Chapter 4. ‘Election’


Chapter 4. Election

Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer

Within the whole of catholic Christianity the stress upon the topic of election in Reformed theology represents something of a minority emphasis. Nevertheless it is not heretical, because it can be seen as a new interpretation of major assertions on the part of Augustine in the last decades of his theological development. And, at least in the Western church, it was never seen to be appropriate explicitly to distance oneself from this Church Father.

In his radical re-reading of the apostle Paul during his struggle with Pelagius and his adherents (397–429), Augustine advanced a number of significant arguments: that faith is not a capability of ourselves, but completely a divine gift (‘what do you have that you did not receive?’, 1 Cor. 4:7); that the cause of our will and ability to do good can only be found in God (‘For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure’, Phil. 2:13); and finally that predestination involves the divine preparation of the gift of grace for the elect, not because they believed but in order that they will believe (Rom. 9). During the reign of the Carolingians the monk Gottschalk went as far as to teach a double predestination, that is to say, to teach that there was a divine decision also in respect of the condemned – an issue on which Augustine had been silent. Initially Gottschalk was spontaneously condemned by his archbishop (848). In the debates following, however, it quickly became clear that it would not be so easy for the church to distance itself from its Augustinian heritage.

In the fourteenth century the magister and Augustinian hermit Gregory of Rimini (†1358), who as a representative of the via moderna was less interested in the divine essence than in the will of the personal God, recognized the danger that the voluntarism of the age could lead to a new Pelagianism. Before him Thomas Bradwardine, archbishop of Canterbury (†1349), had given similar warning, but that time from the point of view of the via antiqua. In his commentary on several distinctions in the first and second books of the Libri Sententiarum by Peter Lombard (on the attributes of God, and on sin and grace respectively), Gregory carefully traced and revived the Augustinian argument together with its implications.1 This respected scholar can be shown to have had an influence on Martin Luther (especially on the Leipzig Disputation with Eck of 1519), although explicit proof of a similar influence on John Calvin has so far not been forthcoming. We now turn to some of Calvin’s major texts on the topic.

John Calvin on Election and Predestination

The Institutes (1539 and 1559)

Taking refuge in Strasbourg after being forced to leave Geneva, Calvin found the opportunity to edit a second edition of his earlier great catechism, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Under the influence of conversations with Martin Bucer, the Reformer of the city, and of his lectures on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Calvin treated the doctrine of predestination separately in this new edition (it had been an aspect of the credo ecclesiam in the explanation of the Creed in the first edition of 1536).

At the beginning of the seventh chapter of this second edition of 1539, the author looks back at the first six chapters of the work as a summa doctrinae, as setting forth the essence of doctrine.2 In several additional chapters Calvin now proposes to highlight different aspects of that doctrine. The chapters ‘Similarity and Difference between the Old and the New Testament’ (chapter 7) and ‘Predestination and Providence of God’ (chapter 8) are interconnected. From the beginning of the world there has been one doctrine by which God saves people and invites them into his covenant (chapter 7). Unfortunately experience tells us that not all people hear the preaching of the covenant of life, and not all who hear its call respond to it. This happens because God gives salvation only to the elect (chapter 8).

The order predestination, then providence is remarkable. In the Aristotelian-scholastic tradition predestination was seen as a part of providence: the more general care of God for the world becomes particularised in God’s care for the elect. But Calvin reverses this reasoning. He first focuses his attention on God’s goodwill for his people, and only after that explains how this people will experience the general care of God for the world. For Ulrich Zwingli providence as the main aspect of the doctrine of God had a central place in his theology, perhaps as important as the place of grace in that of Luther. Although Calvin never denies its importance, it is at the same time a doctrine of  secondary rank, for its general point of view must be seen in light of the particularity and primacy of election.

