Monday, April 26, 2004

Some Tentative Thoughts on Election 

Just before going on my internet fast, I thought that I would post some tentative thoughts on the subject of election that are essentially verbatim copies of some comments that I made recently on the Wrightsaid list. I have discussed this subject a number of times on my blog before and actually started a somewhat abortive series on the issue a few months back. As I am going to be gone for a while, I thought that I would give you all something to chew on. I have lots of material in quite an unfinished state, so I thought that, for lack of anything else, I would post this. Sorry to those of you who have read it before. I would appreciate having people’s thoughts on the issue.
I have a number of problems with many of the common ways in which Reformed people handle the doctrine of election. I think that we need to iron out our language in a number of areas and refocus the doctrine upon Christ Himself. I have become persuaded that the final goal of God’s electing purpose is that of forming a new humanity in Christ, not that of saving a particular group of individuals and damning the rest. I feel that the elect/reprobate distinction is best understood as a distinction between the old cursed humanity in Adam and the new redeemed humanity in Christ. My election is found in the fact that my life is hid with Christ in God. The Son of God eternally loved by the Father is the One in whom I find my true life. I guess that I am supralapsarian to the degree that God’s determination to form a new family in His Son preceded any other determination. I sense some dangers in seeing the doctrine of election as the choice of a particular set of individuals. Firstly, it obscures the fact that we are chosen in Christ. Just as God’s election of Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans included Abraham’s seed in that election, so God’s eternal election of His beloved Son includes all who belong to Christ in that choice. We are not chosen as abstract individuals but as those who belong to Christ. The fixed character of election is not found in a choice of a particular fixed number of people, but in the fixed unity that exists between Christ Himself and His Church in history. I suppose that I would be more prepared to associate election primarily with Baptism than with anything else. Secondly, it can become anthropocentric. Ultimately, God is all about saving particular men and damning other particular men. This, in my mind at least, draws our attention away from the centrality of Christ Himself. Christ becomes a mere means to an end, rather than the end Himself. It can also make the doctrine of election appear arbitrary. Thirdly, it can be a killer for assurance. If election is ultimately a hidden decree about me as an abstract individual in eternity past, I will live my life in the shadow of that decree. I will easily despair because I do not have any easy way of discovering whether I am elect or not. However, if Christ is the ‘content’ of the electing decree then I can see my own true life revealed in Him. I can be assured of my election because He is elect and I live in Him. Of course, I am not the first person to say this (Institutes III.xxiv.5). Fourthly, I fear that if we think of election as the choice of abstract individuals we fail to recognize the scope of God’s saving purpose. We begin thinking in terms of the salvation of individuals alone and not in terms of the salvation of a whole humanity (I don’t mean to suggest universalism by this expression). We also can fail to see the importance of the deliverance of the creation from bondage and the necessity of the Church. Such a doctrine of election can easily dehistoricize salvation. The men envisaged in such a doctrine of election are generally looked upon as men abstracted from their particular families, communities, nations, people and language groups, historical eras and identity in Adam. I believe that man’s identity is formed in relationship to others and so a doctrine of election that abstracts man from all of these relationships is not really left with man at all. Such a doctrine of election (which is commonly, though not universally held) can easily leave us with the notion of the Cartesian individual. Fifthly, I feel that such a view of election can make it difficult to think in terms of historical changes. We can easily view the whole world in terms of eternally elect and eternally reprobate and try to shoehorn everything into these categories. If someone apostatizes they were obviously never saved in the first place. We may even start to think in terms of some ontological difference between elect and reprobate. Although this most certainly is not the Reformed doctrine, it is commonly held. Sixthly, the doctrine of union with Christ can easily be butchered. For many, people are seen to be united with Christ before they ever repent and believe. John Murray, for example, argues that our union with Christ was effected before the foundation of the world and that it is necessary to believe this to explain how we were united to Christ in His historical work. Murray seems to maintain that a union with Christ effected by a decree of election before the foundation of the world is necessary to account for the fact that we were ‘in Christ’ when He died on the cross. I think that this gets things backwards and leads to very narrow form of the doctrine of limited atonement. I am convinced, furthermore, that our union with Christ is not ultimately a bare, external, decretal union, but is from the very outset a living, personal union by the Spirit. Seventhly, such a conception of election leads us to think in a particular way about the decree of reprobation, a way that I don’t believe is helpful.
