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The Election of Grace: A Riddle without a Resolution? (Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology (KLRT))
The Election of Grace: A Riddle without a Resolution? (Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology (KLRT))
Stephen N. Williams
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015
229 pp., 27.5

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Nicholas Wolterstorff

All Called, Some Predestined

Calling a halt before the theological riddle is solved.

One more book on election? Yes, one more book on election, specifically, on the Augustinian doctrine of election. And a mighty interesting book it is: a fresh approach to the issues, in lucid and captivating prose, learned but not ponderous. And along the way, a good deal of Christian wisdom. I have some problems with the author's theses and method. But the positions he stakes out, and the theological method he recommends and employs, are eminently worth thinking about. The text is a revision of the lectures the author gave in the brand-new series, Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology, intended as a counterpart to the Gifford Lectures in natural theology.

The biblical narratives are replete with reports of God choosing individuals and groups for one or another purpose—calling them, electing them, selecting them. Williams says that his project in The Election of Grace is to develop a "narrative doctrine of election." I am not confident that I fully understand what he means by that. But at least part of what he means is that in articulating the biblical grounds for his doctrine of election he will give the biblical narrative "a decisive hermeneutical role," and that he will require of the doctrine itself that it articulate what he has gleaned about election from that narrative. The topic of the first chapter is thus, "Election in the Old Testament."

With his eye on the extraordinary range of individuals and groups reported in the OT as chosen by God, along with the extraordinary range of purposes for which they are chosen, the author describes election in general as "a divine modus operandi that is at the heart of [God's] dealings with the world." Whatever may be the eternal decrees behind God's elections, election itself "is a historical activity." And not a "once-for-all historical activity" but a historical activity that occurs over and over again. The OT reports a multiplicity of elections.

Most prominent among these elections is, of course, God's election of Israel, both of Israel as a whole and of individuals and groups within Israel; there is "election within election." The author emphasizes two aspects of what it was that God elected Israel for. Israel was elected for more intimate "communion with God" than was enjoyed by any of the surrounding nations; and Israel was elected to be a "light to the nations." It was because of Israel's special communion with God that she was a light to the nations.

Just as the Old Testament reports a multiplicity and diversity of divine callings and choosings, so too does the New Testament. There is the election of Mary to be the mother of Jesus, the election of Jesus to be the Messiah, the calling by Jesus of his twelve disciples, the calling of Paul, the election of a new people of God composed of both Jews and Gentiles, and so forth. Given the author's attention, when discussing the OT, to the multiplicity and diversity of callings and choosings, one expects the second chapter, "New Testament Election," to be a similarly wide-ranging discussion of the many divine elections reported in the NT. Williams surprises the reader by instead focusing almost all of his attention on one episode, namely, the response of the Gentiles, as reported by Luke in Acts, to the preaching of Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch. Luke says, "they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed" (13:48).[1] About this report Williams says, "There would appear to be no starker statement of predestination in the narrative portions of the NT." Lest there be any doubt as to what he has in mind with the word "predestination," in the next paragraph he refers explicitly to "the Augustinian interpretation of the NT teaching on predestination." The Augustinian doctrine of predestination preoccupies him for the remainder of the book.

I do not understand the author's move here. For reasons that he never spells out, the wide-ranging discussion we were led to expect of the many divine callings and choosings reported in the NT is abandoned in favor of staking out a position on the Augustinian doctrine of predestination. He himself notes that he has not discussed the election of Christ, this in spite of its centrality in NT teaching. The reason he gives for his silence is that adding a chapter on the election of Christ would not change anything in what he has said. Perhaps it would not change anything in what he has said concerning the Augustinian doctrine of predestination. But discussing the election of Christ, along with the many other elections reported, would certainly have yielded a very different picture of NT election. The election of believers, rather than being the sole form of election discussed, would have been set within the context of the many other sorts of election reported. Though that may not have led Williams to change anything in what he said about the election of believers, almost certainly it would have cast new light on their election.

I also have doubts about Williams' exegesis of his key passage, Acts 13:48. The passage describes certain of the hearers in Antioch as "appointed" or "destined" for eternal life; it does not say that they were pre-destined. Nor does it use the term "election." More important than either of these points is how the term "eternal life" is to be understood. Without ever raising the issue, Williams understands it along Augustinian lines: eternal life is life in God's eschatological kingdom. But Williams knows as well as I do that the term "eternal life" does not always have that sense in the NT; sometimes it refers to something that believers enjoy here and now in history. So one has to make a case for interpreting it as meaning eschatological life.

Given that the NT narrative carries forward the OT narrative, given that Israel's election in the OT included election for a type and degree of communion with God within history, and given that "eternal life" in the NT often refers to a form of life in this world, is it not likely that "eternal life," in Acts 13:48, refers primarily, though perhaps not exclusively, to a mode of communion with God that those believers in Antioch experienced then and there?

Let me offer an additional consideration in favor of this interpretation. Luke was, of course, one of Paul's companions; so though Williams declines to engage in a detailed discussion of Paul's teaching on election and predestination, on the ground that Paul's teaching is not part of the NT narrative, he does think it appropriate, when interpreting Luke's report in Acts, to take cognizance of what Paul says. One of the passages to which he calls attention is a passage in the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Ephesians:

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory (1:11).

Note well: not destined for life in the eschaton; destined for a life here and now of praise of Christ's glory. The other passages from Paul about election to which Williams calls attention have a similar here-and-now focus.

In short, I doubt that the passage on which Williams places so much weight, Acts 13:48, is a statement of Augustinian predestination, let alone being as stark a statement of predestination as any in the narrative portions of the NT.

