Responsibility and Election

Salvation small

Here’s my thought/question of the day: Even if we accept the classical Calvinist notion of Original Sin and the federal headship of Adam, such that all humans are responsible for their damnation, does that really help the Calvinist case that unconditional and particular election does not negate our “responsibility” to repent lest we perish? In other words, are the reprobate held accountable for their rejection of faith in Christ? It seems that the Calvinist would have to say “No,” and defer the responsibility to the failure in the covenant of works (Adamic headship). If this is the case, does this cohere with Jesus’ exhortations to repent lest you perish, or, for that matter, the church’s proclamation of Christ and call to repentance and faith? Of course, this is a perennial question posed to Calvinists, but I thought the responsibility question to be a helpful entry-point into the debate. I was prompted to this by Emil Brunner’s discussion of double predestination in volume 1 of his Dogmatics. Brunner believes the inadequate account of responsibility, among other things, in the TULIP schema to require its overhaul in Reformed soteriologies (Brunner being a loyal son of the Swiss Reformed Church).



  1. This is a very interesting question, Kevin, and one that had not previously occurred to me. I do think that you are onto something here, however. The problem with the traditional Reformed way of thinking about election and predestination is that the work of Christ tends to become merely instrumental and thereby devalued. Everything that matters is previously determined. This plays into what you see here because, as you point out, our sinful condition is determined in Adam and not in any sort of negative relation to Christ.

    Barth set about correcting the problem that I have identified, but I don’t know how it would play out on your particular question. But, that would be a mighty fine article to write.

  2. wtm,

    Yes, I like how you put it as denying any sort of “negatie relation to Christ.” This seems to be an inescapable problem for classical Reformed theology, even apart from the problems directly related to limited atonement (which is also an inescable problem, in my view). It seems the Barth-Brunner-Torrance re-orienting of the tradition to universal atonement, while attempting (especially with Barth) to retain the monergistic principle, is the only way out of the mess while keeping some semblance of “Reformed” theology. Of course, whether this is satisfactory or not, is a big question that I’m struggling with, especially since I’m unwilling to grant dogmatic universalism. Would this just make me an Arminian while perhaps retaining perseverance of the saints, like most Baptists? Is there another alternative, perhaps given by the Lutheran, Orthodox, or Roman Catholic traditions? Well, I would very much like to work this out in an article, but my professors keep giving me an insane amount of reading, while expecting me to write papers.

  3. Lol! That’s what professors are here for – to kick our butts! I’ve been barely treading water this semester myself, or so it feels.

    In any case, I don’t think that there are any Lutheran, Orthodox, or Roman alternatives here. But, it seems to me that Barth does offer a promising way forward (and he is, of course, not to be lumped with Brunner, for their later development is quite divergent).

    The question finally comes down to, I think, how to read the New Testament. On this count, Bruce McCormack argued at the recent Barth conference that limited atonement and universal atonement exist in tension in the NT, and that this is a good thing. Furthermore, this tension is to be understood as the tension between history and the eschaton, and therefore cannot be reasoned away.

  4. Yeah, the dialectic between history and eschaton may be the only way to go, but, when the eschaton is all that really matters, does not the dialectic dissolve and history nullified? Are we not in the same mess as before (in classical Calvinism) where all that is decisive occurs outside ourselves? But, then, is this not the glory of Reformation teaching, that our salvation is extra nos?

  5. Yes and Yes. I do think that the extra nos character of salvation is a big deal for the Reformation, but I don’t think that this undermines the importance of history. We must take history as seriously as God took in when he became incarnate in it for us and our salvation. It is true that all the definitive or constitutive stuff is taken care of extra nos, but it is also important for us to participate in that reality of salvation in our own historical lives. That is, extra nos is intended to become also in nobis.

    We simply don’t know how it is that God will finally reconcile these two aspects in the eschaton.

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