Saturday, June 05, 2004

Bullinger and the Reformed Doctrine of Election 

Election in Christ
I must confess to finding Heinrich Bullinger's treatment of election in the Second Helvetic Confession very interesting when compared with some other treatments of the subject. In Chapter X of the Confession we read:—

God Has Elected Us Out of Grace. From eternity God has freely, and of his mere grace, without any respect to men, predestinated or elected the saints whom he wills to save in Christ, according to the saying of the apostle, God chose us in him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). And again: Who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus (II Tim. 1:9 f.).

We Are Elected or Predestinated in Christ. Therefore, although not on account of any merit of ours, God has elected us, not directly, but in Christ, and on account of Christ, in order that those who are now ingrafted into Christ by faith might also be elected. But those who were outside Christ were rejected, according to the word of the apostle, Examine yourselves, to see whether you are holding to your faith. Test yourselves. Do you not realize that Jesus Christ is in you? — unless indeed you fail to meet the test!(II Cor. 13:5).

From these statements it is clear that Bullinger is no Arminian. However, it is interesting to see where the centre of balance of the doctrine lies for Bullinger. Bullinger stresses the eternal nature of God's purpose in Christ and draws attention to the indirect nature of our election. His focus is decidedly Christocentric. The statement '...God has elected us, not directly, but in Christ, and on account of Christ, in order that those who are now ingrafted into Christ by faith might also be elected' is very interesting. As Berkouwer observes, although some of the Remonstrants appealed to Bullinger in support of their position, Bullinger was no Arminian. However, Bullinger brings God's salvation in history into a far more complex relationship with the eternal decree than one observes in many other Reformed treatments. Whilst it is clear that election is for Bullinger an eternal and sovereign decree of God without respect to our merits, such statements focus upon an historical union with Jesus Christ by faith more than they do upon a pre-salvation union that exists between the elect and Christ. Richard Muller, in Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins writes:—
Were this passage interpreted as an expression of causal ordering, it might be taken to indicate an election on ground of faith, so intent is Bullinger on stating the identity of the elect with the faithful, of the predestinate with those who are in Christ, Bullinger elsewhere demonstrates his reliance on the principle of salvation by grace alone by defining the repentance that precedes faith as “a mere gift of God and not a work of our strength” and then stating that “faith is a mere gift of God, which God alone of his grace gives to his elect according to his measure, when to whom, and to the degree he wills.” When Bullinger does state the causal order, election appears at the foundation of regeneration, conversion, faith, and justification so that it is all the more striking that he deemphasizes the causal order in his Confessio for the sake of manifesting more clearly the Christological grounding of election and the universality of God’s promises. The sense of causal grounding in God and Christ alone appears in the phrases, nullo hominum respectu and non propter ullum meritum nostrum, but it can hardly be called emphatic; and the identification of the reprobate as extra Christum avoids even the traditional infralapsarian distinction between a positive willing to elect and a negative passing over in reprobation. What Bullinger presses on us is the fact that election relates directly to Christ, whereas reprobation, whatever the causal explanation, is outside of Christ. [p.45]
The manner in which Bullinger's doctrine (which is clearly seen to be different to supralapsarian when one observes its place within the Confession) largely passes over the question of reprobation is interesting. As reprobation is the state of those outside of Christ, Bullinger thrusts the challenge of self-examination upon his reader. For Bullinger, with his Christocentric emphasis, election in Christ is always a spur to faith. A further thing to be observed is that Bullinger's treatment of election, whilst clearly Christocentric, precedes his treatment of Christology. Bullinger's Christology, which is in Chapter XI of the Confession, clearly relates Christology with election:—
Christ Is True God. We further believe and teach that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, was predestinated or foreordained from eternity by the Father to be the Savior of the world.
This order of doctrine is reversed in such documents as the Scots Confession, which in Chapter 7 reads as follows:—
Why the Mediator Had to Be True God and True Man. We acknowledge and confess that this wonderful union between the Godhead and the humanity in Christ Jesus did arise from the eternal and immutable decree of God from which all our salvation springs and depends.
Chapter 8 goes on to deal with election.
Assurance of Election
Continuing with Chapter X of the Second Helvetic:—

We Are Elected for a Definite Purpose. Finally, the saints are chosen by God for a definite purpose, which the apostle himself explains when he says, He chose us in him for adoption that we should be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption to be his sons through Jesus Christ that they should be to the praise of the glory of his grace (Eph. 1:4 ff.).

