To Give Thanks: Francis Turretin vs. Karl Barth on God’s Sovereignty vis-à-vis the Problem of Evil

I found Christopher Green’s comparison between the views of the two theological giants that were Francis Turretin and Karl Barth regarding God’s sovereignty vis-à-vis evil very illuminating, so I thought I would share it. Green writes:

In the traditional teaching, the orthodox make a hamartiological distinction in order to accommodate the providentia circa malum [providence in relation to evil], between an “order of being” and an “order of morals.” The order of being is the proper object of the voluntas beneplaciti [God’s decretive will] in the providential disposing of all created things. That is, as God orders all events according to his will, these events are arranged to align with his will according to their being. Since opposition against God’s will is impossible, he reveals the sin which opposes him through a different will, that is the voluntas signi [God’s prescriptive will]. It is in this domain that the will of God may be resisted. Sin may take place, then, in the context of an order of morals, and the creature’s being may still be secure beneath God’s sovereignty. The francisturretinportraitethical domain must be kept separate for the orthodox, as God providentially allows the creature to choose sin but does not condone it in the sense of his actio. With another reversal, Barth asserts that the creature’s acknowledgment that all of creation is one order is a matter of thankful obedience to Christ.

Francis Turretin, as an example of an orthodox thinker, finds that the order of morals is the arena where God reveals his opposition against sin. Turretin states: “In every moral action we must necessarily distinguish the substance of the act in the genus of being from the goodness and wickedness of the same in the genus of morals.” It is on the basis of this distinction that God can be said to change his mind in the biblical narratives, as the voluntas signi does not univocally echo the will of God ad intra. Turretin continues:

Thus the volition of stealing reduplicatively and circumstantiated here and now, is indeed essentially evil with regard to another’s property; but the volition, to which that circumstance happens by which it is a volition to steal, is not essentially evil in like manner […] God was unwilling that the brethren of Joseph should sell him and that the Jews should crucify Christ, since they were most heinous crimes against the law. Yet he is said to have willed, yea, even to have done these things. (Gen. 45:7; Acts 4:28) [Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, p.510-511]

Importantly, this position leads Turretin to make statements similar to those belonging to Barth during the Göttingen period. In some sense, God must be said to be the “cause” of sin. In this manner, Turretin’s explication of the providentia circa malum describes the situation that originally causes Barth to suspect a difficulty with the orthodox position with respect to divine holiness. When this same strain begins to show in Turretin’s writing, he reiterates the distinction between an order of being and of morals. Turretin states:

God is the cause of the human will; therefore he is the cause of sin—for when the created will sins, it turns aside and fails from the order of the first cause. And God who is the cause of the will per se, cannot be called the cause of the evil action, which is from the will not simply in the genus of being (as it is from God), but from the will failing as to the law in the genus of morals. [Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, p.525]

Barth’s repudiation of the orthodox position on the will of God has implications for all of creaturely life, life that undergoes both moral and immoral action. Consistent with Barth’s position on the voluntas beneplaciti and signi, he invests both the being of the creature and her ethical life in her response to the self-revelation of God in Jesus 6a00d83451cfe769e201310fb8506c970cChrist. Since the dual-order structure in the life of God has been merged in Christ, the very essence of the creature must also be said to be equivalent with his own act of praise: “Gratitude is to be understood not only as a quality and an activity but as the very being and essence of this creature.” Barth’s position comes full circle in this way: praise is the realization of God’s will not only for the creature’s moral life, but for his physical being as well. Sin can never be a power in the hands of the creature, enabling it to establish a secondary order outside the sovereign Creator’s will: “Thus we must not focus our attention on the sinner, as though by his sin he had founded a new order of things which had an independent meaning.” Rather, “by doing this and this alone does he distinguish himself as being from non-being […] ‘To be or not to be? that is the question’ and it is decided by the way in which we answer the question: To give thanks or not to give thanks?”[1]

I wish to make no other comment on this than to simply reiterate the final question posed by Barth via Green: which of these ways of conceiving God’s relationship to the ever-present problem of evil provide us with this greatest grounds for living life doxologically, in praise and gratitude for all of the ways and works of God?

I leave it to you to ponder this question.


[1] Green, C.C., 2011. Doxological Theology: Karl Barth on Divine Providence, Evil, and the Angels J. Webster, I. A. McFarland, & I. Davidson, eds., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.33-35.


Reforming Calvinism: Total Depravity (Addendum)

Before moving forward in my series Reforming Calvinism to the atonement, I would like to briefly revisit my Evangelical Calvinist revision of ‘total depravity’ to add a few important Totaly-Depravity-AVATARthoughts. I am doing this because I always aim to learn new things and refine my thinking, and so I never expect to say all that needs to be said about something the first time that I say it! As I continue learning, I hope to be always reforming, and my own recent studies have led me to a greater awareness of some of the issues involved in reconstructing the doctrine of ‘total depravity’. For this reason, I want to add a few thoughts here to flesh out a bit more what I wrote previously on this topic (which can be accessed here and here).

Inspiring this addendum is the historical authority Richard Muller who discusses the Reformedorthodox view of the natural knowledge of God that fallen human beings can acquire through their contemplation of creation vis-à-vis the saving knowledge of God available only through special revelation in Scripture. Muller explains:

[I]n his discussion of the role of reason in matters of faith, [Francis] Turretin can also acknowledge a few “rays of natural light and certain first principles, the truth of which is unquestionable” that remain in the sin-darkened human understanding. These truths, Turretin continues, are not only true in the context of nature, but also in the context of grace and the “mysteries of the faith.” In very much the same vein, [John] Owen can indicate that “the inbred principles of natural light, or first necessary dictates of our intellectual, rational nature” provide a “rule unto our apprehension” of all things, even of divine revelation. Witsius can even declare that the faint glimmerings of the natural light provide a “foundation” on which the gospel can build: “for as grace supposes nature, which it perfects; so the truths revealed in the gospel, have for their foundation those made known by the light of nature.” Although Witsius here addresses calling and, specifically, the character of the natural knowledge that seems to call human beings to God, only to leave them without excuse in their sins, he also, like Turretin and Owen, raises the issue of the positive relationship of natural reason and the truths it knows to revelation and supernatural theology.

Despite Turretin’s intimation that one can “build” on natural revelation and Witsius’ use of the term “foundation” it is clear that they do not intend to undermine their prior assumption that “supernatural theology” is “strictly called revealed, because its first principle is divine revelation strictly understood, and [because] it is grounded on the word, not on creatures.” Rather Turretin’s intention is to elaborate his other claim that theology drawn on other forms of knowing “as a superior from inferiors” in the very specific sense that it “presupposes certain previously known things upon which it builds revelation.” Thus, despite the fact that reason and faith “are of different classes, the former natural, the latter supernatural,” they are not “opposed”: rather “reason is perfected by faith and faith supposes reason.” Not corrupted reason, but reason “as sound and in the abstract” concurs with and supports theology.[1]

What Muller articulates here is extremely important for understanding one of the ways in which the traditional view of ‘total depravity’, in my opinion, is actually not ‘total’ enough. Although clearly giving primacy to the salvific knowledge available only through the gospel, the Reformed theologians that Muller cites nevertheless espoused the notion that God can truly be known through natural human reason even after the fall on the basis of that which exists in creation. They spoke of the ‘inbred principles’ or ‘glimmerings’ of natural light that still reside in fallen human beings and that constitute a ‘foundation’ upon which the gospel can build. This means that for the Reformed orthodox, the noetic effects of sin certainly did have a dramatic impact on human ability to know God, but not to the extent to which human beings are totally unable to arrive at a true, albeit limited and imperfect, knowledge of God through the remaining light of their own reason.

