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.

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.


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.

The Psychology of Predestination: Two classes of humanity, and its impact.

The doctrine of predestination for Christians always causes their little antennae’s to shift into hyper-activity. It is a controversial issue, no doubt. And this issue has a long, albeit pretentious pedigree, and sourced, at least in the Latin side of the church, most prominently from that indefatigable saint of the most prodigious sort, St. Augustine. And so we note this reality as we venture into this little sketch of mine, but we note this kind of genetic and historical theological reality only to pass into a psychological and even, theo-anthropological consideration; and apply this toward the real life existential co-habitation of society at large, and culture nearer to home.


What am I talking about? Let’s turn back to Augustine, so that we might move forward.  Augustine articulated his view (and what has served as a categorical/conceptual touchstone for following generations and traditions into the present) on predestination unto Christian salvation in this way, and as described by famed patristic scholar, J.N.D. Kelly:

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.[1]

This doesn’t sound surprising or shocking to most Western Christians in our day and age; indeed, this is rather common fare among the neo-Reformed (and of course, the classically Reformed), and even contemporary Arminians (I mean in regard to the conceptualization itself, not its affirmation by the Arminian). Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, repudiate this Augustinian trough; and we do so through a re-casted Christ concentrated or conditioned conception of election (which we have articulated elsewhere). But this isn’t really where I want to continue to reflect; instead I want to engage in a theological thought experiment, presume Augustine’s umbrella (for its various diachronic expressions, and precisions), and act as, indeed, this is actually the case.

The thing that got me thinking this way was as I was at work last night, I was thinking about the sanctity of life, and just the sheer value of each person’s life – like my co-worker’s lives. But it donned on me, if God has predetermined to only salvifically love a portion of my co-workers, or only a portion of the masses of people traveling down the freeways and highways that connect our burgeoning population centers; then, clearly, this implies, in the negative, that God does not value the other people (the reprobate seems appropriate here) all around me. So in a real sense (not just a perceived one), in an ontological sense, some people, some of my co-worker’s are less valuable to God than I am (as I am a Christian, and so presumably one of the elect who God chose for salvation before the foundations of the world).

When I allowed all of this to hit me, psychologically and existentially, last night; what this did to me was rattle me! Not that I haven’t been rattled like this before, but more pointedly, it rattled me to the realization of how perverse of a notion this actually is. And the psychology of it, serving as an undercurrent as it does (for those who actually maintain this position), can be quite insidious. It means that there are actually people who just sub-human (because they will never be able to be at rights with what it really means to be human – which is to be at rights with the God who created them). And so ethically such an undercurrent, such a psychology could help to foster a milieu in which there is an elite class of people over against a poor and popper class of people – the upwardly mobile (in a Western context), and the downwardly desperate.

One profound thing, in the dominical (Jesus’) teaching that thoroughly marginalizes this calcification of two classes of people is that Jesus inverts the whole paradigm. For Jesus the ‘elect’ are in fact the downwardly desperate, not the upwardly mobile. For Jesus, there is no privileging of an ‘elite elect’ caste of people for whom he came to purchase and die. If this is so, this is just one of many problems that undercuts any psychology or ontology of humanity wherein there is an elite elect class of people from the very beginning. God’s category starts with the poor and destitute, the reprobate among us; and the exaltation and ‘wonderful exchange’ starts there, not in an elect class of people that works into and out of the mass of Augustine’s perdition. The mass of humanity, the mass of perdition is God’s elect. And the particular in this mass is Jesus’ universal humanity for all, not for some.

In the end, I am thankful that I can look at all of the people I work with and know that each of them has equal value to God; and that I am not any more of a person than they are. I might be saved, and they might not be (at the moment); but their value comes from the same ground that all of our value comes from – from the vicarious humanity of Christ, which is for all of us (we are all destitute, except for the grace of Christ).

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

Accessible: Reprobate and Elect in Christ, Thesis 13

Thesis 14 & 15. This is Thesis 13 from our edited book, Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church.



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

Following 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.50

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.”51

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.52 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 accidens53 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.”54

51. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 199–200.
52. McDonald, Re-Imaging Election.
53. 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.
54. 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).