In the final edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), the shape of the whole of the work underwent a major revision. The order of the Apostle’s Creed was now the guiding principle. In this connection the previous chapter on ‘Predestination and Providence’ was taken apart. Providence became the conclusion of Book I on God the Creator, whereby its origin in the particular care of God became less apparent. Predestination then became a topic towards the end of Book III, on the Holy Spirit.3 After describing the life of the Christian as a life of faith, that is, as a life of repentance, self-denial and bearing the cross, Calvin also depicts it as a life in which a godless person is justified by grace and therefore lives a life of freedom and boldness, having access to the divine heart through prayer: it is a life anchored in eternity as the life of the eternally elect under the rule of free grace, in the expectation of the Last Judgement and in the hope of eternal life. Therefore, predestination provides the highest eschatological ground for the person who receives the gospel of grace.

In the actual text on the topic we do not find many additions to the text of 1539. The loss of the connection with the chapter on the covenant (a doctrine that is now located in the second Book) causes some lack of clarity. For how can one speak of the election of a people, primarily the people of Israel, when election as well as rejection are both thought of as divine decisions regarding individuals within the people? This question does not appear to have been resolved.

Writings in the context of the Bolsec affair of 1551

In the Institutes , Calvin stresses the double decision of God: the destiny of those rejected cannot be found outside the eternal will of God. In Geneva it was Jérôme Bolsec, who, having established himself as a physician there, had the imprudence to visit a congrégation (a public Bible-reading) and to accuse Calvin of making God the author of sin through this doctrine of double predestination. Because of the close co-operation (in spite of their tensions) between the civil authorities and the ministers, Bolsec was arrested and condemned. In that context, however, Calvin felt obliged to answer Bolsec’s accusations on multiple levels, the level of scholarly debate and the level of parish sorrows. On the first level he now finally wrote the continuation of his answer to the attacks on Reformation doctrine by Albert Pighius of Kampen, a skilled scholastic theologian who had enjoyed connections in the circles of several popes until he passed away in 1542. Pighius had chosen two fields of debate in Reformation theology, which were in effect two sides of the same coin: the teaching on the bondage of the will and the doctrine of grace. Calvin had responded on the first point in 1543, and now he published the sequel on the second point under the title Concerning the Eternal Predestination. The connection of the two points is significant. When in the anthropological field the will is not able to honour God as God, it is important on the theological level to stress that this is possible only thanks to the gracious will of God, in that God proves his love to his people by the gift of grace and by the gift of faith, through which they are able to receive grace. The human subject who is tempted by the devil and by doubt receives relief when the preaching of justification is heard, but now, moreover, and ‘higher’ than that, the human subject also appears to be saved in the divine heart of the father. That, for Calvin, is the essence of what he means by eternal election. It is remarkable to note in passing that the combination of predestination and the denial of free will can also be found in the Renaissance philosophy of Lorenzo Valla. But there it serves a rigid, neo-Stoic, deterministic system. Calvin does not distance himself from Valla, but differs importantly from him in stressing the divine freedom within the eternal counsel: the mercy of God is undeserved, and the fact that God does not give this mercy to all people serves as a comparison (!) to illustrate this undeservedness.4 Unfortunately in Calvin there is a tendency to confuse this mere comparison with the res (matter) of the merciful divine freedom itself.

In the parish of Geneva Calvin also resisted the attacks of Bolsec in a pastoral context, in the congrégation of 18 December, 1551. The main emphasis in his presentation is the invitation to those who believe to be grateful. When they become introspective and reflect upon the divine grace towards them granted in Christ their head as in a mirror, they will acknowledge that they have been saved from damnation even though they too are descendants of the fallen Adam. Indeed in the following years the emphasis in Calvin’s preaching on election comes to lie increasingly on consolation. These were years of growing tensions in France between the Huguenots and the authorities who were connected to the old church. In this connection Heiko Oberman speaks of a new experience that encouraged the doctrine – the political context of exile: ‘The Calvinist doctrine of predestination is the mighty bulwark of the Christian faithful against the fear that they will be unable to hold out against the pressure of persecution. Election is the Gospel’s encouragement to those who have faith, not a message of doom for those who lack it.’5

