The preaching of Divine Election has ever and again dug deep into the life and thinking of the Church. No doctrine has evoked more intense debates. How often the mention of Election has seemed to many of its critics a threat to the assurance of their faith. Has it not often suggested the terror of an arbitrary Deity hiding in the shadows of the Christian faith?
Sharp reactions have been aroused, but not the Christian doctrine of Election so much as caricatures of it are to blame.
Reaction is a phenomenon in Christian thought that has played a large role in the history of the Church and its theology. Reaction from some unbiblically one-sided proposition has often landed theology in another unbiblically one-sided proposition. Theologians attacking a caricatured theology have often created their own caricature of Christian thought. Observing that a given aspect of faith was neglected, Christians have often proceeded to accentuate that aspect so much that it became the be-all of faith, with a resulting neglect of other aspects.
Many examples of such reactionary theologies could be given. In times when faith became intellectualized and to that extent impoverished, a reaction set in in the form of experiential theologies that had hardly any place for the knowledge of faith. Then, again in reaction, rationalism set in once more. It is a fact that theologians have seldom responded sanely to theological caricatures. In reaction to the merit system of Roman theology, some Christians devalued the necessity of good works in any form. Indeed, one writer of the sixteenth century wrote that good works were actually dangerous to a person’s salvation. A more contemporary example of reactionary theology is to be seen in the doctrine of the Atonement. Gustaf Aulén has reacted against the idea of Atonement set forth in purely judicial or forensic terms and has himself set forth Atonement as a victorious liberation from the powers of sin and corruption. Aulén felt that the satisfaction theory of Atonement prevailed so exclusively in Anselm’s thought that the dramatic portrayal of Atonement as triumph over the powers of evil was lost. Bolstered by the conviction that he was recapturing the thought of Irenaeus and Luther, Aulén then presented the dramatic theory—or, as he called it, the classic theory—of the Atonement in so exclusive a manner as almost to rule out Christ’s redemption of sinners from their guilt.
CARICATURE OF ELECTION
But reactionary theology has never been as evident as it has been in the case of the doctrine of Divine Election. If one is at all informed concerning the tensions that have prevailed concerning this doctrine, he will know that reaction has usually been aroused by the notion of arbitrariness in the Divine Election of sinners. Reaction was not aroused simply by the notion of Election, but especially by what seemed to be a deterministic element in some constructions of Election. Such reactions are very understandable, for the biblical doctrine of Election has at times been presented as though it were a parallel to the Islamic doctrine of election. The only difference was that in one system Allah was the determiner and in the other system God was the determiner. Election was felt by many, thus, to be a view of the world according to which everything was settled, in which nothing could be changed, and before which a person could only bow his head in resignation. All of life—including the Christian life—was caught in a huge net of divine causality; the only decision that really mattered in life was the arbitrary decision of the Deity made before we were born.
Jesus Christ was still recognized in the system, but the image of Christ was shadowed under the dark cloud of a fatalistic doctrine of Election. One’s personal faith seemed threatened by the thought that we could be sure of Christ’s grace only after we were sure of our favored position within Divine Election. It was made to seem as though we must first secure our faith in Election, outside of Christ, and only then are we given confidence to accept the promise of salvation in Christ for ourselves.
Reaction to this kind of caricature of the doctrine of Election often resulted in theology’s handing over the decision as to his salvation to man himself, and leaving everything to the free will of man. Or, some others sought different grounds than election for assurance. Max Weber characterized Calvinism as being insecure in view of Divine Election (and the arbitrary God) and as thus seeking compensation for its insecurity in rigorous works and in its sense of calling to labor for the Kingdom. (Hence, he explains, the strenuous moralism of Calvinism was a compensation for the insecurity caused by its doctrine of Election.) Without judging Weber’s thesis, we may say that it illustrates a search for assurance and peace somewhere other than in the caricature of Divine Election.
TAKING MAN’S DECISION SERIOUSLY
We must recognize that a more serious error can hardly be conceived than the substitution of fatalism for the biblical portrayal of the electing God. The God of Divine Election of Ephesians 1:4 cannot have anything in common with an arbitrary Deity. Fatalism is infinitely removed from the biblical proclamation of divine sovereign Grace. Fatalism leaves no opportunity for serious preaching, no room for a real offer of Grace, no occasion for taking man and his decision seriously. Fatalism under the guise of Christianity needs Jesus Christ only to work out the arbitrary choice of men by God. In fatalism, we do not really deal with Jesus Christ; we have to get behind him to the arbitrary God, if we are to deal with the real source of salvation. Now, given this picture of Election, we can understand that reaction to it would be forthcoming. Indeed, we suspect that many people have difficulty with the doctrine of Election because they have encountered the doctrine only in its caricatured form.
Reaction played a role in the life of Arminius, too. When he began his controversy with the Reformed doctrine of Election, the sixteenth century lay behind him. He was aroused to intense reaction against various sixteenth century constructions of the doctrine of Election in which Jesus Christ was merely incidental, and the arbitrary choice of some men by God hovered as a shadow over the whole of Christian doctrine. Even if we cannot accept the theology of Arminianism, we must recognize that it was an attempt to counteract a theological determinism of somewhat less than Christian character. If we wish to correct Arminius, we must first be certain that we have overcome any taint of determinism in our own thought and in our preaching of the Gospel.
