Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Particular and General: A Key Tension in Reformed Soteriology

Reformed soteriology is humble and grand enough to tolerate significant tensions. One evidence of this is its ability to view the overarching, eternal purpose of God in both general and particular ways. In doing so, it maintains a clear line of division between the generalities we can know and the particulars known to God alone. It views the particulars abstractly, as categories without content. For example, we know abstractly that God has sovereignly elected some (i.e., the "elect" as a category); but we do not know concretely who they are (i.e., the content of the "elect" category). At the very same time, Reformed soteriology views the generalities concretely, as partially categorized content (for example, we know the general truth that God loves and desires to save every living person, without exception). The Biblical Calvinist does not apply election in an unwarranted way; he does not use this truth to invalidate God's general love for the non-elect and His general desire to save all sinners. Election is specific to a subset of humanity, but God's love and saving desire are all-humanity-wide. God is love.

Let's imagine for a moment that we are speaking with two unbelievers. God knows that one of them is elect and is going to be brought to repentance, and He also knows that one of them will die in the stubbornness of his heart. For our part, we don't know which one of them is elect, or if both of them are elect, or if neither of them is elect. We don't know if either of them will repent and be saved. Even if they both appear to repent and believe, we won't know for certain that their conversions were genuine until we meet them in heaven. On earth, we can't know with absolute certainty that they are truly saved and will persevere to the end. Those are particulars that belong to God's own purpose and wisdom. 

What we can know for certain and by faith is this: God has a purpose for both of them. Both are created in God's image and are loved by Him. Both are enemies of God. Both, in their current state, would gladly choose an eternity in hell over intimate fellowship with their Creator. Both are sinners who need saving grace. God would be pleased greatly by the salvation of both, and He will also be pleased to display His justice if they remain His enemies and perish. If they repent, they will be saved. From the standpoint of generalities--from our human standpoint--both unbelievers are identical. In our eyes, both are potentially elect. But from God's standpoint--in His own omniscient knowledge of the particulars--they are very different. One is elect and will be brought to faith, and the other is destined for damnation. Even if we knew for certain that one of them was elect, we wouldn't have any way of knowing with any certitude which one it is. So unconditional election is a solid and certain truth, but it is equally a mystery.
So then He has mercy on whomever He wills, and He hardens whomever He wills. (Romans 9:18) 

High Tension Wires:
Very Powerful!
We can approach these two unregenerate souls with the sure knowledge that God elects, but not that God elected either of them in particular. We can approach them in the certain understanding that God will bring justice directly upon some human beings, but not in the sure knowledge that either of these sinners will have to personally bear the wrath he justly deserves. We can know that both of them are currently under the wrath of God, already condemned for their unbelief--yet neither of them has perished yet, so we can be hopeful about both of them. We know that both will perish if they do not repent. We know that Jesus bore the wrath of God, and we know that if either of these unsaved persons repents he will no longer be under God's wrath. He will pass from death to life and will be created anew in Christ. We look at these two people and see potentials, not particulars. We see conditions, not determinations. We see a process partly finished, but up to the point of our visible horizon neither one is differentiated from the other. In God's mind they may be different, but in our minds they cannot be. It is enough for us to know that God knows.

What happens when you remove
the tension from one side?
The great error of the hyper Calvinist is to attempt in his own mind a coalescence of the generalities and the particulars, so that they become one in his mind. He tries to know things he cannot know, and is forced to rely on his own senses to determine who is and is not elect. He seeks to preach God's love to the elect only, to communicate God's saving desire to the elect only, to preach the Gospel to the elect only. He tries to be as efficacious in his efforts as God is in His ordination of all things. Thus, the hyper Calvinist simultaneously exalts his own perceptions while oversimplifying the complexities of God's dispositions. He limits everything to the unknowable particulars, which he concretizes, having no room in his thinking for the generalities or the undefined abstractions. The inherent arrogance of this approach should be obvious. The lopsidedness is striking.

This understanding will help us to take a Biblically balanced view of many topics, among them the extent of atonement. We can posit particular redemption from the standpoint of divine particularity. God knows whom He saves by the atonement. Once we have said this much, what need is there to limit the sufficiency or the potentially salvific nature of Christ's work? The fact that God will not apply the redeeming power of the blood of Christ to all people is no reason to believe it does not essentially contain that power. From the standpoint of generality, we can make no assumptions. So, in considering the elect abstractly, we can say "Christ died especially, efficiently, particularly for them." In looking concretely at the masses of lost humanity, we must say, "Christ died for the whole world." We can tell a lost sinner, "Christ died for you," and this will be true in many senses whether the person we are speaking with is specifically elect or not.

The best Calvinist thinkers and scholars of the past have embraced key tensions and important distinctions between the general and the particular. Those who have been most Biblically grounded have warned us to remain purposely ignorant of those things which God has not seen fit to reveal, and to hold solid and steadfast in embracing all that He has made known in His awe-inspiring wisdom.

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