So basically: ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but have everlasting life’ ~John 3:16

If you want further clarification let me know in the comments.

Jacobus Arminius’ Twenty Theses on Predestination [In His Own Words]

This is a follow up post to the recent post I just put up that shared Jacobus Arminius’ view of Predestination (in contrast to his interlocutors, or more, examiners whom today we would know as classical or Westminster Calvinists; you can read that post (if you haven’t already) hereThe content of this post shares once again from Arminius; these are the twenty points and implications that Arminius shared (from his Declaration of Sentiments) immediately following the four points on predestination I shared from him in that last post. So here are the positive (and negative) implications that Arminius thinks flows from his view on predestination:

arminiusprint[T]his doctrine of predestination declares:

1. The foundation of all Christianity, both with regard to salvation and to the certainty of salvation.

2. The essence of the Evangel. Indeed, it declares the Gospel itself, which must be believed for salvation (as far as the two articles above are concerned).

3. Because predestination is a clear and explicit Scriptural teaching, it has never been examined by a general or particular Council of the Church, nor has it ever been contradicted by any orthodox divine.

4. Predestination has been consistently acknowledged and taught by all well-informed teachers.

5. Predestination is consistent with the harmony of all the confessions of faith made by the Protestant churches.

6. The Dutch Confession and [Heidelberg] Catechism are of one accord on this doctrine. This agreement is such that if in the sixteenth article of the Confession the two expressions “those persons who” and “others’ be interpreted as “believers” and “unbelievers,” my position on predestination will be comprehended in that article with the utmost clarity. For this reason, when I held a public disputation at the university, I required that the article of faith under consideration be composed in the exact words of the Confession. When compared, it is evident that there is a complete harmony with the [Heidelberg] Catechism, specifically questions 20 and 54.

7. Interpreted in this manner, predestination is in full harmony with the nature of God—his wisdom, goodness, and justice, because it enshrines their primary content in the clearest possible witness to God’s wisdom, goodness, and justice.

8. This predestination is in harmony with the nature of humanity at every level—in the primitive state of creation, in its fallen state, as well as in its restoration.

9. It is in complete accord with the act of creation. It affirms that creation is a genuine communication of goodness, both with regard to the intention of God as well as with regard to the actual creative act. Predestination has its origin in the goodness of God, so that whatever has reference to its being fully preserved and carried out proceeds from divine love. The act of creation is itself a perfect and appropriate divine act in which God is well pleased and through which humanity has received the requisite means to avoid falling into sin.

10. This predestination is in accord with the nature of eternal life and all the Scriptural nomenclature by which it is designated.

11. It also agrees with the nature of eternal death and all the names by which that death is described in Scripture.

12. This predestination underscores that sin is actual disobedience and therefore the meritorious cause of condemnation. For this reason predestination must be understood in the context of the fall and sin. [Jacobus Arminius, Declaration of Sentiments, trans. by W. Stephen Gunter, 137.]

Okay, so this is twelve of the twenty theses. Let me provide the remaining eight later.

I think one thing (of many) that stands out to me from Arminius’ view of predestination is how he explicitly ties it into creation. This is different from the way that us Evangelical Calvinists articulate this. We believe that Pre-destination finds its primary referent in the life of God, in particular, in God’s elected life for us in Jesus Christ; and we see, as corollary of this, election as Pre-destination’s outworking in and through the history of redemption. Arminius’ view falls prey to collapsing God’s life into the creation in a way that ultimately presents a fissure between the Father and the Son. When the Son becomes flesh (incarnate), he begins to play out the purposes that Arminius believes are for a humanity that is abstracted out from the life of God; once Jesus enters into this situation (of predestination), he simply becomes (adopts) a humanity (like ours) that is given shape by this decree of election/reprobation. And which ultimately has nothing to do with God’s Self-determinate life. Jesus becomes a creature, and subordinated from God’s life as the means or instrument through which God saves the elect; but He ceases to have a necessary bearing on the shape of God’s life.

‘From’ Christ, not ‘For’ Christ: “Why don’t you have a category for obedience?”

I have lots of people email (instead of comment) me about my various posts here at the blog. Recently I received an email from someone who wondered why I didn’t have a category (in my categories for the blog) designated as “obedience”? I haven’t emailed this person back yet, but I thought before I did that I would respond to this rather interesting observation here at the blog first (it seems fitting for me to do so).

adam-eve-garden-of-eden-1To start with, I do have a category entitled “ethics,” which deals with issues and instances of concrete instantiations of Christian obedience (or disobedience); and then I do deal with Christian obedience in many posts, but they aren’t under a specific category of “obedience,” but instead those can be found under the category of “salvation” (and then a lengthy process of weeding through this posts will ultimately yield results that show I have dealt with questions that are oriented around Christian obedience). But I would like to answer this question with more particularity, and clarity on why my blog does not emphasize this category (as important as it is!). My blog does not emphasize this category (in the way my interlocutor is wondering, I presume) because the way I think of our relation to God in Christ, has Christ in the way; and I mean in the way of you and me (logically, theo-logically). Historically, and classically, Evangelicals (given their hybrided dependence upon Reformed/Covenant theology) have emphasized relation with God through a mode of emphasizing law-keeping conditioned by forensic categories of thought (just read an Evangelical systematic theology if you don’t believe me). And insofar that I have eschewed this classical mode, I have abandoned emphasizing law-keeping (code for ‘obedience’, usually) as the emphasis by which I understood relationship with God, and how I conceive of Christian holiness (or obedience as its subsequent expression). To provide an example of where the Evangelical heritage comes from, theologically, in this regard; let me quote Kim Riddlebarger (a contemporary advocate of Covenant Theology, and member of the White Horse Inn radio broadcast, along with Michael Horton), as he sketches the original and lasting relationship and way that he (and the classically Reformed) think of how God and man (God/world) relate to each other through the Covenant of Works (or Creation):

[A]s redemptive history unfolded, the first Adam—the biological and federal representative of all humanity—failed to do as God commanded under the terms of the covenant of works. The Lord God said to Adam, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). This covenant of works or, as some Reformed writers speak of it, the “covenant of creation” lies at the heart of redemptive history. Under its terms God demanded perfect obedience of Adam, who would either obey the terms of the covenant and receive God’s blessing—eternal life in a glorified Eden—or fail to keep the covenant and bring its sanctions down upon himself and all humanity. Adam’s willful act of rebellion did, in fact, bring the curse of death on the entire human race. This covenant of works is never subsequently abrogated in the Scriptures, a point empirically verified when ever death strikes. This covenant also undergirds the biblical teaching that for any of Adam’s fall children to be saved, someone must fulfill all the terms of the covenant without a single infraction in thought, word, or deed (Matt. 5:48; 1 Peter 1:16). [Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding The End Times, 47.]

Much could be said in critique of this conception of things (and I have already said much, just check my category “critiquing classical Calvinism”), but in order to not get side-tracked from the point of this post, let me stay particular to my intention. In predictable form (since Covenant theology has Creation preceding Covenant), Riddlebarger allows Creation to condition Covenant instead of seeing Covenant (God’s life of gracious love) conditioning Creation (one serious fall out of this theological ordering is that Jesus becomes conditioned by creation instead of conditioning creation himself as homoousion—I digress!). In other words, when Reformed thinkers like Riddlebarger, and his whole tradition, start theologizing and biblical exegeting they start where Riddlerbarger starts, with Law (or the Covenant of Works/Creation). And yet, as Ray Anderson has highlighted (along with others), what should be understood (first), is that God spoke and created (which is an act of grace as corollary with His overflowing life of Triune love). So what grounds any relation with God, first, is not Law-keeping, but the fact that God spoke (which is grace)! This might seem to be a subtle shift, but it is profound!

