Introduction to Posts on Election and Related Issues

The subject of election is one that I have regularly revisited over my years of blogging. The responses to my posts on the subject have left me a little confused. Where there has been a response it has generally been critical and negative. On other occasions there has been hardly any response at all. When I treat this subject on Reformed forums online I am almost invariably misunderstood and can receive some rather harsh replies. I am left puzzled. I am certain that I am on to something and I am surprised that no one else seems to see it.

The traditional approaches to election in Reformed circles now appear quite unsatisfactory to me. Some claim that this can only be because I never understood the Reformed position in the first place (even though I have probably read far more Reformed works on election that most of those who raise this criticism). I am aware of the various clarifications, qualifications and modifications of the doctrine of election that exist in Reformed circles, but have yet to encounter one that really goes far enough.

Whilst the traditional Reformed positions lose their appeal for me, I have become increasingly convinced that there are ways of doing justice to the biblical text, ways that go beyond the simplistic oppositions that one often encounters. My position is neither ‘Calvinistic’ nor ‘Arminian’, nor is it a mixture of the two. I find both positions quite unsatisfactory. I believe that the position that I now find myself holding dissolves many of the problems associated with the various common views of election that one often encounters.

I believe that my position, if it is more or less on the right track, calls into question large and significant elements of traditional Reformed theology. However, whilst I reject traditional Reformed ways of approaching the issue of election, I can’t help but feel that it is a strong Reformed instinct that leads me to do so. The concerns that are foremost in my mind in my thinking on the matter are Reformed ones.

I believe that the Reformed doctrine of election has tended to be too man-centred and has not been focused enough on the glory of God. I also believe that there are some Reformed positions that can leave the goodness of God in question. I believe that their grounding in Scripture is quite tenuous and that they quite probably owe more to the imposition of extra-biblical assumptions upon the text than to the text itself at certain points. I believe that concern for the glory of God, the centrality of Christ and the biblical basis for our doctrine are concerns that I hold in common with the average Reformed Christian. Reformed Christians are accustomed to accusing ‘Arminians’ of compromise on these points. For this reason they should be all the more ready to examine their own doctrine against these standards.

Over the next while, I plan to post occasional short entries on the subject of election and related issues (perseverance of the saints, limited atonement, etc.), each addressing slight different aspects of the doctrine. There is no particular order to these posts. Ideally they could be read in any order. Their purpose is to raise important questions that I believe Reformed Christians need to ask about the doctrine of election. I hope that people will be prepared to comment and interact with the material that is posted. I would be interested to hear other perspectives on the matter. Constructive criticism would be especially appreciated.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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21 Responses to Introduction to Posts on Election and Related Issues

  1. Jon says:

    If you’re always misunderstood, then surely you can’t have a very good explanation of what your position is. Which leads to the question, “Is it adequate enough to achieve what it sets out to do?”

  2. John says:

    Post away – I’m eagerly awaiting your thoughts. Because I too dislike both traditional Calvinist and Arminian positions. Both are too narrow and tend to disregard the Incarnation of Christ in favour of asking legal-style questions. Indeed, I suspect that the problem isn’t so much that they have the wrong answers as that they ask the wrong questions.

    pax et bonum

  3. garver says:

    Now that I’ve been forwarned, I’ll make sure to have a generous glass of scotch in hand before surfing over here. 🙂

  4. James C says:

    Have you read Barth on election?

  5. T.B. Vick says:

    Sounds like a good series and I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the issues.

  6. Jeff Meyers says:

    Sounds interesting, Alastair. My views on this topic began to change when I researched early Reformed symbols and tried to understand their relationship to the Lutheran confessional tradition. I was also helped by Barth’s treatment. At times his forays get a bit weird, but he also explores the trinitarian perspective on election in ways that many Reformed theologians have not.

  7. Al says:

    James,
    No I have read hardly any Barth on this subject. I will probably do so some time in the next few months.

  8. Paul Baxter says:

    I presume you are also thinking about the differences between how “election” is used in the scripture and in reformed dogmatics.

  9. Rob B says:

    As with some others, I eagerly await your comments on election; I too have trouble with traditional Calvinistic and Arminian views, yet respect their attempts to probe this mystery.

  10. luke s'ford says:

    Read your most recent post before this one, so missed the preamble, but found it very thought provoking! Look forward to reading more and involving more thought.

  11. Wesley says:

    Could you list some of the most influential works you have read on election that have formed your “Reformed” understanding of the doctrine?

  12. Al says:

    I have read a number of systematic theological treatments of the subject, from a wide range of Reformed perspectives at various occasions in the past: Calvin, Berkhof, Turretin, Bavinck, Berkouwer (and Baker’s book-length critique), Reymond, a number of others that don’t immediately come to mind and numerous shorter, occasional and popular treatments of the subject in writers such as Cornelius Van Til and John Murray. I have an acquaintance with some more extreme Reformed viewpoints on election and related issues, such as those of Kersten and Hoeksema (and of theologians like John Gill among Reformed Baptists). I have also studied a number of the Reformed confessions in some depth on this particular subject.

    To be honest, my knowledge of a number of the above theologians is a bit rusty at the moment. I haven’t read most of them for a couple of years, although I have a broad understanding of where they are coming from.

    In these posts I have not singled out any one Reformed perspective for direct attention, although I might allude to particular theologians from time to time. Most of my comments are directed at common general perceptions of the doctrine that I have encountered in Reformed circles off and online. Such positions are nowhere near as nuanced as the positions that one will find in Calvin and others. However, a careful reader of my posts should not find it hard to find out where I differ from Calvin and others.

  13. Al says:

    I might add that my thinking on this subject has been particularly influenced in the past by such theologians as Berkouwer, Ridderbos, Bavinck and Calvin. These theologians in particular have helped me to see the problems in certain popular forms of the doctrine of election in Reformed circles. They have also sensitized me to certain issues that have led me to depart from them in particular important areas.

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  16. Found your blog through doing a search on Berkouwer. Wondered if you’d be interested in my blog on Berkouwer – http://www.theologyofgcberkouwer.blogspot.com I am the author of a book on Berkouwer – The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the Writings of G C Berkouwer.

  17. Have just be reading your comments on election.
    Wondered if you are familiar with my article, ‘Arminius – Hero or Heretic?’, Evangelical Quarterly, Vol. LXIV/No.3, July 1992, pp. 213 -227.
    Also of some interest may be the related sections in my book, ‘The Problem of Polarization: An Approach based on the Writings of G C Berkouwer’ -(i) pp.5-11 which deal with Berkouwer’s relation to both Calvin & Arminius; (ii)Chapter 6 which deals with ‘the doctrine of grace’, especially the first two sections – the introduction (pp. 163–168) and ‘Understanding the ‘pre’ element in predestination’ (pp. 168-177). Some of this material is included in my most recent post – ‘Loved with Everlasting Love’ in my blog, http://www.theologyofgcberkouwer.com ;
    (iii) pp. 249-253 – ‘The Heart of the Church’ – which deal with Berkouwer’s comments on election in ‘A Half Century of Theology’.
    I have also written a review of A L Baker’s critique of Berkouwer,’Reformed Review’, Spring 1982, Vol. 35, No.3, p. 164. (I also comment on Baker’s work in my book at the section entitled, ‘Understanding the ‘pre’ element in predestination). In the review, I make three criticisms of Baker -inadequate understanding of Berkouwer, unconvincing use of Scripture and lack of self-criticism.
    My book on Berkouwer was published by the Edwin Mellen Press in the series, ‘Rutherford Studies in Contemporary Theology'(more information from http://www.rutherfordhouse.org.uk).
    If you are able to have a look at my work, I would be interested to read your comments.

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  19. Alexkhpr says:

    Hello, my name is Alex, i’m a newbie here. I really do like your resource and really interested in things you discuss here, also would like to enter your community, hope it is possible:-) Cya around, best regards, Alex!

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  21. Hi Alastair, I’ve enjoyed reading your posts regarding election and am pleased that your views are similar to mine. You’ve helped me to develop my position, so thanks for that. I also have moved away from the Calvinistic understanding that I was first taught, after more detailed consideration of the Scriptures and reading about alternative viewpoints.

    I think the Calvinist view of election is particularly exposed when viewed against Romans 11 (verse 7 and where Paul goes from there). I’ve put my thoughts in writing in a blog series on Romans and discuss Romans 11:7 at this post (in case of interest): https://predestinationstation.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/romans-117-10-who-are-the-elect/

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