Thursday, January 27, 2011

Horton on Election: Modern Purgatory Prolonged?

I see that the Matthew Miller, who has 86.667% of the best name ever, has an upcoming interview with Michael Horton on election.  I'll admit to being not surprised, but mildly exasperated, and more than a bit saddened, that Horton appears to revert to Calvin on election in his new Systematic Theology.  Horton says Calvinism has been caricatured, and that it has.  But it's hard to imagine someone giving a more sympathetic, careful and thorough reading of the Reformed tradition on predestination than does Barth in his exegetically-loaded Church Dogmatics II.ii; and yet, Barth fixed that tradition's defining error.  It wasn't sufficiently focused on Christ, which is to say, it was insufficiently Scriptural.  Let me explain.

In the nineteenth century, the great German-American church historian Philip Schaff concluded a survey of the Protestant doctrine of election with this: "But there is a higher position...  The predestinarian scheme of Calvin and the solifidian scheme of Luther must give way or be subordinated to the Christocentric scheme."  Schaff, however, had the humility to realize that, as a church historian, he was unable to do the job. 
Calvinism has the advantage of logical compactness, consistency, and completeness.  Admitting its premises, it is difficult to escape its conclusions.  A system can only be overthrown by a system.  It requires a theological genius of the order of Augustine and Calvin, who shall rise above the antagonism of divine sovereignty and human freedom, and shall lead us to a system built upon the rock of the historic Christ, and inspired form beginning to end with the love of God to all mankind (Church History, Vol. 8, p. 544).
That, published in 1892 when Karl Barth was just four years old, was a prophecy.  I'm heavily critical of Barth at this blog, but it is a criticism that happens from within the certainty that when it comes to the matter of election, Barth was the genius for which Schaff hoped, and no doubt prayed.

