Something occurred to me last night when I was reading Herman Bavinck on the infra/supralapsarian debate in classical Calvinism. (‘Twas a pretty good read, by the way. Bavinck is probably the best that classical, federal Reformed theology has to offer.) A strange dilemma seems to appear in the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional, individual election. Specifically, the relation between love and election is confusing.
Generally speaking, in classical Calvinism it’s said that God loves all, but God has a special love for the elect. Not all agree, of course, with some denying God’s love for the reprobate and (I imagine, since if you can think it someone else has already?) some affirming God’s equal love for all people. But my question is directed to the majority report.
So, does election precede special love or does special love precede election?
If election precedes special love, then we’re left with the question of God’s differentiation between the elect and reprobate. If, logically prior to election, God’s love for all is equal, then why do limits develop on His mercy to the people who He makes to be the elect alone? It’s also a worthwhile question what the character is of this supraeclectic love. Prior to God’s election, is this “love” to be understood as having a saving character or less than a saving character? This affects how the decree of election is understood.
On the other hand, if special love precedes election, and by definition election is God’s choosing, then God chooses the elect because He already favored them. But in that case, then God did not choose who He especially loved to begin with. So why did He love them especially if He had not yet chosen them?
Basically, if special love precedes election then God’s differentiating love seems unchosen and intrinsic to God’s relation to men, and it seems weird and arbitrary that God would naturally love some people more than others without choosing specifically to do so. But if election precedes special love, then it is unclear why or how God would give mercy to some and reject some whom He all loves equally.
Anyone have a suggestion how this is to be resolved in a classical Calvinist framework?
One of the primary goals of Evangelical Calvinism is to further reform the Reformed tradition. As I mentioned the other day, the Reformation will never be truly over, and EC focuses on what work still needs to be done. And if we’re going to try to keep reforming the Reformation, we might find it useful to extend the iconic Five Solas, the defining marks of Protestant theology. Here, then, is my proposal for four additional, Evangelical Calvinist solas.
Sola Incarnatio: The Incarnation Alone
The Incarnation alone is the meeting point between God and man, the only possible connection between the Creator and His human creatures. Jesus of Nazareth isn’t just in fact the only way to God, but He is in principle the only way to God. No other way could exist for God and man to have a relationship. There can only be communion between God and man because of the hypostatic union between God and man in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This all is meant to apply even to sinless man. Had Adam never sinned, his destiny would still have been found only in Jesus taking on flesh. Had man never chosen death, his life would still only be fulfilled by coming of Life Himself in human nature. Why? Because God is above, we are below, God is Creator, we are creature, God is infinite, we are finite, God is transcendent, and we are dust. There is an infinite qualitative difference between God and man, a gap that could only be bridged by God’s omnipotent power in becoming one of us.
Sola Apocalypsi: By Revelation Alone
God can be known by revelation alone, His personal self-revelation. The idea of general revelation is a mixed bag: surely the whole creation testifies to its Creator, but among fallen, fleshly men this means little or nothing. There are no ears to hear. If we are to find God at all, if we are to reliably know anything true and certain about Him, we need to be directly confronted by His personal Word. This happens in Christ, the Old Testament preparations which were bound up with His Coming, and the Apostolic witness to Him in the New Testament, by the Spirit.
Sola apocalypsi means that we can’t trust things like natural theology, general revelation, or philosophical arguments to know anything about God except in retrospect. We can see light in these ways through Christ, but apart from Christ it is all darkness.
Solius Benevolentia: Of Goodwill Alone
All things, particularly all men, have been created by God of goodwill alone. There is no malice, no darkness, and no deviousness in God’s plans for His creation. This is meant specifically in contrast to the doctrine that many people have been created not out of God’s kindness per se, but instead were created specifically for God’s wrath or (in a more positive framing) to glorify God by highlighting His justice in punishing their sins. God’s eternal design and desire for no man is doom. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked.
