In the previous post Dr. Hart warned us about being pastoral. Fine. I’ll skip over what I believe are mischaracterizations in your last post (e.g., FVers don’t take the fall seriously) and get to the heart of the issue. We’ve talked enough about IAOC, so how about election?
I’ve been a pastor for over twenty years. I have experienced first hand on many, many occasions how normal, everyday people respond to WCF chapter 3 “On the Eternal Decree.” In fact, I just now came back from a pastoral visit where the subject of our conversation was election and predestination.
I was visiting a woman whom the Lord recently brought back to himself. She has ovarian cancer. She is undergoing some serious radiation treatments, so she’s not able to come to church for the next few months. She’s been away from the faith and the church for many years now. She was raised in a Baptist church, but hasn’t darkened the door of a church now for 25 years or more. She doesn’t know the Bible very well, but she wants to learn.
The last time I visited her she had a pile of questions for meâ€”so many, in fact, that I just bought her a copy of R.C. Sproul’s book Now, That’s a Good Question. (Everyone see how magnanimous and gracious I am to still use RC’s material after his horrendous speech on the floor of this year’s PCA GA!)
When I visited her this morning, she had read most of the book. But she was quite troubled by the doctrine of election and predestination. Of course, this is a common pastoral concern. Every Reformed pastor has to deal with it. Actually, I think Sproul does a nice job of explaining election in his book. But the way it is presented in the WCF chapter 3 caused a great deal of unnecessary grief for her as it does for many people.
Let me pause to make it perfectly clear that I take no exception to any of the propositions laid out in WCF chapter 3. None. What I do object to is the form in which the truth of election and predestination are presented apart from God’s covenant, the church, and the cross of Jesus. In other words, I have a problem with the unpastoral way in which the doctrine is presented in the WCF.
The problem as Norman Shepherd describes it in his “Covenant Context for Evangelism” is that election is described in the abstract apart from the covenant. What we have in the third chapter of the WCF and in many presentations of election in academic or overly rationalistic Reformed theology is a logical formulation (predestination of all things, elect angels, elect men, etc.) rather than a pastoral formulation. Presented like this, election causes anxiety and worse. It reads as if God is an arbitrary, despotic Power.
This is a problem for Reformed tradition after Westminster. Westminster codified and systematized Reformed theology and mostly for political and academic purposes, but what was the price?
Before Westminster, especially in the 16th-century confessional symbols of Reformed churches, the doctrine of election was consistently confessed as another form of the proclamation of the Gospel. None of these earlier confessional presentations of the eternal Gospel tempted simple Christians to raise questions that might take them behind or beyond the Gospelâ€”no more so than the biblical revelation of election itself. The 16th-century documents are ecclesiastical, pastoral, confessional, and soteriological in content, shape, and scope. The 17th century documents, however, tend to be more school-oriented, institutional or clerical, polemical, even political.
I’m not doing a Calvin vs. the Calvinists thing here. I agree with Muller that later scholastic Reformed theology can claim a legitimate trajectory from 16th-century Reformed thought. But it is different. And the question of the pastoral usefulness of later scholastic confessions and catechisms ought at least to be seriously considered.
When we “FV” guys talk about election from the perspective of the covenant and union with Christ, it might be argued that we are returning to a more pastoral stage of Reformed tradition. All one has to do is look at how the Second Helvetic Confession (chapter 10) confesses election and compare that to Westminster. Here are the first three paragraphs of the SHC chapter X “On predestination & the election of the saints”:
“1. God has elected us out of grace. From eternity God has freely, and of his mere free grace, without respect to men, predestined or elected the saints, whom he wills to save in Christ, according to the saying of the apostle, “God chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). And again: “Who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not in virtue of our works but in virtue of his own purpose and the grace which he gave to us in Christ Jesus ages ago, and now has manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus (2 Tim. 1:9).
2. We are elected or predestined in Christ. Therefore, not without means [non sine medio], though not according to any merit of ours, but in Christ and according to Christ [in Christo et propter Christum], has God elected us; even those who are grafted in Christ by faith [ut qui jam sunt in Christo insiti per fidem], these he has elected; truly the reprobate are those outside of Christ [reprobi, vero, qui sunt extra Christum], according to the word of the apostle, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are situated in [the] faith. . .” (2 Cor. 13:5)
3. We are elected to a definite end. Finally, the saints are chosen in Christ by God for a definitive purpose, which the apostle himself explains when he says, “He chose us in Him for adoption that we should be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption to be his sons through Jesus Christ that they should be to the praise of the glory of his grace” (Eph. 1:4ff.).”
