A Riddle of Love and Election

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?

A Riddle of Love and Election

What Caleb Believes, If You’re Interested

For my two theology classes this semester, I had to write a 10-12 page paper in each detailing what I believe about a mostly comprehensive set of doctrines. Naturally, I was a little to elaborate and ended to with 33 pages between the two of them, but it was a very enjoyable and clarifying experience.

So, for the fun of anyone here, I’m posting the combined credo here. It will briefly summarize the basics of my beliefs on almost everything. Enjoy, and feel free to critique it or ask questions. It’s attached as a PDF.

I Believe: A Credo

What Caleb Believes, If You’re Interested

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Sometimes you’re reading an old Church Father or something along those lines when you suddenly feel the need to stop in your tracks because you hit a quote like this one from St. Athanasius:

For the Son of God became man so that we might become god.

If you’re not from an Eastern tradition of Christianity, you might think that sounds heretical.Then there are other statements like of Irenaeus: “If the Word became a man, It was so men may become gods,” or of Augustine: “But he himself that justifies also deifies, for by justifying he makes sons of God. ‘For he has given them power to become the sons of God.’ If then we have been made sons of god, we have also been made gods.” 

So what does this all mean? Were the Church Fathers just raving heretics who missed important doctrines like monotheism and the Creator/creature distinction? Were they basically the predeccessors of New Age charlatans? I’m going to say “No,” and if that seems indefensible I will go on to explain why, and what the line of thought they’re talking about has to offer us today, specifically from a more Reformed perspective.

The doctrine we are specifically dealing with here is called theosis (also deification or divinization). Broadly speaking, the term just refers to a creature somehow becoming more like a god. For Christian theology in particular it is about a way of looking at salvation focused on our union with God. So what exactly does theosis mean in that context?

First, I should point out that despite the strong language in those quotes I just provided, none of these people thought that humans were somehow going to become equal to God, members of the Trinity, secondary deities, or anything along those lines. What they actually meant is more nuanced. They all believed that there is and can be only one true God, and that humans can’t just become another one, or something just like Him. So we can ignore the initial fear and try to find the reality that the writers were pointing toward by using deification language. Specifically, I will look at this from a Reformed perspective, through the lens of union with Christ.

In Reformed and Lutheran circles, doctrines of theosis are sometimes called Christification to emphasize that we are not dealing with some generic turing of men into gods but that what is happening in theosis is the transformation of humanity into the pure image of Christ, who is the image of God. Theosis means that through Jesus we participate in the life and glory of God, and that is where we find salvation.

What does this mean more specifically? I’ll break it down a little more clearly. Man by his mere flesh, his nature without God, has no true life or glory. He is little more than a smart and emotionally complex monkey. He will pass away after a brief, absurd, and often miserable existence filled with sin. His life and glory can come only from God, only from His ability and call to display the image of God. The glory of God is the true life of man. But because of sin, man is separated from the glory of God. This leaves him with only death and misery.

Jesus came in to resolve this problem. Being Himself God, He took upon human nature so that in His person there could be a humanity who is truly the image of the invisible God. Jesus, being that image unstained, lived a human life which was completely filled with the glory of God both in His power and in His holy character. Unlike Adam, He carried out that union of man’s life and God’s glory all the way to the grave and even back. Upon returning in a victorious resurrection, He was glorified as a renovated human being. His resurrected humanity far surpassed the old, mortal kind. It was and remains filled to the brim with God’s life and glory. Jesus is therefore what God looks like as a man. Jesus’ glory as the resurrected Lord is the human version of the glory of God. He is the image of the invisible God, and the only person in whom human nature has been able to align perfectly with divine nature (though without the two being mixed up together). To reiterate in one more way, in Jesus God’s glory has been translated into a human glory, a glory owned by the risen Christ.

The result with Jesus, then, is this: in Him there exists a form of humanity that far surpasses our fallen, sinful state, and even surpasses Adam’s state in Eden. It is filled with more life, glory, and power than man has ever known because of His union with God the Father through the Holy Spirit.This is humanity grown up, perfected, and exalted as God’s partner in love. This is not by any power inherent in mere humanity, but by grace alone, the free grace of the Son in choosing to become man, the free grace of the Father in resurrecting and glorifying His Son, and the grace of the Holy Spirit in binding this all together by His sovereign power. And by this grace Jesus has formed a kind of humanity which, compared to us in our current state, is so exalted and like-God to possibly justify calling it deified humanity, man become god.