This may seem like a polemic especially against classical Calvinism, but it is not unique to Calvinism. It also applies to the theology of election (actually, for him it was more about providence) in Thomas Aquinas and Augustine. As Evangelical Calvinists, we deny that God’s will for any man terminates in their eternal destruction, regardless of who says otherwise.
Sola Vita: Life Alone
Closely related to the last suggested sola, we affirm that life alone is the end to which God has predestined all people. There is only one singular destiny God has created for His creation, and that is eternal life by the glory of God. No one is predetermined apart from their actual rejection of God to anything else. As Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is living man.” Thus this follows from the traditional soli Deo gloria. God’s glory is the end of all things, and He has sovereignly chosen to manifest His glory precisely in giving His eternal, imperishable life to human creatures.
This destiny, of course, has been proved in Jesus Christ, the archetypal human and new Adam. In raising Jesus from the dead, God has displayed before the world His singular plan for the world. The resurrection and restoration of all things, but particularly humanity, is His design. Anyone who is damned and lost (and there will be many such people) are not so because of God’s will but their own.
God’s wrath is of love. This is not something we normally think about, to be sure, but according to the Scriptures God’s wrath is in fact a function of His love, something He exhibits out of love. This is something which struck me a couple weeks ago when I read this text for a Sunday school lesson:
Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. They abandoned the LORD, and worshiped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the LORD was against them to bring misfortune, as the LORD had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress. Then the LORD raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them.
The story here is this: Israel was delivered by the free grace of God from Egypt and given the Torah as covenant charter, a document establishing the covenant relationship between God and Israel. The Torah stipulated certain curses if Israel failed to obey, most importantly including devastation at the hands of foreign nations. They obeyed (mostly-ish) for a time under the strong leadership of Moses and then Joshua. But finally Joshua died, and idolatry flooded the nation in very little time. So God was under obligation by the terms of the covenant He entered to punish Israel for their unfaithfulness.
Thus we arrive at this text. In response to Israel’s breaking of the covenant, God responded with the curses of the covenant. They worshipped Baals and Astartes, breaking the first two commandments. So God let their enemies plunder the land, gave them failure in their military endeavors, and put them under wicked, oppressive rulers. When we simply skim some verses about this kind of judgment, we are likely to miss just how strong it is. Imagine for a moment the scene of raiders charging through a peaceful village, killing and burning and stealing. Moms search for their children in rubble, families are suddenly decimated, and hard-working people find their homes and livelihoods reduced to rubble. We speak here of horrendous suffering.
Does the word “love” come to mind in this picture? Do you see love here? Yet Scripture tells us that it is indeed present here. It’s in fact God’s original motivation. For these penalties were imposed by the Torah, which itself was a gift of love by which God made up His covenant with Israel. God chose Israel and made a covenant with them out of love, and yet He included these curses in His covenant. The curses are part of, as it were, the marriage contract between God and Israel.
This covenantal form of love is the context for God’s wrath. His wrath operates for the covenant partner. By sending afflictions on Israel for their unfaithfulness, God calls them to return to Him and find the life which He has to offer. If there is no life except from God, then for Israel to pursue anyone or anything else is to run from life. Therefore it is by love that God is angered by Israel’s unfaithfulness and idolatry. As one analogy, nothing will make you more angry with your child than seeing them engage consistently and unrepentantly in self-destructive behavior. Israel degraded herself by idol worship, which aroused the fury of her Husband who loved her and sought her best.
Yet unlike some of us, unlike the frustrated parents or jealous husbands we know, God’s wrath is never uncontrolled or unpredictable. God will never be overwhelmed with passion or so frustrated that He loses control. He does not fly off the handle. Instead, His anger is specifically limited and controlled. He set the terms of His wrath in the Torah, giving detailed rules and guidelines for how He would respond to Israel’s sins. In God’s covenant of love, He limits and directs His fury. And His fury comes from no place but His covenant of love.
Therefore God is love. And even His wrath serves that love, and is specially controlled and limited for our sake. The idea of a wrathful God ought not scare us or make us uncomfortable at all unless we are also uncomfortable with a loving God. “For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child” (Heb. 15:6).
I was reading 1 Corinthians 13 the other day and learned something which I did not know. Apparently, all (or most?) of the descriptions of love are verbs in the Greek. Phrases rendered like “Love is kind” could be rendered ultra-literally as “Love kinds” or more dynamically as “Love acts kindly.” Love is active throughout the passage.
Moreover, the actions ascribed to love in this passage are entirely contrary to the flesh, our natural way of living based on our merely animal aspects. We act in one way by default, by instinct, and that way is entirely opposed to the way of love. They cannot abide one another. They are antithetical at their very core. There is one way of acting characterized by love and another way of acting characterized by the self-being of the flesh, and one cannot act in both ways with creating inner conflict.
This brings me to another thought, namely the way that Christianity is often portrayed as a soft, feminine religion with no room for toughness, conflict, strenuous self-discipline, or heroic efforts. It seems unmanly by any of the traditional traits associated with masculinity. Christianity often appears to be an issue of “love, not war.”
But what I would like to point out here is that, in a very important way, love is war. It is strenuous conflict, the fight against natural instincts of self-service in order to do what is right for God and others. It involves determined efforts to kill the old man. We fight and struggle against not humans, but spiritual forces and powers and the corruptions in nature.
This is a Biblical theme. Paul speaks in Romans 9 to us about killing sin, putting it to violent death in our bodies because we have been hung on a bloody cross to die with Christ. We direct strenuous energy and training into fighting the war of love, which means following our Captain Jesus to fight the way He fought, not against humans but against sin, self-love, and the effects of death and Hell. Jesus fought by resisting all of His natural impulses to save or avenge Himself and instead suffering nobly to complete the mission of God. This is our call as well, and it is a hard one which requires an almost military discipline, or even more than that.
Acts is also portrayed as a conquest narrative. It has numerous parallels with Joshua, showing Canaan and then the world being conquered by the preaching of the Gospel through Christ’s elite warriors. These warriors suffer just as other warriors do, more literally than in most of these other parallels as they experienced flogging, beating, and all kinds of torture or harsh conditions.
This is all specific to love, not just a conception of Christianity in general. We do and must do all of these things for the sake of love, love for God and for people. It is love which must be the force here, and yet it is also through these fights and struggles that we actually love. There is circularity here: love compels us to fight the war that enables us to love.
I also do not say this merely to point out an interesting idea in thinking about love. I’m pointing this out because this realization has two possible benefits. On the one hand, it is a reminder to men that Christianity is serious conflict, that it is not simply sitting around singing mushy songs and feeling fluttery feelings about God and others. Rather, it is a fight. In Christianity we are called to act like heroes who love by taking down sin and self-centeredness like Liam Neeson takes down Eastern European criminals in order to serve the ones we love. We are like the troops who lay down their lives to protect their families and honor their king.
On the other hand, I say this to remind us that love is effort, serious effort in which we will have to suffer. Like in war, we must discipline ourselves and be consciously vigilant against all threats. Love and our loved ones are located in a battle zone, and we must behave in a way that makes sense in such high stakes. It takes diligence, self-control, attention, and obedience to orders if we want our love, our mission to put God and others first, to succeed.
Onward, then, Christian soldiers. Let us march on to the war that is love.
Once upon a time, the Twelve Apostles (including Matthias) came together under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to write the Apostles’ Creed as the core of Christian belief. At least, so the story goes. While historically it’s probably not true, it cannot be denied that the substance of the Apostles’ Creed goes way back. It was the first of the three ecumenical creeds accepted by all Christianity (Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox). It summarizes in very brief form the message of the Gospel as found in the New Testament.
So, given its importance, I’m going to so a series on the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. This first post will be on, naturally, the first article, of God the Father Almighty.
The Creed states as follows:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
It sounds simple enough. What do we learn from this?
