Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Paulson's Talk at Ft. Wayne: Election and Other Issues.

I just returned from Paulson's talk at Ft. Wayne.  It was very good.  It of course wasn't as novel for me as it might have been for other people present.  Having attended Luther Seminary and having eaten, breathed, and slept Forde, Paulson, Elert, Bayer, and Bondage of the Will itself for many years, nothing he said was very shocking.  

His main subject of discussion was election, the hidden God, and preaching.  He began by noting that modern theology did not start with Descartes (as many claim) but rather with Leibniz and that ever since then it has turned the entire theological enterprise upside down (probably a not so muted dig at Paul Hinlicky).  Contrary to Luther's claim, that the subject of theology is God the justifier and humans the justified, modern theology is about justifying God in himself, i.e. theodicy or apologetics of one kind or another.  God in himself does not need to be justified, rather feared.  The Bible tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom.  Both medieval and modern theologians want it to be otherwise.  They want God to be attractive enough for us to believe in him.  But this always leads to Atheism, since this works from the perspective of human autonomy and goodness.  A God who has to justify himself over against this bar must eventually be pushed out of the picture by the fact that from the perspective of sinful humans God can never appear good or just.  Ultimately though, God is justified, but never in himself (he doesn't need to be!  he's God!).  Rather he is justified in his words.  When the electing God elects to send the preacher, the preacher first instills the fear of the hidden God and then gives faith through proclamation of the gospel.  By believing the word of law and gospel, the Christian justifies God in his Word by saying that it is true.

Now if you were Paulson's student or if you've read his books, this is all very familiar.  What I found interesting is how foreign all of this seemed to the Ft. Wayne crowd.  I knew the moment that he started talking about hardening Pharaoh's heart that they were getting nervous.  Then Dean Wenthe got up and asked him "So how then do we avoid Calvinism?"  and I thought "wow, I knew this was coming!"  Paulson gave a very good explanation that the difference between Luther and Calvin on election is where it's located.  For Luther, the preached Word is where it happens and therefore you can be certain of election because being in contact with the Word you are present precisely where God elects.  For Calvin, it happens off in eternity and so the preached Word is unreliable.  Therefore we need to look into God's hidden being to figure out whether the temporal signs of election you experience in yourself mark off the effect of God's eternal decision.  

Walther has a similar quotation about how for Calvinists election happens before the Word, for Arminians it happens after the Word, and for Lutherans it happens in the Word.  Returning to Paulson, I'm not certain that this entirely satisfied them.  There seemed to be a lot of semi-passionate discussion afterwards in the hall while I was waiting for him to sign my books.  I don't think they disagreed.  It was just how he said it that bothered them.

A couple of observations about the culture clash.

I do think that Paulson as Forde before himself would emphasize the omnicausality of God in a way that LCMS theologians would not technically disagree with, but probably would mute.  Much of this goes back to the cultural environment.  Both Paulson and the LCMS folks are products of the election controversy.  But, they approach the issue with different emphases for a number of reasons.

LCMS folks are German Lutherans and not Norwegian Lutherans.  The Norwegian Lutherans were always the only game in town, with the exception of Pietists, whom they disliked.  This persisted in the cultural environment of the upper Mid-West.  Other than John Piper, I can't think of any major pockets of Calvinism in Minnesota.  The need for Paulson (and for Forde before him) therefore was always to emphases election over against Pietist claims of free will.  There really wasn't another ditch to fall into.  For German Lutheran, used to confessional wars with the Reformed in Germany as well as Pietists, things were different.  The goal was always to emphasize election, but simultaneously emphasize the universality of grace against the Calvinists.  In that most of the LCMS folks settled in the lower Mid-West, the threat of Reformed folks continued to be more acute than it was for the Norwegians.  

This being said, I think Paulson's point is quite valid regarding how election works.  I also think that it helpfully explains how and why Lutherans make the seemingly contradictory claim that God's grace is universal (and sincere!), but election is particular.  Luther said that the only point of doing theology was to explain what we are doing when we preach law and gospel.  If that's the case, then considering the question of election from the perspective of the preached Word will give one this paradoxical answer.  When the preacher preaches he says "I forgive you in the name of Jesus."  He says it to everyone- there's no "except for you Earl" or something.  Rather, it's universal.  This is the reason why it's important to speak of universal and objective justification.  If this wasn't God's universal verdict, then the preacher's general absolution would make no sense.  We would start giving out the conditional absolution in the manner of the Pietists: "I forgive you all in the name of Jesus, only if you have faith."  And that would be another work "do this and be saved" and not the gospel "all is accomplished."

The second point is that whereas the preacher's Word is always all encompassing and general, the act of preaching is finite and particular.  The preacher is preaching to you and not the Aztecs.  So, God chooses you in particular and for whatever reason some other folks don't get a preacher.  This doesn't mean though that we should conclude that God wishes them ill.  He has after all told us to preach to them as well, even if we are not there with them at the moment.  In the same manner, there's no Word from God about the gospel being for some and not others.  Nevertheless, the preacher is absolutely necessary.  This is why Jonah didn't want to preacher to Ninevah.  He knew that if he preached to them, then God would elect them.  

Hence, the Calvinist claim that the particularity of election necessitates double predestination is false.  It would if we tried to ask the question from the God's eye perspective and thought of the accident of who has a preacher or doesn't, or who is hardened by the preached Word and who isn't as somehow be transparent to God's eternal decision.  But if we consider it from the perspective of the Word, both the universality of grace and particularity of election make total sense.  


  1. This post deserves very serious study.

  2. Jack,

    "Luther said that the only point of doing theology was to explain what we are doing when we preach law and gospel."

    Do you happen to know where Luther said this? Also, where in the Scriptures he might go to justify this? I think I agree with this completely and think that it goes along with the whole "Theology is for proclamation" idea, but would like to learn more.

  3. Great post, but as a lifelong Lutheran, I believe that Forde has created, without meaning to, a whole generation of pastors with no missional nerve.

    Lots of posts on this on my blog, approaching 100,000 recent page views: