I delivered this rant a few weeks ago in a doctoral seminar I'm taking from Tom McCall (co-author of Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace). It's basically a riff on Newbigin's doctrine of election and how it completely subverts the ordo decretorum (logical order of God's decrees) debates of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries between supras, infras, conditional infras, etc., etc. Due to the required length of the paper, I had to leave a whole lot of thoughts on the floor, so it definitely runs the risk of presenting a lopsided view of the matter. I also focus criticisms on Arminian arguments because, well, it's a seminar on that very subject.
The Logical Order of Things About Which We Know Next to Nothing
The church has been hurt, indeed, “sped” throughout the years whenever she finds herself caught in the crossfire of battles over the logical order of things about which we know next to nothing. This is not to suggest that one view with respect to the ordo decretorum is as good as any other; some truly do, however inadvertently, commit blasphemy: some “logical” orders make God the author of sin, while others make man the author of himself.
Nevertheless, the church suffers every time its leaders and laypersons obsess over the reasons for an individual’s election by probing backwards toward the secret counsel of God instead of pressing forward from one’s election (in both individual and corporate terms) to the purpose of that election.2 This obsession most notably plagued the Reformed churches in the late sixteenth century and well into the seventeenth century. The Arminian and Remonstrant response, unfortunately, faired little better, precisely because they too shared in their compatriot’s assumptions regarding the final destiny of individuals flowing from decrees made in eternity “past.” Despite the appropriate Arminian allergic reaction to certain Reformed articulations of election that lead to churches thinking of themselves as exclusive beneficiaries of God’s saving love, the biblical fact and fundamental truth of election is that it is made according to God’s sovereign and unconditional choice. Keeping the center of the doctrine of election away from any consigning of individuals to either eternal life or death ought to remove the edges with which it is unnecessarily laden. In so doing, we can see the highly speculative and unedifying nature of the ordo decretorum for what it is, a less-than-robust expression of the purpose of election itself—expressions that Arminians and Remonstrants only recapitulated in their protests.
Taking my cue from St. Thomas, as many others often have, election appears to be primarily teleological—it is all about where we are sent, rather than from where we have come. And by invoking destiny, I do not mean so much individual or corporate salvation as individual and corporate purpose, not so much related to the salvific outcome of absolute decrees among the Godhead as to the purpose for which those decrees were made: Like an arrow directed by the archer towards its mark, the movement of predestination “gets its specific character from what it is a motion to, not a motion from.”3 And it is with that motion to in mind that the mission of God in the election of his people becomes most robustly realized. When members of Christ’s church consider their election as a calling to die to self for the salvation of the world, not as God’s way simply to secure for himself an elite group of chosen individuals, or as a pronouncement upon people he foresees who employ grace just enough to work out their salvation to the end of their lives, the pastoral objections (that the Reformed ordo causes despair or presumption) to God’s sovereign choice in election fall away. In other words, properly emphasizing the individual and corporate teleology, rather than the individual soteriology, of election renders both the Reformed and Remonstrant ordo constructions moot.
When looked at in this way, arguments over whether God elects unbelievers and predestines them to become believers or whether he elects foreseen believers and predestines them to become his children are out of place. This is not to deny a cause or basis of God’s election, because, as stated above, it is biblically obvious that election stems from the elector’s good pleasure. Yet this need not make the Arminian interlocutor anxious, as if her argument that the cause of God’s election instead centers on the free will act of an individual fulfilling the conditions of salvation suffers from incoherence. If the purpose of election was primarily the salvific destiny of individuals, then the Arminian rebuttal to the majority of Reformed expressions merits serious attention. That is to say, in the context of early seventeenth-century debates revolving around the ordo decretorum, Arminius’ opposition to deterministic supra- and infralapsarianism was raised for all the right reasons.
