The Election of Grace

A Riddle without a Resolution?

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Stephen N. Williams
Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology (KLRT)
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , March
     2015.
     229 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802837806.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Originally delivered for the Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2009, this work is one of the many attempts in the long history of Christian theology to solve the seemingly paradoxical and perplexing doctrine of election. In the preface to The Election of Grace, Stephen Williams provides two reasons for re-engaging in a discussion of this well-worn doctrine. First, is the need for a proper exegetical method in interpreting scripture; and second, hopefully, to find a theological path around the impasse of the Calvinist-Arminian debate over election.

Although originally delivered as six lectures, the book is comprised of four chapters and a concluding appendix. Chapter 1 sees Williams provide a broad overview of election in the Hebrew Bible, with him narrating the divine election of Israel from God’s call of Abraham in Genesis to the return of the exiles in 2 Chronicles. Williams then argues for a more charitable and reasoned account of Israel’s unique privilege of exclusive communion with God by its election relative to all the other nations, claiming that this privilege does not negate Israel’s election-to-service as a witness to the nations; rather, it establishes it. The chapter concludes with a focus on the prophetic literature, especially Isaiah, and the promise of how the election of Israel will expand universally to include the nations in the eschatological fulfillment of the rule and reign of God. In chapter 2 Williams continues his biblical study of election by turning to the New Testament, in which he sees the church in greater continuity than discontinuity with the history of Israel’s election. Per Williams, election develops more in the New Testament as the aspect of predestination comes into view. Based upon various passages in the synoptic gospels, Acts, and various letters, Williams argues for a classical Augustinian view of election, which is an eternally antecedent divine decree of predestination to eternal life of those who are chosen to believe in Jesus Christ. In the light of this definition, Williams denies that the New Testament also teaches an eternally antecedent divine decree to reprobation. Williams then discusses election as found in the Johannine literature, particularly the gospel of John and Revelation, in which he points out the author’s use of paradox regarding election and human responsibility.

Chapters 3 and 4 look to the dogmatic limits and difficulties of the doctrine of election respectively. Regarding the limits of the doctrine of election, Williams argues that the Christian theologian must remain in a posture of paradoxical tension regarding the twin truths of the election to life of individuals based solely upon the gracious choice of God, and that those who choose not to believe are fully responsible for their infidelity, even though God did not elect them to believe. It is here that Williams draws upon the Anglican priest and theologian Charles Simeon to demonstrate that the position of paradox best overcomes the seemingly dichotomous alternative between understanding election as either God’s choice of humans or humanity’s choice of God. Further, Simeon’s theological method is adopted by Williams to emphasize that the paradox of divine election and human responsibility is only “resolved” existentially in the faithful living of the Christian life rather than simply constructing a rational concept of the doctrine wherein all antinomies are supposedly dissolved. Williams also draws upon Immanuel Kant’s metaphysical division between what is known intrinsically, and what is known empirically, which he believes alleviates the anxious speculative theologizing over who God has elected and possibly rejected. Having established the dogmatic limits of the doctrine of election, Williams engages with and addresses some of its most perennial issues. First, he tackles the relationship between divine justice and mercy by arguing that because all humans are sinful, God does not owe anyone mercy but only justice, and that those who never accept the mercy of God (i.e., the reprobate) do so at their peril and with full responsibility. Second, the issue of assurance arises as many people have become anxious over whether God has elected them or not. Williams points to the doctrine of sanctification, particularly the experience of the Christian growing in holiness, as how they become increasingly assured of their election by God. Assurance naturally segues into the final issue of perseverance, with Williams pointing to the fact that if a Christian is concerned if they can or cannot persevere, they need only look to Jesus Christ who is their guarantor of salvation and the one who will empower them to persevere.

The book ends with a lengthy appendix on Karl Barth’s doctrine of election as found in his Church Dogmatics II/2. Williams is appreciative and critical of Barth’s revolutionary exposition of election when he lauds his christocentric method and yet disagrees with his biblical exegesis to justify his universalist understanding of election. For Williams, Barth’s doctrine of election is too heavily influenced by his misguided anxiety over an incipient natural theology creeping in and distorting the doctrine, and that Barth’s exegesis, though innovative and original, does not bear out what scripture teaches regarding election: that is, divine election is always a discriminative election.

I commend this book for offering a fresh and stimulating account of the doctrine of election when it seems that nothing new could be said about it. Although Williams neither provides an exhaustive treatment of every scriptural passage nor discusses every theological issue that pertains to the doctrine of election, he gives his readers much to ponder. This work will probably not solve the Calvinist-Arminian debate or assuage all the anxious fears that the doctrine of election seems to elicit; rather, it correctly re-emphasizes that sometimes humans, especially Christians, must live in tension with paradoxes that can only be grasped in the existential moment of faithful living. I am somewhat surprised that Williams’s view of election has more in common with the Lutheran tradition than it does with the Reformed; moreover, I am disappointed that, although Williams argues for a christocentric method when constructing the doctrine of election, he is much more theocentric, which is probably why he is not as appreciative of Barth’s understanding of election as he could be. These shortcomings aside, Williams offers the academy and the church a work of outstanding value that will be generative of much future discussion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is Adjunct Professor of Theology at Briercrest College and Seminary.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Stephen N. Williams is professor of systematic theology at Union Theological College, Belfast, Northern Ireland. His other books include The Shadow of the Antichrist: Nietzsche's Critique of Christianity, for which he won a Christianity Today Book Award.

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