Now, because of this new kind of human existence which Jesus alone possesses by nature, a special union between God and man, the rest of us are invited to join in. But we are called by grace alone through a union of faith with Jesus in the Spirit. And in this union we are transformed. We get to participate in the new, glorious humanity of Christ. We are conformed to the image of Christ (thus Christification), who is the image of God. So by the Spirit we become like the Son who is the exact expression of the Father. In this way we also come to be filled with and to express God’s life and glory. The glory of God became the glory of the man Jesus, and by our union with Him it becomes our glory as well. This is, in the end, our salvation. By our union with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we commune with God so much as to become like Him in a supernatural way which transcends the natural possibilities of anything else in creation. As Peter put it, we “become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), not to become literal equals to God or sub-gods but to become in our human existence what Jesus is in His human existence, an existence which is created and animated by His divine nature.

The focus, then, is all about union with Christ. Theosis, in a Reformed key, is a way of saying, on the basis of Scripture alone, that by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone we are radically transformed and exalted from our totally depraved human existence to a state which lives by and expresses the glory of God alone. By the Spirit and word we know Christ, by Christ we know God, and by knowing God in Christ we are conformed to His image to His glory unto eternal life (2 Cor. 3:18, 1 Jn. 3:2, John 17:3).

This naturally makes for a great Christmas meditation. In theosis, everything has to go back to Christmas. If Jesus did not incarnate, if He did not enter our human existence as an infant in Bethlehem, then there would be no union between God and man, no restoration of human nature by the glory of God. It all began with the Son of God becoming a Son of Man, so that we might become sons of God. On Christmas, we find that by Jesus’ grace He partook in our nature, so that by the same grace we could partake in His.

Or, perhaps as Clement of Alexandria put it, “The Word of God became man, that thou mayest learn from man how man may become god.” Merry Christmas, children of God!

Theosis: Does Christmas Make Men Gods?

Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

The title says it all. Here they are in no particular order with no particular rhyme or reason (all of tweetable length).

  1. No matter what the topic, there is a Christian way of thinking. When we forget this, or more commonly never learn it to begin with, we mess up politics, theology, and so many other things.
  2. Listen to your neighbor’s argument as you would have your neighbor listen to yours.
  3. In all debate and discussion, give your interlocutor the benefit of the doubt.
  4. Before attacking any argument or view, try sincerely to defend it to yourself.
  5. The mind of Christ is not divided. We must always be ready to learn from each other.
  6. Attack positions and arguments as needed, but not the people who use them.
  7. Except to ask a question, don’t respond to an argument you do not fully understand.
  8. If a statement can be interpreted non-heretically: innocent until proven guilty.
  9. Use the label “heresy” sparingly, and avoid it whenever possible.
  10. Even heretics can have great insights: don’t assume everything they say is bad.
  11. Even the best teachers are fallible: don’t assume everything they say is okay.
  12. Just because something’s not heretical doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
  13. Just because someone believes something heretical doesn’t mean they are damned.
  14. Experience and education affect your perspective on evidence…
  15. …But experience and education do not magically alter the soundness of an argument.
  16. Just because you haven’t heard of a view doesn’t mean it’s crazy.
  17. Just because a view seems obvious doesn’t mean it’s right.
  18. Analogies, including in Scripture, can’t be stretched beyond their relevant intent.
  19. The apparent “plain meaning” of a Bible verse is not always the right one…
  20. …But the opposite of the “plain meaning” of Scripture is even less likely.
  21. Someone is not wrong just because they quote someone you dislike.
  22. Godliness and good theology don’t always correlate. Devotion outperforms doctrine.
  23. Every doctrinal position affects other doctrinal positions more than you think.
  24. Inconsistency is not heresy, and heresy is not inconsistency.
  25. Just something looks inconsistent to you doesn’t mean it actually is inconsistent.
  26. Many charges of inconsistency come from a small rational imagination.
  27. Generally, you can’t rule out theological positions on some a priori basis.
  28. Sarcasm is only worth using if it makes an important point in the argument.
  29. If I have all the arguments and all the truth, but do not have love, I have nothing.
  30. Charging your debate opponents with improper motives is bad form and bad love.
  31. Treat debate opponents like Jesus. He might be more on their side than you think.
  32. No doctrine should still make sense if you subtract Jesus.
  33. Avoid as much as possible saying “God couldn’t/wouldn’t do X.”
  34. Not everything that looks like a slippery slope is one.
  35. Never debate in such a way that you couldn’t go off together for ice cream later.
  36. If you form opinions about your interlocutor during a debate, keep them to yourself.
  37. Don’t change the subject with questions hanging.
Caleb’s Rules of Theological Debate