First, we begin with “I believe.” The content of the Creed, the Gospel of the Triune God who has acted in and as Jesus Christ, is taken by faith. We do not now see Jesus. We do not have any way to verify with our own reasoning or arguments that Jesus truly was and did everything we believe about Him. There are reasons to believe, but not proof, and our mental hands are not forced by any logical necessity. We accept the content of the Creed by faith, the act of submitting our minds to God’s revealing His Son to us by His Spirit through His Word. We confess first that our attempts at proof and verification are, if not worthless, certainly inadequate, and so we have no other grounds that trust in the self-revealing God and His Word communicated in Scripture and the preaching of the Gospel.
Next, we see that God is first defined as “Father.” Unlike many confessions and works of theology or dogmatics, which initially identify God through creation, the Creed begins with His identity as Father. We know God as Father first because we know Him truly through the Son. As Athanasius once remarked, “It is more pious and more accurate to signify God from the Son and call Him Father, than to name Him from His works only and call Him Unoriginate.” God is the Father of the Son before and apart from creation, and because He creates and recreates us by and in His Son, He makes Himself to be our Father as well. Because God’s being Father is ultimately first, and His position as Creator second, we know that God’s first and foremost intentions and regard for us are of fatherly love. Before God is anything else to us, He is the loving Father.
We also see that this Father is “almighty.” Note that this almightiness is connected, not to His role as Creator, but to His being the Father. This is essential for us to know: that God is not first merely all-powerful creator deity but that He is all-powerful precisely as our loving Father. In this we know that God’s almighty powers, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence, are not against us or even simply neutral toward us, but rather act for us. God is the Almighty, the one who alone holds all power and knowledge and wisdom and immortality, and this almighty God is our Father. In this we can be assured of God’s gracious intention in His rule over all things. Whatever happens to us happens under the care of our almighty Father.
At this point the Creed adds that God is Creator, that He made the heavens and the earth. Only after we know that God is first and foremost Father, and that as Father He has almighty power, is it safe to consider that He is the Creator. Creation is an act of the loving Father out of His almightiness. We exist by His will alone. This puts a claim on us all. If He is Creator, than we depend on Him for every breath, and again this is a dependence in our Father. But we must therefore obey Him. Even our ability to disobey Him is something that exists by His creative power, and thus we are necessarily at His mercy in all we do. In this case it behooves us to live rightly before Him. And we can be assured, since the Creator is Father, that all He demands of us is truly good and that the world is so ordered under His creative will that obeying Him truly does bring us benefit.
Finally, we note that God is the Creator of both heaven and earth. It should strike us that both the earthly and the heavenly realms are creations. Heaven and earth are twin realities created by God, and both had a beginning. Heaven has not always existed, and is not God’s eternal home. Heaven is rather the invisible and spiritual side of the created order where God makes His throne from which to rule the earth. In heaven God’s fatherly will truly does reign and all things are ordered as they should be, and so heaven is the model and destiny of earth. We pray through Christ for the Father who created heaven and earth to make earth more like heaven until the day when the two will be united into one, just as the God of heaven and man of the earth have united in Christ Jesus.
As one final note, we see that all things whatsoever are included in heaven and earth, so that there is nothing outside of God which was not created by God. And since this Creator is Father, we know that everything which exists can only exist in relation to His fatherly care. Nothing could exist apart from the creative will of the God we know as Father. Therefore nothing exists except for our benefit as children. We also know that, as children, we are set to inherit all created things. For if the Son is the heir of the Father, and the Father has created all things, and we have been made sons in the Son, then we are the rightful heirs of creation. In the meantime we may use and enjoy all that is our Father’s in gratitude, and in the end all things belong to us, and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Kill the miracle child. That was God’s demand to Abraham. An old man was told to take his young son, whom he had never thought would be conceived and waited patiently for years to see be born, plunge a knife into him, and burn his body. All of this for a God who had already made him leave behind his homeland and family on faith. Why? Why another test, and one of such horror?