The pastoral usefulness of the SHC over the WCF is obvious. And notice how prominent union with Christ is in their treatment of election. Or consider John Knox’s confession of election in the Scots Confession (1560):
Chapter VIII. Election. That same eternal God and Father, who by grace alone chose us in His Son Christ Jesus before the foundation of the world was laid, appointed Him to be our head, our brother, our pastor, and the great bishop of our souls. But since the opposition between the justice of God and our sins was such that no flesh by itself could or might have attained unto God, it behooved the Son of God to descend unto us and take himself a body of our body, flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone, and so become the Mediator between God and man, giving power to as many as believe in Him to be the sons of God; as he himself says, “I ascend to My Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.” By this most holy brotherhood whatever we have lost in Adam is restored to us again. Therefore we are not afraid to call God our Father, not so much because he has created us, which we have in common with the reprobate, as because he has given unto us his only Son to be our brother, and given us grace to acknowledge and embrace Him as our only Mediator. Further, it behooved the Messiah and Redeemer to be true God and true man, because He was able to undergo the punishment of our transgression and disobedience, and by death to over come him that was the author of death. But because the Godhead alone could not suffer death, and neither could manhood overcome death, he joined both together in one person, that the weakness of the one should suffer and be subject to deathâ€”which we have deserved–and the infinite and invincible power of the other, that is, of the Godhead, should triumph, and purchase life, liberty, and perpetual victory. So we confess, and most undoubtedly believe.
This is all Knox says about election in the entire confession. That’s pretty astonishing. But it’s also amazingly pastoral in form.
Both Knox and the Second Helvetic Confession present election to Christians as being “in Christ,” that is, only as a corollary to the Gospel. Furthermore, election is understood in tandem with God’s revealed will and not as some secret or hidden will that might be ascertained apart from the Gospel. The “book of life” faithfully mirrors the faithful fellowship a Christian experiences in the church with Christ by faith. The speculum or mirror of election is Christ as he is revealed in the Gospel, as the 8th paragraph of chapter X “Whether we are elected” in the SHC makes clear:
“We therefore find fault with those who outside of Christ ask whether they are elected from eternity. For what has God decreed for them from all eternity? For the preaching of the Gospel is to be heard, and it is to be believed; and it is to be held as beyond doubt that if you believe and are in Christ, you are elected. For the Father has revealed unto us in Christ the eternal purpose of his predestination, as I have just now shown from the apostle in 2 Tim. 1:9-10. This is therefore above all to be taught and considered to us in Christ. We must hear what the Lord himself daily preaches to us in the Gospel, how he calls and says: “Come to me all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Also, “It is not the will of my Father that one of these little ones should perish” (Matt. 18:4). Let Christ, therefore, be the looking glass, in whom we may contemplate our predestination [Christus itaque sit speculum, in quo praedestinationem nostram contemplemur]. We shall have a sufficiently clear and sure testimony that we are inscribed in the Book of Life if we have fellowship with Christ, and he is ours and we are his in true faith [Satis perspicuum et firmum habebimus testimonium, nos in libro vitae insciptos esse, si communicaverimus coum Christo, eet is in vera fide noster sit, nos eius simus].”
When people ask about election and predestination these days I direct them to the SHC and not to chapter 3 of the WCF. Is that wrong? Am I unReformed?
I apologize for the length of his post, but I want to make it clear that the instincts and program of the FV men are not unReformed or anti-Reformed. It’s really all about recovering a more biblical and therefore pastoral shape for ministry. It’s not that the Reformed tradition is all wrong, but IMHO it has taken some unfortunate rabbit trails since the Reformation. There’s a reason why so many of us that have been labeled “FV” are pastors and not academic theologians (which is not to say that we are untrained or unacademic).
And just for the record, I too love Heidelberg Catechism question one. I too need the active obedience of Christ. I confess and teach that God’s free grace, not our works or our merit, is the only source of our salvation and life.