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Monday, May 12, 2014

Baptist Faith & Message Ch. 5 "God's Purpose of Grace" Part 1

"Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which He regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God's sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility."

I think this brief statement on election allows for a healthy breadth of differently nuanced views in the SBC, and states the most important things about it. Election is: gracious; God's purpose; the sovereign foundation for all the benefits of redemption in Christ; a display of God's sovereignty, goodness, and wisdom; and a means of eliminating human boasting.

To begin commenting on a few details:

I am glad to read the words "consistent with the free agency of man," rather than something more generic and ambiguous like the "free will" of man. I would personally want to press for even further definition in the direction of my own tradition's view, but "free agency" (at least from what I understand it to mean--and I could be mistaken) is a good technical term borrowed from philosophy that denotes simply the reality (not illusion or denial) of man's moral volition.

Man is not a robot or puppet who is coerced to think, speak, or move in certain ways by God's sovereign hand apart from or against his own willing to think, speak, or move in those ways. God certainly at least sometimes initiates changes in, and influences, men, and in stronger views of providence like my own, even superintends and ultimately sovereignly controls and in one way or another "brings about" whatsoever comes to pass, including the choices of men.

Yet even in stronger views of providence it is not as though God simply pulls strings or writes programs. He works in and through the hearts and minds of men (rather than in some mechanical, robotic way) to bring about His good pleasure in them--particularly and most directly and actively in His own people. The accent in Scripture is squarely on the gracious redemptive work in His elect, without denying God's purposefulness in also handing some people over to further sin and darkness which they experience through their own immediate doing. God need only withdraw His merciful restraining hand to further harden an unregenerate person. He (purposefully) allows some sinners to freely go their own way to destruction, but works in the hearts of the elect to bring them to faith and obedience.

Another example of this "concurrent" view of providence specifically with regard to human beings is the inspiration of Scripture. God did not "zap" Paul's or Jude's hands so that they began writing New Testament Scriptures, but rather worked in and through their minds, hearts, personalities, and life situations, so that they freely produced these authentic personal letters to the churches. All the while, still, God was sovereignly working out in history exactly what He had predestined to occur beforehand.

Even in the radical act of regeneration in which, I believe (as discussed in an earlier section), God sovereignly and unilaterally brings spiritually dead hearts to life, the heart of man is changed so that he freely begins to exercise faith in Christ (actually to be more precise, I'm not sure "believing" itself is as much of a "choice" as we sometimes think it to be, but rather more like a divinely-given spiritual apprehension of who Christ is, on the basis of which we then freely repent and begin to follow Him; so the newly regenerate person who is a morally "free agent" is sweetly enslaved to obedience to Christ, not by coercion, but by the Spirit's renewal of his or her willingness itself).

The way in which election is consistent with "free agency" will vary from theologian to theologian, preacher to preacher in the SBC. Arminian and Molinist theologians will want to say that the kind of free agency humans have is and must be specifically libertarian free will, according to which human beings "could have done otherwise" in every (?) possible sense, for every choice they make. In most systems this would preclude unconditional individual election unto salvation (or unto anything involving choices, for that matter). But it could include conditional individual election, or some views that only include election as a corporate category (don't ask me how Barthians stay out of universalism, though).

Theologians with more traditionally Reformed soteriology can still affirm the BF&M on "free agency," too. Unconditional individual election unto salvation (the 'U' in the infamous TULIP) still comprehends, as the BF&M itself affirms about election generally, "all the means in connection with the end." That is to say, the caricature of Reformed soteriology or any other historic Christian view of election that posits people being dragged to heaven kicking and screaming against their will, or reprobates thrown into the lake of fire despite desperate love for Jesus and faith in His redemptive work, is nonsense. In Calvinism, certainly, election results in, temporally and logically/causally, regeneration/faith/repentance (conversion), etc., straight on through to glorification. And none of it (except, in a certain qualified sense, regeneration) happens against or apart from a person's will (regeneration produces the change of the will itself).

In sum on free agency, all orthodox Christian views--Reformed (eh, I'm tempted more and more to call it historic Protestant) or otherwise--should affirm creaturely freedom of man at least in the sense that he or she can always do what he or she wants (and I would argue that apart from natural inability (see Jonathan Edwards' distinction between "moral" and "natural" inability), does do what he or she wants), and is therefore morally responsible to God for every word, deed, and intentional thought (and probably other "thoughts" in many ways, too). For fallen man with fallen desires, that's actually what "enslavement" to sin or righteousness means: a sinner freely does what he or she wants to do, as a free agent, but needs God to change those "wants" in a Godward direction to effect salvation and create an "enslaved free agent" of Jesus Christ (please no sports jokes here).

