Election. John Owen in Conversation with Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance

Election. Election has been such a source of consternation for so many of us through our own theological years. The battle continues to fray on and on between the rascally classical Calvinists and Arminians—at least in its most popular expression—there is a trading of proof texts that sail right past each other as two ships in the dark navigate precariously past one another. There is a more sophisticated way to engage with this tumultuous topic. electionexperienceI like to think that Myk Habets and I have offered such an offering in our edited book Evangelical Calvinism:Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church; Myk in fact offering a whole chapter dedicated to such a loci. There are others who have obviously dealt with this issue in more sophisticated ways; David Gibson in his published PhD dissertation entitled has, his book is entitled Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and BarthAnd surely there are many many other treatments of this issue that I obviously cannot index here. But one other, and one important other is Suzanne McDonald’s research on this topic of election. She also has a PhD published dissertation entitled Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to Godher work in this book is highly constructive and prescient as she brings Puritan theologian, John Owen into conversation with Dialectic theologian, Karl Barth—she also brings others into the conversation, among them, N.T. Wright. I am just finishing up Bruce McCormack’s and Clifford Anderson’s edited book Karl Barth And American EvangelicalismSuzanne McDonald is one of the contributors to this book. In it, her offering is basically a compression of her full development of this topic found in the aforementioned book of her’s. Since I have her chapter at hand at the moment, I thought I would illustrate how she goes about comparing and contrasting John Owen’s most basic proposal on election and salvation with Karl Barth’s.

[A]s Owen has illustrated, the historic Reformed tradition therefore maintains a delicate balance between Christology and pneumatology in election, in which Christ’s work and the Spirit’s are both mutually interdependent and equally determinative. There is no election in Christ that can in any way bypass the Spirit’s work in uniting us to him by faith. As such, as we have seen, it is the Spirit’s work in uniting us to him by faith. As such, as we have seen, it is the Spirit’s work upon which Christ’s completed work depends for its fulfillment in the economic unfolding of election. This is a reflection both of the implications of the scriptural witness and the expression in the economy of inner-Trinitarian relations, such that while the work of the Spirit is wholly dependent upon that of the Father and the Son, that of the Father and the Son is also wholly dependent upon the Spirit.

By contrast, Barth’s radical concentration of the whole of election in Christ means that the outworking of the filioque effectively issues in a subordination of pneumatology to Christology in election. The pattern of the dual procession still holds: the Spirit remains the one who brings the electing determination of the Father and Son to bear in the economy. Nevertheless, the significance of the Spirit’s role has been radically relativized. Election as it relates to humanity is less clearly a fully Triune act, in which the Spirit’s work is co-determinative with that of the Father and the Son; rather it is a reality that has already been accomplished for all in God’s self-election in Christ, which may or may not be made known to individuals by the Spirit. Barth is clear that the participation of all in Christ’s election need not include the Spirit’s work. The Spirit’s work simply delineates one manner of that participation but not the other. [Suzanne McDonald, Evangelical Questioning of Election in Barth: A Pneumatological Perspective from the Reformed Heritage, 262-63 in McCormack & Anderson.]

This imbalance in Barth may or may not be present; I withhold judgment in lieu of further reading on my part—I say I withhold judgment on Barth, because his view of God as self replicating could have notions of subordination associated with it, economically. Although I am not wholly comfortable with reading God’s being and act, being in becoming from a soteriological lens—as McDonald is attempting—and then concluding that Barth’s doctrine of God is ultimately defunct. Indeed, this is the exact theological ordering that Barth re-orders; he reads creation/history of salvation concerns starting from a center in God’s covenant life, it seems to me that McDonald’s critique starts where Barth intentionally does not start, and then she ends somewhere different than Barth ends—which might be a sophisticated way of equivocating. 

One thing that is appreciated, at least by me, is the emphasis that McDonald places on pneumatology and the need for the Spirit. I think though that a corrective, and a way to “get around” McDonald’s critique of Barth’s apparent dearth, is by, as we do, emphasizing a Christ conditioned view of election. The lineaments of this are directly provided for in Barth’s proposal of things, and Thomas Torrance works with this from his style of Scottish Reformed theology. The Spirit’s work, instead of being located in individually elect people, such as Owen applies this, could (and should) be located in the vicarious humanity of Christ. The ground of Spirit election then cannot be thought of as abstracted and refracted in individual particular people; instead, Spirit election must be thought of as coming with the anointed and vicarious humanity of Christ for us (pro nobis). Here is where the issue of theological order pops its head up again. Is our understanding of salvation and the Spirit’s creative work going to be thought of a part from Christ’s humanity as determinative of all other things (including individual salvation), or from Christ’s humanity as determinative. Once we acquiesce to McDonald’s point vis-à-vis Owen, there is a sense of indeterminacy introduced into the scheme of things, such that the Spirit becomes relegated to his act upon certain individual people instead of all of creation.  I say indeterminacy because now the humanity of individual (elect) people becomes determinative of what elect Spirit anointed humanity looks like instead of the homoousion Spirit shaped humanity of Jesus Christ.