Reflections on Depravity (With Patrick Bowers)

I recently finished up the chess series of the Patrick Bowers books by Steven James (The Pawn through Checkmate; I’m not counting Opening Moves, which I’m still reading). For those who aren’t familiar, it’s a series of crime thrillers which tends to focus both on serial killers and on terrorist plots. That’s enough reason for it to occasionally be a bit outlandish, and too often you find yourself having to choke down some pretty horrific images (human depravity stands out, for sure), but there is gold as well. The relationship between the main character, an FBI agent named Patrick Bowers, and his stepdaughter Tessa Ellis is an interesting one, with plenty of stereotypes but also plenty to appreciate as they grow closer and mature following the death of their wife/mother (not a spoiler: she died before the first book). But even better, they and some other characters get into wonderfully interesting and somewhat deep conversations (both with each other and themselves) about theological and philosophical issues. These alone are worth the read if you can stomach the graphic content.

The theological question I found most engaging is the depravity of man (no, this isn’t a post about total depravity in TULIP). In a series like this, it’s hard to avoid if you think much at all, and Steven James doesn’t avoid it. Instead, he tackles head-on one of the most serious issues about evil: just who is capable of what? What makes serial killers, assassins, and terrorists different from the rest of it.

In the Patrick Bowers series, the only clear answer is, “Very little.”

The prime example of this is how the series frequently calls back a case in which, upon arresting and handcuffing a serial killer, the killer said something that set Bowers off, and he responded by breaking his jaw and preparing to cut him apart with a scalpel before stopping. He recounts over and over in the narration how it felt kind of good, how it frightened him, and how it plagued him with the thought that maybe he and the killers he tracks aren’t so different after all. Indeed, he couldn’t shake the idea that we’re really all this way.

Of course, as Christians we rightly ought to understand from our faith that this is a realistic issue. We are corrupt in our flesh, and easily corrupted even further. As Batman and the Joker have noticed, no one is really more than one bad day away from becoming something which would have horrified them the day before, from actualizing depravity. If you doubt this, consider the Holocaust. Most of the people who participated in the crimes that tortured and killed millions of people were not previously obvious monsters. Before World War II started, you would not have thought anything was wrong with them. In fact, it would be quite absurd and offensive to suggest that Germans were simply more evil than the other peoples at the time. They simply were given the right nudges and conditions to bring out the darkest depths of who they really are. One example of a conversation that highlights this:

“But serial killers always look like the rest of us. They never really look like what they are.”

“Or maybe they always do.”

That was a troubling thought.

She looked at me intently. “I’ve been thinking about it since we talked about how clever criminals can be in prison—how they could ever act so inhuman to each other. Do you know how to turn someone into a monster?”

“I’m not sure. No.”

“Let him be himself without restraint.”

Then she went to her room and left me to sort through what she’d just said.

We’d had discussions on this subject before, and she’d quoted to me the words of Dr. Werjonic: “The road to the unthinkable is not paved by slight departures from your heart, but by tentative forays into it.”

Being yourself without restraint.

Taking deeper forays into your own heart.

Two ways of saying the same thing.

The true nature of man left to himself without restraint is not nobility but savagery.

The King, The Patrick Bowers Series, loc. 241-242 in EPUB version

If there is any moral to take from the Patrick Bowers books, it’s this: No one is more than a few steps away from becoming a killer. And no killer is more than a few steps away from becoming a serial killer. That’s how deep and pervasive human depravity is. It’s in us all, coloring everything we are and do.