Election in the Bible
I am further persuaded that many common Reformed ways of expressing the doctrine of election do not take sufficiently into account the way that the Bible speaks about the doctrine. The doctrine of election is not a purely NT doctrine. Nor is election so much about ‘going to heaven when you die’. Israel was a chosen nation from all the nations of the earth. Nevertheless, Gentiles were not consequently damned. The ‘Jewish’ nature of election is frequently ignored. A number of references to election in Scripture cannot bear the sense that is often given to that word (e.g. Romans 8:33). The Scripture also speaks about a far more ‘revealed’ form of election than most Reformed people do (e.g. Ephesians 1). Election is at the same time a comfort and a spur to action. The doctrine of election as it is preached in many churches today (admittedly a departure from the position of Calvin and others) can paralyze people. I am persuaded that no event takes place outside of the will of God. I am persuaded that when anyone is saved, it is because God has predetermined it. I am also persuaded that when someone is damned it is also because God has predetermined it. I am persuaded that no one has the power of ‘contrary choice’ in opposition to God’s will. However, all of this granted, I am not left with the form of election held to by most of the Reformed church. Paul: An Outline of His TheologyRomans 9 is, in my mind, an example of a passage that has been misused by many Reformed commentators. I find the treatment of this passage by such as Ridderbos (Paul: An Outline of His Theology, pp.341ff.) to be a good antidote to the manner in which this passage has been abused by many. Romans 9 is describing the manner in which God formed His people Israel over history. Ridderbos writes:
Paul is not guided here by an abstract concept of divine freedom, but by the freedom of God’s grace as this has revealed itself in the history of Israel.
The purport of Paul’s argument is not to show that all that God does in history has been foreordained from eternity and therefore, so far as his mercy as well as his hardening is concerned, has an irresistible and inevitable issue. Rather, it is his intention to point out in the omnipotence of God’s activity the real intention of his purpose.
Election in Romans 9 is about the omnipotent and sovereign nature of God’s work in history, not about its deterministic character. These two things should never be confused. Eternal decrees about individuals are simply not the issue in Romans 9; God’s historical dealings with Israel are. Election is decidedly ‘temporal’ in Romans 9. Furthermore, the casting away of Israel is done with the intent of bringing salvation to the Gentiles. God’s election was always done with the intention of spreading His salvation to others. Israel was elected to be the priestly nation, not the only nation from which people would ‘go to heaven when they died’. Election and reprobation are not equal and opposites. The reprobation of Israel is the means by which salvation will be brought to the Gentiles. The election of the Gentiles is the means by which the Jews will become jealous and be saved. God has a redemptive purpose for humanity as a whole (again, I am not holding to universalism here) and historical reprobation and election is the means by which He will achieve it. This article is helpful on some of these issues.
Some might wonder how the terminology of ‘the salvation of a whole humanity’ avoids the charge of universalism. By speaking of the ‘salvation of a whole humanity’ I do not merely refer to the salvation of individuals from ‘every race, tribe and tongue’, although this certainly enters into it. What I am trying to convey is the fact that the redeemed in Christ constitute a whole humanity in Him and not merely a fraction of a humanity. This new humanity in Christ has a clear connection to the old humanity in Adam. It is not so much a ‘replacement’ for this humanity as a ‘fulfillment’ of it. I find N.T. Wright’s treatment of issues related to this in ‘Adam, Israel and the Messiah’ in The Climax of the Covenant quite helpful. The danger that I see in many Reformed forms of the doctrine of election is that the division within humanity is not as carefully formulated as I believe that it should be. The problem, I suppose is even better expressed as the failure to recognize that the division is not a division within humanity so much as it is a division between two humanities. In creation God had a purpose for humanity. Humanity fell in Adam, but God did not abandon the world. As Wright points out, God’s purpose for humanity finally devolves upon Abraham and his seed. They become God’s true humanity through whom God’s purposes for the world and mankind will be achieved. God promises that they will be fruitful and multiply, fulfilling the creation mandate. They are associated with the seed of the woman against the seed of the serpent. Those that oppose Israel are described in prophesy as sea serpents, beasts and other such creatures. Israel is the new Adam that must take dominion over these. Humanity outside Israel is not the true humanity in the sense that Israel is. To cut the story short, the purpose of God for humanity is finally drawn onto the Messiah Jesus, the true Son of God. Christ is the true humanity over against the false fallen humanity. All of those in Christ constitute a full humanity in Him. Adam was given the task of being the true humanity; Abraham was given the promise that through him the true humanity would come; in Christ the true serpent-crushing humanity is realized. The Church is now the true humanity that is fruitful and multiplies.
Separation in Humanity?