Let's move on to Williams' version of Augustinianism. Augustine taught double predestination; Williams is a proponent of single predestination. He interprets the NT as teaching that God elects and predestines some human beings for faith in this world and for life in the eschaton; and he notes that there is no NT passage which clearly teaches that some human beings are predestined for perdition. To the contrary: what the NT teaches is that all human beings are called to believe and that all are, at some point in their lives, capable of believing and hence responsible for not believing The implicit contrast is never "between those who are predestined to life and those who are foreordained to perdition or passed over for predestination to life." The implicit contrast is always between those who are predestined to life and those to whom God addresses "a call or summons which is both genuine and responsibly rejected." "Antecedent reprobation is not part of the NT witness." God does, in the course of history, harden the hearts of some nonbelievers so that they are no longer capable of believing. But God hardens their hearts only if they themselves have already freely hardened their hearts. Williams offers an analogy: "The reason a person cannot leave the room is that the door has been locked, but the reason the door has been locked is that the person does not want to leave the room."

Now consider the following two claims: a person has faith in this world and life in the eschaton because God has eternally predestined that he or she will; and God does not eternally predestine everyone for faith in this world and life in the eschaton. Doesn't it follow straightforwardly that if someone does not have faith in this world and life in the eschaton, that's because God did not predestine that they would? It doesn't matter whether one thinks that God "passed over" them when decreeing who would have faith in this world and life in the eschaton, or whether one thinks that there are in God two decrees, one to faith and eschatological life and one to unbelief and eschatological death. Either way, doesn't Williams' position entail that, contrary to his picture of the unbeliever, faith and life in the eschaton were never genuine possibilities for him because God never predestined him for faith and eschatological life? This line of argument is as familiar as anything in Western theology.

Williams is not a universalist. (He does hold out the possibility that there may be some "who partake of eschatological salvation, but not of temporal election.") Nonetheless, he refuses to concede that he is "bound to posit either a passing over or an active reprobation in the case of those not predestined to life. If it is claimed that, in fact, my formulation does entail that those not predestined to life are passed over, my response is this: it no more entails this than it does in Luke's narrative, or it only entails it to the extent that it is so presented in Luke's narrative." "Where an antecedent, determining reprobative decree is not clearly taught in Scripture, we have reason to believe that it cannot be inferred on the basis of what is taught." To attribute to God either an eternal "passing over" or an eternal decree of reprobation is to go beyond what logic requires and what Scripture declares; and to do that is to engage in vain speculation. God is far beyond our human powers of comprehension. "The riddle of election remains until the eschaton."

Be all that as it may, Williams does not in fact refrain from speculation at this point, only from confident speculation. He's not an agnostic concerning the existence of an eternal decree of reprobation. Though Scripture doesn't say one way or another, nonetheless he believes, albeit "most tentatively," that there is no such decree. He reasons: "Where a fully responsible rejection of a genuine summons is described as it is in the NT, an antecedent, determining reprobative decree in relation to those who so reject can scarcely be what is reflected in historical time."

At this point Williams introduces a discussion of the theological method of Charles Simeon, a Cambridge theologian of the early 19th century. Simeon's test for whether some doctrine is acceptable was whether it captures Christian experience, not whether it can be fitted together with other doctrines into a system. Williams holds that both poles of the paradox before us satisfy Simeon's test. "I am aware that I possess whatever kind of freedom that is attendant on and entailed by my responsibility before the living God, who summons me. I am aware that I can be held to account for resisting grace. I am also aware that I cannot for the minutest second, to the minutest degree, congratulate myself on anything. I am aware that the God who elects and predestines in love only bids me to do anything because he is at work within me to will and to do."

The summary I have given of Williams' line of thought necessarily omits much of its scope and detail. And of the many points at which it calls out for engagement, I will have to limit myself to just one, namely, the author's calling a halt to logical inference at the point where his position seem to entail an eternal reprobation or passing over of those who do not believe. He does not explain why it does not entail that; he just declares that it doesn't, adding that Scripture's silence on the matter gives him reason to think he is right about that. Scripture's silence on the matter does not, however, lead him to refrain from inferring the negative, that there is no eternal passing over or decree of reprobation.

He observes that every theologian has to call a halt somewhere. And of course he's right about that. But there are better and worse halting points, stable and unstable halting points. The halting point that Williams has chosen seems to me one of the least stable in this whole area: declaring that an inference that many thinkers have judged to be valid is not valid but not explaining why it is not, insisting that we should draw no inferences about aspects of God's life that have not been revealed to us but tentatively drawing just such an inference. To me this has the look of "halting logic where it suits us."

I think there is a better path forward than accepting Augustine's doctrine of eternal election to faith and life and then calling a halt when faced with the inference to eternal reprobation or passing over. In the final two chapters of my Justice in Love, I present an alternative interpretation of election based on a close reading of Paul's letter to the Romans. Here I can give only an all-too-brief summary. Election in the NT remains what it was in the OT, namely, election to some role in God's historical program of redemption. All too often justification and election are run together; Paul does not run them together. Justification is offered to all; those who by faith accept the offer share in God's eschatological kingdom. By contrast, it is specific individuals or groups who are elected, always for some specific role in history. They are not elected to be justified. Paul often speaks of those who are elected for some role in God's program of redemption as predestined for their role. He also says that God has predestined that those who by faith accept God's offer of justification will share in God's eschatological kingdom. But he says neither that some people are predestined to have faith nor that some are not so predestined. The "riddle" that vexes Williams never emerges.

Nicholas Wolterstorff is Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University. He is the author most recently of The God We Worship: An Exploration of Liturgical Theology, published earlier this year by Eerdmans.

1. NIV. NRSV reads: "When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers."

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