We Are to Have a Good Hope for All. And although God knows who are his, and here and there mention is made of the small number of elect, yet we must hope well of all, and not rashly judge any man to be a reprobate. For Paul says to the Philippians, I thank my God for you all (now he speaks of the whole Church in Philippi), because of your fellowship in the Gospel, being persuaded that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is also right that I have this opinion of you all (Phil. 1:3 ff.).

Whether Few Are Elect. And when the Lord was asked whether there were few that should be saved, he does not answer and tell them that few or many should be saved or damned, but rather he exhorts every man to strive to enter by the narrow door (Luke 13:24): as if he should say, It is not for you curiously to inquire about these matters, but rather to endeavor that you may enter into heaven by the straight way.

By arguing that election has a definite purpose Bullinger protects the doctrine from the charge of arbitrariness. Election has a cause (‘on account of Christ’) and a purpose (our perfection in Christ); consequently, God’s election should not be seen as capricious and threatening. Throughout Bullinger seems to feel the importance of fleshing out the content of the doctrine of election. Christ’s place within the decree is not merely ‘functional’, with the role of enacting an electing/reprobating decree that exists ‘behind’. Rather, in Christ the very content of the decree is revealed. This fact means that election is always a spur to faith and reinforces rather than threatening assurance. Bullinger’s use of Philippians 1:3-7a is interesting. I frequently see verse 6 being used by Reformed theologians to prove that true, genuine, elect Christians who have really believed can never fall away. Bullinger, however, emphasizes that it is a statement directed to the whole church in Philippi, expressing Paul’s trust in God’s grace and, at the very least, his judgment of confident charity with regard to the Philippians. Bullinger’s treatment of the question of the number of the saved is once again typical of his approach. He steers us away from speculative questions and confronts us with the challenge of faith. The way to life has been revealed in Christ and we are called to take it. Far from paralyzing us, election prompts us to deeper faith.

What in This Matter Is To Be Condemned. Therefore we do not approve of the impious speeches of some who say, "Few are chosen, and since I do not know whether I am among the number of the few, I will enjoy myself." Others say, "If I am predestinated and elected by God, nothing can hinder me from salvation, which is already certainly appointed for me, no matter what I do. But if I am in the number of the reprobate, no faith or repentance will help me, since the decree of God cannot be changed. Therefore all doctrines and admonitions are useless." Now the saying of the apostle contradicts these men: The Lord's servant must be ready to teach, instructing those who oppose him, so that if God should grant that they repent to know the truth, they may recover from the snare of the devil, after being held captive by him to do his will (II Tim. 2:23 ff.).

Admonitions Are Not in Vain Because Salvation Proceeds from Election. Augustine also shows that both the grace of free election and predestination, and also salutary admonitions and doctrines, are to be preached (Lib. de Dono Perseverantiae, cap. 14 ff.).

Bullinger does not try to dissolve the mystery, but holds the clear teaching of Scripture against the errors that can result from unchecked logical deductions from a ‘formal’ doctrine of election (as opposed to a doctrine that focuses on the content of the decree revealed in Christ) that has lost its foundation in Scripture.

Whether We Are Elected. We therefore find fault with those who outside of Christ ask whether they are elected. And what has God decreed concerning them before all eternity? For the preaching of the Gospel is to be heard, and it is to be believed; and it is to be held as beyond doubt that if you believe and are in Christ, you are elected. For the Father has revealed unto us in Christ the eternal purpose of his predestination, as I have just now shown from the apostle in II Tim. 1:9-10. This is therefore above all to be taught and considered, what great love of the Father toward us is revealed to us in Christ. We must hear what the Lord himself daily preaches to us in the Gospel, how he calls and says: Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest (Matt. 11:28). God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). Also, It is not the will of my Father that one of these little ones should perish (Matt. 18:14). Let Christ, therefore be the looking glass, in whom we may contemplate our predestination. We shall have a sufficiently clear and sure testimony that we are inscribed in the Book of Life if we have fellowship with Christ, and he is ours and we are his in true faith.

