Niceno-Predestination: God’s Pre-destination for us in Jesus Christ

If Christians knew Nicene theology, they could avoid the oft combatant atmosphere that typifies much of Western (and especially popular) theological discourse. When it comes to the locus of predestination / election-reprobation the divisiveness amplifies to an all-out battle cry. Because Christians, in the main, don’t realize that they can (and ought to) think all things from the grammar developed at the Niceno-Constantinopolitano-Chalcedony ecumenical Church councils, namely, the homoousios, the idea that the Son enfleshed in Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human in His singular person, they devolve into an abstract and discursive mode of theological (or atheological) reasoning. When this mode of ‘theological reasoning’ is applied to the question of predestination we end up with a bi-polar malaise that results in something like the “Calvinists V the Arminians.” In other words, when people come to think that their only alternative for thinking about the complex of predestination is to defer to the philosophers, said thinkers end up thinking abstractly about God’s election (or not) of particular individual people. This is partly because the philosophers’ intellectual ambit is limited by their flatlander experience of the cosmos; that is, the philosopher, no matter how genius, can never gain the God-view vista required for accessing a reality that is purely grounded in Deus revelatus (God revealed). And so, the Christians operating out of this intellectual impoverishment end up thinking about an absolutely heavenly reality, grounded in God’s inner-triune-life, from non-heavenly categories. As such they don’t think of humanity from God’s pre-destined and elect humanity for them in Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth summarizes what I take to be the theo-logical outcome of taking Nicene theology to its reductive conclusion with reference to a doctrine of predestination:

The doctrine of election is the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard it is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom. It is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and the elected man in One. It is part of the doctrine of God because originally God’s election of man is a predestination not merely of man but of Himself. Its function is to bear basic testimony to eternal, free and unchanging grace as the beginning of all the ways and works of God.1

For Barth, and for the implications of Nicene theology, when we think of predestination, the referent isn’t you and me, at a first order level; the referent is God’s life for us, as He freely elects our humanity for Himself in the Son. In this sense, a doctrine of predestination is radically re-oriented, such that the battle of “who is elect,” as if individual people were under consideration, is taken off the table; full stop. This is not to say that individual people aren’t entailed by God’s pre-destinating of Himself to be for us (pro nobis); indeed, it is to say, alternatively, that all of humanity has been invited to the ‘banqueting table of God.’ It is to say that all of humanity has a concrete place in the Kingdom of God in Christ just because God’s Kingdom is grounded in its lively center in Jesus Christ; who just so happens to be garbed with our humanity. The question remains open though, will a person repent and say yes from Christ’s Yes and amen for them, or not? In other words, a Nicene informed doctrine of predestination says that all of humanity is already elected for God, because God has already elected Himself for them in Jesus Christ.

The ‘classical’ retort to this, the one funded by a heavy-handed philosophical account, attended by its usual Aristotelian theory of causation and substance, might be that the Nicene account I am describing results in an undercut of God’s sovereignty; and thus, a notion of Divine double-jeopardy is injected into the mix. They might say this because they operate with what Barth calls the decretum absolutum (absolute decree) logic of what Thomas Torrance calls logico-causal necessitarian determinism. This is the idea that God has baked certain necessary features of causation, such as His primary and then secondary causation into the created order, which requires that certain outcomes obtain one way or the other per God’s unrevealed and arbitrary decree. On this account, this is all to make sure that God remains Sovereign, which entails His eternality, impassibility, immutability, and other characteristics.

When such thinking encounters my type of thinking on predestination it simply cannot countenance the idea that an individual human agent might have the means to “thwart” God’s predetermined predestination of all things. But of course, if this theory of causation is rejected from the get-go, as it should be, then that sort of dilemma never obtains. I clearly reject the decretum absolutum logic, and instead think from the filial-logic that funds the orthodox theology developed in the Nicene advancements.

