Stephen Holmes ends God of Grace and God of Glory: An Account of the Theology of Jonathan Edwards with a critique of Reformed theologies of predestination, especially of reprobation. The critique doesn’t entail a denial of reprobation. Holmes instead argues that reprobation hasn’t been a fully Christian doctrine in Reformed theology. That is, it has not been a doctrine rooted in the Trinitarian and Christological outlook of the creeds. It is not a doctrine rooted in the gospel story.

His argument can be put this way: There’s a teleological thrust to decretal theology; human beings are destined for particular ends. In some Reformed theologians, such as Edwards, there’s an implicit teleological anthropology; human beings are what they are by virtue of their ends. Double predestination says that human beings are predestined by God’s decree to either salvation or reprobation, but if human beings are what they are at the end, then it seems God created two different sorts of human beings. This is reinforced by the Christological focus of election, unpacked by writers like Richard Muller. The decree to elect is Christologically qualified, but not the decree of reprobation. One sector of the human race is eternally considered in Christ, the other is by decretal definition Christless and Spiritless. Reprobation describes an act and decision of God but excludes talk of the Son and Spirit.

Behind this, Holmes sees a more general problem in Reformed theology:

“It was not just a removal of Christ from the being of the reprobate, but a prior removal of Christ from the being of the created world that was the problem. The Spirit, too, becomes an ecclesial reality, no longer in an theologically relevant sense ‘the Lord and Giver of Life’” (269).

Barth, Holmes thinks, has something to teach the Reformed tradition here, since he insists on thinking through reprobation on a Christological basis. For Barth, the decree is not something eternally hidden in the depths of God: “Christ is the Decree,” and Christ has shown the face of God. Thus, “the decree for humanity is only to life, and knowledge of the decree is unambiguous gospel. Christ is the decree, however, and that includes the decree of rejection - Christ is the rejected one - God chooses for Himself the suffering, death and rejection that are the inevitable concomitant of the decree of life - the ‘Yes’ has a ‘No’ swallowed up in it, but nevertheless there - the light of God’s grace casts a shadow; but this ‘No,’ this shadow, is Christ’s alone” (266). The church is the elect and rejected community: “both the passing form of the community that resists God’s election and the coming for of the community that witnesses to its election.” Christ “unites what was divided, the elected and rejected” (266). The only possible way to live is “to live as the elect of God,” but some “try to live in the impossible way, and they are the ‘rejected’” (267). Holmes knows that Barth brushes close to universalism, but says that this is a point in Barth’s favor: “the question for Christian theology in the light of what God has done in Christ must surely be how this can fail to affect any given human being, how anyone can fail to be saved” (268).

I’m not convinced by Barth’s doctrine of reprobation, but Holmes makes some powerful compelling points: He seems on solid ground in saying that the problem underlying the problem of reprobation is a failure to understand creation Trinitarianly, and this, I would add, reflects persistent nature/grace dualism in Reformed theology. If creation exists only by the continuous work of the Father’s Word and Spirit, then there is no one anywhere, reprobate or elect, who is not the recipient of God’s gift and the object of His care. No existing thing can be utterly Christless or utterly Spiritless, and this must be true in the decrees as it is in the outworking of the decrees. I don’t know if Holmes’s assessment of the Reformed tradition is entirely fair, but his theological point seems indisputable: If Christians are to believe it, reprobation must be internal to the gospel, a Christian doctrine, and therefore a doctrine that is Trinitarianly construed.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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