As becomes clear in these paragraphs, the Reformed theologians grounded this conviction in the famous maxim of Thomas Aquinas that ‘grace does not destroy but rather perfects nature’. In my view, however, this represents a significant problem. As many have noted, Thomas’ dictum bespeaks an optimistic view of fallen humanity that stands in contrast with the Augustinian concept to which the Reformed orthodoxy purportedly ascribed. As A.M. Fairweather states:

The teaching of Aquinas contrasts with that of Augustine on every point which we have mentioned, representing a kindlier view both of man and of nature. The will is free, and the natural desire for the good persists despite sin. Aquinas is more definite than Augustine that reason itself is impaired by sin. But he holds that it can be used, and that we must follow our reason as far as it will take us. Grace and revelation are aids which do not negate reason. Here as everywhere nature itself demands supernature for its completion, and the provision of divine grace meets the striving of human nature in its search for the ultimate good, this quest being itself due to the gracious moving of God.[2]

Although this summation of Thomas’ view is probably not identical to that of the Reformed orthodox, the resemblance is certainly striking. Both evidence a certain optimism in terms of the natural light of human reason that still exists despite the fall. Both define ‘nature’ in terms of that which only needs to be elevated and perfected by grace. Lest we think that this only reflects the thinking of the Reformed orthodox from long ago, R.C. Sproul likewise expresses his great respect and gratitude to Aquinas precisely for the fact that he defended the legitimacy of natural theology, the continuity between fallen human reason and revelation, and the optimistic view of nature’s capacity for grace inasmuch as the former needs only to be perfected by the latter (original article here).

This, to me, is remarkable. The Thomistic view of the grace-nature relationship that the Reformed orthodox, Muller, and Sproul endorse has been convincingly shown by Gregg Allison (following Leonardo De Chirico) to be one of the fundamental principles undergirding all of Roman Catholic theology and practice, giving rise to its formal structure and material content.[3] However, Allison argues that “[b]ecause of the devastatingly deep impact of sin on creation, the notion of nature as possessing some capacity for grace is nonsensical in the evangelical system”.[4] In other words, the very view of nature and grace that is so foundational to Roman Catholicism and so antithetical to Protestantism is that which Sproul and the Reformed orthodox endorse!

It is arguably the Thomistic view of nature and grace that gives rise, for example, to Catholicism’s concept of justification as a grace-empowered cooperative effort between God and human beings. While Sproul would assuredly oppose this understanding of justification, it ironically stems from a deep conviction that he himself shares. It would therefore seem self-contradictory for Sproul and other Reformed theologians to both oppose Roman Catholicism for its optimistic belief in human capacity vis-à-vis justification and yet hold the very same view with respect to knowledge of God. Indeed, as Muller notes, it is this concept of the grace-nature relationship on which “the entire anthropological and soteriological structure of Reformed theology must be brought to bear”. [5]

For this reason, I would suggest that the view of ‘total depravity’ articulated by Reformed theologians such as Sproul is not actually ‘total’ enough. Due to their underlying Thomism, they want to attribute to human nature, even in its fallen state, a measure of ‘natural light’ that needs only to be further illuminated by the gospel. Is this, however, the biblical view? The Gospel of John, for instance, indicates that the entire world is enshrouded in darkness, and it is only the Light that is Christ himself that can overcome it (John 1:5). Paul, similarly, states that “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). Paul, in other words, compares the human heart to the primordial darkness prior to creation, a darkness so deep and pervasive that only the creative power of the Word of God is able to call the light the gospel into being ex nihilo. This is not a gospel that merely illumines whatever faint glimmerings may already exist. It is a gospel that breaks through total darkness not only by shining forth the light but also by creating the very capacity to see it. Stated differently in the language of Ephesians 2:1-6, we are not merely wounded by sin and in need of healing; we are dead in sin and in need of resurrection.

