Predestination


Here is Hugh Binning (1627-1653), young Scottish theologian, speaking of the primacy of God’s life as the ground of salvation; speaking of the primacy of God’s love as the foundation of salvation:

. . . our salvation is not the business of Christ alone but the whole Godhead is interested in it deeply, so deeply, that you cannot say, who loves it most, or likes it most. The Father is the very fountain of it, his love is the spring of all — “God so loved the world that he hath sent his Son”. Christ hath not purchased that eternal love to us, but it is rather the gift of eternal love . . . Whoever thou be that wouldst flee to God for mercy, do it in confidence. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, are ready to welcome thee, all of one mind to shut out none, to cast out none. But to speak properly, it is but one love, one will, one council, and purpose in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, for these Three are One, and not only agree in One, they are One, and what one loves and purposes, all love and purpose. (Thomas F. Torrance, quoting Hugh Binning, “Scottish Theology,” 79)

This understanding, historically is very Scotist in orientation, Myk Habets says:

The Scotistic thesis on the primacy of Christ essentially comes down to one word — love. The predestination of Christ is a completely gratuitous act of God. The corollary is that the incarnation is not conditioned by any creaturely factor such as sin. This utter independence from a creaturely factor is true in the case of all the elect. Therefore, a fortiori, it must be true of the predestination of Christ who, as head of the elect, was predestined to the greatest glory. The basic reason given by the Scotists for the works of God ad extra is the supreme love of God.

and,

. . . The sine quo non of the Scotistic thesis is that the predestination of Christ took place in an instant which was logically prior to the prevision of sin as absolutum futurum. That is, the existence of Christ was not contingent on the fall as foreseen through the scientia visionis. . . . (Myk Habets, “On Getting First Things First: Assessing Claims for the Primacy of Christ,” (Journal Compilation, Blackwell publishing 2008), 347, 349)

These are the premises which Evangelical Calvinism flows from. Hugh Binning clearly fits the Scotist thesis, the Evangelical Calvinist seeks to magnify the primacy of Christ through its theologizing; it seeks to be “Evangelical” by accepting the ‘evangelical’ implications that flow from the primacy of God’s life mediated to us in Christ. It is my belief, as an ‘Evangelical Calvinist’, that the Scotist thesis — here defined, and illustrated — best captures and articulates the truth of the Supremacy of God’s life in Christ. The alternative is the Thomist thesis — which Federal theology flows from, per its ‘Doctrine of God’ — this thesis has other implications . . . we’ll have to continue to talk about those in the days to come. Let’s close with one of “Evangelical Calvinism’s” favorite passages of scripture:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. 18. He is the head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. 19. For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, 20. and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.  ~Colossians 1:15-20

P. S. Often times I speak in polarities, i.e. Evangelical Calvinism vs. Federal etc., this usually is for rhetorical purposes — in order to engender discussion, to provoke — what this post should illustrate though, is that there indeed is a distinct approach to Evangelical Calvinism that does differentiate it from Federal theology — The ‘Scotist thesis’. Everything we do in theology starts with how we conceive of God, so while I realize there is a continuum of belief represented within the ‘Reformed tradition’, depending on this defining point, one will end up on one trajectory or the other or the other. Not all is as nice and neat as I would prefer, but we at least need to define the “poles” in order to further nuance and understand where the various traditions flow from within the ‘Reformed tradition’.

**You see, I have some problems, I can hardly read a few pages from TFT’s “Scottish Theology” without feeling compelled to sit down and let you in on the ride — that’s what I am doing here 😉 . I’m not really going to comment on this one, except to say, watch out for how TFT, through his discussion of Scottish (Evangelical Calvinist) theologian John Craig (a successor to John Knox), hits on the distinctions between Federal and Evangelical Calvinism, his emphasis upon ‘union with Christ’ and the ontological understanding of the atonement, election, and carnal and spiritual union (this point will illustrate that Myk Habets nor myself made this stuff up), carnal and spiritual union was right there in John Craig’s theology. Anyway, won’t you read along with me . . .

In his catechetical teaching Craig devoted ‘the Second part of our Belief’ to the doctrine of Christ as king, priest, and prophet, the offices for which Christ was anointed by the Spirit, and which expressed how Christ saved us. Special attention was given to his priestly office in which he gave unusual place to the obedience and praying of Christ as part of his atoning passion offered for us in satisfaction of God’s wrath. Like Calvin he held that Christ died for all, suffering for us in soul as well as body, sustaining the person of guilty men, taking upon himself their punishment, and their curse, thereby bringing upon them the blessing of God. Of particular note is the question and answer: ‘What comfort do we have in the person of the Judge? Our Saviour, Advocate, and Mediator only shall be our Judge’, for it marks the vast difference between Craig’s radically christocentric doctrine of God and of Christ’s atoning satisfaction offered once for all, on the one hand, and on the other hand, the federal concept of God as primarily the ominpotent lawgiver who required to be appeased if we are to be saved. Thus with John Craig there was no concept of God as Judge behind the back of Christ.