Following this shift of emphasis, what becomes primary is not my personal obedience (and Law-keeping), but God’s in Christ for us. As Thomas Torrance has written (as I just quoted this in a post below this one),

[…] Under the gracious impingement of Christ through the Spirit there is a glad spontaneity about the New Testament believer. He is not really concerned to ask questions about ethical practice. He acts before questions can be asked. He is caught up in the overwhelming love of Christ, and is concerned only about doing His will. There is no anxious concern about the past. It is Christ that died! There is no anxious striving toward an ideal. It is Christ that rose again! In Him all the Christian’s hopes are centred. His life is hid with Christ in God. In Him a new order of things has come into being, by which the old is set aside. Everything therefore is seen in Christ, in the light of the end, toward which the whole creation groaneth and travaileth waiting for redemption. The great act of salvation has already taken place in Christ, and has become an eternal indicative. [see full text here].

This does not mean that personal obedience is not important, but it frames it in a way that allows me to keep my eye on Christ instead of first looking at myself (and then reflexively looking at Christ: i.e. reflexive faith], as if I, myself, can somehow be abstracted out of the only true humanity which is Christ’s. So I “seek first His kingdom and righteousness, then all these other things will be added unto me” (and I only seek first, because He first loved (and sought) first that I might love Him, through Him by the Spirit). My relationship with God is not dependent upon my obedience, but Christ’s obedience for me (us); and so this ought to go along ways in illustrating why I don’t have a separate category (apart from Christology) for obedience in my sidebar. Thomas Torrance in his (posthumously published) book Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ really captures the import of this shift and way of framing things from God’s gracious Self directed life for us in contrast to the Legalistic emphasis that the classical Covenant of Works flows from:

(iii) The holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s holiness

 This holiness is actualised in the church through the communion of the Holy Spirit. He only is the Spirit of holiness, he only the Spirit of truth; and therefore it is only through his presence and power in the church that it partakes of the holiness of Jesus Christ. Since the holiness of the church is its participation through the Spirit in Christ’s act of self-consecration for the church, then that is the only holiness, the only hallowing of the church there is. That is the holiness which was actualised in the church when it was baptised with the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the union of the church with Christ was fulfilled from the side of the church as well as from the side of Christ.

The church is not holy because its members are holy or live virtuous lives, but because through his presence in the Holy Spirit Christ continues to hallow himself in the midst of the church, hallowing the church as his body and the body as his church. Thus the true holiness of the members is not different from this but a participation in it, a participation in the holiness of Christ the head of the church and in the holiness of the church as the body hallowed by Christ. Participation in this holiness however involves for the members of the church a life of holiness, just as it involves a life in Christ, of faith relying upon his faithfulness, of love that lives from the overflow his love, of truth that comes from the leading of the Spirit. Because the church is the body of Christ in which he dwells, the temple of the Holy Spirit in which God is present, its members live the very life of Christ through the Holy Spirit, partaking of and living out the holy life of God. Therefore personal holiness, and all the qualities of the divine life and love found in their lives, are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. [Thomas F. Torrance, Atonement, edited by Robert Walker, 386-87.]

There is a lot to comment on here as well, but I must limit myself. I will just say that it is this reversal of things (i.e. placing the Covenant of Grace [God’s life Pre-destined]) from Law to Grace that explains why I don’t have a category explicitly labeled “obedience”. It isn’t because I don’t think Christian obedience is important, it is because I think the gr0und of this emphasis is roundly rooted in Jesus Christ for us (and thus I have a category for Christology instead). It isn’t that I don’t think personal obedience or holiness are important, I do! Instead, it is because I am persuaded that focusing on Christ and God’s Triune life of gracious love, and participating in that from the Spirit’s unioning activity will produce obedience and the life of Christ through the members of our bodies as they are constantly given over to the death of Christ that His life might be made manifest through the mortal members of our body. We obey, only because Jesus obeyed for us first. We don’t obey to ensure that we are one of the elect that God purchased from the mass of “perdituous” humanity; we obey because God loved us first that we might love Him back through the mediating and priestly Spirit anointed humanity of Jesus Christ. It is only through this framing of things that I feel I can live out this exhortation from St. Paul:

 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. ~Galatians 5:1

Without the freedom of God for us in Christ I live under a burdenouss yoke that really ends up being hell; which, I am pretty sure this is what Jesus came to save us from (ourselves), and for Himself (and His shared life in the Monarchia or God-head). So obey, but only from Christ by the Spirit, not for Christ so you can find God’s approval.