This is why Karl Barth described the human encounter with God’s Word in the following way:

God and His Word are not given to us in the same way as natural and historical entities. What God and His Word are, we can never establish by looking back and therewith by anticipating. This is something God Himself must constantly tell us afresh. But there is no human knowing that corresponds to this divine telling. In this divine telling there is an encounter and fellowship between His nature and man but not an assuming of God’s nature into man’s knowing, only a fresh divine telling. […] God’s Word is no longer grace, and grace itself is no longer grace, if we ascribe to man a predisposition towards this Word, a possibility of knowledge regarding it that is intrinsically and independently native to him.[6]

Reacting negatively to Barth’s view, Michael Horton responds:

The utterly surprising content of the gospel that sinful humanity could not have predicted, prepared for or mastered leads Barth to the further, more radical, claim that the form in which it comes is incommensurable with our ordinary natural capacities. Thus, the event of revelation, beyond opening eyes blinded by sin and ears deaf to God’s voice, creates its own eyes and ears in the event of its occurrence. Grace does not so much restore nature as replace it.[7]

In comparing Barth and Horton, I think it is clear which is the more ‘total’ of the two views regarding human depravity. Horton thinks that Barth goes too far in that he dispenses with the Thomistic view of grace and nature and its stubborn hold on humanity’s intrinsic capacities for God. According to Horton, the gospel must surely open blind eyes and deaf ears, but to say anything more would denigrate humanity’s ability to cooperate with grace. Barth, on the other hand, believes that the fall has so affected us as human beings that we do not even have the eyes and ears anymore with which to see and hear. The work of salvation, therefore, must be all of grace from top to bottom, not by activating latent or wounded human capacities, but rather by recreating human beings ex nihilo and raising them to new life from their deadness in sin. This latter view, I would contend, is actually more in line with the teaching of John and Paul, not to mention the rest of the New Testament writers. It is a view of human depravity that is truly ‘total’ and that results in a view of grace that is correspondingly ‘radical’. Insofar as the Reformed orthodox want to maintain their hold on the Thomistic/Catholic notion of nature’s inherent capacity for grace, their view of human depravity can never be truly ‘total’, and consequently neither can their understanding of what God accomplishes in us by his grace and through his gospel be as amazing as it truly is.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for inspiring this post.

[1] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp.301-302.

[2] A.M. Fairweather, ‘General Introduction’ to Aquinas on Nature and Grace: Selections from the Summa Theologica, p.22.

[3] Allison, G., 2014. Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment. Wheaton: Crossway.

[4] Ibid., p.48

[5] Muller, R.A., 2003. Post-Reformation reformed dogmatics: the rise and development of reformed orthodoxy;  volume 1: prolegomena to theology 2nd ed., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. p.299.

[6] Barth, K., 2004. Church dogmatics I/1: The doctrine of the Word of God. London; New York: T&T Clark. p.132, 194.

[7] Horton, M., 2008. ‘A stony jar: the legacy of Karl Barth for evangelical theology’, in Engaging with Barth: Contemporary Evangelical Critiques. New York; London: Continuum. p.354.

Reforming Calvinism, pt. 6: Unconditional Election

This is my sixth post in a series on recasting the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) in an Evangelical Calvinist light. If you have not done so already, I would recommend that before proceeding you catch up on previous entries here: Reforming Calvinism. In this post, I would like to begin exploring the second point of TULIP, typically designated ‘unconditional election’. As with my treatment of ‘total depravity’, I will once again quote R.C. Sproul (whose original article can be accessed here) who provides a helpful summary of the classic Calvinist position. In this first part, I will limit myself to offering a critique of this position, and in a subsequent post I will provide an Evangelical Calvinist corrective. Without further delay, here is Sproul:

The Reformed view of election, known as unconditional election, means that God does not foresee an action or condition on our part that induces Him to save us. Rather, election rests on God’s sovereign decision to save whomever He is pleased to save…This doesn’t mean that God will save people whether they come to faith or not. There Unconditional-Election-AVATARare conditions that God decrees for salvation, not the least of which is putting one’s personal trust in Christ. However, that is a condition for justification, and the doctrine of election is something else…

So, then, on what basis does God elect to save certain people? Is it on the basis of some foreseen reaction, response, or activity of the elect? Many people who have a doctrine of election or predestination look at it this way. They believe that in eternity past God looked down through the corridors of time and He knew in advance who would say yes to the offer of the gospel and who would say no. On the basis of this prior knowledge of those who will meet the condition for salvation—that is, expressing faith or belief in Christ—He elects to save them. This is conditional election, which means that God distributes His electing grace on the basis of some foreseen condition that human beings meet themselves.