Distinctive also is the fact that 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. ‘All who are united with Christ are joined with the Church. Which of these two unions is the first and cause of the other? The mystical and spiritual union with Jesus Christ. For we are all saints of God, because we are joined first with Christ in God.’

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 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. Hence, as Craig pointed out, the Creed speaks of the remission of sins within the credal article on the Spirit and the Church. While he laid emphasis on the work of the Spirit in effecing union and conjuction with Christ, Craig insisted also that God uses three main instruments to bring us into union and to maintain us in it: the Word, the sacraments, and the ministry of men. . . . (Thomas F. Torrance, “Scottish Theology,” 50-52)

Isn’t that rich? If there are any questions, let me know.

Also don’t forget I just posted, right before this one, two other posts here and here.

**I’ve been trying to think of the best way to proceed, relative to introducing an Evangelical Calvinist approach to predestination and election. I’ve decided the way I’m going to do it, at least at this juncture, is to work through Myk Habets’ essay, The Doctrine of Election in Evangelical Calvinism: T. F. Torrance as a Case Study (from Irish Theological Quarterly 73 [2008] 334-354). So what I’m going to do is quote large chunks, to open our discussion, then I will — through following posts — work at distilling what Habets is uncovering in regards to T. F. Torrance’s Evangelically Calvinistically tensed understanding of ‘our’ topic (the great thing is that Dr Myk Habets reads here, and so if I err too much he can reign me back in ;-). Let’s begin, this first section will just entail a lengthy quote (hey if I can transcribe this whole thing, including footnotes, the least you can do is read it 😉 from Habets, and serves as a great intro into our discussion (Like I said, I will have a series of posts breaking down this first quote, I’m hoping even this first run will generate some feedback from you all — which just might shape my “breaking down” posts).**

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I. The Prothesis of the Father and the Eternal Decrees

Torrance adopts the language of prothesis to refer to divine election whereby the Father purposed or ‘set-forth’ the union of God and humanity in Jesus Christ. Divine election is a free sovereign decision and an utterly contingent act of God’s love; as such, it is neither arbitrary nor strictly necessary 4. Torrance holds to the Reformed doctrine of unconditional election,5 one which represents a strictly theonomous way of thinking, from a centre in God and not in ourselves.6 ‘Predestination’ simply emphasizes the truth that God has chosen us in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), which Torrance links with the teaching that Christ as Lamb of God was slain before the foundation of the world. The eternal decrees of the Father are not to be thought of in exclusion of the Son, for the eternal purposes of God do not take place apart from Christ or ‘behind his back’ as it were. As such, ‘predestination was understood simply as the decretum Dei speciale [special decree of God].’7 This allows Torrance to distinguish between predestination and election in the following way: predestination refers ‘everything back to the eternal purpose of God’s love for humanity,’ while 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.’8 In one of his earlier works he writes: ‘Election is not therefore some dead predestination in the past or some still point in a timeless eternity, but a living act that enters time and confronts us face to face in Jesus Christ the living Word of God.’9

One of the distinctive features of a Reformed doctrine of election is the recurring instance that election ‘is christologically conditioned.’10 Following Calvin, Torrance claims that Christ is the ’cause’ of election in all four traditional senses of ’cause’: the efficient and the material, the formal and the final. ‘He is at once the Agent and the Content of election, its Beginning and its End.’11 Election proceeds from the eternal decree of God but this eternal decree of election assumes in time once and for all the form of the wondrous conjunction of God and humanity in Christ.12 The hypostatic union is the heart of any understanding of election as Torrance makes clear when he writes, ‘How are we to relate God’s action to our faith? The secret of that is seen only in the God-manhood of Christ, for that is the very heart of election, and the pattern of our election, and is visible only there since it is election in Christ.’13