Alas, even though the books do in fact touch on Jesus, God, and prayer on many occasions, the fact of Christ as the solution to the depravity in our flesh never really comes out (albeit in one or two places it is implied; e.g. a character notes that we can’t rise above who we are, to which Tessa responds, “Can someone else lift us?”). Instead, by the last book you are left with the vague impression that all we can do is try harder to combat the darkness, and if we’re lucky we might just keep it at bay.

Obviously, such a conclusion would be insufficient hope for anyone who is truly confronted with their own radical evil, the evil James makes so big a theme in his series. Maybe he didn’t intend it to end on that note, but in any case Paul has a better conclusion, the one for which the experiences of Patrick Bowers cry out, in Romans 7:24-8:2.

Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin.

So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death. 

Amen! In a world of darkness, especially in our own hearts, may we look to God in Christ through the Holy Spirit for the only light.

Reflections on Depravity (With Patrick Bowers)

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

I recently started the first volume of Evangelical Calvinism, the big book of essays meant to explain and present the basic mood and mode of this growing development in Reformed theology which goes by that name. It is something of an EC inaugural announcement, showing the basics of what an Evangelical Calvinist approach to the Reformed tradition can look like.

Needless to say, I’m excited. Last night I read the prologue, which was actually just a copy of a declaration by the Presbyterian Church (USA) about union with Christ. It makes for a lovely introduction to how Evangelical Calvinism views theology as a whole, which really is all about union with Christ. Because I love it so much, and because it does a great job indicating the basic mood and direction of EC theology, I’m going to quote it in full (the original can be found here):

Union In Christ: A Declaration

With the witness of Scripture and the Church through the ages we declare:

I.

Jesus Christ is the gracious mission of God to the world and for the world.
He is Emmanuel and Savior,
One with the Father,
God incarnate as Mary’s son,
Lord of all,
The truly human one.

His coming transforms everything.

His Lordship casts down every idolatrous claim to authority.
His incarnation discloses the only path to God.
His life shows what it means to be human.
His atoning death reveals the depth of God’s love for sinners.
His bodily resurrection shatters the powers of sin and death.

II.

The Holy Spirit joins us to Jesus Christ by grace alone, uniting our life with his through the ministry of the Church.

In the proclamation of the Word, the Spirit calls us to repentance, builds up and renews our life in Christ, strengthens our faith, empowers our service, gladdens our hearts, and transforms our lives more fully into the image of Christ.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore the need for repentance, that discount the transforming power of the Gospel, or that fail to pray, hope and strive for a life that is pleasing to God.

In Baptism and conversion the Spirit engrafts us into Christ, establishing the Church’s unity and binding us to one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that seek unity in theological pluralism, relativism or syncretism.

In the Lord’s Supper the Spirit nurtures and nourishes our participation in Christ and our communion with one another in him.

We turn away from forms of church life that allow human divisions of race, gender, nationality, or economic class to mar the Eucharistic fellowship, as though in Christ there were still walls of separation dividing the human family.

III.

Engrafted into Jesus Christ we participate through faith in his relationship with the Father.

By our union with Christ we participate in his righteousness before God, even as he becomes the bearer of our sin.

We turn away from any claim to stand before God apart from Christ’s own righteous obedience, manifest in his life and sacrifice for our sake on the cross.

By our union with Christ we participate in his knowledge of the Father, given to us as the gift of faith through the unique and authoritative witness of the Old and New Testaments.

We turn away from forms of church life that discount the authority of Scripture or claim knowledge of God that is contrary to the full testimony of Scripture as interpreted by the Holy Spirit working in and through the community of faith across time.

By our union with Christ we participate in his love of the Father, manifest in his obedience “even unto death on the cross.”

We turn away from any supposed love of God that is manifest apart from a continual longing for and striving after that loving obedience which Christ offers to God on our behalf.

IV.

Though obscured by our sin, our union with Christ causes his life to shine forth in our lives. This transformation of our lives into the image of Christ is a work of the Holy Spirit begun in this life as a sign and promise of its completion in the life to come.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in the holiness of the One who fulfilled the Law of God on our behalf.

We turn away from forms of church life that ignore Christ’s call to a life of holiness, or that seek to pit Law and Gospel against one another as if both were not expressions of the one Word of God.