But is Calvin on election really that bad?  In what my friend Dan playfully calls, "the book," David Hart mentions Calvin briefly in a devastating little seciton entitled "The Covenant of Light."  In Calvin's era,
The covenant of light was broken.  God became, progressively, the world's infinite contrary.  And this state of theological decline was so precipitous and complete that it even became possible for someone as formidably intelligent as Calvin, without any apparent embarrassment, to regard the fairly lurid portrait of the omnipotent despot of book III of his Institutes - who not only ordains the destiny of souls, but in fact predestines the first sin, and so bring the whole drama of creation and redemption to pass (including the eternal perdition of the vast majority of humanity) as a display of his own dread soverintgy - as a proper depiction of the Christian God.  One ancient Augustinian misreading of Paul's ruminations upon the mystery of election, had, at last, eventuated in fatalism.
It's a short section, and readers might have wondered, as did I, what it might look like if expanded.  Unfortunately for Calvinists, it has been in an essay entitled Providence and Causality: On Divine Innocence, appearing here (and also, it seems, here, but as far as I'm concerned, twice is not nearly enough).  Calvin, according to Hart, was,
hardly unique for his time... he was simply the most pitilessly consistent of the theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - a period when metaphysical subtlety seems to have been at its lowest ebb throughout the world - and the one least susceptible to any tendency toward embarrassment at the rather ghastly implications of his own thought.
As it happens, this error was not limited to Calvinism, which is too easy a target for Hart, who bundles Calvin in with the later "Baroque Thomism" of Domingo Bañez, Garrigou-Lagrange et alia.  Calvin's blame is therefore lessened because it was shared.  Using the concept of praemotio - Catholics conveyed the same idea, making God, who determines certain individuals to eternal damnation, the author of evil.  Not surprisingly, Hart sees the poverty of this perspective as a direct result of the loss of that old millinerd hobbyhorse, the analogia entis (the "covenant of light"), which again, is shorthand for patristic/medieval metaphysical consensus, that transcendence - the only Christian kind - which transcends classical notions of transcendence.  Christian "being" is almost always caricatured before it is deconstructed.  But Xavier Zubiri explains the actual Christian view:  "Being is operation.  And the more perfect something is, the deeper and more fertile is its operative activity.  Being, said Dionysios, is ecstatic."  But back to Hart:
What is absent from the [Calvinist/Bañezian] picture of divine causality is that ancient metaphysical vision that Przywara chose to call the 'analogia entis'.  In this "analogical ontology', the infinite dependency of created being upon divine being is understood strictly in terms of the ever-greater difference between them; and, under the rule of this ontology, it is possible to affirm the real participation of the creature's freedom in God's free creative act without asserting any ontic continuity of kind between created and divine acts.  When, however, the rule of analogy declines - as it did at the threshold of modernity - then invariably the words we attempt to apply both to creatures and to God (goodness, justice, mercy, love, freedom) dissolve into equivocity, and theology can recover its coherence only by choosing a single 'attribute' to treat as univocal, in order that God and world might be united again.  In the early modern period, the attribute most generally preferred was 'power' or 'sovereignty' - or, more abstractly, 'cause.'
Calvin's theological errors, therefore, were the result of an atmospheric poverty.  We trust the medievals not because they are old, but because of the air they breathed; and whether people realize it or not, people like C.S. Lewis because, as a medievalist, he breathed it too.  For such a perspective on Providence, Hart turns, as any sane person must, to Maximus the Confessor, the go to man for an apophatic reconciliation of divine and human freedom (as so wonderfully expressed in this lecture by Thomas Hopko).  But it's Hart's geneology of atheism where things get chillingly good:
The great irony of the enthusiasm that a few reactionary Catholic scholars today harbour for Bañezian or 'classical' Thomism is their curious belief that such a theology offers a solution to the pathologies of modernity...  [But] this is the God of early modernity in his full majesty... a pure abyss of sovereignty justifying itself though its own exercise.  He may be a God of eternal law, but behind his legislation lies a more original lawlessness....  The God of absolute will who was born in the late Middle Ages had by the late sixteenth century so successfully usurped the place of the true God that few theologians could recognize him for the imposter he was.  And the piety he inspired was, in some measure, a kind of blasphemous piety: a servile and fatalistic adoration of boundless power masquerading as a love of righteousness.  More importantly, this theology - through the miraculous technology of the printing press - entered into common Christian consciousness as the theology of previous ages never could, and in so doing provided Western humanity at once both with a new model of freedom and with a God whom it would be necessary, in the fullness of time, to kill....

If this is God, then Feuerbach and Nietzsche were both perfectly correct to see his exaltation as an impoverishment and abasement of the human at the hands of a celestial despot.  For such freedom - such pure arbitrium - must always enter into a contest of wills; it could never exist within a peaceful order of analogical participation, in which one freedom could draw its being from a higher freedom.  Freedom of this sort is one and indivisible, and has no source but itself...

It was this God who, having first deprived us of any true knowledge of the transcendent good, died for modern culture, and left us to believe that the true God had perished.  The explicit nihilism of late modernity is not even really a rejection of the modern God; it is merely the inevitable result of this presence in history, and of the implicit nihilism of the theology that invented him.  Indeed, worship of this god is the first and most inexcusable nihilism, for it can have no real motives other than craven obsequiousness or sadistic delight.  Modern atheism is merely the consummation of this forgetfullness of the transcendent God that this theology made perfect. Moreover, it may be that, in an age in which the only choice available to human thought was between faith in the modern God of pure sovereignty and simple unbelief, the latter was the holier - the more Christian - path.
And finally, the kicker:
Late modernity might even be thought of as a time of purgatorial probation, a harsh but necessary hygiene of the spirit, by enduring which we might once again be made able to lift up our minds to the truly transcendent, eternally absolved of all evil, in whom there is no darkness of all...  When all that is high and holy in God has been forgotten, and God has been reduced to sheer irresistible causal power, the old names for God have lost their true meaning, and the death of God has already been accomplished, even if we have not yet consciously ceased to believe.  When atheism becomes explicit, however, it also becomes possible to recognize the logic that informs it, to trace it back to its remoter origins, perhaps even to begin to revers its effects.  It may be that a certain grace operates though disbelief...   It is principally the god of modernity - the god of pure sovereignty, the voluntarist god of 'permissive decrees' and the praemotio physica - who has died for modern humanity, and perhaps theology has no nobler calling for now that to see that he remains dead, and that every attempt to revive him is thwarted...
Full stop.  I hesitate to add to such an important sweep of prose, but what Hart doesn't mention (because he it was outside the scope of the essay), is that Barth on election avoids this critique (even if certain strands of anti-metaphysical contemporary neo-Barthianism, I fear, may not).  Barth and Hart, it seems to me, have common cause.  God, according to Barth, did not select certain individuals to perish before the world was made, but willed, in perfect freedom, to save them.  Is this universalism?  No.  That's what Calvinists tell you about Barth so you don't have to read him.  Barth just means that someone's choosing to continue to resist their election involves the impossible possibility of resisting who they actually are.  As Bruce McCormack so helpfully explained in his 2007 Barth conference lecture, Barth preserves the Pauline tension between limited atonement and universalism, neither of which should be taught as official church doctrine; it is a tension the Bible does not permit us to collapse.

Some important qualifiers:  Of course, just because Calvin is wrong on election doesn't mean he's all wrong.  Aspects of Zachman's Calvin may retain enough of the patristic consensus to endure Hart's critique.  Furthermore, however rarely it is pointed out, it should also be mentioned that Orthodoxy before the twentieth century Patristic revival, because of its unfortunate direct translation of the exact late modern Catholic theology Hart criticizes, peddled the strange god as well.  And of course, don't forget the Baroque Thomism that is Hart's primary target.  I'm afraid we're all to blame.  What Hunsinger calls "enclave theology" won't do.  But Barth on election, the miraculous Catholic ressourcement that gave us Vatican II, and the Orthodox Patristic revival of the twentieth century, have collectively worked to euthanize the voluntarist god.

It's a free country, and one can still go with Calvin on election.  But this would only be to actualize this country's cultural instincts, which have been to summon endless armies of protesters from both within (Arminianism, etc.) and without (Transcendentalism, etc.) the church, armies recently collated by Peter Thusen's book Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine.  Among them is Timothy George, who writes to his fellow Baptists, "Let us banish the word 'Calvinist" from our midst.  Let us confess freely and humbly that none of us understand completely how divine sovereignty and human responsibility coalesce in the grace-wrought act of repentance and faith."  Do we really think that all these protestations were, and are, responding to mere caricatures of Calvinism?  How strange, furthermore, to continue summoning such necessary protests when the system has, finally, been fixed.  Horton's a smart man, and I hope he addresses at least some of these concerns.

I understand that the via millinerdum - going with Barth on election and against him on the analogia entis - is an inconsistent ecumenical gamble, but it's one I'm willing to take.  Call it the Barth/Hart pincer effect against the decretum absolutum, in whatever confessional guise it may have appeared.   Cue the kum bay ya if you'd wish, but only together can Christians, in Hart's words, "help to prepare their world for the return of the true God revealed in Christ, in all the mystery of his transcendent and provident love."


Sean said...

I don't think the link to Fr Hopko is working.

millinerd said...

Thanks Sean. Fixed.

joshhlim said...


I've been subscribed to your blog for a while and it's been enlightening to read some of the discussion going on here on the analogia entis.

I enjoy Barth, von Balthasar, and Hart (in fact the last three books I've read or am reading have been by the three authors), and I can't say I agree entirely with Calvin, but I do think that Hart does caricature Calvin quite a bit.

I hope you can be charitable enough to see how Calvin's doctrine of election could possibly have been motivated by a desire on his part to be faithful to the biblical text (maybe he was wrong in his interpretation, but don't just dismiss him as following certain philosophical principles to their logical conclusion--he deserves better criticism than that).

I don't want to come off as some anal-retentive Reformed person who can't handle criticism of Calvin, but if you are going to criticize Calvin, engage Calvin himself. Read his section on providence and see if God is a 'sheer irresistible causal power' for him.

Anyway, I appreciate your blog. You're certainly much brighter than I am, so I hope you don't take my comment as condescending in any sense.



Dave Berge said...

Bullinger - the most underrated theological mind of the Reformation! - wrote this when reflecting on the questions of how many were elect and how one could be certain of one's election:

Let Christ, therefore be the looking glass, in whom we may contemplate our predestination. We shall have a sufficiently clear and sure testimony that we are inscribed in the Book of Life if we have fellowship with Christ, and he is ours and we are his in true faith.

Not bad at all.

joshhlim said...


Bullinger and Calvin may have disagreed in terms of emphasis, but in terms of substance, they both held to double predestination. Bullinger discusses and affirms double predestination in his Decades. Cf. Cornelis Venema's work on Bullinger, where he debunks the thesis that Bullinger is the author of 'the other reformed tradition.'

Also, it was Calvin who spoke of Christ (similar to Bullinger) as the 'mirror of election':

"If we have been chosen in him, we shall not find assurance of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we conceive him as severed from his Son. Christ, then, is the mirror wherein we must, and without self-deception may, contemplate our own election. For since it is into his body that the Father has destined those to be engrafted whom he has willed from eternity to be his own, that he may hold as sons all whom he acknowledges to be among his members, we have a sufficiently clear and firm testimony that we have been inscribed in the book of life (cf. Rev. 21:27) if we are in communion with Christ."

I'm more inclined to Barth's position on election myself, but let's be fair to Calvin.


Dave Berge said...


You're reading too much into an innocent quote. I simply called Bullinger underrated - which he is! - and shared one of my favorite quotes where I think he shows a pastoral and theological sensitivity (shared by Calvin no doubt) when speaking about election that is missing from the Reformed Scholasticism of later generations.

joshhlim said...


My bad.

It's a great quote, and I enjoy Bullinger too.

I disagree, however, with the assertion that such pastoral sensitivity is something missing from the later Reformed Scholastics. I think Francis Turretin (perhaps the Reformed Scholastic par excellence) is equally pastoral.

I'm just tired of hearing of how terrible Calvin or the later Reformed Scholastics were from people who base such accusations on hearsay rather than actually having read them. I know I'm guilty of doing that with others (as many conservative Reformed folk are guilty of doing that with Barth, et al.). I hope you can understand my frustration (although at this point I am, admittedly, being a little more than hypersensitive about all of this).

That is all.

millinerd said...

Thanks joshhlim for this helpful pushback. A couple of things:

1. For the record, I did offset Hart's remarks above with some more positive ones on Calvin (though I'll admit I did it half-heartedly).

2. Calvin, who was a commenter on Scripture before he was a theologian, was indeed trying to be exegetical in his teaching on election. This is why Barth's II.ii. is dominated by careful, plodding, exegesis, which is far lengthier than Calvin's, and which also had the advantage of modern research. A Calvinist might respond that the reason it's so lengthy is because it's going against the plain sense, and therefore has to hypnotize its readers into assent by sheer volume. That may be. But it also may be so lengthy because it tapped into the true mystery of election in Christ.

3. Barth, to be sure, also believes in double predestination. The old Barthian teaching chestnut goes like this: "Barth does not abandon double predestination, he relocates it in the person of Christ." It may be a chestnut, but it's an accurate one.

4. Barth also provides in II.ii a profoundly sympathetic, extensive reading of Calvin and the Scholastics in the original languages, sifting through the endless infralapsarian/supralapsarian debates with a patience that boggles the mind. There are of course, "people who base such accusations [against Calvin] on hearsay rather than actually having read them." Not that you are suggesting they are, but Schaff and Barth, of course, are not in that company.

I, however, may be. I'm not an expert on Calvin, but I can assure you I came by my distaste for him on this particular subject honestly, that is, by reading him. (Princeton Seminary, by the way, is not all Barthians. Elsie McKee, among others, teaches him with a sympathy and depth that is hard to match.)

5. Your quote on Calvin uplifting Christ as the mirror of election (not to mention Bullinger's) is important. But Schaff's insight was that such assurance is at the mercy of the framework in which it is placed.

To whom is such assurance directed? Only the arbitrary number of the elect, a determination which precedes the possibility of any such good news. Calvin's assurance is subordinated to his crystal clear definition of the subject under consideration: "We call predestination God's eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others." (Institutes of the Christian Religion, p. 926).

Where is the gospel in that? Your quote from Calvin, important as it is, does nothing to counteract the overarching grammar of the decretum absolutum. For that, thankfully, we have the Barth/Hart tag team.

joshhlim said...


To be clear, I'm not denying the legitimacy of Barth's argument against Calvin. Like I stated earlier, I lean more towards Barth on election than Calvin.

What I am complaining about is the way Calvin is being presented. His intention (though it may indeed have resulted in failure) was not to posit some abstract God of absolute power behind Christ. Calvin's goal was very much Christ-centered even if one might argue that he wasn't quite consistent or successful in seeing that through in his doctrine of election (which, as you mentioned, was nothing special--Thomas's doctrine of election is not very different from Calvin's; Luther's is, in many ways, much harsher than Calvin's--a fact that often goes by unnoticed).

It's not illegitimate to argue that Calvin's broader framework nullified the assurance that he thought to ground in Christ--but anyone who has read Calvin cannot come away saying that Calvin's goal was to usurp the centrality of Christ in his understanding of election. If Calvin's doctrine of election took away from a believer's assurance, it was unintentional; Calvin was not some diabolical theologian trying to figure out a way to turn God into a reprobating machine (I'm being facetious). Historically speaking, we should thank God that Calvin was able to do theology in such a Christ-centered manner. Give him the benefit of the doubt, don't treat him as if he were a fatalist with no regard for Christ or scripture.

It's much too easy to simply dismiss a theologian because we consider their philosophical assumptions to be obsolete. Disagree with Calvin, that's perfectly fine. But if you're going to disagree with him, at least acknowledge that he was well-intentioned. He deserves at least that much. And I'll say, Barth does that much better than Hart.


millinerd said...

Agreed. You've added an important corrective to this post.

BC said...


Hello, it's your old seminary lunch pal, Bryce Carlisle here. I loved reading through your post. I have been pondering my own migration from Calvin to Barth on Election. I just read Bruce McCormack's "Grace and Being" and wondered how his discussion of covenant ontology vs. Calvin's classical (read "Greek metaphysical") ontology factors into your espousal of Hart's critique?

Great stuff here Matthew. Can I use some portions of your post for my apologetics class? I would need to edit some, but I would like permission if you don't mind.

Bryce 'po-mo' Carlisle

millinerd said...

Certainly you can use them Bryce. I'd be honored.

If only Calvin had been more "classical"! As I hinted at in the post, I'm very suspicious of cartoons of "Greek metaphysics" that contrast the supposed dynamism of alternatives , and result in new anti-metaphysical programs, what Francesca Murphy calls "story Barthianism" (or "story Thomism"), and which end up walking smack into the force of Hart's critique.

Hence, I'm hesitant of McCormack's direction, which he himself admits goes beyond Barth. Hunsinger and Molnar, I believe, have shown that one can get all the punch of Barth's necessary election corrective without making such moves (fascinating as they may be), moves while perhaps more consistent, also (arguably) draw the churches even further apart.

millinerd said...

I am grateful to Medieval Leftist for articulating the via millinerdum better than I did myself:

Barth is right on elections, "Still, Barth was wrong in his debate with Erich Pryzwara and Hans Urs von Balthasar, in that he failed to grasp the full implications of his doctrine of election. Unlike the God of Calvin, the God envisioned by the “analogy of being” is not a rival to humanity in any way. There is no sense in which true nature is opposed to grace, this being the erroneous side of Augustinianism that was corrected by the “semi-Pelagians” but later revived by some late medieval thinkers."

BC said...


You issued an important caution: be careful with the caricatures of Greek metaphysics. No straw-men. Needless to say, I am quite unqualified to make a strong claim for or against Greek metaphysics. McCormack's claim that the problem with Calvin is ontological before it is a question of deciding the primary referent of election seems right, but I don't want to throw any Greeks under the bus to arrive at that valid point. They suck at fiscal policy in the 21st century but they may have metaphysically kicked it in the 6th-4th centuries BCE!

So, what is the cause of the atmospheric poverty of Calvin--that's the real target of Hart's ire, right?

Is it Occam's voluntarism? Reading Louise Dupré's PASSAGE TO MODERNITY ch. 5 "New Meaning of Freedom" in search for answers.

How to name the idol that sent theology on the road to justified atheism? I am going to carry this question around for a while.

Bobby Grow said...

Good post, Millinerd!

I don't know if Joshhlim or you have read David Gibson's: Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth; but at least Josh might find the distinction that Gibson uses to read Barth vs. Calvin on this very issue, informative. Gibson appeals to Muller's categorization of Barth's approach as christologically principial & intensive and Calvin's as soteriological & extensive. Which helps to explain the variance between the two, at a methodological level; which then of course helps to explain the variance at a conceptual/material level between the two.

Anyway, just thought I would suggest this as a resource per Josh's comments.

~Bobby Grow

ahincks said...


Now that the experts have spoken, allow an (as of yet) amateur theologian to say that this was a very educational post. Thanks for giving food for thought.


Russ Reeves said...

I think in many ways, Calvin may be more "classical" than you're giving him credit for. For example, when he speaks of God manifesting himself through his perfections, so that he communicates himself to us through his works [or, energies] though it would be presumptuous to pry into his essence (I.V.9), he sounds like he is right in line with the Cappadocians.

Coach Factory said...

louboutin, louis vuitton outlet online, louis vuitton handbags, prada handbags, nike air max, air max, coach outlet, michael kors, ralph lauren, air max, coach outlet store, burberry outlet online, true religion outlet, michael kors handbags clearance, louis vuitton, tiffany and co, michael kors, ray ban sunglasses, ray ban, michael kors outlet online, ray ban sunglasses, tory burch outlet, nike roshe run, chanel handbags, michael kors outlet online, gucci outlet, michael kors outlet, oakley sunglasses, longchamp outlet, nike free, true religion, jordan shoes, cheap michael kors, coach purses, air jordan, polo ralph lauren outlet, kate spade outlet, nike air max, true religion jeans, louboutin, nike shoes, oakley sunglasses, oakley sunglasses, polo ralph lauren outlet, coach factory, louboutin,

Coach Factory said...

nike free, oakley pas cher, north face outlet, herve leger, air max, celine handbags, burberry, hermes, reebok outlet, louis vuitton, nike air max, hollister, bottega veneta, mulberry, juicy couture outlet, p90x3, hogan, north face jackets, michael kors, louis vuitton, ferragamo shoes, new balance shoes, karen millen, abercrombie and fitch, nfl jerseys, insanity, supra shoes, hollister, mcm handbags, converse shoes, wedding dresses, chi flat iron, birkin bag, beats by dre, rolex watches, soccer shoes, lancel, marc jacobs, ralph lauren, vans, montre pas cher, valentino shoes, mont blanc, timberland, soccer jerseys, ray ban pas cher, yoga pants, lululemon, asics gel, ghd

Coach Factory said...

ralph lauren, canada goose, ray ban, canada goose outlet, oakley sunglasses cheap, ray ban outlet, louboutin, canada goose, cheap oakley, oakley sunglasses outlet, tn pas cher, oakley vault, rayban, oakley outlet, discount oakley sunglasses, canada goose outlet, ugg boots, ugg boots, oakley sunglasses cheap, cheap sunglasses, oakley sunglasses outlet, ugg, oakley sunglasses outlet, ray ban, ugg boots, canada goose, oakley vault, cheap oakley sunglasses, oakley, jimmy choo, oakley sunglasses cheap, canada goose, moncler outlet, cheap sunglasses, cheap oakley sunglasses, moncler, oakley vault, gucci, moncler, oakley outlet, cheap sunglasses, cheap oakley sunglasses, oakley outlet, moncler