As the content of the decree of election is revealed in Christ it is clear that all who believe and are in Christ are truly elect. Bullinger is acutely aware of the need to ground a doctrine of election. He does this by stressing the reality of God’s promises and the importance of faith. There is not some dark hidden decree that hovers behind God’s gift of grace in His Son. Christ is not merely enacting a prior hidden decree. Rather Christ is the decree revealed. Bullinger’s description of Christ as the ‘looking glass’ in which we ‘may contemplate our predestination’ is one that Calvin also uses:—
First, if we seek God’s fatherly mercy and kindly heart, we should turn our eyes to Christ, on whom alone God’s Spirit rests [cf. Matthew 3:17]. If we seek salvation, life, and the immortality of the Heavenly Kingdom, then there is no other to whom we may flee, seeing that he alone is the fountain of life, the anchor of salvation, and the heir of the Kingdom of Heaven. Now what is the purpose of election but that we, adopted as sons by our Heavenly Father, may obtain salvation and immortality by his favor? No matter how much you toss it about and mull it over, you will discover that its final bounds still extend no farther. Accordingly, those whom God has adopted as his sons are said to have been chosen not in themselves but in his Christ [Ephesians 1:4]; for unless he could love them in him, he could not honor them with the inheritance of his Kingdom if they had not previously become partakers of him. But if we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election. For since it is into his body the Father has destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life [cf. Revelation 21:27] if we are in communion with Christ. [Institutes III.xxiv.5]
The Second Helvetic Confession concludes its treatment of election with the following statement:—

Temptation in Regard to Predestination. In the temptation in regard to predesination, than which there is scarcely any other more dangerous, we are confronted by the fact that God's promises apply to all the faithful, for he says: Ask, and everyone who seeks, shall receive (Luke 11:9 f.). This finally we pray, with the whole Church of God, Our Father who art in heaven (Matt. 6:9), both because by baptism we are ingrafted into the body of Christ, and we are often fed in his Church with his flesh and blood unto life eternal. Thereby, being strengthened, we are commanded to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, according to the precept of Paul.