By our union with Christ we participate in his obedience. In these times of moral and sexual confusion we affirm the consistent teaching of Scripture that calls us to chastity outside of marriage and faithfulness within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to pray for and strive after a rightly ordered sexuality as the gracious gift of a loving God, offered to us in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We also turn away from forms of church life that fail to forgive and restore those who repent of sexual and other sins.

V.

As the body of Christ the Church has her life in Christ.

By our union with Christ the Church binds together believers in every time and place.

We turn away from forms of church life that identify the true Church only with particular styles of worship, polity, or institutional structure. We also turn away from forms of church life that ignore the witness of those who have gone before us.

By our union with Christ the Church is called out into particular communities of worship and mission.

We turn away from forms of church life that see the work of the local congregation as sufficient unto itself, as if it were not a local representation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church called together by the power of the Spirit in every age and time until our Lord returns.

By our union with Christ our lives participate in God’s mission to the world:
to uphold the value of every human life,
to make disciples of all peoples,
to establish Christ’s justice and peace in all creation,
and to secure that visible oneness in Christ that is the
promised inheritance of every believer.

We turn away from forms of church life that fail to bear witness in word and deed to Christ’s compassion and peace, and the Gospel of salvation.

By our union with Christ the Church participates in Christ’s resurrected life and awaits in hope the future that God has prepared for her. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Through the EC Book: A Declaration about Union with Christ

Project Credo: Trinity

This semester I am taking two introductory classes on Christian doctrine, both of which require me to write a 10-12 page credo, simply expressing what I believe about every topic covered in class. I started work on one of these recently, and for fun I thought I’d share my section on the Trinity. (Yes, I will be posting the full credos as PDFs when I’m finished.)

The Trinity

There is only one God, one true divine being with one single essence or ousia. He is a single Subject, indivisible, who cannot be broken apart. Yet it belongs to the one divine essence to subsist in three distinct Persons, revealed as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each Person is fully and entirely God, possessing the fullness of the one divine nature in unity with the other Persons. God thus exists as a unity-in-trinity, or a trinity-in-unity, in which the single divine ousia exists in a trifold mode of three hypostases. The Persons are each distinguished not by any divine attributes of which one person has more or less, for they are all entirely equal and divine, but by their relations to each other. The Father is the Father precisely because He is Father of the Son, for example. Apart from these internal relational distinctions, there is no possible essential or eternal difference to draw between the Persons of the Trinity. They are each essentially equal in power, glory, wisdom, authority, and love. They share one will, intelligence, and emotional life. There is no hierarchy, supremacy, or subordination of any kind within the immanent/ontological Trinity. The Father is an unqualified equal to the Son who is an unqualified equal to the Spirit who is an unqualified equal to the Father. Each has the fullness of the one divine nature, the one divine nature which itself constitutes them as relations of one God. The divine nature both constitutes the relations of the Triune Persons and is constituted by their relations. In these relations, the Father eternally begets the Son, and the Father and the Son eternally spirate the Spirit, but in these cases the generation neither compromises the aseity of each member nor defines some kind of ontological contingency. Neither should the begetting of the Son of the procession of the Spirit be seen as Persons originating from the unoriginate Person of the Father, but rather the Persons come from the being of the Father, the one ousia which each Person fully shares. 

In history, God has expressed Himself in a unique Triune economy, and the way the Trinity is expressed in redemptive history is called the economic Trinity. In the economic Trinity, as a general pattern, the Father sends and initiates, the Son obeys and accomplishes, and the Spirit implements and consummates. In this economy the Father clearly takes the ultimate authority, this likely because of the correspondence with His eternal begetting of the Son and spiration of the Spirit. The Son is, in a certain sense, the fulfillment of God’s economy, as throughout the Old Testament and finally in the Incarnation He was (and remains) the personal, distinct, tangible appearance of God within creation. Throughout the whole of redemption, the Spirit acts as the agent of divine power, the one who accomplishes the supernatural divine will within natural space and time. These role distinctions are consistent and ultimate in human relationship to God, but they are not themselves internal to the divine being, though they in an imperfect and finite way reflect the internal Triune relations of God. They call forth a response for human faith and practice which seeks to worship the Father through the mediation of the Son by faithful union in the Spirit, and to do the will of the Father on the ground of the work of the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Project Credo: Trinity