A CRESCENDO OF PRAISE
There is a tragic aspect in the history of the doctrine of Election. Election has been called the heart of the Church. If this is true, we must by all means be careful what we do with the heart! How often has not Divine Election been talked about as though it were a secret kept from the simple which, if known, would cast a threatening shadow over their faith. In Christ everything seemed sure; but if Election were spoken of we would be cast into doubt and anxiety about our salvation. In the Bible, however, Election is set within a wholly different context than that of perplexity, uncertainty, or resignation. It is always set to the tune of a doxology. In the great Romans 9–11 passage, Paul works up to a crescendo of jubilation over the depths of the riches of divine judgment. This is neither anxiety nor resignation in the face of arbitrary sovereignty. It is amazement at the ways of divine Grace. Paul sees these ways in the light of Election. Salvation is not of works, but of Him that calls. And he who comes to see that his salvation is not of his works but of God’s grace stands before Divine Election and therein finds his peace.
Election is not a labyrinth of dark passages for Paul. It is not a threat to, but a foundation for faith and assurance. It also is one of the most obvious tasks of the Church to make clear in her preaching that Christian faith in Election and the Mohammedan doctrine of determinism have nothing, absolutely nothing, in common. And this is not merely a matter for theologians. It is a matter close to the congregation. For many people have been confused by caricatures of Divine Election, some accepting what is tantamount to fatalism and others, frightened by the caricature, have leaped into the anxiety-laden sphere of human autonomy in salvation.
A kind of activism, a restless zeal that would compensate for the anxiety created by the mystery of Divine Election, has often arisen as a practical reaction to the doctrine of Election. On the other hand, the caricature of Election as determinism has also led to passivity. If nothing can be done to change God’s will, the best thing to do seemed to be to do nothing. In the latter case, preaching lost its effect, since preaching could lead to no meaningful human decision. The real decision had already been made in eternity by God. The message of salvation through Christ did not seem able to provide foundation for assurance, since there was always the other, the divine decision that really determined everything prior to Christ.
Over against this activism and passivism that are reactions to caricatures of Divine Election, we must make clear what the right response to the message of Divine Election is. It is humility, thankfulness, and joy at the gift of unmerited salvation. Herein lies the touchstone for the right insight into the preaching of election. Christian faith is not a blind self-abnegation before the unknown arbitrary God. In this connection we should remember the conversation between Jesus and Philip. Philip had learned a great deal from Jesus. But he had one problem that still bothered him. “Show us the Father,” he said, “and it sufficeth us.” Jesus’ answer is surprising: “Have I been with you so long, Philip, and yet you do not know me? He who has seen me has seen the Father.” Philip amazed Jesus with his question; he had seen Jesus, but had been looking beyond Jesus for God. Jesus’ words ought to register a protest against all caricatures of God and his electing grace. When a European visits New York he has not seen America. But in the Gospel things are different. Philip thought there was something he had not yet seen. “Show us the Father,” he demanded. But the response of our Lord meant that Philip had seen all there was to see when he had seen the Saviour.
There is, to be sure, also a divine wrath. But this wrath is directed against the unbelief that rejects the revelation of God in Christ. The Spirit shall convict the world of sin, because they did not believe in Jesus (John 16:9). He who hath not “seen” Jesus in faith shall indeed see the wrath of God.
Responsibility in preaching and theologizing is enormous. We are responsible to witness, both in preaching and theologizing, of Him who is the Mirror of our election (Calvin) and the Book of life (Luther). Doing this we shall not obscure the Gospel behind the background of the hidden things of God. In Christ we do not have a dark labyrinth called fate; we have a clear way in which men are called to walk. It is the way along which we see that the Bible never brings Divine Election into a sphere of anxiety and resignation, but rather into an atmosphere of grace with accents of praise.
Preacher In The Red
In college days a friend and I taught in a small country Sunday School. One of the young ladies in the high school class became quite sick. We decided to send her a get-well card to cheer her up. As a spiritual help we wrote on the card a verse for her to look up, John 5:24.
A few days later at Sunday School her father approached us with fire in his eyes and indignantly asked, “What’s the big idea?” He showed us the card and inadvertently the “five” had become an “eight.” We looked up the verse and it said, “I said therefore unto you, that ye shall die in your sins.” Was my face red!—The Rev. TED MAITLAND, Harmony Baptist Church, New Castle, Pennsylvania.
For each report by a minister of the Gospel of an embarrassing moment in his life, CHRISTIANITY TODAY will pay $5 (upon publication). To be acceptable, anecdotes must narrate factually a personal experience, and must be previously unpublished. Contributions should not exceed 250 words, should be typed double-spaced, and bear the writer’s name and address. Upon acceptance, such contributions become the property of CHRISTIANITY TODAY. Address letters to: Preacher in the Red, CHRISTIANITY TODAY, 1014 Washington Building, Washington 5, D. C.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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