When God Must Impress Himself

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.

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9 Responses to When God Must Impress Himself

  1. Peter Ould says:

    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 who are we to question why God does what he does? Yes, by all means ask the question “why”, but you seem to have already come up with the answer in respect to this issue – Because God wants to demonstrate his glory, whether to the other spiritual powers, to humans or simply to himself. But why is that a bad thing?

    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.

    But surely Scripture (e.g. the Rich Man and Lazarus) tells us that the reprobate will realise exactly why they are there. They will see that they have sinned and that hell is their punishment for that sin.

    We need to go back to the start and realise that God’s election does not come before humans’ sin (from a temporal perspective). Humans sin and that leads to judgement and hell. God offers salvation to all who will turn and repent, but none do. This is the starting point for election, for it is only at this point (as it were) that God elects a people for himself, to save despite their rejection of Him alongside all of humanity. It is not as if God chooses x% of humanity to be rejected. The x% reject God which is completely the other way round from how you are presenting it. All God does is take some of those wretches who reject him, through no merit of their own, and elects to save them to demonstrate his glory in salvation.

    These is no conundrum. God does it to demonstrate his glory to the other spiritual powers, to the elect, to the reprobate and to himself. He can do this because he is God and we are mere creatures (and to see the argument God makes, just read the last chapters of Job).

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Peter, it’s a pleasure to have you comment here. If you get a chance to check out the ongoing series on the Anglican theology of marriage, I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts.

      But who are we to question why God does what he does? Yes, by all means ask the question “why”, but you seem to have already come up with the answer in respect to this issue – Because God wants to demonstrate his glory, whether to the other spiritual powers, to humans or simply to himself. But why is that a bad thing?

      You missed the next sentence in which I explain the problem. It’s not that God wanting to demonstrate His glory is a bad thing. It’s that there doesn’t seem to be a reason for it. Who is He demonstrating His glory to? Why does He need to demonstrate it in this particular way? How is it that His glory somehow wouldn’t be demonstrated if He gave us a choice? These are all legitimate questions that inevitably flow from the Calvinist position. Though God’s glory is proven to us many times over in His works, God has no need to prove His own glory to Himself. To say that He does would be to radically change His character. But to say that He needs to prove it to us through selective election holds other problems, as I tried to explain.

      But surely Scripture (e.g. the Rich Man and Lazarus) tells us that the reprobate will realise exactly why they are there. They will see that they have sinned and that hell is their punishment for that sin.

      On the contrary, the story of the rich man and Lazarus is precisely the kind of story that tells us that those who end up in hell never really get it. Abraham explains to the rich man exactly why he is where he is, that he took advantage of his wealth while he was alive at the expense of others, particularly Lazarus. Yet the rich man still treats Lazarus as an inferior, telling Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. He still thinks that there’s some kind of “get out of hell free” card out there that he can at least pass off to his brothers if he’s unable to figure out how to use it himself. He doesn’t get that all he needed, and all they needed, was faith. “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” Presumably, if the rich man were able to come to faith even in that moment, he would be saved. But he doesn’t. He can’t. There is nothing left of God within him to respond to God’s call. He is, as it were, totally depraved. If Calvinism directed this doctrine towards hell rather than towards earth, it would make a heck of a lot more sense.

      We need to go back to the start and realise that God’s election does not come before humans’ sin (from a temporal perspective). Humans sin and that leads to judgement and hell. God offers salvation to all who will turn and repent, but none do. This is the starting point for election, for it is only at this point (as it were) that God elects a people for himself, to save despite their rejection of Him alongside all of humanity.

      Now you’ve confused me. Are you saying that election is a corporate act? If so, then that is the catholic position, that election has to do with the Church (the Arminian position being similar but not entirely the same because of the continued use of total depravity and the lack of sacramental emphasis). But if you’re talking about individuals, then when does God elect them? If it is not before they have sinned, then is God continuously electing people all the time? And if so, is His mind already made up or is it changeable? Is there any point in praying, for instance, that non-believer family and friends may come to Christ?

      It is not as if God chooses x% of humanity to be rejected. The x% reject God which is completely the other way round from how you are presenting it.

