07 September 2004

election in christ: a note

Calvin and a number of other Reformed theologians distinguish between "the elect" as that refers to all those whom God has drawn to himself through the Word and baptism, some of whom may later fall away, and "the elect" as that refers only to those who remain to the end in a pesevering faith. One might, I suppose, refer to those elect who eventually fall away as the "temporarily elect" and those who persevere as the "finally elect," though I'm not sure that's the best language to use.

I mention all of that in order to provide context for the following. Someone recently emailed to ask whether it was really true (as someone had told him) that I held that "the only difference between the finally elect and the temporarily elect is that the finally elect persevere"? I thought this was a rather puzzling question (not to mention that it imputes a position to me that would run afoul of the Canons of Dort), so I asked further what would make them think that I held to such a view.

The reply was to quote something I had written some time ago and which I have subsequently removed from my website precisely because some people were misreading it in these ways. I am quoted to have said, "special election simply is covenantal election for those, who by God's sovereign grace, persevere."

I did indeed write that, but can't see how it supposedly entails that I believe the only difference between the finally elect and the temporarily elect is one of perseverence. In context, "covenantal election" refers to that wide mercy of God by which he draws various persons into his church through the Word and sacraments, even though some of those may later fall away through unbelief and thus are never finally saved. "Special election" refers to that grace of God by which he preserves unto salvation those who persevere in faith to the end.

I mention perseverence in the quotation simply because their final perseverence is a handy way to designate the "specially elect." I'm not sure why anyone should take that designation to exclude all other differences in the Christian experience, subjective faith, and ongoing relationship with God of the "specially elect."

The point of the quotation was to suggest that one shouldn't think of special election as something super-added over and above covenantal election in the case of those who persevere. Rather, I was trying to say that when God, in his covenantal election draws various persons to himself, for some that covenantal election is also, at the same time and in the same event, their special election, characterized from the start by those elements that will, in the end, result in their final perseverance.

Now, phenomenologically, I don't want to start attempting to isolate and characterize precisely what the differences are between those who finally persevere and those who don't. After all, when Scripture tells us of those who do eventually fall away (e.g., in the parable of the sower and the soils), the point is not to use it as a way of categorizing people prospectively, trying to figure out which ones will make it and which ones won't. Rather, it is hortatory, calling us to strive to be those who, through faith and reliance upon God's grace, persevere.

In fact, I would suggest that typically the distinction is only discernable retrospectively, once perseverence is certain or apostasy is apparent. This, of course, is not to say that perseverence is the only distinguishing mark or that there were no subjective differences present all along.

On occasion I've likened the situation to two novels, both containing ten chapters, that are word-for-word identical, chapters one through eight. But at this point the novels diverge, in the one novel the main protaganist, who after all his struggles along the way, goes on to heroically accomplish the tasks set before him. In the other novel the protagonist tragically fails and comes to ruin, having made a shipwreck of his life.

Such a divergence in the final two chapters would cause a re-reading of the earlier chapters, making them to have been entirely different books from the very start, despite the word-for-word correspondence in chapters one through eight. And so, for instance, what was a grave error that eventually built constancy and character in one novel turns out to be a foreshadowing and inception of failure in the other. But in each case, who the character has truly been all along is a discernment that can only be made retrospectively, from the standpoint of the novel's end.

If someone considers this analogy I've made and still insists that I'm saying that the only difference is one of perseverence over time, then either they've misread me (due, no doubt, to my own failure to communicate) or we are operating with incommensurable ontologies. Where I see the unfolding of events and relations as constitutive of personal being so that what happens later qualifies the very nature of what has gone before, others may see personal being as entirely contained in what constitutes that nature at a single instant.

In any case, that is all by way of brief comment and reply.