Reformed treatments of the doctrine of election have tended to speak of a separation within one whole humanity, which, to my mind, clouds a number of issues. Firstly, it fails to adequately express the asymmetry between election and reprobation. Secondly, it fails to take redemptive history seriously enough. I believe that we should be prepared to think more in terms of election working ‘through’ rather than ‘upon’ history. There is an eschatological thrust of the doctrine of election that I believe has frequently been betrayed by the Reformed tendency to allow the doctrine to slip from its historical moorings. Election in Scripture seems to be focused on God’s sovereign forming of a people through history. Such a perspective on election will enable us to take apostasy more seriously without undermining the sovereignty of God. It will also take the sacraments far more seriously than many Reformed people have been able to. Thirdly, it fails to fully account for the points that Wright and others have made regarding the relationship between the original humanity in Adam, Israel and Israel’s Messiah. What we see is not God’s decision to pick up some of the fragments that remained after Adam’s fall, but His sovereign determination to completely fulfill His purpose for humanity despite Adam’s fall. Fourthly, it is far too individualistic. In my mind, many Reformed doctrines of election seem to overlook God’s determination to fulfill His purpose for humanity by focusing primarily upon the election of individuals, rather than following a more redemptive historical reading of the doctrine. The ‘elect’ becomes a mere sum of discrete individuals rather than the fulfillment of the human race in Christ. Elect individuals become more like marbles in a bag than ingredients in a cake (for want of a better way of describing it). God’s desire to form a people for His glory is far bigger than the desire to merely save individuals. God’s people is to perfect humanity in relationship — with Him and with each other. It is the whole world that God is putting to rights. God’s restorative justice is also working upon humanity. God’s purpose for humanity will be achieved. Whilst it is very clear that this does not mean that every descendant of Adam will be saved, it does mean that humanity will be restored and that this restored humanity will be characterized by wholeness — it will not be seen as only half a humanity. The fact that some descendents of Adam will be eternally punished will not constitute a deficiency in the humanity in Christ. I would be more comfortable were we to focus more upon the divisions ‘seed of serpent/woman’ or ‘humanity in Adam/Christ’. Here we deal with the division that exists between two wholes, rather than between two parts of a whole. It is important for me that humanity in Christ is portrayed as a whole and as a complete fulfillment of God’s purposes for Adamic humanity. Otherwise redemption starts to sound like an only half successful salvage operation. Such an approach, I suggest, does more justice to the universalistic language of Scripture without denying its clear particularistic emphases. Fifthly, it does not adequately protect the unitary wholeness of God’s eternal decree. Herman Bavinck writes:—
Accordingly, neither the supra- nor the infralapsarian view of predestination is able to do full justice to the truth of Scripture, and to satisfy our theological thinking. The true element in supralapsarianism is: that it emphasizes the unity of the divine decree and the fact that God had one final aim in view, that sin’s entrance into the universe was not something unexpected and unlooked for by God but that he willed sin in a certain sense, and that the work of creation was immediately adapted to God’s redemptive activity so that even before the fall, i.e., in the creation of Adam, Christ’s coming was definitely fixed. And the true element in infralapsarianism is: that the decrees manifest not only a unity but also a diversity (with a view to their several objects), that these decrees reveal not only a teleological but also a causal order, that creation and fall cannot merely be regarded as means to an end, and that sin should be regarded not as an element of progress but rather as an element of disturbance in the universe so that in and by itself it cannot have been willed by God. In general, the formulation of the final goal of all things in such a manner that God reveals his justice in the reprobate and his mercy in the elect is too simple and incomplete.… His decree is a unity: it is a single conception. And in that decree all the different elements assume the same relation which a posteriori we even now observe between the facts of history, and which will become fully disclosed in the future. This relation is so involved and complicated that neither the adjective “supralapsarian” nor “infralapsarian” nor any other term is able to express it. It is both causal and teleological: that which precedes exerts its influence upon that which follows, and that which is still future already determines the past and the present. There is a rich, all-sided “reciprocity.” Predestination, in the generally accepted sense of that term: the foreordination of the eternal state of rational creatures and of all the means necessary to that end, is not the sole, all-inclusive and all-comprehensive, purpose of God. It is a very important part of God’s decree but it is not synonymous with the decree. God’s decree or counsel is the main concept because it is all-comprehensive; it embraces all things without any exception: heaven and earth, spirit and matter, visible and invisible things, organic and inorganic creatures; it is the single will of God concerning the entire universe with reference to the past, the present, and the future.… Briefly stated, God’s decree together with the history of the universe which answers to it should not be exclusively described — after the manner of infra- and supralapsarianism — as a straight line indicating a relation merely of before and after, cause and effect, means and goal; but it should also be viewed as a system the several elements of which are coordinately related to one another and cooperate with one another toward that goal which always was and is and will be the deepest ground of all existence, namely, the glorification of God. As in an organism all the members are dependent upon one another and in a reciprocal manner determine one another, so also the universe is God’s work of art, the several parts of which are organically related. And of that universe, considered in its length and breadth, the counsel or decree of God is the eternal idea.
A while back I tried to express this in my own words and made a real mess of it. For this reason you will have to content yourself with a long and rich Bavinck quote! My position does need to be balanced out by a more traditional Reformed understanding. Whilst I am concerned that perspective has been lost in a number of areas, in the final analysis, I would identify myself as someone who is essentially Reformed on this point. My comments are ultimately intended to supplement and refocus the Reformed doctrine, not to replace it.

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