Ultimately, Abraham chose to continue in steadfast faith, hoping perhaps desperately for even a resurrection. He seemed willing to believe that the God who brought new life out of his own all-but-dead body could also bring new life out of the ashes of his son’s. This took deep faith and surely serious internal conflict. Such a choice for God few seem truly able to make.
I find it bothersome, then, that there are people even in the Church saying that Abraham didn’t really have to make that choice, or even shouldn’t have made it. Rachel Held Evans, for example, made this argument a couple years ago. According to such arguments it would have been okay or even right for Abraham to defy what he heard as the command of God (or was it?) out of love for his son. Love is the essence of Christian morality, right? Killing a child isn’t love, and why’s a supposedly good God commanding this, anyway?
Now put that thought in hold for a moment to consider a somewhat related argument about martyrdom. Some in the Church argue that it’s not ultimately important what you say or believe about God so long as you live a life of Christ-like love. In this case, there’s no reason to confess Jesus even on pain of death. Instead, you should just trample His name under your feet when threatened and use the life you escape with to show Christ’s love to others through mercy and self-sacrifice, though perhaps without mentioning Him.
To put these two arguments in a room together, then, imagine a situation in which you are on trial for professing Christ in a hostile environment and you are told to deny Christ or your children will be killed. By the logic of both of these arguments above, you should deny Jesus and save your kids. That’s the only way you can honor the essence of Christianity, which is to love others. To follow the examples of the martyrs or Abraham would be at best a mistake.
But what if both of these arguments are wrong? They seem to share the assumption that other people are the soul of Christianity, but what if they aren’t? What if God’s love and purpose for us expressed in Christ and His Resurrection are the center? What if everything else, including love for others, hangs upon this reality?
If Christ and His Resurrection are truly central, then both of the arguments fail. If Christ is at the center, and He is the love of God, and there is no other love of God than the person of Jesus, then to deny Him is to deny the love of God. To deny the love of God is then to deny the very ground on which any love for others firmly stands, for apart from God’s electing love for man, man is nothing. If the Resurrection is truly God’s loving purpose for us in Christ, then death cannot be regarded as a final evil, but only as a temporary one forced to serve the victory of God in His love toward us. Death ushers in eternal glory rather than being a true obstacle to the welfare of man in Christ.
By this logic, the logic of grace, we would find ourselves once again called to make Abraham’s choice. Do we truly believe in Jesus Christ as the end-all, be-all? Do we trust the promise of God to raise His people from death into the glory of their Lord? Will we doubt that those who lose their lives in Christ will find them in Him? Or are we skeptical of God’s promise to crown His martyrs with His Son?
The idea, of course, of sacrificing our children, or any loved ones, to remain faithful to the God of love is still as confusing and horrifying as ever, to be sure. We may be tempted to ask how a good God could ever expect such a thing out of us. How is there love in this? But as always, we must be pointed to Christ. God may someday ask our sons of us, but He has already given up His Son for us. In doing so He has also revealed in advance what happens to sacrificed sons: resurrection and eternal glory and power. If we can make Abraham’s choice, then we will receive our children back to us in greater form than we gave them up, and we will still have Christ as well. In the resurrection, martyrs and their parents find, to speak colloquially, that they can have their cake and eat it, too. Indeed, when we understand love from a center in God’s love in Christ rather than in ourselves, we find that this was the way to truly love our family all along.
None of this changes the awful terror of any such prospect. Would I be able to give up my children in faith that God would raise them from the dead? As someone planning to spend considerable time on the mission field, I have no guarantee that this question will always be hypothetical. Will I be ready? Will my faith be that deep? I hardly know from the comfort of my air-conditioned home full of food at a Christian educational institution. May God have mercy on myself and my family if the situation ever does arise. But in the meantime, I believe, and pray the Lord to help my unbelief, that for both me and my household to live is Christ and to die is gain.