For well over a millennium, the doctrine of predestination (or election) has for Christians been a source of both comfort and joy. Predestination means that our salvation is secured with God in Christ. Indeed, throughout history Christians have derived comfort from Jesus’ words that no one is able to pluck us out of the Father’s hands (John 10:28-29). But somewhere along the way the doctrine of predestination took a more potent form, leaving some unintended consequences in its wake. Over time the doctrine of election developed into a view that seemingly privileged the absolute sovereignty of God over against the freedom of humankind. The more one emphasized God’s sovereignty in salvation, the less our response to the gospel seemed to matter. The strongest view of God’s sovereignty asserted that God chose in favor of His own elect and against those He rejected (“Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”) through a set of ‘divine decrees’ based on nothing but God’s own inscrutable will for the sake of His own glory, all before the foundations of the earth were laid. According to this view, God has already and irrevocably chosen who will and won’t be saved, though His purposes are somehow being realized through the God-given freedom that all humans enjoy.
As mentioned briefly above however, this understanding of God’s predestination lead to some unforeseen consequences, namely, a considerable degree of angst concerning the certainty of one’s own salvation. If the basis for God’s election for salvation is God’s own good will and pleasure that is utterly independent of the will of humankind, how can anyone who claims to love Christ ever be certain that he or she is really saved? If I profess Christ as my savior, what difference does it make if it turns out that I am not among those God chose for salvation before the foundations of the earth was laid? Thus, the more one emphasized the absolute of God’s authority and inscrutable will in doling out salvation, the more powerless humans seemed to be in willing their own salvation. Ironically, these seeds of doubt were planted in the soil of God’s own inscrutable purposes in choosing to save some while rejecting others. As a result, a gnawing uncertainty regarding one’s eternal destiny gave birth to a new spiritual fervor marked by compulsive introspection and an intensive pursuit of spiritual practices aimed at deriving a modicum of peace concerning one’s own election, which, by definition, could never be fully discerned this side of eternity.
Even as these concerns were being articulated, an alternative understanding of election was being formulated as a more faithful account of the biblical witness to God’s sovereignty and human freedom. This view held that God elects individuals for salvation based on God’s own foreknowledge concerning people’s receptiveness to the gospel. This version of election, it is said, better accounts for God’s love and his desire that no one should perish. After all, doesn’t God desire everyone to be saved? (1 Tim. 2:4). Proponents of this view assert that the older account of election depicts God as at best an absolute, arbitrary monarch, and at worst a moral monster. How could God create some people for the purpose of rejecting them? And so the debate lines between Calvinism and Arminianism have been fairly clearly drawn since the late sixteenth century.
Four hundred years later, the controversy over this doctrine is still producing highly-contentious, emotionally-charged, acrimonious debates among Christians who read the same Bible yet come to radically different conclusions concerning the nature of both God and election. Such debates are often confused by unhelpful caricatures, and have contributed to a spate of polemical, combative, uncharitable publications rehearsing the same tired arguments and counter arguments. Unfortunately, many Christians who have the temerity to enter the fray are usually exposed to figures from only a small sliver of a much longer and richer theological history that spans from the early Church Fathers to seminal twentieth century theologians like Karl Barth (1886-1968), and are therefore less likely to appreciate the development of a doctrine before and beyond Calvin and Arminius. It is difficult, for instance, to understand the nature of the controversy over predestination without an adequate grasp of Augustine (354-430), who was also forced to wrestle with passages that affirm both God’s predestination and the genuine offer of the gospel as God’s free gift available to all, or Thomas Aquinas (1224-1275), who acutely felt the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Equally lamentable is the sentiment shared by a vast swath of contemporary Evangelicals that the final ‘position’ on the doctrine of election lay with either Calvin or Arminius, as if nothing worthwhile has transpired on the theological landscape since the early 1600s. In this regard, the insights of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth represent a groundbreaking departure from the theology of Calvin and Arminius, who, like all others before him, was compelled to read his Bible afresh to address in re-centering the doctrine of election on Christ.
What’s at stake in the doctrine of election? Nothing less than our understanding of God, humanity, and the nature of salvation. But perhaps the greatest casualties in such debates have been both our lack of humility and our failure to appreciate the mystery of God. Any view of election that claims to tie up all of the ‘loose ends’ of predestination has failed to appreciate God’s mystery, and frankly lacks the humility that might come from a wider grasp of this doctrine across various historical and theological contexts. If you’re interested in learning about how Christians have sought to make sense of this doctrine across the centuries without the pressure of ‘picking a side,’ then perhaps our three day modular course on this topic would be good for you. For ultimately, all doctrine is judged by the worship it inspires.
Join us this coming weekend (June 3-4) as Dr. Daly explores these ideas more fully in a short summer course! To register (and for more info): http://www.urbanatheologicalseminary.org/courses/summer