Over at the excellent blog “An Exercise in the Fundamentals of Orthodoxy,” Peter Ould and I have been going back and forth on the topic of election. Peter takes a strict Calvinist position, arguing for total depravity and a limited election. I’ve been responding with what I perceive to be the Orthodox Catholic position, that Christ’s atoning death offers salvation to all people who, once empowered by the grace of God to hear the gospel, are able to choose whether to accept it or reject it by faith. It’s been a good conversation, with lots of scripture discussed, and I recommend anyone who is interested in these topics take a look.
I don’t really have anything to say about Anglicanism in relation to Calvinism. While Article XVII speaks of election and predestination in a way that Calvinists find favorable, it is possible to interpret the article in a Catholic way (or even in an Arminian way, if one is so inclined). This is not one of those topics upon which the Anglican tradition has spoken definitively, and indeed Calvinists and Catholics within the Anglican Communion can agree to disagree.
Nevertheless, I will say personally that I find the Calvinist position on election troubling, not just because I think that it is unsupported by the scriptures and tradition, but because of the ways that it seems to distort those very things that it purports to uphold and defend. At the heart of the Calvinist position is a deep concern for justice and for the sovereignty of God. Yet if we follow the schema to its logical conclusion, both justice and divine sovereignty lose out. If it is to fulfill the demands of justice that God must punish the wicked for their sins, then all of us deserve hell. Yet, on the cross, Jesus fulfills justice by taking the penalty of our sin onto Himself. But if that atonement only applies to those whom God has pre-selected, then one of two possibilities exists. Either what God did on the cross is incapable of saving all or God never had the intention to save all. If the first is true, than God is not truly sovereign. If the second is true, than God is not just by His own standards.
Of course, there are Calvinist answers to those objections, all of which I find lacking. Peter brought forth a good number of the Calvinist responses in our conversation. But one thing that has occurred to me in the last twenty-four hours, as I’ve reflected further on this, is that the Calvinist position never really gets to the place of explaining who all of this is for. Towards the end of our conversation, Peter observed the following:
As to why God has chosen to save the Elect and only the Elect, well Scripture tells us that it is to demonstrate his glory and that there is no particular reason why certain people are elected except to demonstrate God’s glory. ‘Cos it’s all about Him.
This is not unlike what I’ve read and heard from many other Calvinists on the subject. The reason why any given person is elected and another is not is known only to God. But the overall reason why God would choose to elect only some rather than electing all, despite the fact that He loves all, is that He wishes to demonstrate all of His attributes in the way He deals with His rebellious creation: His mercy, His judgment, His wrath. If He didn’t save any, there would be no evidence of mercy. If He didn’t leave any to their unrepentant devices, there would be no evidence of His justice. All of these are testaments to His glory.
But the question is, testaments for whom? Given the strong Reformed tendency to center everything back on God–a tendency which I find quite admirable–I would assume that the testament is for God Himself. Surely it isn’t for humanity. What would be the point of that? So God must not save all people because He wants to prove His glory to Himself. But this becomes a riddle, because of course God has no need to show Himself who He is. So then we come back to humanity again as the possible audience for this display, but here we encounter another problem, because the reprobate, in their utter rejection of God, will never really be able to see the truth about who God is. Though they languish in the tortures of hell, they will always be focused on themselves, never on God, never really getting it why they are where they are. So then perhaps the testament is only for God’s elect, that they may see better who God is and worship Him more fully. But if election is pre-determined by God and brought about by irresistible grace, why would there need to be anyone in hell to further prove the point? Is it just meant as a deterrent, to show the elect why they must turn from sin? But surely the appeal of irresistible grace has already done that, without the threat of damnation. And even if the threat were somehow necessary, there would still be no reason why the punishment of hell would have to be exercised on anyone. If it were, we would be right back at our first problem, that God’s sovereignty is non-existent because He is incapable of saving all people through the sacrifice of the cross.
It seems to me that this is an impossible conundrum that forces the honest Calvinist to either admit inconsistencies or turn to some kind of universalism to fix the problem. On the other hand, the Catholic position maintains God’s sovereignty, His justice, and His mercy by showing that God’s election has to do not with individual sinners but with the Church. It is only by incorporation into the Church that we are saved by being made one with Christ, through His sacrifice, which is big enough to cover all sins. It is only in coming to this understanding that the passages of scripture that speak of God’s election start to become clear.