I will have to leave this dangling here. Here is how Myk Habets describes some of this in the theology of Thomas Torrance (the piece I quote is the original piece that Myk wrote in the essay that eventually was used as his chapter in our edited book on the topic of election and predestination):

Because election is bound up with Christ, it must not be thought of in any impersonal or deterministic sense.19 The encounter between God and humanity in Christ is the exact antithesis of determinism; it is the ‘acute personalization’ of all relations with God in spite of sin. Interestingly, because Christ is the ground of election there can be no thought of indeterminism in relation to the encounter between God and humanity either.20 Owing to the adoption into Protestant scholasticism of deterministic thinking, something Torrance attributes to an artificial importation of Greek determinism, election is often thought of in terms of cause or force, and so forth.21 But this is to transpose onto God our thought and in the process distort the doctrine of election. It is here Torrance becomes most animated: ‘Thus, for example, in the doctrine of “absolute particular predestination” the tendency is to think of God as a “force majeure” bearing down upon particular individuals. That is to operate with a view of omnipotence that has little more significance than an empty mathematical symbol.’22 Evident in this statement is Torrance’s methodological commitment to work from an a posteriori basis rather than an a priori one, and so reject a natural theology.23 Omnipotence, for instance, is what God does, not what God is thought to be able to do because of some hypothetical metaphysical can. What God does is seen in Christ. What then does the ‘pre’ stand for in ‘predestination’? asks Torrance. Originally it made the point that the grace by which we are saved is grounded in the inner life of the Trinity.24 ‘That is to say, the pre in predestination emphasises the sheer objectivity of God’s Grace.’25 It was this view of the priority of divine grace which fell away in scholastic Calvinism so that predestination could be spoken of as ‘preceding grace’ and election came to be regarded as a causal antecedent to our salvation in time. The result of this shift was a strong determinist slant.26 (Myk Habets, “The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study,” Irish Theological Quarterly 73 [2008], 335-38)


Reading Matthew Levering on Predestination, and Habets and Grow on the Same

I just picked up a new book to read, and I am very excited to read it! It is by Matthew Levering, and is on the doctrine of Predestination. Here’s the biblio:

Matthew Levering, Predestination: Biblical and Theological Paths, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

I have just finished the Introduction chapter, and it makes me want to read it even more! Here is what the summary of the book communicates on the back jacket:

Predestination has been the subject of perennial controversy among Christians, although in recent years theologians have shied away from it as a divisive and unedifying topic. In this book Matthew Levering argues that Christian theological reflection needs to continue to return to the topic of predestination, for two reasons. Firstly, predestination doctrine is taught in the New Testament. Reflecting the importance of the topic in many strands of Second Temple Judaism, the New Testament authors teach predestination in a manner that explains why Christian theologians continually recur to this topic. Secondly, the doctrine of predestination provides a way for Christian theologians to reflect upon two fundamental affirmations of biblical revelation. The first is God’s love, without any deficiency or crimp, for each and every rational creature; the second is that God from eternity brings about the purpose for which he created us, and that he permits some rational creatures freely and permanently to rebel against his love. When theologians reflect on these two key biblical affirmations, they generally try to unite them in a logical synthesis. Instead, Levering argues, it is necessary to allow for the truth of each side of the mystery, without trying to blend the two affirmations into one.

Levering pairs his discussion of Scripture with ecumenically oriented discussion of the doctrine of predestination through the ages using the writings of Origen, Augustine, Boethius, John of Damascus, Eriugena, Aquinas, Ockham, Catherine of Siena, Calvin, Molina, Francis de Sales, Leibniz, Bulgakov, Barth, Maritain, and Balthasar. He concludes with a constructive chapter regarding the future of the doctrine.

Sounds great, right?! Before I even finish reading this book, I am going to recommend it to you 🙂 . Alongside this one, you ought to also read Suzanne McDonald’s excellent book: Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election as Representing God to Others & Others to God. 

These issues, Predestination and Election continue to represent perennial discussion that seems to never go away; and seems to cause confusion and appeal to mystery like no other doctrine[s]. As Levering notes in his Introduction John Milton depicts this kind of discussion as one that shapes the demonic; note: […] in Paradise Lost, John Milton depicts the demons in hell as conversing ‘of providence, foreknowledge, will, and fate, / Fixed fate, free will, foreknowledge absolute, / And found no end, in wandering mazes lost.’ (Levering, p. 1)

Myk and I don’t take such an negative view of this doctrinal reality; here is what we wrote in our edited book, and in our last chapter which we co-wrote wherein we present 15 theological Theses that we hold. This Thesis, obviously, is the one that seeks to capture what Myk and I think about this doctrine[s]:

Thesis Five. Election is christologically conditioned.