The Location of Predestination after the Doctrine of God in Reformed Orthodoxy

The Reformed tradition is multi-centred, and hence the way Reformed doctrine was shaped is also far from uniform. Nevertheless, at the end of the sixteenth century a certain codification in the scholarly systematic Compendia, Syntagmae , Institutiones and so on can be found. Thus one can observe that not in all yet in most of such works the locus of predestination finds its place just after the doctrine of God. In the older literature (e.g., Brian Armstrong) one sometimes comes across the criticism that this would be a dangerous deviation from the conviction of Calvin. Now it is certainly true, as we saw previously, that Calvin never placed election in this context and that his final placement of it was in the context of the appropriation of the work of Christ in the Spirit. It is also true that the development of a doctrine of God in Calvin was intentionally defective: repeatedly he warns against any idle reflection on the mysteries of the counsel of God. But one can also say that being silent on a topic has its own danger, for what happens with questions that remain unanswered? Later Reformed orthodoxy had the courage not to let such hesitations have the last word. But then one must ask: What statements did it dare make in this dangerous field?

The doctrine of God was often followed by a locus on the decrees of God, and amongst these decrees predestination had an important place. Johannes Wollebius, the Basel theologian who wrote his popular Compendium at the beginning of the seventeenth century, provides the following definition: ‘Immanent or internally directed are those works which occur within God’s essence; to these belong the divine decrees.’6 Because of the divine simplicity, however, there exists only one decree of God, namely ‘an internal action of the divine will, by which He from eternity has in complete freedom determined which things would happen within the realm of time’.7 One can become somewhat annoyed with this metaphor of a decree, which can easily be associated with dictatorial rule – indeed, Calvin on his part tried to avoid this metaphor. But one can also admire how this kind of reasoning (already present in some later medieval scholastics) intervenes in the reign of classical metaphysics. For speaking in this way God is sketched not as an absolutely simple and immovable highest Being, but as a living God, who precisely in his essence is moved by the inner grounds within himself for the sake of his relationship to the world in time outside of himself.

Now the doctrine of God consists of two main parts, which in the Ramistic didactical arrangement of many teachers of that time should be read as a parallel approach to the same entity: the triune God and God in his essence and attributes. Many Reformed scholars declared that God as the author of the decree of predestination should be conceived of as the undivided Trinity as a whole, whereas each of the three Persons has a particular role in initiating the divine act of discernment in humanity. Karl Barth found this pattern to be present already in Polanus (1609),8 but Richard Muller has proven that it is found in many doctrinal works around 1600.9 In other words, Christ is not only the mirror in which the eternal will of God may be recognised by the faithful. He is also the Subject of that divine will himself.

But is Christ also the first and prototype of the elect? This statement was much more difficult to maintain for these Reformed Orthodox theologians. Of course they wanted to affirm election before the foundation of the world ‘in him’, as Eph. 1:4 intends. But there was a difficulty. Certainly Christ as Mediator in his two natures was the foundation of salvation, but his work of satisfaction should be seen as a means to fulfil a presupposition of the accomplishment of the decree: through this work, he acquired the elect who would glorify God as vessels of mercy (Rom. 9:23). But in this way his work only realizes a subordinate purpose, and it is inadmissible to invert the main and subsidiary purposes of the divine decree. We find Reformed orthodox theologians from different generations –, such as Wollebius10 and Francis Turretin11 – arguing in exactly this way. Therefore one cannot say that in their systems predestination is a deductive principle. Rather, it was in a certain sense a separate truth, admittedly connected to central Christian doctrine, yet with its own value and with its own problematic nature.