Unconditional election is another term that I think can be a bit misleading, so I prefer to use the term sovereign election. If God chooses sovereignly to bestow His grace on some sinners and withhold His grace from other sinners, is there any violation of justice in this? Do those who do not receive this gift receive something they do not deserve? Of course not. If God allows these sinners to perish, is He treating them unjustly? Of course not. One group receives grace; the other receives justice. No one receives injustice.

As Sproul makes clear, the classic form of the doctrine of ‘unconditional election’ opposes the view, usually associated with Arminianism, that defines election in terms of God’s choice of those whom he foreknew would believe in Christ. Historically, Reformed theologians have (rightly in my opinion) protested against this definition of election because while it acknowledges the necessity of grace in human salvation, it arguably locates the decisive power in the human will’s ability to, with the assistance of prevenient grace, freely choose to put faith in Christ. As the Reformed perceived, this undermines the gratuity of grace and introduces a subtle element of Pelagianism (or more accurately semi-Pelagianism). Thus, the Reformed insisted that God’s election of human beings unto salvation must be unconditional (i.e. not based on God’s foreknowledge of those who would meet the condition of faith but solely on the basis of the good pleasure of his will), because totally depraved human beings would never be able to freely believe even under the influence of prevenient grace. However, despite its laudable attempts to safeguard the primacy of grace, the classic Calvinist position, at least as Sproul articulates it here, has several fatal flaws. In what follows, I will highlight two in particular.

1) Classic Calvinism tends to absolutize God’s law and justice at the expense of his love and grace. As indicated in his third paragraph, it is clear that Sproul’s concern in defending the classic construal of unconditional election is to vindicate the universality of God’s justice. According to Sproul, God elects some people unto salvation and passes over the rest unto damnation, but in neither case does he do injustice. This is a revealing statement, and it begs the following question: why is Sproul most concerned to show that unconditional election does not violate God’s justice instead of his love and grace? In other words, why does God’s justice extend to all humanity whereas his love and grace do not (at least not in the same measure)? Sproul might respond: “Well, grace does not need to be extended to all because then it would be an obligation and would therefore cease to be grace.” But this does not follow, for would not grace still be grace and God still be free if he willed, under no compulsion and according to his good pleasure alone, to save all humanity? While I personally do not advocate universalism, I use this as a thought experiment to suggest that there is no necessary reason why grace must be limited in its saving scope. In my view, to argue in this way would actually constitute a denial of grace for it would reintroduce compulsion back into the picture. So why does Sproul universalize God’s justice while limiting his salvific grace? I would like to reference the analysis of W. Travis McMaken who begins by quoting a section from Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology (IET):

[God] entered into a twofold covenant with men: first, a legal covenant (or one of works) with innocent man; another of faith and evangelical with fallen and sinful man. by the former, God promised eternal life to the man perfectly fulfilling the law and threatened the sinner with death. . . . By the latter, he promises to the believer safety in Christ and on account of Christ. The former was made with Adam before the fall and in him with all men. . . . The latter was entered into with the elect in Christ after the fall. (IET, 2:12.2.3)

This “safety in Christ and on account of Christ” refers to Christ’s fulfilment of the requirements of the covenant of works, which applies to believers in the covenant of grace. The covenant of grace never overturns the covenant of works; rather, it provides a new way of fulfilling that original covenant, namely, by Christ in our place. In this way, Turretin sees God’s dealings with humanity as being thoroughly consistent, and the covenant of works is the bedrock layer of that interaction.[1]