Silly Rabbit, Trix are for Kids: The Mythology of the Salvation-Atonement Distinction, ‘Sufficient for All, Efficient for the Elect’

Amongst the classically Reformed amongst us, it is common parlance to refer to a distinction, relative to the extent of the atonement of Jesus Christ (i.e. for whom did he die?, etc.), which goes like this: Christ’s death on the cross was sufficient to save and redeem the whole world, but in reality it is only efficient to save the elect; those whom God gratuitously chose to be saved from before the foundations of the world. So there is recognition of the fact that God’s life in Christ for us has the potential capacity and power to save all, but it only has the actual reach to affect salvation in those whom God particularly chose to reach. There is a somewhat devious (I think) conception of God, and his wills or acts that stands behind this kind of distinction between the ‘sufficiency’ of the atonement Versus its ‘efficiency’; maybe we will get into that at a later date.


Following is part of an argument and description of this ‘distinction’ provided by R. Scott Clark of Westminster Theological Seminary California’s faculty; he writes of this sufficient/efficient dichotomy:

In the midst of controversy over the nature of God’s sovereignty, Godescalc of Orbais defended Augustine vigorously and suffered for it. He taught that there are two “worlds,” that which Christ has purchased with his blood and that which he has not. Thus when Scripture says that Christ died for the “world” (e.g., John 3:16) it is extensive of all those Christ has actually redeemed, but it does not include everyone who has ever lived. 18 In the same way, those passages which seem to say that Christ died for all, in all times and places must but understood to refer to all the elect. Thus he saw 1 John 2:2 not as a problem passage, but a proof-text for definite atonement.19

The Lombard’s teaching on the atonement is most famous for his use of the distinction between the sufficiency of Christ’s death and its efficiency. Though they are not familiar to many of us today, from their publication in the late 12th century until the late 16th century, Peter’s Sentences were the most important theological text in the Latin-speaking world. Theological students even earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in the Sentences.

In Book 3, distinction 20 he taught that Christ’s death was “sufficient” to redeem all (quantum ad pretii) but it is “efficient” only “for the elect” (pro electis).20 This distinction, though not followed by all Western theologians after Lombard, was adopted by most until the nominalist movement (e.g., William of Ockham, d. 1347) overturned the “Old School” (via antiqua).21

In his great work, Summa Theologiae, Thomas distinguished between God’s will considered as his antecedent will, by which he could be said to have willed the salvation of all; and his will considered as consequent, i.e., what he actually decreed to exist, i.e., that only the elect would be saved and that some will be reprobated (damned).22 Later, Protestant theologians would revise this distinction to refer to his revealed and hidden will. With respect to his revealed will, God is said to desire certain things (i.e., that none should perish). It is his revealed will that we should know the existence of a hidden decree (who will be saved and who will perish) but the content of that decree is part of his hidden will.

Thomas also made it very clear that he adopted Lombard’s sufficient/efficient distinction but also taught unambiguously that Christ died effectively only for the elect.23 [full argument available here]

So as we can see, this distinction is a reality in theological parlance, first articulated by the seminal Roman Catholic theologian, Peter Lombard, in his infamous Sentences (which were the basis for subsequent Medieval and Protestant Reformed theologies to follow); and as observed, continue to have conceptual force for contemporary classically Reformed historians and theologians like Scott Clark. I thought of highlighting this distinction because I came across a rebuttal of it by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bently Hart as I have been reading (10 pages from completion now) Matthew Levering’s book Predestination. Reference is made to this ‘rebuttal’ of Hart by Levering in a footnote on the first page of the last chapter of the book. Let me share that now, and we will see what you think:

Hart, ‘Providence and Causality’, 47. Hart explains further: “This entire issue, of course, becomes far less involved if one does not presume real differentiations within God’s intention towards his creatures. For, surely, scripture is quite explicit on this point: God positively “wills” the salvation of “all human beings” (1 Tim. 2.4). That is, he does not merely generically desire that salvation, or formally allow it as a logical possibility, or will it antecedently but not consequently, or (most ridiculous of all) enable it “sufficiently” but not “efficaciously”. If God were really to supply saving grace sufficient for all, but to refuse to supply most persons with the necessary natural means of attaining that grace, it would mean that God does not will the salvation of all. If God’s will to save is truly universal, as the epistle proclaims, one simply cannot start from the assumption that God causes some to rise while willingly permitting others to fall; even if one dreads the spectre of universalism, one cat at most affirm that God causes all to rise, and permits all to fall, and imparts to all—the ability to consent to or to resist grace he extends while providentially ordering all things according to his universal will to salvation. Or, rather, perhaps one should say that God causes all to rise, but the nature of that cause necessarily involves a permission of the will’. [Cited by Matthew Levering, Predestination, 177-78 n. 2.]

I would like to elaborate further, especially on what Clark refers to as God’s antecedent and consequent will and how that relates to this soteriological distinction of ‘sufficient/efficient’. Hart, as you read his quotable, also refers to this supposed distinction between God’s ‘antecedent’ and ‘consequent’ will; apparently, and to be sure, it is this prior distinction, made by theologians, in God’s life that funds the conceptual hangers upon which these ‘theologians’ hang the ‘sufficient/efficient’ distinction relative to the extent of the atonement. Suffice it to say for now, to appeal to this sufficient/efficient distinction introduces a rupture or break into God’s life, into his will for us (I don’t like appealing to the language of ‘Will’, but I will for sake of discussion). The important thing, and this is what we as Evangelical Calvinists do, is to maintain a unity in God’s Triune life; so following Rahner, Barth, Torrance & co. the ontological Trinity is the economic Trinity (and vice versa)— or, there is a unity to God’s life. The ‘antecedent’ life of God is the ‘consequent’ life of God Self revealed in Jesus Christ—so then there is ‘no God behind the back of Jesus’! If we dispose of these ‘two-wills’ in God, then we dispose of the foundation upon which the sufficient/efficient distinction is built, where it lives, moves, and has its breath. And, if we follow Hart’s rebuttal of this distinction it is even more simply stated than I just did; i.e. it cannot be said that God genuinely wills the salvation of all, and at the same time hold that God only provides the means for some to be saved (unless you want to affirm prior to this discussion by logical priority, that God has such a thing as an ‘antecedent’ will and a ‘consequent’ wherein the former is somehow distinct from the latter—this has terrible problems, doctrine of God-wise for you–so I can understand why you want to fall back into a strict apophaticism and mystery at this point, but God’s Self-revelation in Christ won’t let you retreat so fast!). He either truly desires all to be saved or he doesn’t (pace the modal law of logic: e.g. the law of non-contradiction).

We should discuss, at a later date, this idea and impact of God’s singular will, and the fact that who he is, how he acts in his inner (some would use the language of eternal) life, is exactly, univocally the same way he acts in Christ and the Holy Spirit in his outer life revealed in salvation history for us. We will talk about this soon, I have written on this in the past; but I will revisit it in the near future. Suffice it to say, ‘you don’t really believe that the atonement is sufficient for all, but only efficient for the elect’, do you? Silly rabbit, trix are for kids.

Part 1. The Classical Calvinists V. The Arminians: An Introduction to the Problem (Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility)

This post represents the first of many (I think, we’ll see how that goes) on engaging the issue of God’s Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in the realm of salvation. I had intended on getting into the text of John Webster’s Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, in this post; which is where I will be endeavoring to explicate a way beyond the impasse represented by the polarizing ends of either framing this issue of salvation in terms of God’s sovereignty and/or Human Responsibility, as if these can be pulled apart this way (which as we will see, they really can’t, or shouldn’t be). But given the breadth and depth of this topic, I think this post will have to contain itself with some necessary ground clearing that will provide a little more context to what I will be intending to resolve, or reframe. So this post will be just that, an exercise in ground clearing through problematizing the issue at hand: i.e. God’s Sovereignty in salvation and Human Responsibility just the same.

