Election, Predestination, and Bad Presumptions

Once upon a time, to keep myself from succumbing to the Lutheran echo chamber, and because I had started to love Barth, I took it upon myself to keep up with Reformed circles. When one's bread and butter has been Lutheran—Roman Catholic dialogue, with a hefty portion of intra-Lutheran (and often also infra-Lutheran) bickering, it's refreshing to explore the strange world of Calvinist, Arminian and "Evangelical"/Fundamentalist pieties.

Of course, now I live there, even as a Lutheran, writing a Barth dissertation. Some days, even many days, I swim in those circles more than the Lutheran ones. It might even be noted that I have a distinctly Barthian approach to Luther, which I will tell you is more faithful than many Lutheran approaches. And as a result I find much of my own world strange enough—but all the more so when "we" bring up topics like election, which in my experience has become one of those taboo subjects that tends to get one labeled with the C-word. (Little-known fact: it's illegal to shout "Calvinist!" in a crowded Lutheran church. Especially in Wisconsin and Minnesota! People could get trampled.) You see, we don't do election; we do justification. And it's no wonder that Barth saw these as cock-eyed versions of one another. I believe he saw that correctly. When the Reformed discuss election, the question is motivated by the assurance of salvation, just as much as the Lutheran discussions of justification are.

Ah, but here's the strange thing: when the Lutherans discuss election, having already handled assurance of salvation in another locus, they return to the bare fact. And the "bare fact," as it seems to be taken, is the understanding of the confessing Fathers, particularly Luther, and the Formula of Concord that some are saved and others are not. Which, to be fair, was also the Roman Catholic understanding. And it's no wonder, as I've shown elsewhere, because even the scriptures tend to believe in the self-evidence of the fact that some are saved and others are not.

It is at this point that even the Lutheran mind is driven to do weird things, like divide justification and discuss "objective" and "subjective" versions in order to theologize this "fact." The results simply reinforce my opinion that the presumption that some are saved and others are not is the only prerequisite for analogues of double predestination. And that's a hill I don't need to die on, because someone else already did. But it's a hill I will fight for, on the exact opposite claim that all shall be saved.

But I would still love it if someone could justify the idea of reprobation to me as God's idea, in such a way that it doesn't inevitably boil down to a theology built on the observation of difference in the world. Because that, right there, is the battle. Demonstrate to me that reprobation is part of God's being-in-act. I will have that argument with you.


  1. Yes, as a matter of God's ontology, then reprobation is a more difficult case to make. That is why Reformed orthodoxy has a hard time saying that God loves everyone. I've read both John Piper and R.C. Sproul basically admit that God doesn't love everyone, or at least that the reprobate are less loved. Every theological system has its soft spots, and this is the traditional Calvinist soft spot. The more sophisticated Calvinists will resort to an asymmetry in election and reprobation, which has the practical effect of allowing the human will to have some possible influence.

    As for universalism, I reject it but not because I can make a truly outstanding argument from God's being-in-action. I simply don't know how to understand God's freedom: Barth pushes in the direction of necessity, which would make him a universalist, yet that is precisely what he denied on the grounds of God's freedom! So, I have to stick with Scripture for the time being. It is undeniable that the biblical authors assume reprobation and do not have any qualms about it. My sense is that universalists are trying to be better theologians than the apostles.

    1. Kevin, the first thing I have to say to you is that I am absolutely trying to be a better theologian than the apostles. Otherwise, there is no point! That's like complaining that physicists in search of a grand unifying theory are trying to be better scientists than Aristotle. We do not (or at least, we ought not) revere the apostles for the quality of their theology. They are faithful witnesses, but that doesn't make them right in their conclusions, and the stories they tell because of them.

      And the second thing is that this "soft spot" of basically admitting that God doesn't love everyone isn't just a Calvinist failing. No matter how we dress it up, for me it comes down to paying more attention to the Fall than the Flood, and ignoring the promise of God and the lessons to be drawn from it. And as I was trying to note, Lutherans fall for it as much as anyone else. But I still think the problem is caused by a kind of theological naturalism.

      The third thing is that I can't see how you read necessity into Barth's description of God's freedom in action. Barth pushes in the direction of universalism because he understand God's freedom for us as demonstrated in Christ, with no remainder, and refuses to recognize any limitations to God's achievement of the willed action so expressed. There are, for Barth, no possible constraints on achieving that will expressed in Christ, and so no possible constraints on the work of the Spirit in realizing it in each and all of us subjectively.

      The necessity is on our side. We are constrained, if one wishes to call it that, in that the freedom of our will as creatures can never reach so high as to counter the freedom of the will of God. Our resistance, for Barth as much as for Thomas, is not something God is ever bound to respect, as though a surgeon were ever bound to say, "Ah, I see your tumor keeps growing. I will reward its stubbornness by permitting it to kill you."