McMaken uncovers a critical element of Turretin’s theology that also undergirds that of Sproul as well as the standard definition of unconditional election. According to the federal scheme of classic Reformed theology as articulated by Turretin, the “bedrock layer” of God’s relation to humanity is that of law and justice, here designated as the “covenant of works.” In this view, God does not relate primarily to humanity in terms of unconditional love and grace but on the basis of a legal contract that human beings must fulfill in order to have right standing in the divine court. God, in other words, meets humanity first and foremost as a Law-giver and a Judge rather than as a loving and gracious Father. Some classic Calvinists may complain that this is an unfair caricature. I admit that this description is not sufficiently nuanced (this is a blog post after all!). However, as can be seen in the Turretin quote above, classic Calvinism clearly gives precedence to the covenant of works in a way that privileges the responsibility of human beings to perfectly obey God in order to gain and/or maintain his favor. In this scheme, the covenant of grace and its fulfilment in the work of Christ does not do away with the covenant of works but merely provides a way for it to bestow its blessings rather than its curses on those who are unable to perfectly obey it. However, this gracious provision ultimately does nothing to mitigate the fact that God fundamentally relates to humanity on the basis of law and justice rather than love and grace. This is not to create a false dichotomy, for according to Turretin’s logic, Christ essentially becomes the means by which the legal stipulations of the covenant of works can be fully met and God’s wrath can be averted. Thus, a legal contract rather than paternal love does indeed serve as the “bedrock” for God’s relation to humanity. For many reasons, I do not believe that this picture comports with who God reveals himself to be in Scripture.

2) The second flaw in the classic construal of unconditional election is connected to the first. Simply stated, the problem is that it nullifies the very unconditionality of election that it purports to protect. To see why this is so, I would like to return to McMaken’s discussion of Turretin by picking up where I left off:

This account of the relation between the covenants of works and grace, with its undercurrents of a law-gospel pattern, correlates directly with Turretin’s treatment of the divine decrees in his doctrine of predestination. . .  . According to Turretin’s exposition, the infralapsarian position puts the divine decrees into the following order: (1) creation, (2) permission of fall, (3) election and passing over the reprobate, (4) sending Christ as mediator for the election, and (5) effectual calling of the elect with all that presupposes and entails (see IET, 1:4.18.22). It is clear, and a testament to the consistency and cohesion of Turretin’s theology, that this ordering of the decrees correlates with the twofold covenant sequence. The first decree (creation) is the eternal antecedent of the covenant of works while the third decree (election) is the eternal antecedent of the covenant of grace. Occupying the pivotal place between the two covenants is the second decree (permission of fall), and the fourth and fifth decrees are simply the further outworking of the covenant of grace. [2]

McMaken pinpoints another critical aspect of Turretin’s (and likewise Sproul’s and classic Calvinism’s) construal of election. The ordering of the covenants correlates with the logical ordering of the pre-temporal decrees in which God wills the whole of human history from creation through consummation. Although McMaken specifically address the infralapsarian ordering of the decrees (in contrast with the supralapsarian view that places the decree of election logically prior to that of creation), his fundamental point is valid for all forms of Calvinism in which the decree that designates God the Son as the incarnate mediator logically follows that of creation and the fall. The consequence of this move is that revelatory and reconciling work of Jesus Christ becomes accidental in the eternal counsel. That is to say, it becomes contingent on and subordinate to creation and the fall. While some like Richard Muller would argue that in Reformed theology the Son is just as much the electing God as the Father, even Muller admits that the classic view “implies some subordination of Christ to the eternal counsel of God.”[3] Why is this so problematic? Bruce McCormack explains:

For classical Reformed theology, the decree to elect some human beings and to reject others (i.e. election and reprobation) precedes the decree to effect election through the provision of a Mediator (viz. Jesus Christ). But if this logic holds, then what it means is that who or what the Logos is in and for himself (as the Subject of election) is not controlled by the decision to become Mediator in time; that the identity of this Logos is, in fact, already established prior to that eternal act of Self-determination by means of which the Logos became the Logos incarnandus. And if all that were true, then the decision to assume flesh in time could only result in something being added to that already completed identity; an addition which has no effect upon what he is essentially. Being the Redeemer, in this view, tells us nothing about who or what the Logos is in and for himself. It is merely a role he plays, something he does; but what he does in time has no significance for his eternal being. The question which such a view raises in dramatic form is: how coherent can one’s affirmation of the deity of Jesus Christ be if his being as Mediator is only accidentally related to what he is as Logos in and for himself? Is Jesus Christ ‘fully God’ or not?