Conclusion

A doctrine of Predestination ought to be thought from the consubstantial natures (both Divine and human) of the Theoanthropos Godman, Jesus Christ. If this is done predestination will not be thought of from an abstract center in ourselves, but instead from the concrete center of God’s free life for us in Jesus Christ. Pre-destination’s referent will be understood to be God, at a first order level, and our relationship to Him, as human beings, will only be thought from within the tremendum of the gracious movement of God for us, and us for God, as that is actualized in the One Man, Jesus Christ. This is the genuinely Christian confessional understanding of a doctrine of predestination. If you check it against Holy Scripture, as you always should—especially as good Protestant Christians—you will find that not only does the Christological and Trinitarian grammar, developed in the Nicene theology, coheres with the Scriptural witness, but that when that is applied to our current doctrine of predestination (and any other doctrine worth its Christian salt), that in corollary fashion, it also coheres with the biblical categories.

At the end: Jesus is God’s predestination for the world. This is the revelational doctrine of pre-destination. If this is accepted the typical theatrics that surrounds this doctrine dissipate into the inferno of God’s white-hot love for the world. We can get back to focusing on Jesus rather than ourselves this way. Oh, what a thought!

 

1 Barth, CD II/2:1. 

An Ontological-Relational Framing of the Bondage of the Will: The Vicarious Humanity of Christ as Antidote

I am not a classical Calvinist; by now most of you know what I mean when I say that. I am not a classical Arminian; indeed, I’m not Arminian at all. I am Athanasian Reformed (aka Evangelical Calvinist). I affirm something like total depravity; I prefer to call that homo incurvatus in se, like Martin Luther did. Either way, I believe all of humanity, at the fall, was plunged into a rupture with the triune God, such that humanity lost all capacity to be for or with God in any way. In other words, as some refer to this more popularly, in regard to salvific matters, I am a proponent of ‘total inability.’ This means that I reject the (‘Pelagian’) notion that humanity retains an abstract (from God) freewill that would allow humans, apart from a radical in-breaking of God’s Grace in Christ, to be for God and not fundamentally against Him. I maintain that all of humanity, along with Adam and Eve in the garden, fell into a ruptured relationship with the triune God, such that postlapsarian humanity inhabits a status that keeps them incurved upon themselves, motivated by a saucer of competing affections that never allows them to see God as anyone but themselves. One manifestation of this, among others, is that such humans will construct rationalist citadels of anthropological heft wherein their reason, incurved upon itself as it were, becomes the standard for all that is real (think cogito ergo sum, or tabula rasa). 

In light of that you might think that I must, then, rely on some notion, in an ordo salutis (order of salvation), of God’s ‘regenerating grace’ (ie grace as a quality) entering into the ‘elects’’ heart in order for that particular person to come to have capacity to finally see[k] God for who He really is in Christ. But I don’t endorse the model of substance metaphysics that funds that sort of theory of anthrosalvation. Instead, as you also know of me by now, I think from the largely After Barth tradition. Within this tradition we have figures such as Thomas Torrance, Dietrich Bonhoeffer et al. For Barth and Torrance, in particular, they are both in-formed by Athanasian categories, in particular, and Patristic, in general; among other (modern) influences. Even so, they operate from a complex when it comes to the particular issue of thinking about the so-called Bondage of the Will; they both affirm it, but from within an ontological/filial frame. For them the issue of rupture between God and humanity isn’t primarily juridical, instead it’s a relational matter. For them, in the fall, humanity’s being has lost its human being in the sense that it has been spliced out of God’s image (imago Dei) in Christ (cf. Col. 1.15). Because of this plunge into ‘sub-humanity,’ humans no longer have the capacity to be free for God; since God alone is genuinely free. You see, for the tradition I think from (which is the biblical one), human being only has being and orientation, insofar as it is in right relationship with the triune God. Outwith this relationship the ‘abstract human’ has no capacity to operate with any notion of primal freedom; of the sort that God alone possesses. In order for that seemingly impossible possibility to become a possibility, for my tradition (which is the biblical one), it requires that God does something for us; viz. that He ‘disrupts’ the state of affairs an abstract humanity finds itself in, and from this act, humanity comes to have an objective ground to be towards God once again. Albeit, in the resurrection of Christ, this ground is now greater than the soil the first Adam provided for; in the resurrection of Christ humanity now has the fertile soil it requires to grow towards God from in and through the second and greater Adam’s vicarious humanity for the world.  