    2. Also, a tidy bit of circularity, that I should be inspired to write this post because of what someone has read in Luther's Vom unfreien Willen, and that you should push me back toward it with a question about where the necessity lies. :) Thanks!

  2. They are faithful witnesses, but that doesn't make them right in their conclusions

    As you would expect, I'm not sure how to judge them as "faithful" witnesses if their conclusions are wrong. That gives us, the interpreters, more power than I would like. We would be left determining what is primary witness (faithful) and what is second-movement conjecture.

    There are, for Barth, no possible constraints on achieving that will expressed in Christ, and so no possible constraints on the work of the Spirit in realizing it in each and all of us subjectively.

    Well, "no possible constraints" can easily translate into necessity. And, it is here, in the work of the Spirit subjectively, that the necessity would indeed be enforced (and, thereby, necessity). Barth has innumerable statements against any coercion of the human will, which is why grace is not "irresistible" for Barth in the traditional Reformed sense of necessity. Barth uses the language of "irresistible" as it pertains to our inability to condition God's will to be this God (the Elect One) but not as it pertains to our acceptance (or "awakening"). Thus, it would seem that there is indeed a "possible constraint" for Barth -- the human will (our subjective response). Otherwise, Barth would indeed be a universalist.

    If I can find the time, I'll try to find some of the more salient passages in the CD where Barth deals with the freedom of the human response to grace -- a freedom that can genuinely do otherwise and continue in the non-freedom of sin. All of this is complicated by the fact that Barth likes to use the term "freedom" exclusively for the Yes of grace, faith, obedience, and the language of absurdity ("impossible possibility") for sin, evil, rejection, disobedience, etc.

    1. Well, I've already answered the first point here in my coverage of what it means when we say that the confessions are "true witnesses and faithful expositions," so I'm just going to point you to that to understand what I mean on that point.

      And I can't see how not being constrained in the execution of one's will could be understood as being under any necessity. God is not under necessity; God wills to save.

      And God's will to save, being actual in Christ and actualized by the Spirit, in no way implies coercion or restriction of human freedom. This is why the apparently "reprobate" remain so in the world, even while we trust that the Spirit is at work recreating them toward the truth of their being. Grace may be resisted, but it cannot be countered or undone. God's will may be resisted, but it will still be accomplished. We've batted II.2 back and forth before, and I still see no way in which the human will provides a constraint for Barth. It simply determines what our non-essential existence is like in time, in spite of the realization of God's will in Christ, and in spite of the fact of the work of the Spirit actualizing that will in new creation.

      And none of this is opposed to the reality that Barth insists upon concerning human freedom. It is, in fact, the reality of human freedom that we exist in this way. Our freedom is as much present in the "no" that we speak and act with respect to grace as in any "yes" we may speak and act at any moment. But it is not true freedom, because we remain in bondage to sin. Our true freedom is the freedom being constantly recreated in us by the work of the Spirit. This is the proper nature of the freedom of the creature before the Creator. But that freedom, however used, however out of alignment with its essence it may be in anyone and at any point in our lives, is still never capable of interfering in the achievement of God's will. It is always only at best the freedom of the creature before the Creator, and nothing more.

      The impossible possibility is our non-essential existence, nothing more.

  3. Thanks, Matt, as always for the illuminating discussion. Do you know of anywhere in the CD where Barth basically says that the H.S. will invariably accomplish the work of Christ in each person? Don't spend time rummaging the CD -- I was just wondering if you knew off hand.

    I'll be sure to read your post on the authority of Scripture.

    1. Thanks. And the question of "invariably" is why Barth says that "I don't teach universalism, but I don't not teach it." There is no point at which Barth confirms that, but there is also no point at which he restricts it. Without volume V (the real volume V, not the index), I'm left with this situation from volumes I-IV in which I see no restriction in Christ, and no grounds for restriction in the existing pneumatology. Even without the explicit statement, all the other pieces are present.

      The trick is that Barth separates the idea of moral Christian existence thoroughly from the question of whether or not God is for you and working upon you. God's action is true for us even when we are most false. Even the "impossible possibility" of our false existence is not a sign of anything but our sin, a result of our agency misused. It says nothing about God's being-in-act. I am left having to make the assumption, but it seems to me a well-founded one because at every point where the classical traditions find an obstacle, Barth redefines it.

    2. I think this has a lot to do with how deep his opposition to natural theology goes, and how deeply he imbibed Luther's answer to that in Christ and the theology of the cross. The deep epistemological skepticism of what the tradition, and even scripture, has taken to be self-evident from observation of the world causes him to develop his own version of the canon-within-the-canon, theologically.


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