Still, relegating predestination merely to a function of divine foreknowledge is less than satisfactory. Whatever else can be said of the differences between Arminius and subsequent generations of seventeenth-century Remonstrants on redemption, there’s no difference among them on the subordination of God’s decree to predestinate and reprobate certain individuals to his foreseeing their completion or rejection of salvation’s conditions. If, again, the ordo decretorum primarily has to do with how an individual comes to be elected rather than the missiological why that individual was elected, then the Arminian construction finds itself rightly critiqued for reviving something akin to late medieval works-righteousness—perhaps worse, depending on how anemic its ecclesiology is.4
Thus, the Remonstrant critique could be seen as a recapitulation of the covenantal nomism that Saint Paul challenged so long ago. Arminius’ confession that he “ascribes to God’s grace the origin, the continuance, and the fulfillment of all good”5 may excuse him from the sharpest points of this criticism, but it may also be that his remonstration lead to the unintended consequence of making too much of human performance as a condition of God’s mercy. E. P. Sanders’ summary of second-temple Judaism as “getting in by grace, staying in by obedience”6 parallels in significant ways the Remonstrant view that any move toward God is by (prevenient) grace alone while increase in grace and final justification depends ultimately on human cooperation. Not even the most strident Remonstrant has argued that one can be saved by works alone, as human works are not seen to be meritorious in and of themselves (and thus always insufficient to gain God's forgiveness). Yet according to the Remonstrants in particular, in God’s new covenant in Christ Jesus, he promises to accept as righteousness the believer’s obedience of faith. The implication is that the law we humans have always transgressed has been softened to the point that people who make good use of grace can now do it and live, provided they continue to perform.7 What is this if not the principle of “getting in by grace, and staying in by obedience”? But this is the very principle that the apostle opposed when he wrote, “You began by God’s Spirit; do you now want to finish by your own power?” (Gal 3:3). If indeed the gospel is a new law, then Augustine’s prayer to a sovereignly electing God to “grant what you command, and command what you will” becomes ever the more necessary.8
In short, the debates revolving around the ordo decretorum simply miss the point. What God commands, and what he grants to that end, is encapsulated most succinctly in the motion to of the Great Commission. Herein lies the purpose of election, the telos of which the church forgets at her peril. Lesslie Newbigin summed it up best:
And we can also see that wherever the missionary character of the doctrine of election is forgotten; wherever it is forgotten that we are chosen in order to be sent; . . . wherever men think that the purpose of election is their own salvation rather than the salvation of the world; then God’s people have betrayed their trust.9The salvation of the world with which the elect of God have been entrusted, the called-out ones commissioned to enact God’s kingdom will on earth as it is in heaven, must leave this old debate in the old books where it belongs if it will ever get down to doing its “best to make [the day of God] come soon . . . where righteousness will be at home” (2 Peter 3:12–13).
1 From The Yale Shakespeare (Barnes & Noble Books, 1993), 918.↩
2 St. Augustine’s warning comes to mind: “Wherefore he draws this one and not that one, seek not to decide if you wish not to err.” From Tractates on the Gospel of John, 26.2 (NPNF1 7).↩
3 Thomas Aquinas, ST, I, Q. 23, Art. 1, Reply Obj. 3. Quoted from Summa Theologica, “God’s Will and Providence” (1a. 19–26), eds. Thomas Gilby and T. C. O’Brien, Blackfriars, vol. 5 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1967), 111. See also Thomas’ ordo in Art. 4: particular love→election→predestination. “Therefore all the predestined are picked loved ones” (121). God creates the lovely through his electing love; it’s in no way based on the created’s loveliness (cf. Art. 5).↩
4 It's beyond the scope of this post to defend this here, but suffice to say that where baptism and the Eucharist are largely removed from the equation of election, the theologian is left to over-emphasize—and thus truncate—the means ordained in Scripture by God to actualize his elect.↩
5 W. Stephen Gunter, Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Baylor University Press, 2012), 141.↩
6 E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977), 93, 178, 371.↩
7 See, e.g., John Mark Hicks, “The Theology of Grace in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius and Philip van Limborch: A Study in the Development of Seventeenth Century Dutch Arminianism” (PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985), 103–11, esp. at 110. See also Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (OUP, 2013), 167–68.↩
8 Saint Augustine, Confessions, X.xxix (40), trans. Henry Chadwick (OUP, 1998), 202. It may be that the historic triplex model of natural law→old law→new law best encapsulates the covenantal framework of God’s redemptive plan, but I do not concede that the necessary grace required to fulfill that new law has been imparted indiscriminately. Even the Remonstrant Limborch confessed as much when he wrote that while God’s general decree of salvation and damnation is not unclear, the other special decree regarding the means thereunto is mysterious, “upon the account of that disproportion wherein God is pleas’d to communicate the means of salvation to men. For he does not bestow an equal share of grace every where at all times and upon all men.” This depends “on the mere good pleasure of God,” and is unsearchable. Quoted from A Compleat System, or, Body of Divinity, both Speculative and Practical, Founded on Scripture and Reason (London: William Jones, 1702), 347.↩
9 Lesslie Newbigin, The Household of God (Wipf & Stock, 2008), 55.↩