Annunciation as Election1
Scottish Journal of Theology, 2001
Election's Unhappy Returns
Is the doctrine of election worth the trouble?
In his review of the historical tradition, James McClendon concludes that "the doctrine of election or predestination in Scripture viewed as a whole seems fully to warrant none of the paths ecclesiastical doctrine has so far taken." He finds some hopeful signs, particularly in his own Radical Reformation tradition. Yet his redrawn contours of the doctrine rarely appeal to the tradition so far. "The old associations of the doctrine die so hard that (in my judgment) this part of Christian teaching is of little present service. We do well to emphasize the rule of God in every effective way, while exercising great reserve with regard to this Augustinian deposit."2
The Catholic appraisal is guarded as well. Augustine's doctrine of the Trinity was so compelling that it led the West to alter the Nicene Creed. His doctrine of the Church has determined Rome's ecclesiastical politics. His doctrine of original sin has flowered in Catholic anthropology, Mariology, and sacramental practice. John Henry Newman uses these legacies to illustrate his theory of the development of Christian doctrine:
The highest and most wonderful truths, though communicated to the world once for all by inspired teachers, could not be comprehended all at once by the recipients, but, as being received and transmitted by minds not inspired and through media which were human, have required only the longer time and deeper thought for their full elucidation.3
But where is Augustine's doctrine of specific grace among Newman's illustrations? Augustine's doctrine of predestination was partially ratified at the Council of Orange, and adapted in Thomas' cosmology. But then it was largely disowned at the Council of Trent, and it has been fully elucidated only by those who repudiated Rome's ecclesial claims. Predestination is apparently a dead end in the Catholic tradition, a pruned branch of Newman's tree.
The appraisal is surely higher in the Reformed tradition, where (as Warfield put it) Augustine's doctrine of grace triumphed over his doctrine of the Church, rather than the other way around. Yet even here, Calvin's formulation of the doctrines of election and predestination have fared rather poorly. Within a hundred years of the Reformation, Arminius' followers radically reformulated Calvin's revived Augustinianism, and now dominate the Protestant landscape. The doctrine's primary legacy in today's Reformed traditions (Anglicanism, Methodism, evangelicalism, and even Presbyterianism) seems to be endless bickering and polarization among Arminian and Calvinist true believers, and exhaustion and apathy in the middle. Where the debate has ended, it has ended by sheer attrition an Elizabethan Settlement without reconciliation or resolution. When one consults the American faithful in matters of election, one hardly hears a ringing endorsement, even though the doctrine played a formative role in the spiritual formation of the West and in the theological heritage of America herself.
A case in point: Before beginning my formal theological education, I personally killed two thriving Bible studies by bringing up election and predestination. In one I watched a woman take the book we were reading together, Michael Scott Horton's Putting Amazing Back into Grace,4 and throw it to the ground in revulsion. She was not amazed; she was horrified.
Augustine's doctrine of election thus fails votes of confidence from radicals, Catholics, evangelicals, and even many Reformed! Needless to say, Eastern Orthodoxy rejects it too (in the Confession of Dositheus). Yet rejection alone has never truly satisfied. As McClendon admits, "that God elects or chooses is a staple of Scripture's narratives," and "once we take seriously the divine prevenience both in creation and redemption, election seems inevitably to follow."5 What is a theologian to do? Ignoring the doctrine, however tempting, is no solution.
What follows is my personal penance for breaking up those Bible studies. To diagnose the problem, we will review (though cursorily) a particular feature of election's doctrinal history. To recommend a remedy, we will offer an exegetical and liturgical point of departure in the liturgical practice of Annunciation that casts election in brighter theological light. It does not solve the centuries-long debate between Calvinism and Arminianism, nor does it endorse one school wholeheartedly, but it does shift the terms of the debate in a constructive direction.