Jens Zimmerman offers insight on how the aforementioned lineaments operate in the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 

These differences notwithstanding, Bonhoeffer still shares with Heidegger the basic hermeneutic axiom that human knowledge consists in the interpretation of a reality in which one already moves, lives, and has one’s being. For Bonhoeffer as a Christian theologian, this reality is of course determined by Christ alone. Knowledge of one’s participation in this Christ-reality comes only by God’s grace as one is drawn into communion with the Trinity. Bonhoeffer’s solution to the mind-world dichotomy is thus very similar to Heidegger’s, albeit based on a specifically Christian ontology. Already in Act and Being, he develops the fundamentally hermeneutic concept that faith is not cognitive assent to doctrine, but ‘a mode of being’ (DBWE 2: 118). Believing in God is not merely a mental act but involves being drawn into a reality that is ‘prior to the act of faith’ (DBWE 2: 117). This ‘being-in-Christ’ is characterized by an intentionality directed purely to Christ (a fides directa or actus directus), so that the self is transformed by this reality. For Bonhoeffer ‘everything hinges on faith’s knowing itself not as somehow conditioning or even creating this being, but precisely as conditioned and created by it’ (DBWE 2: 118). Human reflection on this reality is a necessary, secondary interpretation of this existential reality. This kind of secondary reflection is called theology, ‘which is not existential knowledge’, but rather an interpretation of the church’s experience of God as crystallized and sedimented in tradition over time through preaching, creeds, and dogma. In this way, theology acts as the ‘preserving and ordering memory [Gedächtnis]’ of the living, ‘spoken word of Christ in the church’ (DBW 2: 131, …). Preaching draws on this memory of Christ’s presence and also shapes it at the same time. 

Participating in this Christ-reality does not constitute some Hinterland or parallel universe allowing the Christian to escape from the world. Bonhoeffer states: 

Like all of creation, the world has been created through Christ and has its existence only in Christ (John 1:10; Col. 1:16). To speak of the world without speaking of Christ is pure abstraction. The world stands in relationship to Christ whether the world knows it or not. (DBWE 6: 68) 

Bonhoeffer is well known for his insistence that the Christian’s participation in the Christ-reality does not negate the world but rather founds proper human responsibility for the world. On account of God’s becoming human, God and humanity, and therefore God and world, must be thought together. Bonhoeffer avers that ‘where the worldly establishes itself as an autonomous sector, this denies the fact of the world’s being accepted in Christ, the grounding of the reality of the world in revelational reality, and thereby the validity of the gospel for the whole world’ (DBWE 6: 60). For Bonhoeffer, the incarnation itself—God’s transcendent truth entering into human history and temporality—sets the hermeneutical pattern for Christian knowledge, wherein the sacred is known only in the profane, the revelational in the rational, and the supernatural only in the natural (DBWE 6: 59). [1] 

Maybe this is your first encounter with this sort of salvific conniving, but hopefully not your last. This is why as Athanasian Reformed types we say there is an historia salutis rather than an ordo salutisThe focus on salvation in this frame is on the pre-history (ad intra) and history (ad extra) of God’s life for us in Jesus Christ. We see His life as the Via by which all of humanity comes to have an objective ground as the pre-condition from whence they come to have the Spirit generated capacity to say Yes to God; that is from Christ’s Yes and Amened life for them in the resurrection humanity that ascended and is now seated at the Right Hand of the Father. This might raise some ‘causal’ questions for the Aristotelian-minded among us, that is in regard to how this avoids ‘universalism’ implications, and we have response for that. I have already addressed that more than once elsewhere here on the blog, and in our books. But to be sure, as an Evangelical Calvinist, I affirm humanity’s need for newly-created ground that we might come to genuinely think God from prior to our acknowledgement of God. As has been pressed throughout this post: I maintain, along with the biblical tradition I think from, that it is only in and from the elect and primordial humanity of Jesus Christ that humanity is raised up with His archetypal humanity, and it is from here, from this sacred space of liminal humanity for all, that sub-humanity can rise from the ashes of its desolate life and breathe from the lungs of Christ’s Yes for them coram Deo. 

____________________________________________

[1] Jens Zimmerman, “Bonhoeffer and Contemporary Philosophy,” in Michael Mawson and Philip G. Ziegler eds., The Oxford Handbook of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 439-40. 

 

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.

homeless

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.

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predestination

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).

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Accessible

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.