still Don’t Much Care for Karl Barth, accessed 10-03-2017.

[2] Karl Barth, Basel, February 1957 in Simon Hattrell, ed., Election, Barth, and the French Connection: How Pierre Maury Gave a “Decisive Impetus” to Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Election (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2016), loc 765, 772 kindle.

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.

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.