Children of Pelagius: A Brief History of the Doctrine of Election
It is ironic, though perhaps not surprising, that we owe the shape of the Western theology of election and predestination to Pelagius. He, like his opponent Augustine, sought to defeat Manichaean dualism. Augustine's arguments against Manichaeism rooted human responsibility for sin in the human free will, which, wrongly exercised, introduced corruption into God's originally good creation. Pelagius pursued the same line of reasoning toward righteousness that Augustine had pursued toward sin, with catastrophic results. His fatal error was treating human depravity as essentially symmetrical to human righteousness. It led his doctrines of sin and grace to root Christian holiness as well as human sinfulness in humanity's created nature. Good Christian practices would begin in a human will that is, if not essentially good, certainly capable of choosing God's baptismal grace and living righteously on its own power afterwards.6 Sin's power would be merely a consequence of people freely choosing it, and God's grace would be the provision of a one-time forgiveness for pre-baptismal sins, and the law of the sinless Jesus Christ as a normative example for followers to imitate. Furthermore, concentrating his account in the human microcosm led Pelagius and his followers to neglect the macrocosmic narrative of God's saving economy. Each human will effectively occupied the center of its now individualized salvation- or damnation-history.7
Pelagius' crucial contribution to the Church's doctrines of sin and grace was thus twofold: First, his teaching, well intended to strengthen the lax Christian morality of his day,8 instead unforgettably illustrated the trivialization of both sin and grace that inevitably follows when one roots the power to respond to God in the sovereign human will.9 The Church came to view it as "another gospel," a fundamental failure to appreciate the extent of God's prior favor and sanctifying gifts.10 In response, Augustine's emphatic reaffirmation of the power of both sin and grace fundamentally shaped Western Christianity. Second (and less often noticed), Pelagius' anthropocentrism powerfully influenced the terms of the debate and the subsequent soteriology of the West. Both Pelagius and Augustine came to be "so preoccupied with the salvation of the individual that they neglected to explore that healthier and saner dimension of corporate salvation which is a recurrent theme in both Old and New Testaments."11 The story of Jesus Christ became "incidental" to the theological battle.12
"It is surprising," says John Ferguson, "how little reference is made in the whole controversy to the personal life of Jesus."13 But the die was cast. Together, Pelagius' objection and Augustine's response moved the Western account of sin and grace away from a salvation-history centered in God's chosen people Israel and chosen son Jesus, toward innumerable personal histories of sinful inheritance, prevenient grace, and cooperative response. Augustine responded all too well to Pelagius' threat: The compelling narrative of his Confessions overpowered both Pelagius' pseudonarratives of free agents, and the biblical metanarrative of Israel, Jesus, and Church. As a result, he and his allies were defeated in their own victory. The doctrine of election drifted into the Western doctrines of single- and double-predestination: God predestines from eternity a fixed number of creatures to heaven, and (perhaps) the rest to hell. Election would not reemerge from their influence until the twentieth century.14
Augustine's bitter war against "Pelagianism"15 convinced the Church to repudiate Pelagian ideas in 431 and 529. While the Church never canonized the particulars of Augustine's own proposal, Augustinianism remained the dominant influence in the West ever afterwards, especially through Anselm and Thomas Aquinas. Revived by the Reformers, Augustine's doctrine of grace became a central distinguishing feature of Protestant theology.
However, Pelagius, Rufinius, Celestius, Julian, and the like were not Augustine's only opponents. Augustinianism has always had strenuous orthodox detractors. The Council of Trent repudiated the Protestant positions and Rome fought Jansenism for centuries, closing off thoroughgoing Augustinian predestination as a Catholic option. And within the Reformed wing of Protestantism, Arminianism arose as a revival of what one might call either moderate Augustinianism or (misleadingly) "semi-Pelagianism."
James Arminius' followers asserted in the Remonstrance of 1610 five famous objections to Calvinism. The Reformed Church of Belgium strenuously denied each Arminian claim in the Canons of Dort of 1619, today most widely appreciated in slogan form as the famous "Calvinist" TULIP.
The TULIP is Augustinian predestination reduced to its essentials. Yet both the Remonstrance and the Canons of Dort, and the confessional traditions they helped to shape, continued to accept Pelagius' frame for the issue of election an individualized "order of salvation" rather than a story of personal redemption in the context of the wider story of God's chosen people.16 Both still basically honor the ancient limits of the Pelagian-Augustinian debate. By failing to criticize (or even notice?) the framework it had inherited from Augustine's argument against Pelagius, Calvinist Orthodoxy replaced Pelagian anthropocentric soteriology with more of an anti-anthropocentric soteriology than a vision of salvation truly centered in salvation's divine economy.
Or so it appeared to Karl Barth. Calvinism's greatest theologian since Calvin took the doctrine in a revolutionary direction.17 For Barth, Augustine's experiential doctrine of predestination opened up a division between human-centered and God-centered accounts of salvation that had plagued the Church ever since. The key to overcoming it was centering the doctrine firmly in Jesus Christ.
Barth's exposition of God's decrees radically reformulated the older Reformed doctrine of election. A truly theocentric soteriology must arise from the specificity of God's action in Jesus Christ. The Father proclaims in the Lukan Transfiguration scene, "This is my Son, the one I have elected" (ho eklelegmenos, Luke 9:34). Jesus is the elect one, the one on whom God's decrees of "Yes" and "No" fall. In God's eternal decree for fellowship with humanity in his Son, the two accounts are one: The electing God is the elected man. Barth located the doctrine of election not under providence or salvation, as the older infralapsarian and supralapsarian positions in Calvinism had, but under his doctrine of God, identifying God's twofold word of affirmation and negation with the divine Word who would become flesh. All God's chosen are finally rejected and accepted in him (Eph. 1:4). The countless human narratives of salvation find their coherence only in the metanarrative that centers in Jesus. Election is the therefore not a mystery hidden from the gospel of God, but the gospel itself, the Good News "in nuce." It is God's eternal will to narrate the cosmic narrative of creation and redemption.
What Happened to Israel?
Our historical survey is too brief to include many important nuances. Yet it still reveals a rarely noticed omission, ever since Pelagius and Augustine, of the sheer Jewishness of election in its biblical forms. In repudiating Pelagius, the Church failed to appreciate, let alone correct, the deep roots of his thinking (and its own) in worldviews foreign to Israel and its Scriptures. Pelagius' legacy is indeed a separation of the doctrines of election and predestination from God's saving activity, in Israel and specifically in Israel's Messiah.
This separation has given both the heretical and orthodox doctrines of election monstrous qualities that lead to doctrinal and practical abuse. They describe God in ways unpersuasive and unattractive to the faithful lending themselves to caricatures at the popular level, and sometimes the formal level, of their long polemical history. The Pelagian God becomes a passive legalist. The Arminian God becomes a nominal sovereign who waits forever to rubber-stamp human decisions. The Calvinist God becomes a tyrannical micromanager whose mysterious actions are just simply by definition. The Barthian God rejects and accepts all of humanity on the cross. The scope of God's decrees ironically overpowers the concrete history of Israel, Jesus, and Church that supposedly reveals them, bringing Barth's doctrine of salvation to the brink of soteriological universalism. Barth can do little more than deny the logical force of his own argument and forbid the teaching of universalism. These alternatives are neither conducive to worship nor edifying to the saints. What then?
Perhaps one should move in the opposite direction, from the Church's practices of worship and edification to its doctrines. But even here we are met with a problem: Is election's liturgical point of departure the Arminian practice of altar calls? Or the Augustinian practice of infant baptism? Our selection amounts to an a priori conclusion. The practices by which people appropriate salvation are already built upon rival accounts of how people are saved.