Currents, Disputes and Confessional Differences in the Seventeenth Century

The Arminians and the Synod of Dort

Jacobus Arminius, professor in Leiden, was well-educated in Reformed theology. However, questions arose in his mind that were comparable to those of Bolsec or the earlier Dutch humanist Coornhert. According to the remarkable nineteenth-century analysis of H. Fr. Kohlbrugge, Arminius’ objection was against the Reformation doctrine of justification: he considered the sola gratia to undermine the responsibility of the human being as the receiver of the Word of God. Arminius then succeeded in transposing the same objection to the field of the Calvinist double decree. But there it became clear that his main interest – as expressed, for example, in his statement in the States of Holland in 1608 – was to show that faith and obedience were human merits that had to be honoured by God Eternal. One might say: the fear of God as the author of sin had led him to a fear of God as the author of grace too. And thus the proper divine decision in the end had to follow the human situation, even though the former was made beforehand thanks to God’s precognition of it.

The international Reformed Synod of Dordrecht (Dort) in 1618–1619, nine years after the death of Arminius himself, denounced the theses of his followers in an inductive way. The Synod stressed the character of faith as a gift of God (I.5), with its origin in a divine decree with two sides (I.6), defined as a decree of predestination for election as well as for rejection (I.7).12 Thus the teaching of Calvin, albeit with some nuance, became dominant in the Reformed world in a confessional form.

The process leading up to the Synod had deeply shocked the whole of society in the young Republic of the United Netherlands. Initially the ruling class, immersed in the tradition of Erasmus and Coornhert, tried to protect the Arminians and to silence any public debate either through legal means or by force. In the end, by way of a coup d’état by Maurice of Nassau, the head of the army, the convocation of the Synod was enforced. For the image of Reformed orthodoxy as a conversation partner in public debate all over Europe, the outcome appeared not to be very helpful.

The Lutheran position

Many Lutherans had the feeling that their doctrine was condemned by the Synod of Dort as well. That is debatable but at the same time understandable. The Lutheran theologians of the seventeenth century had distanced themselves from the Luther of the dispute with Erasmus and had tried to steer a middle course between the absolutism of Calvin’s Geneva and the new Pelagianism of the Arminians. To achieve this they made the following distinction. In the first place there is the universal benevolence of God towards the fallen human race. In this general will God has shown his intention in Christ that all people be saved. However, subsequently there is the special divine will, in which God takes into account the actual behaviour of each human being that God in his precognition has already foreseen, and determines that only the person who accepts the salvation offered and remains in it will be saved. Predestination – as well as rejection – is a result of this second, special divine will. It is not completely honest, nor is it completely surprising, that strict Reformed theologians discovered in such a doctrine little more than a vague compromise.

In the Leuenberg Concord of 1973, a series of (initially European) Lutheran and Reformed Churches revoked the main disagreements of former centuries, including those concerning predestination, in articles 24–26.13 With Calvin the text of article 25 acknowledges: ‘It is the experience of faith that the message of salvation is not accepted by all; yet faith respects the mystery of the action of God.’ The next sentence reads: ‘[faith] bears witness at one and the same time to the seriousness of human decision and to the reality of God’s universal purpose of salvation’.14 This suggests that the orthodox confessors of Dort on the one hand, and the Arminian heretics on the other, erroneously made God and humanity into opponents. In addition the Lutheran category of the ‘universal divine benevolence’ is adopted. The last sentence sounds rather resolute: ‘The witness of the scriptures to Christ forbids us from supposing that God has uttered an eternal decree condemning for all time specific individuals or a whole people.’15 In addition, article 18 – on the Lord’s supper – also denies any division into two classes of people (that is, the elect and the rejected) in an actualistic way, by declaring: ‘Faith receives the Lord’s Supper for salvation, unfaith for judgement.’16 Reformed churches which had granted a confessional status to the first Canon of Dort in effect revoked that acknowledgement by signing the Leuenberg Concord. However, not even this Concord necessarily implies that the theological problems behind the debates of past ages have been resolved.

The Amyraut controversy

At the Huguenot Academy of Saumur several lines of thought were developed that created some commotion in the Reformed world. Because of a treatise that he had written on predestination, the scholar Moyse Amyraut was nearly condemned at a trial in Alençon in 1637, but in the end he was acquitted.17 Amyraut saw himself as a pupil of Calvin, one of the fathers of French Protestantism, in spite of the fact that the Reformed orthodox claimed Calvin for their own position. He particularly appealed to Calvin in his distinction between two wills of God, which he extended into a distinction between two covenants. On the one hand there is the universal sacrifice of Christ, which is universal in intention and scope, because God willed the salvation of all humanity, and this will was based on a hypothetical covenant. On the other hand there is the will of God to select a few people, and that will is based on an absolute covenant. However, in our experience the two covenants never meet, because of the hidden character of the absolute covenant; indeed, this absolute decree is so very mysterious that it is best simply to keep preaching the Gospel to all people. Thus whereas in Calvin the tensions in this teaching are always evident, Amyraut softens these with his view of a progression of the divine rule over time, connected with his view of the succession of the dominance of the different persons of the Trinity in history. A universal call goes out to all people based on the work of the Son, and only during the reign of the Spirit does it become clear who really belongs to Christ. In spite of his claim to be a pupil of Calvin, a new spirit from a new age can be seen here in Amyraut – the tendency to historicize.

Supra- and infralapsarianism

Who is the object of predestination?18 Is it the human being not yet created or at least not yet fallen? This position is defended by those who ascend beyond the scope of the fall (supra lapsum). Or is it the human being as fallen, but also as redeemed through Christ, either believing or unbelieving? This is defended by those who descend within the scope of the fall (infra lapsum). The dispute over this question between Reformed theologians was seen as not fundamental and thus not disruptive to the unity of the church. Although Gomarus, the main opponent of Arminius, held to the supralapsarian view, the majority at the Synod of Dort did not follow him in this respect. Nevertheless, the Synod permitted the variant opinion. The strength of the infralapsarian view was based on the fact that it attended to the drama of history (the Fall of Adam and its consequences) and that it avoided a deductive reflection that took its starting point in eternity. In retrospect, however, its Achilles’ heel is the presupposition of the historicity of the fall. Of course the supralapsarians in the seventeenth century shared the same presupposition, but their approach was not dependent on it. Moreover, it is entirely conceivable to situate the drama of God’s involvement with humanity at the heart of the eternal Trinitarian life, as the supralapsarians did.

Federal theology: Johannes Cocceius

From the beginning the topic of the covenant(s) of God with his people was important in Reformed tradition. It was especially developed in Zürich, Heidelberg, and among the Puritans (notably in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms). Among the many theological proposals on this topic, that of Johannes Cocceius (1648, 1662) was particularly impressive. In the whole of his exegetical and systematic effort, and independently using the concepts of earlier thinkers, he presented a comprehensive overview that was Trinitarian in disposition. In paradise God offered his friendship to Adam and bound him with a contract. After Adam broke that contract, God the Father entered into an eternal pact or ‘counsel of peace’ (Zech. 6:13) with Christ as the second Adam: in that pact the Son promised to fulfil the obligations which the first man had failed to achieve. On his part the Father gave the elect to the Son as a reward. This was sealed by an eternal Testament in which the Father described the result of the inner Trinitarian transaction. Lastly, the Holy Spirit would work in the elect by bringing about regeneration, whereby they would become heirs of the divine treaty.

Initially Karl Barth was of the opinion that Cocceius identified the intra-Trinitarian ‘counsel of peace’ with the absolute decree of Reformed orthodoxy.19 However, Willem van Asselt has proven that this is not correct.20 For Cocceius predestination precedes the pactum. Thus in the treaty the Father gives the elect who were already known beforehand to the Son. The decision about the elect is therefore presupposed when the Son asks for those who are promised to him, and the Son is electing only as he executes his task of salvation. In this way the innovative federal theology of Cocceius does not undermine the decisions of Dort, and in his work the double decree remains the background of the dynamics of the history of the covenants.

Reformed pietism

We have seen how Amyraut held on to the idea of the public will of God – that all people should be saved – but tried to keep silent about the hidden will to elect only some. The tension caused by the doctrine of the two divine wills was thus softened as much as possible. In the pietistic circles of the Reformed world one can observe the opposite movement, namely an intensifying of this kind of tension. In theology, according to Turretin, a distinction is made between the divine will of decree, that is, the will of good purpose or the hidden will on the one hand, and the divine will of precept, that is, the signified and revealed will on the other.21 We hear the Gospel and receive the precept to believe, but we do not really know what God has decided in his hidden decree, whether or not we belong to the people he has elected. In the movement of the ‘second Reformation’ this dichotomy caused an infinite process of self-examination, doubt and uncertainty. In the fifth canon of Dort wise and consolatory remarks were made to address the issue, but these did not take away the doctrinal grounds for doubting. Besides the psychological problems of such lack of assurance, there is also an enormous sociological impact. In a narrow view of the church where the Augustinian view of the corpus mixtum on earth, in which the elect and the wicked must live together, is seen as too tolerant towards unbelief, only predestined members can be taken up in the constitution of a church. But because nobody knows who the predestined members actually are, a real edification of the community can be very problematic.

On Calvinism and Spinozism: Some Developments Related to the Nineteenth Century

In his Short Treatise (around 1661) Benedictus Spinoza speaks of the predestination of God or nature in a completely deterministic sense (I.6): in God there is an omni-causality, and every qualification of good or sin is only an effect of human imagination.22 Actually this way of thinking is not part of the Reformed tradition, but an heir to the humanistic-Stoic thought of someone such as Lorenzo Valla. Nevertheless, by the end of the seventeenth century followers of Spinoza could be found in the Reformed church in the Netherlands. And in the nineteenth century some theologians, such as J. H. Scholten, defended a combination of Calvinistic and Spinozistic thinking to argue for the agreement between Reformed teaching and modern physical science.23 It was along this line of thinking that predestination could be conceived as one of the most important central dogmas or Zentraldogmen of Reformed doctrine, as was asserted by Alexander Schweizer of Zürich (who was a follower of Friedrich Schleiermacher and the great example for Scholten). This view showed a tendency toward supralapsarianism, stressing human dependency on a sovereign being and defending one great plan for the world by this being in its all-embracing love. Within such a presupposition, the historicity of the Fall was unnecessary. And the corollary of an original ‘state of righteousness’ was seen at best as a primitive and unripe evolutionary state of humanity (Scholten) and at worst as inaccessible for human religious experience (Schleiermacher). Meanwhile the present inequality between those who believe and those who do not believe would, at the end of this process of growth, albeit after death, be abolished. In such a historicizing perspective, exemplified by the work of Friedrich Schleiermacher on the one hand, ‘it is not possible that all living persons are ever accepted equally in the kingdom of God founded by Christ’, because the Church originates in one historical point and spreads out gradually;24 but on the other hand, the unification of the divine being with human nature in the person of the Redeemer implies that the continuation of life after death is not reserved only for those who believe.25

The Sum of the Gospel: Karl Barth on Election

After a profound conversation with the Reformed doctrine of election, Karl Barth published his far-reaching revision of it in 1942 as a proposal for the whole ecumenical community. In light of the earlier observations in this chapter, we will now try to offer a concise summary of the outcome of his powerful thinking.

In line with the method developed earlier in his Church Dogmatics, Barth refuses to think in terms of the dichotomy between a hidden and a revealed will of God. The veiling of God can be found only in the unveiling of his Word and by his Spirit: there is no hidden God behind the God who has made himself known in his revelation. And revelation to humanity is more than simply divine  accommodation, because it belongs to the essence of the triune God that God wishes to become human and in communication with his creation. For classical theology such a conceptual figure was hardly thinkable. It thus belongs to the modernity of the theological thinking of Barth. But on the topic of election it causes the disappearance of many traditional dilemmas and tensions. In Barth’s view there is no hidden will of God that does not point to the mystery of his revealed will. Barth does not base the doctrine primarily on a fact of experience,26 as Calvin did, nor upon a deductive and necessary line of thought , as Valla or Zwingli did. He finds his starting point in ‘the sum of the Gospel because of all words that can be said or heard this is the best: that God elects man; that God is for man too the One who loves in freedom’.27

Therewith Barth situates the topic of election in the doctrine of God. Yet the concept of a deciding and discerning God fundamentally alters traditional ontology. For the subject of election is not a hidden God, nor simply the undivided Trinitarian God (as Polanus and others rightly said), but it is concretely Christ as the electing God. It is not that we are electing him, but that he is electing us (John 15:16), and Christ is the subject from the very beginning, from before the foundation of the world. The object of election is neither the human being as fallen (the infralapsarian position), nor the human being not yet created in a general sense (although this supralapsarian position makes some sense!), but concretely the person of Jesus Christ, who was in the beginning with God (John 1:1). In him (Eph. 1:4) all people are elected. Here the pastoral advice about Christ as the mirror of election finds its deepest ground.

Moreover, predestination in the eternal counsel of God is the presupposition of the covenant of God and humanity as it takes place in history. The operation that Cocceius did not want to perform in the end (although Barth thought he did), is realized here after all: the eternal decree of predestination is identified with the ‘counsel of peace’. Similarly, in contrast with the teaching of Wollebius, Turretin and others, Christ as the foundation of salvation is at the very same time also the foundation of election. Consequently predestination does not have to be seen as part of providence, but, as Calvin proposed in the Institutes of 1539, the general idea of providence must be seen from the point of view of the particular mystery of predestination. In this way the doctrine of providence will appear in no other light than that of the covenant of grace, as founded in divine election.28

The eternal decision of God is certainly a double decision (in spite of Leuenberg, one has to say). But there are no two classes of human being. On the contrary: ‘in Jesus Christ God in his free grace determines Himself for sinful man and sinful man for Himself. He therefore takes upon Himself the rejection of man with all its consequences, and elects man to participate in His own glory.’29 The church should not be seen only as the context in which some individuals will appear to be elected; rather, in Christ there is such a reality as ‘the Election of the Community’.30 Israel and the church of Jew and heathen together mirror both the shadow of rejection as well as the promise of election.

Therefore the claim that the essence of the doctrine of predestination is the thesis that God has foreordained some to blessedness and others to damnation must be revised as follows: the main goal of election must be seen in the witness to the mercy and justice of God 31 The political context for this thesis is a new one: not the reformation of the cities (1538), nor the exile of the refugees (1555), nor the ruling church (1619), but the Christian minority with a ministry of witness.

In this way, there remains a connection between the message of election and the calling of humanity. ‘Then He shall say to them on his left hand: depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matt. 25:41). The fire is not prepared for us – we should not be there! But then we must believe and behave as Christ desires and commands. And so doctrinal reflection, not only with Barth, but also essentially, always ends up in ‘the open situation of proclamation’.32


We said at the beginning of this chapter that the Reformed emphasis on the topic of election is not heretical. Reformed theology regarding this issue vindicates the heritage of radical Augustinianism: the consciousness that the gift of our faith is rooted in the inner heart and counsel of God. And therewith it is, or was, ready to accept the dark side of this confession, if need be even divine double predestination. However, through the proposals of the school of Schleiermacher, and the more

challenging thought of Barth, this heritage is being challenged. Could it be that, rereading the Scriptures and rethinking the doctrine, in some respects – such as the traditional answers to the questions of the subject and the object of election, the lack of Christological thinking through of the double divine decision, the modality of the relationship between universality and particularity in  theology – there can also be seen to be something heretical in the Augustinian heritage? This conversation cannot be neglected. Orthodox Calvinists and others have an obligation to continue asking each other questions and investigating together.

Further reading

  • Armstrong , Brian G. Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestantism and Humanism in Seventeenth-Century France . Madison : The University of Wisconsin Press , 1969 .
  • Asselt , Willem J. van . The Federal Theology of Johannes Coccejus (1603–1669). Leiden/Boston/Köln: Brill , 2001.
  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics. 4 vols. in 13 parts. Edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956 – 1975, vol. II/2: 1 – 194.
  • Breukelman, Frans H. The Structure of Sacred Doctrine in Calvin’s Theology. Edited by Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer. Translated by Martin Kessler. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010.
  • Calvin, John. Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. Translated by  J. K. S. Reid. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997
  • Muller, Richard A. Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008.
  • Oberman, Heiko A. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformational Thought. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992.
  • Oberman, Heiko A. The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003 .
  • Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. Edited by James T. Dennison, Jr. Translated by George Musgrave Giger. Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992), vol. 1: 311 – 430.


1 Heiko A. Oberman , The Dawn of the Reformation. Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformational Thought (Grand Rapids, MI : Eerdmans, 1992), 8 – 12.

2 Frans H. Breukelman, The Structure of Sacred Doctrine in Calvin’s Theology, edited by Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer and translated by Martin Kessler  Grand Rapids, M : William B. Eerdman , 201 ), 118.

3 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles (Library of Christian Classics; 2 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminste , 1960 ), III. xxi – xxiv.

4 Ibid., III.xxi.1.

5 Heiko A. Oberman, The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003, 114.

6 Johannes Wollebius , Compendium Theologiae Christianae (Amsterdam, 1655), III, §2.

7 Wollebius, Compendium, III, §3.

8 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatic , 4 vols. in 13 parts, edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark , 1956 – 1975), vol. II/2, 119.

9 Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids, MI : Baker Academic, 2008 ), 159.

10 Wollebius, Compendium, IV, §2.9.

11 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology , edited by James T. Dennison Jr. and translated by George Musgrave Giger (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992 , Fourth Topic, ‘The Decrees of God in General and Predestination in Particular’, question 10: ‘Is Christ the cause and foundation of election? We deny’, in vol. 1, 350–355.

12 The Canons of Dordt (1618–19), in The Three Forms of Unity (Reformed Church in the United States, 2012).

13 Leuenberg Concord (1973), articles 24–26, in Konkordie Reformatorischer Kirchen in Europa , edited by Michael Bunker and Martin Friedrich (Leipzig : Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2013).

14 Ibid ., article 25.

15 Ibid ., article 25.

16 Ibid ., article 18, in Konkordie Reformatorischer Kirchen in Europa.

17 Brian G. Armstrong , Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy: Protestantism and Humanism in Seventeenth-Century France (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Pres , 196 ), 88.

18 Cf. Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Fourth Topic, question 9, in vol. 1, 341–350.

19 Barth, Church Dogmatics , vol. II/2, 114; in vol. IV/1, 63 he expresses himself more


20 Willem J. van Asselt , The Federal Theology of Johannes Coccejus (1603–1669)

( Leiden/Boston/Köln: Brill , 2001), 216 .

21 Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Third Part, question 15, in vol. 1, 220–232.

22 Benedict Spinoza, Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-Being , translated and edited by Abraham Wolf ( London : Adam and Charles Black , 1910) .

23 For example, J. H. Scholten , The Doctrine of the Reformed Church , 2 vols. ( Leiden: 1848 and 1850) .

24 Friedrich Schleiermacher , The Christian Faith (1830/1831), translated and edited by H. R. Mackintosh and J. S. Stewart (Edinburgh : T. & T. Clark , 1999) , §117.

25 Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith (1830/1831), §117.4.

26 Barth, Church Dogmatics , vol. II/2, 38.

27 Ibid ., vol. II/2, 3.

28 Ibid ., vol. III/3.

29 Ibid ., vol. II/2, 94.

30 Ibid ., vol. II/2, 195.

31 Ibid ., vol. II/2, 309.

32 Ibid ., vol. II/2, 476.

About the author

R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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