      I am not suggesting that at all. I understand that the Calvinist position is that all have rejected God, including the elect, and that all deserve hell. I think that’s actually fairly accurate, scriptural, and catholic, though I would deny the idea that there is nothing of the good creation left inside of us after the fall, unbelievably corrupted though we be. But what we’re talking about here, at this point, isn’t the nature of humanity. What we’re talking about is the nature of God. That God isn’t under any obligation to save any of us at all is a given. That He could choose to put us all under punishment, or even to simply allow us to stew in our own juices, would be perfectly in keeping with His justice and righteousness. But since we know that He does save at least some of us, though none of us deserve it, and we know that He makes that choice out of love, it is reasonable to ask why He would choose to save some and not others. And the answer that Calvinism provides, that He chooses arbitrarily, is not consistent with the biblical witness about either salvation itself or about the nature of God.

      These is no conundrum. God does it to demonstrate his glory to the other spiritual powers, to the elect, to the reprobate and to himself. He can do this because he is God and we are mere creatures (and to see the argument God makes, just read the last chapters of Job).

      Again, I think you’re battling a straw man here. I have never said that God is under some kind of obligation to do things one way and not the other. This is not a rights based appeal. We have no rights. The question is not what is God allowed to do, the answer to which is that He may do whatever He darn well pleases. Rather, the question is, what has God done? Is a God who acts arbitrarily and randomly in relation to His creatures consistent with the God of the scriptures who is always just and merciful, even when He is exercising His wrath? I pray that God will show me otherwise if I’m wrong, but I simply cannot see how those things add up in a way that doesn’t require reinterpretation of large swaths of both the scriptures and the tradition.

  2. David McEachron says:

    Great discussion.

    I’d like to hear more on the difference between your understanding of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Arminian.’

    My personal background is Methodist, but I only realized how Arminian I was when I went to a Calvinist school and studied theology. I have always assumed that as far as soteriology goes, Calvinist and Arminian/Wesleyan/Catholic were the two options. The clearer term I’ve heard for Calvinism is monergism (only ONE actor, God in salvation), and for Arminianism is synergism (in some way, definitely grace enabled, humans act as well). These distinctions are put forth very clearly in Olson’s Mosaic of Christian Believe.

    I think, then, that synergism covers Arminianism and Catholic understandings, but I’d love to hear more about the distinction. I’m definitely attracted to a sacramental understanding, which makes me sound more Catholic (which would also make me personally happy) on your brief explanation of Catholic vs Arminian.

    “the catholic position, that election has to do with the Church (the Arminian position being similar but not entirely the same because of the continued use of total depravity and the lack of sacramental emphasis)” *in your reply to Peter

    Can you give a brief explanation? or is there somewhere I can read that would talk about the difference more?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Great question, David. The Arminian and the Catholic positions are not the same, though it should be noted that what I am calling the Catholic position is shorthand. I don’t mean the Roman Catholic position, but a common teaching that would be recognizable and agreeable to Roman Catholics, Anglican Catholics, and Orthodox Christians alike. The teaching, at its heart, is that while the evil of sin has desperately marred our humanity, there remains nevertheless a remnant of the image of God within us that God, through His grace, assists and strengthens in making it possible for us to make a free choice for or against God. The doctrine of election, then, is about God’s choosing of a people, first Israel, and later the new Israel, the Church. We are regenerated through the grace that comes to us in the sacrament of Baptism, which becomes effective in our lives when we come to faith. Baptism brings us into the Church, which numbers us amongst the elect, but does not guarantee that we will persevere through the rest of our lives. Nevertheless, God gives us all that we need to be able to choose Him, including the ongoing, sanctifying grace that comes to us in the Holy Eucharist, without which we have no life in us (John 6). Both God’s predestination and our free will are affirmed.

      That’s it in a nutshell, but like I said, there are different approaches. Within Roman Catholicism, there is an ongoing debate between Thomists, who emphasize God’s providence, and Molinists who emphasize the role of our free will. The Roman Catholic Church allows for either theological position, so long as neither one completely denies either God’s predestination or our free will. The Orthodox, on the other hand, tend to focus on a different understanding of the very nature of the problem that faces us. Rather than following an Augustinian view of original sin that implies a kind of hereditary guilt for the sin of Adam, Orthodox theologians usually stress the idea that sin is a disease from which we are in need of healing. God desires all of humanity to be saved and thus predestination becomes a careful balance between the providence of God and the foreknown actions of man (for a reasonably decent exploration of this concept in Orthodoxy, go here- http://orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/predestination.aspx )

      The classic Anglo-Catholic position is best summarized in a document prepared by the Bishop of Salisbury in 1900, approved by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, as an answer to certain questions posed to the Church of England by Orthodox Christians. In answer to the question, “What does the Church of England teach about predestination,” the document states:

      Concerning predestination, our Church teaches, in conformity with Scripture, that it is God’s will that all men should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (I Tim. ii. 4); and that therefore we are bound to assist Him to the best of our power by spreading the knowledge of His Gospel among all nations, and by bringing the ignorant and sinful to their Saviour.