Yet it is Jesus' story to which Christians witness, not primarily their own. And the Christian year, shaped around the narrative of Jesus and shared by Augustinians, Calvinists, and Arminians, commends a happier location for the doctrine of election: in its feast of the Annunciation. Annunciation points a way out of the Pelagian-Augustinian world in which the doctrines of election and predestination have arisen, putting these doctrines back into their proper biblical and liturgical perspective. Furthermore, to worshipers hungry for specifics about election that Barth will not offer, Annunciation offers more than a specific "Yes" and "No" addressed to Jesus Christ, or a blanket "Yes" and "No" encompassing all humanity. It does so by taking us back to an ancient sign of assurance of God's favor to an embattled, wavering Israelite king: "The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel" (Isa. 7:14, Communion Antiphon, Feast of the Annunciation).
The Choosing of the Chosen
Though election is eternal (Eph. 1:4), and though it centers on Jesus (Luke 9:34), we only know so because election takes temporal shape (note the perfect tense, not the aorist, in Luke 9:34), in the history of Jesus' people Israel (note what follows in Eph. 2). Annunciation situates Mary's visitation in the contexts of Israel's salvation-history and Jesus' career. These contexts also happen to be the broader and the narrower historical contexts of divine predestination.
The two contexts merge in a young Jewess named Miriam, but begin to converge long before her time. Mary's story echoes not only God's promise to Israel through Isaiah, but even earlier choices on God's part: "When Israel was a child, I loved him; and out of Egypt I have called my son" (Hos. 11:1, cf. Matt. 2:15).
Here "Israel" of course stands for the nation of Israel from which Jesus comes, which Jesus represents in his ministry (and his Matthean return from Egypt), and over which he reigns as king. But it first stands for Jacob, the second-born son who received a blessing from his father Isaac: "Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. ... Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you" (Gen. 27:29). God specially chose Jacob to receive his blessing, as he had chosen Isaac (telling Abraham, "offspring shall be named for you" [Gen. 21:12]). And Abraham himself, an obscure wandering Aramean, gained God's mercy for no apparent reason: "I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen. 12:2-3). Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jacob's descendents were specially chosen by God as recipients of divine blessing and means through which others are both blessed and cursed. In other words, they are God's chosen, his elect.
The salvation-history that begins in Abraham and culminates in the conception of Jesus (Matt. 1:1-16) is our epistemological starting point for the Christian doctrine of election. And when we start here, we find features missing from the TULIP. First, Genesis' account of election is startling in how it concentrates on election as the means by which God's salvation is extended to others. It is not made immediately available to all; but neither is it restricted to those expressly elected. The overriding logic of election is not an appeal to arbitrariness as evidence of God's absolute power, but an appeal to God's mysterious way of blessing all the families of the earth.18
Second, the biblical accounts of election reveal a God who apparently prefers the weak to the strong. Thus an undistinguished Aramean and two second-born sons become the channels (not merely the beneficiaries) of God's salvation. Thus David, the youngest and shortest in a family of shepherds, founds an eternal royal line. Thus an adolescent village girl, engaged to a stonemason, is made the Mother of God. The theme of election as reversal permeates the biblical images of God's predestination. It unravels the caricature of a God who decrees blessings and curses autocratically. Insofar as reversal and mission characterize the biblical vision of election, they point out the continuity of God's choice over its arbitrariness.
Third, Augustinian and Calvinist doctrines of double-predestination have a symmetrical feel to them that is missing in the biblical accounts. If there are a decree of salvation and a decree of reprobation, they are not equal opposites. Rather, election's overriding concern is blessing.
Reprobation as a Means of Salvation
This asymmetry is easy to miss, since it is so counterintuitive: How can a decree of reprobation work to further salvation? The three most often quoted biblical examples of God's "predestination to damnation" offer an answer.
Jacob and Esau. The first example is Esau. Jacob deceives his father Isaac into receiving Esau's birthright and his blessing. While Genesis passes over his duplicity without much comment, Malachi attributes the reversal of fortune to God's favor, not to Jacob's or his mother's conniving:
Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated. I have made his hill country a desolation and his heritage a desert for jackals. If Edom [Esau's people] says, "We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins," YHWH Sabaoth says, They may build, but I will tear down, until they are called the wicked country, the people with whom YHWH is angry forever. Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, "Great is YHWH beyond the borders of Israel" (Mal. 1:2-5)!