Torrance is adamant that election and predestination must be expounded in terms of christology for it has to do with the activity of God in Christ.14 As a direct consequence, it is to Christ and the salvation he purchased that one must look for the ground of election, not to some secret decree of God ‘behind the back of Christ.’15 Torrance even subjects Calvin to criticism at this point for not holding strongly enough to the fact that Jesus Christ is the ground of election, not only the instrument and author of election.16 When Christ is seen as the object and subject of election then more deterministic conceptions of election are done away with. ‘These then are the two sides of the Christian doctrine of predestination: that salvation of the believer goes back to an eternal decree of God, and yet that the act of election is in and through Christ.’17 It is Christ’s election which forms the basis of a correct understanding of his person and work, something Torrance affirms is central to the history of Scottish theology and reflected supremely in the Scots Confession. In general agreement with Torrance is Fergusson who, when referring to the Scots Confession, considers it to root election in the person and work of Christ so that it ‘produces a strikingly evangelical exposition of election.’18

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)

Footnotes

4. That is, it must be constructed in the fashion of Protestant scholasticism or of process theology. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture, 131.
5. It is based on unconditional election ‘for it flows freely from an ultimate reason or purpose in the invariant Love of God and is entirely unconditioned and unmotivated by anything whatsoever beyond himself’ (ibid, 131)
6. See ibid, 131-132
7. Torrance, ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 108.
8.Torrance, ‘The Distinctive Character of the Reformed Tradition,’ 4.
9. Thomas F. Torrance, ‘Universalism or Election?’ Scottish Journal of Theology 2 (1949): 310-318, 315.
10. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 14 (emphasis his).
11. Torrance, ‘The Distinctive Character of Reformed Tradition,’ 4.
12. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 14.
13. Ibid.
14. Ibid., 172.
15. Ibid. Torrance considers the one covenant of grace to be completely fulfilled in Christ so that the covenant idea is completely subordinated to Christ. See Torrance, ‘Introduction,’ Iv-Ivi and ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 111.
16. On Torrance’s reading, Calvin attributed the ultimate ground of election to the inscrutable will of the Divine decree. He cites John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill, trans. F. L. Battles (Philadelphia, Westminster, 1960), 3.22.2, which asserts that election precedes grace. A similar criticism of Calvin is given by Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4 vols (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956-1975), II/2, 111.
17. Torrance, ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 109.
18. David A. S. Fergusson, ‘Predestination: A Scottish Perspective,’ Scottish Journal of Theology 46 (1993): 457-478, 462. He also notes that ‘Barth claimed [it] was without parallel in the other Reformed confessions,’ (ibid, 462), referring to Karl Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938), 68-79, and Barth Church Dogmatics, II/2, 308. And yet, Ferguson does admit that even the Scots Confession does not entirely escape the ‘errors of double predestination,’ (ibid.).
19. See, for example, ‘In the early centuries of the Church, theology was marked by an emphasis upon the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human freedom, largely to combat Stoic determinism and astrological fatalism’ (Fergusson, ‘Predestination: A Scottish Perspective,’ 457).
20. Fergusson sees this as one of the weaknesses of Augustine’s doctrine of predestination, that due to God’s forekowledge God passes over the reprobate and this is an explanation why some believe and some do not. Ibid., 457-459. Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, 16, 307.
21. It was not simply Calvinistic scholasticism that made this determinist move but also Lutheranism. See, for instance, Luther and Erasmus, Free Will and Salvation (London: Library of Christian Classics, 1969).
22. Torrance, ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 114.
23. Torrance comments that ‘there is no doctrine where natural theology causes more damage than in the doctrine of predestination’ (Torrance, ‘Predestination in Christ,’ 114).
24. Torrance, Christian Theology and Scientific Culture, 134.
25. Ibid.
26. A weakness of Torrance’s argument is his refusal to acknowledge this determinist element within Calvin’s own theology and not simply that of his followers. It seems clear that Calvin presents a doctrine of double predestination, albeit not as strictly as many of his followers do. See Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.21-24 (especially 3.23.1), and John Calvin, Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God, trans. J. K. S. Reid (London: Clarke, 1961). An account of Calvin’s doctrine of double decree can be found in F. H. Klooster, Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination, 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977), 55-86. Someon who shares Torrance’s basic convictions on election but does not share his views on Calvin is Fergusson, ‘Predestination: A Scottish Perspective,’ 460-462.

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Feedback is welcomed, from “trained theologians,” “budding theologians,” and “regular Christians — who also happen to be theologians” ;-). I will be working through some of this in the days to come, your questions and/or comments will certainly help shape my future posts. I am looking for critical/informed feedback (on this piece by Habets), but more importantly, I simply want to hear back from “regular Christians” who have questions about what they’ve read thus far. My method, I think, is going to be to try and get at the “general themes” that emerge from Habets’ rather technical (for the untrained eyes) and academic essay.