      Yet as a matter of fact it appears that God does not intend that all should come to this knowledge at once; but rather gradually through the operation of the Holy Spirit using human instruments for the conversion of the ignorant and sinful. Those who thus become members of His Church are in the first sense of the terms the “called ” and the “elect.” Yet in these free-will is not destroyed, and they can, if they will, resist divine grace. Therefore they are to be warned according to the words of St. Peter (2 Pet. I. 10), “to be earnest to make their calling and election sure.” The number of those who will persevere to the end is a secret known only to God, and our Church teaches that it is dangerous to attempt to penetrate this secret, for to do so may easily lead to vanity and carelessness or to despair.

      The full text of that document can be found here: http://anglicanhistory.org/england/jwords/some.html A more detailed explication of this position, including some wonderful scriptural exegesis, can be found here: http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/btonderdonk/seventeenth1841.html

      Suffice it to say that while these positions all differ from each other in detail and emphasis, they nevertheless share a common core that can be rightly called Catholic. They all begin from a strong, scriptural understanding of the place of the Church in salvation. They differ from Arminianism not so much in their conclusions but in where they start from. Like the Catholic position (or positions, if you like), Arminianism teaches that human will participates with the divine will in salvation (synergism). But like Calvinism, classic Arminianism is generally concerned with the election of individuals, not the Church. In more recent times, there have been Arminians who have posited a corporate election of the Church, but the understanding of the Church remains Protestant and individualistic. The Church is a fellowship of believers, rather than the sacramental Body of Christ in the world. As such, there is not a place of prominence given to the sacraments or to practices of holiness within the Arminian viewpoint. That’s not to say that Arminians are necessarily anti-sacramental. It’s just not that big of a deal. Whereas to the Catholic Christian, the place of the sacraments is indispensable.

      I don’t mean to disparage Arminianism at all. There’s a lot of good there, and I generally find it much more agreeable to the scriptures than what I know of Calvinism. But Arminianism and Calvinism are working from a similar framework, even if they come out at the opposite ends. Comparing either of these to the various Catholic viewpoints isn’t so much like comparing apples and oranges as it is like comparing apples and Volvos. Now a Volvo is a fine car, well put together, strong, efficient, and exactly what you want to be driving if you’re unfortunate enough to be in an accident. But if you’re desperately hungry, you’d much prefer to have an apple, and whether it’s a granny smith or a red delicious won’t matter quite so much in the grand scheme of things.

      Hope that helps.

      • David McEachron says:

        That all helps very much.

        Perhaps the best part is the ecumenical focus of this blog and the Anglican position (especially Anglo-Catholic); this desire for a Catholic (inclusive but not limited to the Roman) position on theological issues is very attractive.

        I suppose I am closer to the Catholic position than I thought, which is probably why I am so drawn to classical Anglicanism. A position that faithfully reads the broadly Christian tradition is so helpful. I will look through your post about the Church’s place in salvation and the link you posted from the Bishop of Salisbury for more info.

        Thanks again!

        PS- I was originally referred to this blog by an Anglican Priest/mentor who is officiating at my wedding in 6 months, more posts on Anglican marriage would be greatly appreciated. The others have been great, especially for my fiancée who is very open to Anglicanism but not as deeply versed as I am, nor as trained in reading academic theology.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Glad that what you find here is useful!

        More will be coming in the marriage series. I’ve been doing research, but haven’t had the time to write it all up yet, as the work of the parish has taken a priority.

        Out of curiosity, what priest is it that referred you? I’m wondering if it’s anybody I know.

      • David McEachron says:

        Greg Peters referred me. He’s a full-time teacher in the Torrey Honors program at Biola University. I think he is now an assisting priest at All Saints Anglican in Long Beach, CA.

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