Paul in turn interprets Malachi in Romans 9, perhaps Calvinism's favorite prooftext for predestination:
When Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad, in order that God's purpose in election might continue, not because of works but because of his call, she was told, "The elder will serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (Rom. 9:10-13).
Following Augustine (and especially Luther), most Protestants have read Romans as an account of how individuals are saved by their faith in Jesus Christ apart from their own works-righteousness. Accordingly, Rom. 9 becomes an account of how individuals are predestined to salvation or predestined to rejection according to God's inscrutable purpose. Paul even anticipates the objection to such a predestination:
What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses: "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So it depends not upon will or exertion, but upon God's mercy (Rom. 9:14-16).
This looks like an airtight prooftext of double-predestination: Paul even counters the Arminian objection before it is raised! But Romans is not about how individuals are saved by their faith in Jesus Christ apart from their own works-righteousness.19 It is about how Jews and Gentiles are saved by the "faith of Jesus Christ" (pistis christou), apart from works of the Torah such as circumcision. It is not about individuals as individuals, but an answer to the question of whether God has abandoned his elect Israel in the wake of their rejection of Messiah. "Has God rejected his people?" Paul asks in Rom. 11:1. "By no means! I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin. God has not rejected his people, whom he foreknew" (Rom. 11:1-2a). Jacob and Esau are neither illustrations of God's division of humanity into two camps, nor types of those God conditionally elects. They and the nations they personify are salvation-history, in at least two significant respects.
First, from even before their births, Jacob and Esau duel for the inheritance of Isaac's and Abraham's blessings, and for roles in God's redemptive plan. On the rivalry between these two would-be patriarchs hangs the cosmic history of all humanity. Esau's rejection must be understood not as some arbitrary divine grudge, but in terms of God's promise to Abraham, through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed.
Second, God gives them both roles in the fulfillment of that promise. Israel is the bearer of God's favor for the world, while Edom is a reminder to Israel, then to the world, that YHWH is more than a regional deity (Mal. 1:5).
In Romans, Paul is showing that it is through Jacob that is, through both Israel's election and Israel's hardening (11:7) that Gentiles are grafted into the promises of a jealous God, and that it is through the nations nations like Edom that Israel will learn God's jealousy for herself and return (11:13-15, cf. Mal. 3). The Malachi passage fits beatifully. Yet Paul's use of it undermines the common notion of election dividing the world into the elect and the damned. In chapters 9-11, believing Israel is elect, while disbelieving Israel is both hardened, as far as the gospel is concerned, and elect, as far as the promise is concerned (11:28-29, 32). In Romans we do not find two neatly distinguished divine decrees that cleanly separate the world into sheep and goats. They overlap and both are directed toward God's mercy.
Moses and Pharaoh. The second example follows Esau in Romans 9. God hardens Pharaoh's heart "so that I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army; and the Egyptians shall know that I am YHWH" (Ex. 14:4). While Pharaoh is another favorite Calvinist example for double-predestination, he too is hardly a random character in history. He plays a crucial role in Israel's deliverance, and thus in the world's deliverance through Israel. So Paul follows Jacob and Esau, paired in Rom. 9:12, with Moses and Pharaoh, paired in 9:15 and 9:17:
For the scripture says to Pharaoh, "I have raised you up for the very purpose of showing my power in you, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills (Rom. 9:17-18).
The last verse here seems to warrant extending the idea of mercying and hardening (or blessing and cursing) to humanity in general as an Augustinian doctrine of double-predestination. And indeed, Paul seems to anticipate and counter the natural Arminian objection, "Why does he still find fault? For who resists his will?" (Rom. 9:19) with an appeal to the potter's right to mold clay however he pleases. However, here too Paul concentrates on God's redemptive purpose for all of humanity through those he molds. This is the theme of Isaiah 29, whose sixteenth verse he quotes. Egypt and all the earth learn YHWH's identity, and learn to call on his name, in part through Pharaoh's hardened heart. Never in Romans are God's different sovereign purposes taken out of their cosmic, narrative context and made decrees merely concerning the fates of individuals. Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh are pivotal figures in salvation-history through whose history Jesus emerges as the savior of "all" (Rom. 11:32).
