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."