When doubt arises about our predestination we should look to the clear promises of God, which are received by all who believe. If we want to be assured of our election we should look particularly to our Baptisms and to our participation in the Supper. Christ both truly gives Himself to us and is truly received by us by faith. As our faith is strengthened in the assurance that Christ is ours we can abide and grow in Him. This tying of Baptism and covenant together with election is not peculiar to the Second Helvetic Confession. In the Canons of Dort we read:—
Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39; I Cor. 7:14). [Article 17 of the First Head of Doctrine]
In the conclusion of the Canons it also speaks of the Baptisms of the infants of the faithful as assuring us of their eternal destiny. If we are to have true assurance I believe that covenant and election must be united in some clear manner. Those who try to relate these things together in the current Reformed climate are occasionally accused of theological novelty. If anyone claims that we can be assured of our election by looking to our Baptisms they are opening themselves up to charges of heresy. However, it seems clear to me that Bullinger is doing much the same thing. The charge of novelty can easily be proved to be false. I believe that there are still areas of our doctrine of election that we need to reevaluate as Reformed Christians. Nevertheless this can be done in continuity with the Reformed tradition.
Areas for Attention in the Reformed Doctrine of Election
Some of the key things that I believe that we need to assert in order to more fully flesh out our doctrine of election include:—
  1. The fact that, in the words of Herman Bavinck:—
    …while it is true that certain individuals constitute the object of reprobation, the human race under a new Head, namely Christ, is the object of election; hence, by grace not only certain individuals are saved, but the human race itself together with the entire cosmos is saved.
    As the human race in Christ is the object of election we call individuals to repent and believe in Christ and become members of the new human race that is the Church. The content of election is revealed in the incarnate Christ. As Berkouwer observes:
    The gospel can be preached with real urgency and challenge only when the mirror of election is a clearly reflecting mirror. This clearness we see in the light of the revelation of Scripture with regard to the election in Christ. [p.154]
  2. The fact that, in the words of Herman Ridderbos
    This fixed character [of election] does not rest on the fact that the church belongs to a certain “number,” but that it belongs to Christ, from before the foundation of the world. Fixity does not lie in a hidden decretum, therefore, but in the corporate unity of the church with Christ, whom it has come to know in the gospel and has learned to embrace in faith. It is therefore a metabasis eis allo genos, a crossing over from the economy of redemption revealed and qualified in Christ to a causal predestinarianism abstracted from it, when one chooses to reduce the links of this golden chain fundamentally to one thing only, that only they will inherit glory who have been foreknown and predestined by God to that end. Likewise the expression “chosen in Christ” does not say that Christ is the means or the medium through whom or in whom an antecedent absolute decree would be effected — for such a foreknowledge or election of the church abstracted from Christ there is no place within the framework of Paul’s doctrine of salvation — but the intention is simply to make the church aware of its solidarity with Christ in all the wealth of the implications this relationship includes. On the one hand this solidarity with him means that the church was chosen in him even before the foundation of the world, predestined to be conformed to his image, that he might be the Firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:29). On the other hand, the nature and scope of this “chosen in Christ” are known and defined only by the realization of the divine purpose in history. The links of the catena aurea both actually and cognitively cannot be detached from one another; the predestinarian and the redemptive-historical “in Christ” define each another reciprocally. [pp.350-351]
    Once the doctrine of election is clearly rooted in a redemptive historical setting and a pre-salvation union with Christ does not usurp the union with Christ established by the Holy Spirit in the Church, we are saved from many of the problems that attend the deterministic doctrine of election that is common in many Reformed circles today.
  3. We should reject both supra- and infralapsarianism as speculative, wrong and quite unhelpful, as Bavinck argues.
  4. We should learn to think in terms of the contemporaneity of the divine decree and deny that election is to be thought of as a totally past event. Berkouwer writes:—
    The word "decree" causes this misunderstanding whenever it is interpreted out of its context in Scripture. It is then interpreted as a decree which was pronounced in our absence, in which we were not really involved, and which, therefore, does not come forth out of divine love for us. Bavinck has protested against this interpretation according to which the counsel of God "is as a design which lies ready and waits only to be executed," He denies that God's counsel can be described as "an act of God in the past," and he calls that counsel "an eternal act of God, finished from eternity and continuing from eternity, apart from and beyond time." [p.152]
    Thinking of election as a past event all too easily leads to determinism and a denial of the reality of God’s decisions in history, making them the mere echo or ‘print-out’ of His divine decree. It has repercussions for our view of the world. If the decree of God is entirely ‘prior’, even for God Himself we are almost left with a monistic view of God and the world — both God and the world live out a decree that is prior to them both. The decree becomes the foundation of reality, both for God and the world. The danger is that we may detach the will of God from ‘the willing, deciding God Himself.’ In His salvation in history God is not merely enacting His own eternal will. Rather, He is willingly acting from eternity. God’s eternal electing will is not a closed past event to God; there is no such event for God. Rather, it is dynamically present. The relationship between God and His will that results from viewing the decree as a closed event (even for God) in ‘eternity past’ will easily capitulate to the form of determinism that results from a monistic view of reality. If, however, the divine decree is nothing other than the continually contemporaneous willing God who loved His Son before the foundation of the world and makes us partakers of this relationship in time, we are saved from determinism. If God’s electing will is eternally present to Him, we can even go so far as to assert that, from our perspective the future is really — and not just apparently — ‘open’. This is the case because the willing God is the One who wills and works from eternity. God’s mind does not inhabit time, so it is unhelpful to think of anything as determined ‘beforehand’ in a temporal sense except where God has clearly revealed His mind in history. God’s sovereign determination is something that is worked out in history from eternity by means of creation and providence. Consequently, this is where the accent of our theology should rest — upon God’s sovereignty in judgment and salvation in the course of history. I believe that this is consistent with the emphasis of Scripture itself. As Herman Ridderbos says with regard to Romans 9:—
    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.
    Whilst it is important not to lose sight of the reality of some sense of ‘temporal’ foreordination, in Scripture I believe that this temporal foreordination focuses on Christ. Jesus Christ is the one who is elect (Ephesians 1:4), foreordained (1 Peter 1:20), given the promise of eternal life (Titus 1:2), loved (John 17:24), the place of God grace and purpose (2 Timothy 1:9) before the foundation of the world. By God’s grace, when we are united to Christ in history we are loved with the love with which the Father loved the Son before the foundation of the earth (cf. John 17:26). When we are historically united to Christ we become partakers in all of the blessings that Christ enjoyed before the foundation of the earth.
  5. We should learn to assert the connection between election and covenant. We should look to the preached Word, Baptism and the Supper and see our eternal election in each of them, because we see Christ who is the mirror of our election. The genuine good favour (grace) of the God who wills from eternity is revealed in the sacraments as the embrace of Christ brings us near to Him and Him near to us. Consequently there is no reason to doubt God’s favour towards us in the One He loved before the foundation of the world — we should draw assurance of our election from our Baptism. Ridderbos writes:—
    Because baptism is incorporation into Christ, God’s promises that are yes in Christ are likewise yes in baptism, God establishes us in Christ by baptism, and baptism, in that it makes us participate in the sealing with the Spirit, itself has sealing power. This establishing and sealing and earnest-giving yes of God is the word that accompanies baptism as washing with water (Eph. 5:26).

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