18 October 2013

When Teleology Trumps Soteriology

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

Mercutio: I am hurt.
A plague a’ both your houses! I am sped.
Romeo and Juliet, 3.1.86–871

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.9
The 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.


Kevin Davis said...

Yep. My pastor told me that Leslie Newbigin read the whole Church Dogmatics in one summer, after which his opinion of Barth changed from hesitation to greater appropriation (though more Brunner-like in his views on natural theology). Yet, Newbigin's doctrine of election was already formulated along Barth-friendly lines. After all, Household of God is one of his very earliest works. By the time we get to Gospel in a Pluralist Society, over three decades later, his doctrine of election is clearly Barthian, with the christological starting point (p. 86) Moreover, Newbigin could have bolstered his missiological telos by taking a close look at Barth's use of "proximity" language for the reprobate/elect couplings in Scripture (Cain/Abel, Esau/Jacob, Saul/David, and in a way, Judas/Jesus).

I know you work at Trinity. Are you also doing doctoral work there, or just sitting-in on the seminars?

Chris Donato said...

My research on Newbigin lacks real depth, but I do hear all sorts of Barthian echoes in it. At the very least, the christological starting point is key if any predestinarian view is going to get off the ground, which was, arguably, one of the major problems with the old supralapsarian (if not infralapsarian) view.

In reading the puritan Arminian John Goodwin, I found a point he made when arguing against deterministic ordos to be particularly insightful, if not proto-Barthian. In Redemption Redeemed Goodwin writes that given God’s simplicity, if God decreed to justify or condemn anyone, “if must have been himself,” because objects, or ideas of other beings, cannot have existed in the mind of God from all eternity. Only God’s simple essence is from all eternity. Even to exist as an idea in the mind of God is to be a part of the divine being itself. And there is no plurality of beings from all eternity. Thus, an eternal decree regarding election/reprobation must needs have as its object the divine.

This probably didn't lie behind Barth's thinking in that he wouldn't have started with simplicity, but I found it an interesting point on Goodwin's part.

Regarding doctoral work, as an employee, one gets the perk of taking up to X amount of credits per semester (depending on time @Trinity). So, I've take a seminar for credit each semester I've been here (2+ years already!), because I know I'd kick myself later if I didn't take advantage. I'm not officially in a program; I'm registered as a "visiting PhD student." The classes of course have been deeply motivational when it comes to my own research/writing, and well worth the pain. I take them for credit because who knows, maybe I'll find a program one day.

Chris Donato said...

But perhaps I'm mistaken about Barth. Just read this from his CD II/1: "for every distinction of his being and working is simply a repetition and corroboration of the one being." Thus the decree revolves around the Christ.

Kevin Davis said...

That's fascinating about Goodwin. I'll have to read the book. Though it sounds like Goodwin has an Aristotelian view of divine simplicity: thought-thinking-itself. Barth, of course, defines simplicity in a more dynamic way: "the one who loves in freedom and the one who is free in his love." All of the distinct perfections of God are repetitions of this "being", as your quote says. I'll have to read Goodwin to see how his rendering may or may not fit with Barth. It is definitely thought-provoking and has bearing on the debate between McCormack vs. Molnar/Webster/Hunsinger on classical theism.

That's a nice gig you got at Trinity. Have you thought about doing a doctorate with either McCall or Vanhoozer? It doesn't get much better than that.

Chris Donato said...

On Goodwin—yes, no doubt he's employing that kind of divine simplicity. Now, he doesn't commend that outcome (that the decrees of election/reprobation have as their object God the Son); he instead teases it out as an attempt to show how the determinist ordos logically falter when positing that the objects of the eternal decrees are individual beings distinct from the divine being.

Fascinating too re: McCormack vs. et al.; I'd like to hear more about that.

On Trinity, yes, it's a good gig. There are plenty of "corporate communication" moments that leave me feeling like a fish out of water, but all in all, it's a challenging and engaging routine. Hitting up the visiting academic lectures has also been fun. You're right about McCall/Vanhoozer. Top of their games.

Kevin Davis said...

It's a complicated debate between McCormack and, well, everyone else. It began with his chapter in the 'Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth' (ed., Webster) where he argued that God's ontology is dependent upon the Incarnation, with some precise distinctions to avoid Hegel. He rejects classical theism, including remnants of it in Barth. McCormack sees himself as extending and purifying Barth's rejection of natural theology. Paul Molnar, Barthian Roman Catholic par excellence, responded with a very critical article published somewhere (maybe IJST or SJT) and others have chimed-in elsewhere, like Hunsinger and Webster. Webster in particular is criticized by McCormack for his work on God's aseity (as the ground of God's work ad extra), which McCormack thinks is too dependent upon classical metaphysics (and indeed Webster is resourcing scholastics like Aquinas and Bavinck for his doctrine of God).

That is a very inadequate overview, but maybe it will give you some framework. Not surprisingly, I agree with Molnar, Webster, and Hunsinger (and for that matter, Balthasar and Torrance, who are also targets of McCormack's rejection of metaphysics). But McCormack is challenging and stimulating.

Chris Donato said...

Thanks, Kevin. That's helpful.

Two years ago now, McCormack delivered a series of lectures at TEDS, and right out of the gate he and McCall went fisticuffs over the metaphysics.

McCormack got the last word with, "Get yer own set of lectures, man!"

Funny stuff.

Joel said...

So if we are going to frame the Gospel in these terms (and I'm inclined to think we should, at least in some contexts), where does hell come in? If we reject universalism, at what point do we bring hell into play, and how strong a possibility for the unbeliever do we present it as?

Chris Donato said...

Great question, Joel. For the sake of clarity, I'm going to assume that what you meant by "framing the gospel in these terms" isn't the gospel technically speaking (i.e., the heralding of what God has done in Christ by the power of his Spirit) but what the ramifications of the gospel are, namely, and in a word(s), the Great Commission.

I think the historical answer of the church, the slight hiccup of the deterministic supralapsarians notwithstanding, has been to start first with the point that no one is damned by an absolute decree (the Council of Orange deemed this heretical in AD 529). Perdition is but a consequence of our inheritance of Adam's corrupted nature along with our actual sins.

Thus, so Thomas, "the fault starts from the free decision of the one who abandons grace and is rejected" (Summa, I, Q. 23, Art. 3, Reply 2). In other words, hell can be presented as a real possibility for those who reject the universal call to follow God's way. In Barthian terms, one might say that despite the fact that every sinner is elected by God for salvation in Christ Jesus (and thus the possibility of 'no' is taken from them), there are those who nevertheless end up refusing to enjoy or revel in their election. Their end is hell, which, of course, is not to be primarily defined in terms of God's absence, but in his unpleasant presence, where those who hate him suffer in his being. Think of C.S. Lewis' drab city in The Great Divorce.

Finally, since I've brought up Newbigin, it's only appropriate to end with a few of his words on hell:

"If God wills that all should be saved, does that mean that all will be saved? We cannot say that. We know that God has given men freedom to choose good or evil. We cannot say that it is impossible that men should finally choose evil. Christ has given us many terrible parables in which we have a picture of men finally cast out of the light and love of home into the outer darkness. . . . We cannot exclude this possibility from our minds, if we wish to remain true to Jesus' mind. . . . Jesus does not answer our theoretical questions about Hell. But He bids us recognize that the door into life is narrow, and that it is possible, and indeed terribly easy to miss it. . . . But when we begin to speculate about the question of eternal loss we are quickly in regions where we do not know the answer. We can only give heed to the words of our Lord: ‘Strive to enter in by the narrow door’" (Sin and Salvation, pp. 119-20).

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha