Wednesday 30 August 2006

Theology for beginners (9): Election

Summary: The triune God constitutes himself through a free decision: he decides to be God-for-us.

We have said that the triune God is the event that happens in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But we must now take a further step: the God who happens in the history of Jesus also precedes that history. God does not become the triune God as a result of Jesus’ history – rather, the history of Jesus expresses what God already is.

This means, then, that God’s relationship to the history of Jesus is a relationship of freedom. Behind the history of Jesus stands God’s free decision – his decision to let his own life unfold in this particular historical way. In other words, the God’s triune life is a free decision. Before human history, God decided to be the God of human history. Before humanity had existed, God decided that he would be none other than the God of humanity. Before the man Jesus had existed, God decided that this particular man would be the goal of God’s own triune life.

Thus God constituted himself through a free decision. He decided what kind of God he would be. God does not first have a “being” which then makes certain decisions; rather, God decides to be who he is, he decides what his “being” will be like. And the name of this decision, this election, is – Jesus Christ!

Jesus Christ is the whole content of God’s decision about himself. God chooses that his triune life will unfold in the historical existence of Jesus. God chooses that his triune life will travel down a particular path, and will arrive at one particular goal: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection of Jesus, God arrives; in the resurrection of Jesus, God’s decision about his own triune life is fulfilled. In the resurrection of Jesus, God becomes what he has decided to be – he becomes what he has always been! In the resurrection of Jesus, God reaches the goal of his own decision, his own life, his own movement through history.

Another way of saying all this is that God has decided to be the gracious God. The content of God’s eternal decision is Jesus Christ. God decides that he will be the human God, the God who unites himself with humanity, the God whose whole triune life is expressed in this covenant union. From eternity, God is for us. From eternity, God has made us humans the goal of his life. From eternity, God has taken humanity into his own heart and life. Even before we humans had existed, God had gathered us into the living fellowship of his triunity! Even before we existed, God had been our God!

Indeed, humanity exists only because of God’s free decision. In the overflowing life of the triune God, the Father sent the Son to become human, and the Son freely obeyed the Father, freely choosing humanity as the mode of his divine life. This is where humanity originated: here in God’s own triune life, here in God’s eternal decision! Human history is the path down which God’s humanity will travel. Before any human history has existed, God has already been human, and has already decided that his triune life will travel the path of human history.

In a nutshell: we exist because of the man Jesus! Even from eternity, his story is our story! The story of Jesus is like a mould into which all human history is poured. The purpose and meaning of all our history is found in this one man – the man whose story is the content of God’s decision.

We have been saying that God’s triune life “precedes” the story of Jesus. But we can now expand this thought and make it more precise. After all, God’s eternal life is not merely historically prior to the life of Jesus. Rather, the “place” of God’s life is the future – from eternity, the triune God is the God of the future. He stands not only behind history, and not only in history, but also ahead of history, creating it and summoning it towards him. Thus God’s election is an event not only of the past but also (and especially) of the future. From eternity, God summons human history forwards into the future of his own kingdom. From eternity, God gathers us into fellowship with his triune life.

This, then, is the meaning of election: God chooses to live his life not for himself, but for us, in covenant with us. And so we are chosen to participate in God’s life – in the life of the future, the life of resurrection.

Further reading

  • Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics II/2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957), pp. 3-194.
  • Barth, Karl. The Humanity of God (London: Collins, 1961), pp. 69-75.
  • Jenson, Robert W. Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 173-78.
  • Jüngel, Eberhard. God’s Being Is in Becoming (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 83-98.
  • Maury, Pierre. Predestination: And Other Papers (London: SCM, 1960), pp. 19-71.
  • Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Human Nature, Election, and History (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977), pp. 45-109.
  • Weber, Otto. Foundations of Dogmatics, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), pp. 411-507.


MM said...

... this post reminds me of how so many of Barth's most profound ideas may be expressed in the simple term "Emmanuel."

byron smith said...

Hey Ben (or others), I'm curious:

God does not first have a “being” which then makes certain decisions; rather, God decides to be who he is, he decides what his “being” will be like.

Do you then advocate voluntarism? I realise this term has different uses in various areas of thought, but they seem to all stem from a basic theological voluntarism such as you seem to express here: that God's will precedes* God's being.

*Not necessarily a chronological precedence, of course, as you point out later in your post. Augustine distinguishes four different kinds of precedence in Confessions XII.xxxix.

David W. Congdon said...

Stellar post, Ben! They keep getting better.

It seems that you have, whether intentionally or unintentionally, entered into the Molnar-McCormack debate over God's freedom. To sum up: Molnar wishes to argue that God's freedom means that God could have chosen to not become 'God for us,' that is, to forgo election altogether. McCormack argues that we can only understand God's freedom in light of God's election concretely revealed in Jesus Christ, and thus we have to understand God's freedom not as a secular freedom-from but as the truly Christian freedom-for.

I get the strong sense from this post that you would agree with McCormack? Is this right? Also, could you comment on whether you think God's triunity or God's act of election is logically prior — that is, whether God's triunity is the logical basis for election, or whether God's self-determination as the God who elects is the basis for God's triunity? An obvious via media would be to argue that God's self-determination and triunity are logically one and the same event. Would you choose this option? I felt like both sides were evident in your post.

Anonymous said...

Hi DW.

Surely McCormack is right. Indeed Molnar's position strikes me as theologically incoherent. To debunk a pelagian understanding of human freedom, Barth deployed the image of Hercules at the crossroads. Pari passu with God.

Another way of putting this is that he whole notion of what God "could have done" misconstrues the grammar of God. The test case is the divine omnipotence, which, as T. F. Torrance (citing his mentor H. R. Mackintosh) says, "is what God does, and it is from His 'does' rather than from a hypothetical 'can' that we are to understand the meaning of the term."

One could say that God's nature is the grammar of God's will, not the other way round. Though, really, DW, you put it best when you suggest that "God's self-determination [his will] and triunity [his nature] are logically one and the same event.

Ben Myers said...

Byron, I wouldn't want to use the slippery term "voluntarism", since the view of election I'm sketching here isn't offering any general theory about the nature of "will", or any general principle about the priority of one psychological "faculty" over others. Instead, the point here is simply that God's being is uniquely self-determining. So although there are some parallels here to certain forms of voluntarism, I don't think any general "-ism" is really involved. If anything, it's more related to an actualistic view of being: God's being is an act, and this act takes the specific form of a decision. (As you can see, in all this I'm directly following Barth.)

Yes, DWC, the McCormack-Molnar debate was definitely in the back of my mind as I was writing this! To put it a little crudely, I think both Molnar and McCormack are right in what they deny but wrong in what they affirm. I myself disagree with Molnar's account of divine freedom (i.e. that God is free "from" us, and so might have chosen not to be God-for-us); and I also disagree with McCormack's (brilliant but disastrous) thesis that election precedes triunity.

As Kim says, you're probably getting closer to the truth when you suggest that triunity and election are "one and the same event" (although I don't think I'd say "logically one and the same"). This is similar to Jüngel's interpretation: "This self-determination of God is an act of his self-relatedness as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.... God relates himself to himself in that he determines himself to be the one who elects" (God's Being Is in Becoming, p. 85). But I don't think this necessarily means that there is a logical identity between election and triunity.

In any case, it's a very difficult problem!

Petter Ö said...

Whatever the last Word will be (and was, and is..), election of grace is really good news! Kind regards from a Beginner of theology.

Anonymous said...

Call me silly, but I can't make sense of the following statement:

"Thus God constituted himself through a free decision."

I think the bit about "constituting" is best phrased differently. In other words, I have the barest inkling of what you're trying to get across. But only the barest inkling, because I do not know how to paraphrase what you are saying in "Thus God constituted himself through a free decision."

Anonymous said...

I am reading Barth once again!
Good post Ben!

Alastair said...

You continue to express these profound and grace filled theological sentiments with clarity and depth - thank you. The Church needs solid theolgy in an age of often lightweight exegesis.

The lightwieght bit is purely my own opinion of course...

David W. Congdon said...


I agree with your critiques of both Molnar and McCormack, although I think the jury is still out on whether McCormack indeed believes that election is logically prior to triunity. I have a strong suspicion that he was articulating a possible way of interpreting Barth, or, also likely, just offering a radical thesis to provide theological discussion. I think I was articulating McCormack's actual position by locating election and triunity together.

And just so I'm clear, the issue you had with "logically" in my statement is that we do not understand election and triunity from our own logic but only out of God's self-revelation, is that right? In other words, we do derive God's being-in-act from logic, but we instead think-after (Nachdenken) God's revelation.

David W. Congdon said...


One more point: I noticed you never addressed the doctrine of revelation or the doctrine of the Word of God (threefold, etc.). The only starting-point given was faith, but what about God's self-revelation, or the nature of the Word of God incarnate, written, and preached? Revelation has come up over and over again in the comments, and it seems rather necessary to address that, particularly as that is the one doctrine I see the most confusion over. Any thoughts on adding a post on that subject?

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