Election or Faith

Note that the title of this post is not a question. It is just a disjunction, in which either alternative might be so, or both. In this case, it’s both.

This post is prompted by a long discussion in the comment thread of Alan Roebuck’s recent post, Defining Christianity: Why be a Christian? Part III. It is an attempt to lay to rest the question whether we are saved on account of our election by God, or on account of our faith. The answer, I would argue, is “yes.” I don’t mean this post to be dispositive; it is a record of something that surfaced in me on the train to work this morning, as I reflected on that discussion: a complex hunch that arrived in my awareness with a strong tincture of verisimilitude. I offer it mostly to find out if it satisfies the participants to the discussion.

There seem to be two alternatives. The first, Calvinist alternative is that we are saved by God’s election of us from before all time. In this case, the creature’s act of faith occurs on account of God’s election. This entails obvious problems for the notions of creaturely freedom, and so for creaturely responsibility. Under this alternative, God forces the creature’s hand, raising the question whether the creature has a hand in the first place. It would seem not, prima facie.

The second, Arminian/Catholic alternative is that we are saved by our act of faith. God’s justification is offered to all, and whether any given sinner enjoys it depends upon whether he wants to. The difficulty with this alternative is that it seems to force God’s hand, and make the efficacy for a given sinner of his saving act contingent on the sinner. But ex hypothesi, God is not a contingent being. His knowledge of who is saved cannot continge. Process theologians deal with this difficulty by considering that God might after all be somewise contingent, in the process sacrificing either Divine Simplicity, Omniscience, or Omnipotence, or some combination thereof. This seems hardly satisfactory.

In the first alternative, God decides who is elect; in the second, the creature decides. Either way, one of the parties to the transaction has his hand forced, and is not free.

But if both alternatives are true at the same time, this problem does not arise. How could both be true?

The trick to seeing how is to stop thinking temporally. Not easy! But, doable.

Our normal way of thinking about procedures – about orderly  relations between events –  is to think that first x does something, and then y happens as a result. So, it is natural for us to think of justification as, “God decides which sinners will be saved, and then as a result they are saved,” or vice versa.

But in eternity, there is no such thing as a causal result. In eternity – i.e., in the way things really are, the way they look from the perspective of omniscience – things don’t happen as a result of other things having already happened. There is in eternity no “already,” no sequence of causal operations, and so therefore there is no causal operation: no push or pull. Things rather just all happen, and are ordered to each other by their logic (of which causal logic is but one rather small and parochial department).

Thus in eternity the Divine election of the sinner and the sinner’s act of faith are just the same motion, considered from different points of view. By his very nature, God knows which of his creatures accept him as Lord; and that acceptance is the character that, in God’s knowledge, categorizes a sinner as among the elect. The justified sinner is what he is, and God knows him for what he is.

I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.

–  John 10:14


Post Scriptum

In the light of these reflections, it is interesting to ponder the worries of the ostensibly faithful sinner over whether he has really been justified and is indeed safe among the elect. If God does not know the sinner really does have faith, and does not therefore understand the sinner as among the elect, then *there can be no way that the sinner might truly understand himself as having faith.* If God does not know the sinner as saved, the ontological possibility of faithfulness is utterly foreclosed to the sinner, and any impression he has of his own faithfulness is mistaken or delusional. If on the other hand a man knows without the slightest doubt that he is faithful, then he is indeed faithful, and God knows him as among the elect.

The question before the sinner, then, always is this: is my faith real, or am I just fooling myself? Have I really repented of my sins, or am I really just a liar? If the sinner is ever able to say to himself, with a whole heart and without any jot of equivocation or obscure inward reservation, that he completely and totally believes in God, then he may rely upon the fact of his justification. But this state of certainty about oneself is, obviously, extremely rare and difficult to obtain. Thus the earnest introspection of the believer at worship, plumbing the depth and deviousness of the devices and desires of his own heart, and bitterly regretting his own disgusting devilry; thus his firm resolve to leave behind the world, the flesh and the devil; thus his doubt that he really means to do what he says to himself that he means to do.

