September 26, 2003
By Peter J. Leithart, www.leithart.com
Scripture teaches that God does all things according to the purpose of His will (Ephesians 1:11), and that the God who does this is the Triune God. How are those two teachings of Scripture related? How does the doctrine of the Trinity shape our understanding of election? How does a Trinitarian doctrine of election help us to avoid determinism? How can a Trinitarian doctrine of election make election a comforting rather than a terrifying doctrine?
Calvin has a Christocentric oriented notion of election, which means that his teaching on election was given a Trinitarian shape. Richard Muller says that "Calvin will not allow reference to a God who decrees salvation eternally apart from a sense of the Trinitarian economy and the effecting of the salvation in the work of the Son of God incarnate." Calvin, in short, did not advocate a philosophical notion of "determinism," as a deduction from some abstract notion of "sovereignty."
As Muller has explained it, this has at least two implications for Calvin's understanding of election: First, it means that Christ is the object of election, for in the depths of the Trinitarian life the Son is determined as the mediator and savior, and as Head of the elect. Second, Christ is the subject of election, that is, Christ Himself as the Son is the one who elects, who chooses. The Son's manifestation in flesh is thus the manifestation of election, of God's choice, since Jesus is both the God who elects and the Man who is elected. In Christ, God has displayed His saving purpose and will in the world, His choice to reconcile mankind to Himself. To consider election, then, is simply to consider Christ. To trust in Christ is to discover God's choosing. Christ is the "mirror" of election. To be in Christ is to be in the Elect One, chosen in the Beloved by the Beloved. Christ, the whole Christ, Head and body, is the content and goal of election. (It is intriguing to note that the question of the Son's aseity was one of the initial points of conflict between Arminius and the Reformed.)
According to Robert Jenson's account, this is Edwards's doctrine as well. For Edwards, the decree to elect includes everything. The final end of creation is the Son's self-communication, so that the Son's election as the head of creation is the chief and primary content of the decree. As in Calvin, the decree is simply the decree regarding Christ.
This biblical and Pauline notion that predestination is predestination in Christ was never completely abandoned in Reformed theology, in particular in those Reformed circles where the notion of a pactum salutis retained its currency. By this doctrine, there is a covenant between the Father and Son in eternity that is worked out in the covenant of grace. This at least places Christ in the midst of the eternal decrees, although He tends to function merely as a means to an end.
Does the NT support this Trinitarian treatment of election? Clearly, Yes. First, Scripture reveals that Jesus is the "chosen servant" (Matthew 12:18), the true Israel (Acts 13:17; cf. Deuteronomy 7:7), though mocked by Israel as the rejected one (Luke 23:35). Jesus is the paradigmatic "foolish thing" chosen by God to "confound the wise" (1 Corinthians 1:27). Second, it is also clear that we are chosen in the chosen One. In one of the clearest passages on election, Paul explicitly states that God "has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world" (Ephesians 1:4). In a number of places, third, Jesus speaks of Himself as the one who "chose" His disciples (John 6:70; 13:18; 15:16, 19), and the scenes of choosing the apostles provide further illustration of this point (Luke 6:13). Jesus is the Elector as well as the Elected.
The Prologue to John's gospel, further, points to the incarnation as the entry into the world of God's decree, His election. In the first verses, the "Word" is identified as One who has been "with God" from the beginning, and "was God." The phrase "in the beginning" points to John's use of Genesis 1. This is the Word by whom all things were created (John 1:3), and this is the Word that governs all things. If John is using logos with reference to its Greek philosophical sense, much the same result follows: Jesus does what Greek philosophers believed the logos did i.e., ordering and arranging creation and moving history toward its consummation. John explains the logos by reference to Jesus, not Jesus by reference to the logos. According to John 1:14, this arranging, ordering, predestinating Word has now become flesh in Jesus the Christ. God's electing and governing Word is manifested in history. God's fullness of good pleasure, His electing grace, took bodily form in Jesus (Colossian 1:19), and in Him the hidden mystery of God's choice was manifested (Ephesians 1:7-10; 3:8-9).
Barth on Christ and Decree
Even where the pactum salutis was emphasized, something of the Christological focus of Calvin's predestinarian theology was lost in later Reformed theology. That, at least, has been powerfully argued by Karl Barth, and can be seen in the work of popular Calvinistic writers like Lorraine Boettner, who (strangely) seems to see some commonality between Calvin's doctrine and Islam and other forms of determinism.
According to Barth, when the decree loses its Christological focus, a gap emerges between a fundamental decree regarding predestination and reprobation and the "functional" decree to save in Christ. Christ becomes an instrument for carrying out that more basic decree, but He is not identified with the content of that decree. Eventually, the hidden decree, which hovers behind Christ, becomes the real one, and the real God is not the one revealed in Christ Jesus, but a hidden God who has even now not been revealed. The revelation of God in Christ becomes only a relative truth about God. Even when Christ was brought forward as the speculum electionis, the question remained of whether there was perhaps some election that was not evident in Him. As Barth puts it,
Is it the case, in fact, that behind the pastoral . . . truth that God's election meets us and is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, there stands a higher truth which, for the sake of prudence and charity, must be withdrawn from the practical usage of the church, a truth which cannot be denied or entirely suppressed, but which is so dangerous that it must be covered over and kept out of reach of the curious like a poison? Is it the case that, according to this higher and dangerous truth concealed for practical purposes in the background, while Christ is indeed the medium and instrument of the divine activity at the basis of election, and to that extent He is the revelation of the election by which factually we must hold fast, yet the electing God Himself is not Christ but God the Father, or the triune God, in a decision which precedes the being and will and word of Christ, a hidden God, who as such was made, as it were, the actual resolve and decree to save such and such men and to bring them to blessedness, and then later made, as it were, the formal and technical decree and resolve to call the elect and to bring them to that end by means of His Son, by means of His Word and Spirit? . . . Is it the case that the decision made in Jesus Christ by which we must hold fast is, in fact, only another and a later and subordinate decision, while the first and true decision of election is to be sought . . . in the mystery of the self-existing being of God, and of a decree made in the absolute freedom of this divine being? (Church Dogmatics, II.2, pp. 63-4).
As Barth emphasizes, the practical and pastoral implications of the detachment of election from Christ are devastating. The purpose of the Reformation treatment of election as a Christological concern was to challenge the abstract, speculative, and mystical effects of the non-Christological election of medieval theology. If election is separated from Christ,
How . . . can we have attained to any sure knowledge of this relationship? How can we be certain that it is good to be so fully in the hands of God as we are proclaimed to be when we assert that God elects? . . . It is against this uncertainty that Reformation theology sought to protect itself by its thesis that Jesus Christ is the speculum electionis ["mirror of election"]. The reference to the person of the Mediator and the Word and self-revelation of God was intended to liberate reflection on this subject from the inevitable tendency to lose itself in a sphere inaccessible by its very nature to human effort, a sphere which allows only of assertions which cannot sustain us because they are never more than our own assertions. . . . What can sustain us is the declaration which God Himself as Creator and Lord of life and death has made in our favour in Jesus Christ. When we let ourselves be taught by the Word of God and the Spirit of God, then we can be sure of the divine election. . . . We can and should rejoice in God and in ourselves because we can see God's electing and our election at the place where God Himself has revealed it, in the Word of God made flesh (Church Dogmatics, II.2, pp. 64-65).
For much Calvinism, the decree of God had become detached from its origin in Christ and its accomplishment in Christ. Detached from its Trinitarian context, election loses its most important pastoral benefits. Many Reformed Christians do not find in election what Calvin found comfort, assurance, encouragement, refreshment, but instead vertiginous and abyssal terror. If election is to have the same power it had in the Reformation, and if it is going to be seen as integral to the gospel, it must be seen as a Trinitarian election. As Barth said, "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."