In some ways eternal mysteries are broached when we dive deeper into the relationship of man's moral responsibility to God's meticulous providence over all that comes to pass and the "answer" (or perhaps merely the appropriate paradigm) is surely to do with God's covenantal condescension and incarnation--His ability to sovereignly bring together the eternal and the temporal, infinite and finite, Creator and creature, decree and history, in such a way that each fully retains its own nature and essential attributes and in such a way that the "divine" side of things is ultimate (consider the Chalcedonian definition of Christ's hypostatic union, and the doctrines of enhypostasis and anhypostasis in relation to Christ's person). K. Scott Oliphint has begun to develop a so-called "Reformed Free Will Defense" against the problem of evil in this regard that is very interesting.

Yet when it comes merely to election, and sinners with free agency who desperately need to have their free agency radically reoriented to the things of God, by His grace, through faith in the gospel of His Son, it is actually difficult for me, as a Calvinist, to see how election and "free agency" could be seen as being at odds at all, given that both are properly defined and understood. All men in Adam freely do what they want: sin. God elected some of them for salvation before the foundation of the world. In history, God converts His people through regeneration. They then continue to do what they want, but their wants have changed: righteousness is forefront (though the "flesh" remains and they are mixed men, as it were). Simple!

A couple of other things to note:

In my opinion, for election to truly "exclude boasting" and "promote humility" (as the BF&M says) to the fullest extent that it should, it needs to be understood as nothing less than unconditional election of individuals unto salvation.

Conditional election, by which God foreknows a person's libertarian-ly free decision to embrace Christ by faith, and on the basis of that knowledge, elects a person unto salvation, makes election ultimately dependent on a human being's decision to believe in Christ or not. Many proponents of this view are adamant that the "faith" envisioned here should not be understood as a "work" but as a mere receipt of the gift of salvation, nothing meritorious in itself. Yet opponents continue to wonder just what it is in a person that causes him or her to choose one way or the other (or is it just "chance?" surely not...), and for those that choose Christ, how could it not be something ultimately that could be boasted about over those who rejected Him?

Corporate election is a biblical category, and scholars' appreciation for its importance in the New Testament has risen, especially with the influence of the New Perspective(s) on Paul, which emphasizes the communal aspects of soteriology in the Church. The two most classic passages in the New Testament on election/predestination, Romans 9 and Ephesians 1, are very corporate in their emphases. As N. T. Wright has correctly, as I believe, observed, the New Testament writers in a sense "re-imagined" the corporate election of ancient Israel as the covenant people of God around Jesus the Messiah and those who have faith in Him, namely, the Church. Therefore it is now the Church which is the "chosen Son of God" like Israel was, because it is united to Him, as His holy Bride (to change the metaphor once).

But does "corporate election" exhaust the import of the New Testament teaching on election? Hardly. And certainly, corporate election alone could never eliminate all human boasting! Exegetically, Romans 9 is where Paul begins to answer the question, "If God is so faithful to keep His promises--particularly those beautiful, climactic ones in Romans 8--what about ethnic Israel, most of whom have now stumbled over Messiah in unbelief?" Paul's first answer is, in a word, "remnant." There is a remnant of ethnic Israel chosen by grace, among whom Paul found himself as a believer in Messiah. Yes, "chosen...by grace." For it is not man who wills or runs, but God having mercy, which ultimately determines election (Romans 9:16).

Of course this has massive corporate implications, and indeed a Jew reading Romans has the election of Israel as a whole in the forefront of his or her mind here. But Paul's examples of election (Isaac, Jacob, Pharaoh--which have national/corporate overtones, to be sure), and most importantly Paul's application of the doctrine of election (Romans 9:6-7), is intensely individual. He is answering the question: why do some individual Israelites not believe in Christ? Answer: unconditional, gracious election, and the hardening of reprobation. Only this doctrine in its most robust form can destroy national/ethnic pride and presumption (for "not all Israel is Israel"), and give hope (still without pride!) to the "ha goyim" Gentile dogs now being incorporated en masse into the elect Israel of God in Christ, because of God's individual election of many of them.

Finally, it will not do to limit election to the idea of election unto vocation or temporal salvation/judgment. Those who press for such a view in Romans 9 really press credulity to the breaking point, in light the of the eight chapters of Romans that come beforehand, especially Ch. 8 which reaches into eternity past as well as eternity future, in explicitly soteriological terms. They also fail to apply principles of typology and see the eschatological import of the Old Testament judgment of Pharaoh, for instance. Predestination unto vocation is surely biblical; Jeremiah's prophethood and Paul's apostleship are two obvious examples we all know.

We may even say that vocational election should ever be joined to soteriological election, so that our salvation serves our progress in stewarding Creation and bringing about (by God's blessing, ultimately) more of the fullness of New Creation. But vocational election does not and cannot exhaust the biblical material on election, nor can it ever remove human boasting by itself.

For these and other exegetical reasons, I believe that the BF&M's right concern that election be understood to exclude all human boasting would only be fully consistent with a Reformed view of unconditional, individual election unto salvation. But I am glad for the careful, broad language the SBC has employed to express the big-picture most important biblical things about election, and then to allow for a multiplicity of specific views on this secondary doctrinal area.

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