Lack of complete faith in the reality of God, then, is just doubt about the integrity of oneself, and vice versa. Knowing one is inherently sinful, how is one to complete the motion of faith with complete confidence? Only by deciding to rely upon God as the source of one’s confidence. The leap of faith, then, is a departure from reliance upon our own poor powers, to reliance upon God.

18 thoughts on “Election or Faith

  1. @Kristor: Yes, Yes.

    The traditional debate is a category error which happens because people are doing philosophy without realizing they are doing it – they are making a distinction between eternity and time (a big philosophical move) then jumping back and forth between eternity and time without recognizing the qualitative difference.

    The fact is that we cannot – I mean cannot – map time onto eternity or eternity onto time.

    We can only make (more or less crude) metaphors that can answer particular questions, but break down soon after.

    My own metaphor at present is that eternity is everything, and in the middle of everything is a bubble of linear, sequential time.

    Viewed from outside, the bubble is invisible (because eternity sees everything at once); viewed from inside the bubble eternity is invisible because incomprehensible.

    Here inside the bubble we have linear sequential time and free will; although eternity created, sustained and acts-upon our bubble (incomprehensibly).

    But the metaphor is already getting out of hand, and is causing more problems than it solves!

  2. Charles Spurgeon expressed it this way:

    The system of truth is not one straight line, but two. No man will ever get a right view of the gospel until he knows how to look at the two lines at once.

    I am taught in one book to believe that what I sow I shall reap: I am taught in another place, that “it is not of him that willeth nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy.”

    I see in one place, God presiding over all in providence; and yet I see, and I cannot help seeing, that man acts as he pleases, and that God has left his actions to his own will, in a great measure.

    Now, if I were to declare that man was so free to act, that there was no presidence of God over his actions, I should be driven very near to Atheism; and if, on the other hand, I declare that God so overrules all things, as that man is not free enough to be responsible, I am driven at once into Antinomianism or fatalism.

    That God predestines, and that man is responsible, are two things that few can see. They are believed to be inconsistent and contradictory; but they are not. It is just the fault of our weak judgment. Two truths cannot be contradictory to each other.

    If, then, I find taught in one place that everything is fore-ordained, that is true; and if I find in another place that man is responsible for all his actions, that is true; and it is my folly that leads me to imagine that two truths can ever contradict each other.

    These two truths, I do not believe, can ever be welded into one upon any human anvil, but one they shall be in eternity: they are two lines that are so nearly parallel, that the mind that shall pursue them farthest, will never discover that they converge; but they do converge, and they will meet somewhere in eternity, close to the throne of God, whence all truth doth spring.

    This was an excellent exposition as well.

  3. That is an interesting excerpt.

    I was driving around town thinking some more about this (and managed to survive the distracted driving).

    I think that the confusion comes from our mathematical training. I tend to equate eternity with the concept of infinite numbers, as on a coordinate plane. I.e. that eternity is a place defined by “forever”; that I die and live an infinite number of years after that, with each year following the former like lines on a graph. The idea that eternity is completely outside of time is much harder to grasp, but it is essential when trying to comprehend the election/faith conundrum.

  4. So, I suppose that I had a linear model of Heaven; attendance at a party that never ends, which is almost more of a punishment than a reward. The idea of Heaven being a place where everything happens all at once is both uplifting and awe-inspiring.

    • But remember that even in Heaven you will still be a finite creature. To apprehend things sub specie aeternitatis, a being must be itself eternal; and there is only one such human. We will not in Heaven be able to achieve the divine perspective, or even the angelic perspective. We’ll still be men and women. So, we will be temporal, and Heaven will in that sense be like an everlasting party – specifically, a wedding banquet. That sounds like it could get old. Think of it instead, then, as an everlasting adventure, with numberless worlds to explore and no possibility of ever tiring. Want to master all the music of the Baroque? That can be on your to do list, without crowding out kayaking all the rivers in all the worlds. Want to ascend ever higher through the heavens of Heaven, to the central height? There’s no completing that flight. It just keeps getting more and more sublime. And at every level in every world of Heaven, informing and generating all their musics, there is one ceaseless equal music of eternity.

