Apocalyptic thinker Douglas Campbell refashions "election"
There is a problem many of us face when we talk about God’s election, and Douglas Campbell, in his new Pauline Dogmatics, addresses this very common pastoral problem and seeks to walk the path into the light:
The technical term for God’s overarching activity here, which bends the future of the cosmos to his purpose, is “election.” But talk of election tends to make peopJe very nervous, and in some respects it does have a nasty track record. After mentioning this word, students I am teaching often rush off like horses stampeding away from the smell of a mountain lion, unaware that their panicked flight is heading toward a gorge.
Many students tend to think immediately of God’s electing influence upon us as some hard, causal, mechanical, or chemical process like an oven baking a piece of clay, and a straightforward literal reading of various biblical pas-sages can reinforce this notion, including a well-known argument in Romans, namely, 9:6-24. They then immediately start to worry about the people who have been left outside of God’s electing purposes, apparently having reliable information in advance of judgment day about who has been left out. If these poor folk have been hardened like the proverbial clay, then God seems to be behaving like something of a monster, and I actually agree with this concern. A God who creates people destjned for annihilation at best and enduring torture at worst is a monster.
Yes, but is there a way through this dilemma that takes seriously what the NT says about election? Campbell, somewhat like Barth but not wholly in line with Barth, thinks there is. It depends much on where we start. Here are his major conclusions about election:
Notice it all depends on where one begins. Some begin with humans damned and there’s a rescue operation, he begins with God’s gracious love for all humans:
God’s plan-”election’-involves God acting on us in accordance with his good purpose before we existed to call us into existence, to transform us,and to gather us into communion.
But, the problem arises for most thinking people because of the zero-sum game, shaped in part by what many think “grace” means: that is, either God elects or we do, either God is in charge or we are, there is no middle ground (which is often dubbed “semi-Pelagian”). Too much of God leads to as much of a problem as too much of humans, though some think we can’t possibly do “too much of God.” We can.
This plan generates the age-old theological challenge of relating election and human freedom. These agencies are often viewed as competitive with one another as existing in a zero-sum relation to one another.
An emphasis on divine agency in these terms overrules human activity. It also suggests a monstrous God, who creates people only to damn them. An emphasis on human agency eliminates God’s sovereignty, purposes,and electing initiative and hence, ultimately, his relevance.
So, back to the beginning point and to God’s gracious love and plan for creation:
We need to discipline our analogies concerning election and divine causality (and also, in due course, concerning freedom) in relation to the definitive information we have had revealed to us through Jesus. Consequently, election needs to be understood in a loving way.
It can be seen in this light that it refers to God’s initiative, which is also creative and giving. Love initiates and, in God, creates and gifts life to us,so that God might share the triune communion with humanity. It is therefore single and inclusive; everyone created has been destined in love for divine communion.
Which leads to some (light) polemics:
There is no double predestination. This doctrine should itself be damned.
It follows that God does not act on us in any automatic, causal way. Such action would hardly create a loving relationship. It would in fact be nonsense.
If the beginning point is God’s gracious love then election fits into relationalities:
The establishment of the relationship of love between God and humanity is also unconditional and irrevocable. It is irreversible and unbreakable. Election is in this sense “covenantal.”
It follows, finally, that people must possess agency, or freedom. For us to fulfill our destiny as Gods covenant partners, we must be able to respond to him in love, and hence freely. Election therefore - contrary to popular opinion - establishes human agency.
Pelagianims has its own problems with God in Campbell’s view, which leads back to the beginning point:
Pelagianism necessarily reduces the entire relationship between God and humanity to a legally conditional arrangement that then functions like a contract. This relationship is initiated or, at the least, appropriated by human activity. Election is excluded. This too is theologically destructive. God’s fundamental attribute is now retributive justice; God has to be conditioned into loving people, although conditional love is actually not love at all. This view conceals the information about God revealed to us through Jesus, and especially through his death on behalf of a hostile humanity; and it reintroduces founda-tionalism, here specifically as a political and legal form, the contract, and projects it onto God.
Once the covenant is established, however, a “Pelagian” emphasis on a wholehearted human effort to follow and to love God is appropriate.