McCormack’s contention is simply this: the classic construal of unconditional election compromises an orthodox view of Jesus Christ as fully God. How so? If Christ’s incarnation is contingent upon creation and the fall (that is, if the Father sends him only because the world is in need of salvation), then his incarnation does not reflect a truly free and absolutely unconditional decision of God to be this kind of God, namely, the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ. In other words, if Jesus Christ came in the flesh only because human beings fell into sin, then all that he said and did does not really show us God for who he truly is in and of himself, for it only shows us what God decided to do given this particular set of circumstances. Yet the whole purpose of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed’s assertion that Jesus Christ is equal with God and homoousion (of one substance) with the Father was precisely this: to preserve the truth that the God who we see and know in Jesus Christ is God as he is eternally and antecedently in himself. As T.F. Torrance explains:

Epistemologically the homoousion stands for the basic insight that we derive under the creative impact of God’s self-communication upon us—that what God is toward us in his saving economic activity in space and time through Christ and in the Holy Spirit, he is antecedently and eternally in himself. The focal point is Jesus Christ himself. In the cross-level reference from the basic level to the theological level, the insight takes the form that what Jesus Christ is toward us in love and grace, in redemption and sanctification, in the mediation of divine life, he is inherently in himself in his own Being—he is not different in himself from what he manifests of himself toward us in his life and work. But in the cross-level reference from the second to the third level, the insight takes the form that what God is toward us in Christ Jesus, he is inherently and eternally in himself in his own Being—he is not different in himself from what he manifests of himself toward us in Jesus Christ. This means that our experience of God in Christ is not somehow truncated so that it finally falls short of God, but is grounded in the Being of God himself; it means that our knowing of God is not somehow refracted in its ultimate reference, but actually terminates on the Reality of God. In fact, of course, this movement of reference on our part is grounded in the movement of God himself condescending in the free outpouring of his love to be one with us in the incarnation of his Son, and in and through him to raise us up to share in his own divine life and love which he eternally is in himself. That is what the homoousion expresses so succinctly and decisively. [5]

What Torrance explicates here as the inner meaning of the church’s belief in the full deity of the Christ is precisely that which is undermined by the classic Calvinist view of unconditional election. In subordinating Christ to the contingencies of history (contingent in the sense that the decrees of creation and the fall were unnecessary, that is, God was under no compulsion to decree these events), the reconciling work that Christ accomplished ultimately proves to be conditioned by those contingencies. Jesus Christ is thereby reduced to being an accident of history, a particular instance of God’s work ad extra rather than being a revelation of God’s eternal being ad intra. Therefore, even though most classic Calvinists would not acknowledge this, their view ultimately invalidates the truth that by seeing and knowing Jesus we are able to see and know the Father (John 14:9). The Father remains, as it were, dark and hidden behind the back of Jesus Christ, leaving us with the constant, nagging suspicion that the love and grace revealed in Christ do not truly reflect the will of the Father toward us. God relates to us primarily as our Law-giver and Judge, and we will never rest securely that we have done enough, repented enough, or believed enough to be reconciled to him.

In short, the classic Calvinist version of unconditional election is not unconditional enough.


Special thanks to Bobby Grow for ideas in this post and for the McCormack quote.

[1] W. Travis McMaken, The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism After Karl Barth, Fortress Press, 2013, pp.107-108

[2] Ibid., pp.108-109

[3]  Richard Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins, Baker Academic, 2008, p.87

[4] Bruce McCormack, “Grace and Being” in The Cambridge Companion to Karl Barth, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.97

[5]  T.F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology, University Press of Virginia, p.161