      There it is, right now! Do you hear it?

      • @Kristor – “We will not in Heaven be able to achieve the divine perspective, or even the angelic perspective.”

        I don’t think this is correct; at least it seems to be contradicted by what looks like conclusive (evangelical Calvinist) scriptural analysis I have heard from JI Packer and Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

        In heaven, the Bible seems to teach that resurrected Man will be adopted as a Son of God, and thus above the Angels; and I assume this means a superior perspective to the Angels (whatever that might imply – I do not know)



        All this serves to underline the astonishing nature of the Christian promise and hope – the fact that Angels have (as Peter Kreeft emphasizes in his book about them) intelligence, strength and powers greater than any superhero of earthly imagination; yet resurrected and saved humans will be above them.

      • Well, in the Old Testament, the intertestamental literature, and in the ancient Near East generally, “sons of God” (bene elohim or ba’alim (bar’elim)) was a term that was used to refer to the gods, or angels, the members of the Divine Council. YHWH too was a son of God; what distinguished him from the other angels was the fact that he was not a creature, like them, but rather begotten of his father El, and thus coeternal with him. This was what made YHWH the King and God of the Sons of God.

        The angels are created as angels, as gods. We are created men, and in Heaven, we will remain men, with the bodies of men. Our membership in the Divine Household will be as men, rather than angels. We’ll be divine beings, in rather the way that the Greek heroes and sacrificial victims (these two categories being largely coterminous) became demi-gods and took up their places in the firmament of Heaven. But we won’t stop being men.

        We will indeed be ranked above the angels, not because we stop being men and become something different, but rather on account of the participation of our perfected human nature in the divine body of Jesus – a privilege not enjoyed by the angels. Thus it is our participation in the Church that effects our metamorphosis – a consideration that makes musty dusty Sunday Mass an altogether spooky experience, indeed terrifying, if you allow yourself to think about it.

        Thus while there are certain aspects of the angelic mode of apprehension that might be available to us, we will still be temporal creatures. Logically, embodied beings cannot be otherwise, for they cannot do without a causal order (embodiment *just is* participation in a causal order).

        But in any case, neither are the angels eternal beings. There is only one eternal being. Neither angels nor men can apprehend things sub specie aeternitatis.

  5. I agree, Kristor. This is good metaphysics, subservient to the Word of God. Faith seeking understanding.

    I also have a post on this subject. Stay tuned…

    • As a woman, I’m mostly preoccupied with more practical topics like homemaking and politics, and I don’t always understand what is written because a lot of it is over my head. But I do always feel like I’m learning something or being challenged in some way here, and I appreciate the high level of discourse.

      I’ll just sit here, in the back pew, and hope for the occasional glimmer of comprehension. 🙂

      • Philosophy, especially metaphysics, is a beautiful area of study if you can understand it. Being better at comprehension than the development of ideas I refer to the contributors here for information pertaining to the subject rather than write on it myself. So I understand the “sit here, in the back pew” sentiments.

        Write on politics? Sure, no problem. Write on theology or metaphysics? What, do you want me to look like an idiot?

      • It has taken me my whole life to even understand what metaphysics is.

        To be honest, if I contemplate it too deeply I get dizzy and nauseated. I think it throws my blood sugar off when I think that hard. LOL I’ll just stick to reading the articles. The level of abstraction is a bit overwhelming.

        I teach catechism class and I can deal with that sort of concrete theology.

  6. Pingback: Divine Election and Predestination: More Preliminary Comments « The Orthosphere

  7. Pingback: Omniscience or Spontaneity | The Orthosphere


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