Monday, March 8, 2010

Election: What Calvinists don't get.

Since the 16th century Calvinists and Lutheran have fought over the question of election. The Lutheran's main argument against Calvinist double predestination has been "hey, yeah, that's logical, but the Bible says that God wants everyone to be saved, so we can't go there." I think that this is correct tack and the reason why Calvinists can't accept the paradox of single predestination and the universal offer of grace is simply because they assume with Thomas Aquinas that there is a fundamental continuity between what human and divine rationality. This is obvious flawed. Neither, exegetically speaking can they really explain all the statements about universal salvation.

What might dog the Lutheran position though is the rather significant biblical pattern of brothers elected and rejected. Consistently throughout the Bible we have the story of one older figure/brother being rejected (Ishmael, Esau, Saul, etc.) and the younger person/brother (Isaac, Jacob, David, etc.) accepted. Paul uses this to explain why the Jews are for the time being not converted in the NT. Being the "older brothers" of the Gentiles, Paul argues in Roman 9-11, they are being hardened for the time being, so that the "younger brother" of the Gentiles might be brought in.

Calvinist use this and with some rhetorical merit to say "hey, look, God does reject some and accept others." But let's look closer. My suggestion will be that this pattern will actually vindicate the paradoxical Lutheran view.

First, let's ask the question, why is it the case that one was rejected and the other accepted? God fairly consistently elects the weak and rejected, as we discover time and again in Scripture. If inheritance in pre-modern cultures always went to the older brother, God would doubtless choose the disinherited in order to make his power known. Hence, the choice of Jacob over Esau, etc. So the pattern goes, the disinherited are become the inherited, the mighty are knocked down from their thrones, etc.

If that's the case though, what happens to the disinherited? Think about it. If the inherited become the disinherited, then won't they take the same position as the person who they had been passed over for? In other words, Esau and Ishmael now take the position occupied by Isaac and Jacob as a disinherited one and consequently an object of God's grace. Paul uses the same argument in Romans: The Jews are being disinherited right now for the sake of the Gentiles. Nevertheless, being disinherited places them in the position of being God's object of grace in that he elects those who are disinherited.

Consequently, the Lutheran view is vindicated by this pattern of doublets. What Calvinists don't get is that being rejected automatically makes you an object of divine grace. Therefore the idea of elect and universal grace are paradoxical, but fit perfectly with the biblical pattern.

Conversely, what does being elected make one? Well, it means that you return to God's creation and bear the cross in your vocation. So, much like being rejected automatically makes the person an object of grace, so being elected means that you participate in a world suffering under God's wrath. It means to accept the lot of the disinherited as your own.

Jesus of course exemplifies this. He is the "first born over all creation" so that he is rejected along with Esau and Ishmael, but he is also the "second Adam" (Adam's younger brother), consequently he is also accepted. He is of the tribe of Judah (accepted and returned from Exile), but he also lived in the Northern Kingdom (rejected and never heard from again). He therefore recapitulates the whole pattern in himself and makes our rejection into a final universal acceptance.

At the last judgment, that some remain rejected enemies of God is therefore mysterious. God of course does not elect all. God executes his decree of election in the event of coming to faith, while making clear in the means of grace that all are sinful and rejected and therefore all objects of his grace. To be an object of God's grace therefore does not mean to have had the decree of election executed upon one. There finally is a division. Nevertheless, since we know the rejected are always objects of divine grace, we cannot claim that the Calvinists are correct that God does to offer is grace to all or that all are not objects of his grace. The biblical pattern of election demands this.


  1. Fascinating. Thank you! Let's hope a 5-point Calvinist reads this and responds. Has the potential for an interesting exchange.

  2. Thank you for this! It makes me think of this coming Sunday's Gospel with the prodigal and the elder brother. What you are saying makes sense with that parable. The point is the elder brother is rejected and is thus the object of the Father's love who is waiting for him to return. This is so in line with this post.
    I have a couple of questions. You write that the event of faith is the execution of the decree of election. How does that square with the fact that some of those who are brought to faith will not persevere? You also write about some being not elected. I suspect that it is many even most who are not elected. What do you think?

  3. Greg- Let me respond to both of your questions.

    1. I think it's important not to ask questions that Scripture doesn't answer. This is one I don't think it answers. What it does say is A. God desires all to be saved. B. Those who are not saved resist the Holy Spirit (somehow!). C. Those who are saved are saved purely by grace because God elected them.

    Now, the real question we should ask is, am I elect? The answer is yes, because God promises you that you are in Word and sacrament. The next question is, what if I fall away, was I then not elect? But this question is speculation. It is a speculation about the hidden God and about my own abilities, i.e. works of the law. When we ask a question like this, then we place ourselves in the sphere of the hidden God, and away from the sphere of the God of love and election in the gospel. Then we move back into self-justification mode: "Oh, well, I know I'm elect because I did XYZ."

    To remain certain of our election, we must simply look to the Word. We can be certain of God's promise of election because the only characteristic of someone who is not elect is that they are uncertain of God's election in that they reject the promises of God in Word and sacrament.

    2. Yes, I agree. Jesus says "Many are called, few are chosen." Why this is, we do not know. Luther says that we will know it in light of glory, but not now in light of nature and grace.

  4. It seems to me that this is indeed the key point: "it's important not to ask questions that Scripture doesn't answer". All the 'cur alii prae aliis' heart- and headache is an enquiry too far, because it wanders off the chart. Long live the loose ends of God's grace!

  5. This is very good and insightful.
    The paradox as you call it wraps around in a circular way which is still tidy.

    In the are of UOJ doctrine with regards to man, it is said that God has no more wrath for him any more and at the same time God has wrath for him.

    I find this though not paradoxical but inconsistent, besides, the key passages given to support UOJ I find exegetically wanting.