This follows on as a corollary from the thesis above. Christ’s work is perfect and requires no supplement, such as the faith of an individual. In forms of Classical Calvinism the subjective elements of salvation have tended to dominate its theology so that an experimental predestination (syllogismus practicus) developed and faith was separated from assurance in an unhealthy manner as Christ was separated from his work. The resultant crises of faith and assurance threw believers back onto themselves and their own works for assurance, rather than onto Christ our perfect mediator and redeemer. Christ has been sanctified, and in his sanctification he has sanctified the elect in him. Believers find their subjective sanctification in Christ’s objective work, and not the other way round. This reflects the duplex gratiaCalvin made so much about and yet contemporary Reformed theology has tended to separate—through union with Christ flows the twin benefits of justification and sanctification.25

Thomas F. Torrance is instructive as he comments on Scottish Calvinist, John Craig’s approach to articulating what a christologically conditioned doctrine of election looks like; with a carnal and spiritual union providing its orientation:

Craig regarded election as bound up more with adoption into Christ, with union with him, and with the communion of the Spirit, than with an eternal decree. The union of people with Christ exists only within the communion of the redeemed and in the union they conjointly have with Christ the Head of the Church. . . . Union with Christ and faith are correlative, for it is through faith that we enter into union with Christ, and yet it is upon this corporate union with Christ that faith and our participation in the saving benefits or “graces” of Christ rest. John Craig held that there was a twofold union which he spoke of as a “carnal union” and a “spiritual union.” By “carnal union” he referred to Christ’s union with us and our union with Christ which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which took place in his birth of the Spirit and in his human life through which he sanctifies us. The foundation of our union with Christ, then, is that which Christ has made with us when in his Incarnation he became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh; but through the mighty power of the Spirit all who have faith in Christ are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. It is only through this union, through ingrafting into Christ by faith and through communion with him in his Body and Blood, that we may share in all Christ’s benefits—outside of this union and communion there is no salvation, for Christ himself is the ground of salvation. . . . 26 27

Thus election is grounded in a personal union with Christ through his “carnal union” with humanity in the Incarnation, and our “spiritual union” with him through his vicarious faith for us by the Holy Spirit. Christ, in this framework, is known to be the one who elects our humanity for himself; by so doing he takes our reprobation, wherein the “Great Exchange” inheres: “by his poverty we are made rich.”


24. Historical antecedents to such an approach in which a doctrine of God correctly shaped their doctrines of Christology and soteriology would include, amongst others, Richard St. Victor and John Duns Scotus. For both, Theology Proper was robustly Trinitarian, thus relational, personal, and pastoral.

25. See further in Johnson, chapter 9.

26. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 52–53.

27. See further in Habets, chapter 7.

-Taken from our book, Evangelical Calvinism, pp. 432-33

As you can see we are articulating our view of election, but this entails how we think of predestination as Christologically conditioned as well. For more depth you would need to read Myk’s personal chapter 7 on his Christologically Conditioned view of Election. We also hold to a Christological conditioned understanding of Supralapsarianism, which is our Thesis number 8. If I had more time I would share that one too, since it overlaps with this whole discussion (maybe another time).

As you can see from what I have shared, Myk and I follow some Scottish lines, some Barthian lines, some Torrancian lines, and hopefully some biblical lines. Our view follows from our commitment to a Depth Dimension hermeneutic which sees Christ, in principled ways, as the touchstone for exegeting all of Scripture’s depth and breadth. Having published a particular perspective on this, as Myk and I have, I look forward to being challenged by Levering in reading his conclusions, and how he gets there. What he writes might very well add depth and layers of nuance to my own perspective, and might even morph mine to one degree or another; one never knows—which is the exciting thing about studying such things, and growing in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ in this way.

Suzanne McDonald's "Re-Imaged" Election

I was going to do some posts in regards to Suzanne McDonald’s constructive reconstrual of election as representation, but the quotes I wanted to provide are just too long and involved; and beyond that, I don’t feel like developing all of what would be necessary in order for it to make sense on the blog here. To whet your appetite, and not to totally flop on my intention; let me at least quote the blurb from the back jacket of the book:

Here is a fresh look at one of the Reformed tradition’s most controversial and defining doctrines of election. In conversation with the writings of John Owen and Karl Barth, Suzanne McDonald argues that acknowledging the significance of “representation” — representing God to others and others to God — is key to understanding the nature and purpose of election. Re-Imaging Election investigates anew the scriptural contours of election and, especially, the prominent role of the Holy Spirit. Election, McDonald says, is not only “in Christ” but also “by the Spirit.”

While Re-Imaging Election is firmly rooted in the Reformed tradition, McDonald’s insights open up new opportunities for dialogue across the theological spectrum and offer possibilities for reclaiming this central but often divisive doctrine in the life of the church. (the biblio is: Re-Imaging Election: Divine Election As Representing God To Others & Others To God. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2010.)

She leans quite a bit on NT Wright, but in conversation with others (like Colin Gunton, Stanley Grenz, Miroslov Volf, James Torrance), especially with Karl Barth and John Owen. She critiques both the “Classic” (Owen) and the “neo-Classic” (Barth) view of election; while at the same time providing constructive resolution between both (e.g. Owen’s particularist “double-predestination” and Barth’s universalist “double-predestination”). Her primary thesis is that “election” is “representation,” which Scripturally means that Israel was to represent God to the nations, and now the Church is to represent Christ to Israel. There’s a lot more to this, you should go get your hands on her book if you can!