Jesus and Judas. The predestination of Christians follows the same pattern, both within and without Romans. They are the pivotal figures in salvation-history-in-the-making, whom God has called, gathered, mentored, and sent out. Election is therefore to be understood in terms of apostolicity. Jesus' call to discipleship frames Ephesians' doctrine of predestination:
[God] chose (exelexato) us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined (proorisas) us in love to be his adopted children through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved One. For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to the purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1:4-6, 9-10).
Ephesians proclaims neither arbitrariness nor eternal mystery on God's part, but a consistent purpose and a mystery disclosed in Jesus Christ, and human agency in fulfilling that purpose. Chapters 3 and 4 make this even more abundantly clear: The purpose of predestination and divine grace is the growth and perfection of Christ's body, which we now see is cosmic in scope, including both Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 3:4-6, 4:12-16).
God's apostles and disciples are his Jacobs and Moseses in the new Israel. And Iscariot is his Pharaoh. Judas Iscariot is our third common illustration of God's decree of perdition. Jesus prays in John 17:12, "I have guarded [those you have given me], and none of them is lost but the son of perdition (ho huios tês apôleias; NRSV "the one destined to be lost"), that the scripture might be fulfilled." Judas, like Esau and Pharaoh, is not some random character chosen to suffer to illustrate God's power. He is an indispensable character in salvation-history, a representative of the disciples who finds himself on both sides of God's electing decrees. His life too fulfills Scripture (Acts 1:16). Through Judas' betrayal, the Son of Man is lifted up, and we are brought into God's promise.
This narrative logic, prominent in Scripture but weak in the tradition at least since Pelagius, justifies Barth's stress on Jesus as the alpha and omega of God's election, as well as his innovation in calling Jesus both the elect one and the reprobate one. It is God's choice of him at the Jordan and on the cross that makes him a curse for us, and it is his curse that makes him a blessing for us (Gal. 3:13-14, following Deut. 27:26). Jesus is a short of mirror image of Iscariot. While Jesus too is the subject and object of both elections, his righteousness brings both to a happy outcome. They in turn apply to humanity, but only in him and in the salvation-history that centers on him. Jesus is the heart of God's choice of Israel and the Church.
Yet Barth's doctrine is too weak where its predecessors are too strong. The tradition before Barth concentrated on either the recipients of God's reconciling work, or God's decree that they be reconciled. To keep God's choice (which for Barth is God the Son, the eternal Word) from becoming extrinsic to God's nature, Barth reduces the doctrine to its Christological dimension. He replaces the classical doctrines of election with his doctrine of substitutionary atonement under a new name. Barth simply treats "election" as reconciliation in verbal form. The old doctrine is not radically reformulated at all. It is simply dropped. The Son assumes the roles of both the subject and the object of reconciliation, as if no other objects mattered. The result is a cross on which hang Jacob and Esau, Moses and Pharaoh, the beloved disciple and Judas Iscariot. Barth has not crucified the Father, but he has crucified practically everyone else. In Christ all seem to be crucified, buried, raised, and ascended even the rulers and authorities who put him there (cf. Col. 1:15)!
Jesus is indeed the Elect One. But what about the secondary characters who are also called God's elect ones (Rom. 8:33), let alone his enemies? This, after all, is the question the Jewish and Augustinian doctrines of election set out to explain. Barth leaves us unable to answer. We must pass over in silence not only questions about our own elections and those of the saints, but even the Bible's eternal condemnations of God's opponents (Rev. 20:10).