Thus, the following will be a minimalist comparison, and abductive exercise in teasing out the differences that have provided fuel for the fire of the long contested debate that has inhered between those rascally Calvinists and curmudgeonly Arminians over the last few centuries. In order to accomplish this task what better place to go than the documentary source of the debate in the first place; to Holland we must go! We turn then to the 5 Articles of the Remonstrance which Jacobus Arminius penned (by and large), which have provided the space for Arminian theology to grow in; and then the response from the Calvinists, their Canons of Dort (which later became popularized by the acronym TULIP). We will not look at the whole of either document (although I will have linkage to both of them so you can survey them in total for yourselves, if you like); instead, for our purposes, I will only be comparing what I deem the most salient points of contact for us. That is, we will pay attention to the ‘points’ that illustrate the difference (or maybe the similarity, surprisingly in some ways) that has provided the kindling for the fire that continues to burn between the Calvinists and Arminians. Here is the first article of the remonstrance:

Article 1.

[Conditional Election – corresponds to the second of TULIP’s five points, Unconditional Election]

That God, by an eternal and unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son before the foundation of the world, has determined that out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who through the grace of the Holy Spirit shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath and to condemn them as alienated from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John 3:36: “He that believes on the Son has everlasting life: and he that does not believe the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abides on him,” and according to other passages of Scripture also. [See all the Articles, here]

So the emphasis falls on those who ‘shall believe’ as the basis of God’s choice of them in election. Old school theologian, and Arminian theologian, Henry Thiessen states the logic of this article very clearly when he writes,

[…] It was an act of grace [election], in that He chose them “in Christ.” He could not choose them in themselves because of their ill desert; so He chose them in the merits of another. Furthermore, He chose those who He foreknew would accept Christ. The Scriptures definitely base God’s election on His foreknowledge: “Whom He foreknew, He also foreordained, … and whom He foreordained, them He also called” (Rom. 8:29, 30); “to the elect … according to the foreknowledge of God the Father” (1 Pet. 1:1, 2). Although we are nowhere told what it is in the foreknowledge of God that determines His choice, the repeated teaching of Scripture that man is responsible for accepting or rejecting salvation necessitates our postulating that it is man’s reaction to the revelation of God has made of Himself that is the basis of His election…. [brackets mine] [Henry C. Thiessen, Lectures In Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971), 344.]

This could be a more contemporary rendition and elucidation of what was originally written in the first article of the Remonstrant back in 1610. So God’s election to salvation, in this schema, is based on his ability to look down the corridor of time, see those individuals who will respond in the affirmative to His call of salvation; and then it is on this basis, that God is said to elect these individuals. God’s election is contingent on the choice of the person, God’s election in salvation is grounded in the human being’s Yes or No to Him.

And then the seventh article, in response, from the Canons of Dort:

Article 7: Election

Election is God’s unchangeable purpose by which he did the following:

Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, God chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery. God did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation.

And so God decreed to give to Christ those chosen for salvation, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through the Word and Spirit. In other words, God decreed to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of the Son, to glorify them.

God did all this in order to demonstrate his mercy, to the praise of the riches of God’s glorious grace. [see in full the Canons of Dort here]

In contrast, then, to the Remonstrance; the Calvinists, the Canons of Dort make clear that they believe that God’s choice of humanity is not contingent on the individuals who choose Him. Instead, salvation, for the Dortians is grounded in God’s choice of particular, and thus ‘elect’ individuals. The emphasis is on God’s choice and not man’s or woman’s.


Hopefully this has been an effective exercise in highlighting the historic differences between the classical Calvinist and Arminian distinctions on this highly debated topic. In the next post I will resummarize this debate, and use this as the backdrop towards a solution to this conflict that is provided through the grammar and theo-logic of Karl Barth and John Webster. For the classic Calvinist and Arminian salvation is either based solely on God’s choice or Humanity’s. But the reality is, is that it can be both; and the both can still all be grounded in God’s choice without denigrating the Human choice and responsibility therein.