How do we correct the excesses of classical doctrines of election without overcorrecting? We need a doctrine that encompasses God's will to reconcile, his Word of reconciliation, and its discrete recipients, who are agents of reconciliation in their own right. We need a doctrine that is more than merely theistic or anthropocentric or Christological, that still addresses the agency and destiny of particular human beings in the context of God's single plan of salvation. We need an act in which Jesus is the main character, but not the only character.
From Jesus to Mary: Annunciation as Election
Annunciation's promise is its focus on another "elect one of God."20 Annunciation celebrates the occasion when God reveals Mary's election to her. Mary is the ideal figure for a doctrine of election that avoids the weaknesses of its predecessors. No one but Jesus plays a more important role in Christology. Yet for all her importance, Mary remains a secondary figure. Her significance depends entirely upon Jesus.
Like Abraham, Mary has done nothing until her visitation to distinguish her. Only her membership in Israel (a matter not of her own choosing) offers any basis for God to regard her in any special way. So when Gabriel comes and says, "`Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!'" (Luke 1:28), Mary reacts the way an Arminian might react to the doctrine of election: "She was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be" (1:29). Is it a horrible decree? But Gabriel reassures her that the doctrine is one of comfort rather than dread: "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus" (1:30-31).
Arminians will claim that this annunciation rests on Mary's willingness, which comes in her fiat: "Let it be to me according to your word" (1:38).21 But there is no indication in the text that the angel is waiting for Mary's acceptance of his offer, or even that it is an offer. Everything he says in 1:31-35 is in the indicative: "You will conceive you will bear you will call."22 And Mary's fiat is prefaced by an admission that she does not expect a choice: "Behold, I am the handmaid (doulê, "slave girl") of the Lord" (1:38). She simply hears the message and assents.23 Thus the Catholic prayer for the feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary has a surprisingly Reformed flavor: "O God, by Your divine decree the Word was made flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the announcement of the Angel."24
Yet Mary is not coerced. God's grace is not working against her will. It is causing her will. Mary is overshadowed but never violated, and so hers is a virgin birth.25
Next, the angel explains the reason for this extraordinary event. It comes in the familiar terms of Israel's salvation-history (1:32-33), in which Mary now takes a starring role. Mary's own account comes later in her Magnificat (1:52-55), which casts both Mary and her son firmly at the center of God's electing purposes. God's electing mercy towards Mary remembers God's electing mercy towards Abraham and Jacob, calling Mary back to the revolutionary military anthems of Miriam and Hannah. Choosing Mary fulfills the promises to the forefathers of Israel, reverses fortunes in an unjust world, and blesses the whole earth.26 We have already found just these qualities in the election accounts of Genesis, Romans, and Ephesians.
In Catholic and Orthodox Mariology, Mary personifies both Israel and the Church: Israel, because she stands at the end of Israel's pre-messianic lineage (Matt. 1:16), passing Jacob's election onto her son. The Church, because as the first person to hear and accept the Gospel (Luke 1:30-33, 38) and one of the few not to abandon him on the cross (John 19:25), she is the first Christian and a model for Christian discipleship. Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution of the Church refers to Mary as "a preeminent and altogether singular member of the Church" and as the mother of all Christians. In the Catholic assertion of Mary's immaculate conception, her preservation from original sin, Geoffrey Wainwright even sees a kind of correspondence to the Calvinist doctrine of election. In a special way, Mary was graced, favored, so as to be a worthy mother of the incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. Her election makes her both blessed among women, and a blessing to all who gain life in her son. In some similar way, God's special saving, electing grace towards all his people allows us to bear the Son's presence in ourselves, to each other, and to the world.
Protestants are right to be nervous about the trajectories of Orthodox and Catholic Mariology, and right to offer an alternative account of Mary's role in God's plan. But here too, Mary is a fitting exemplar for election. One helpful account comes from Millard Erickson's systematic theology, in his chapter on the Virgin Birth. He explores Mary in a distinctively evangelical way, as highlighting humanity's helplessness even to initiate the first step in God's salvation. Far from confirming her sinlessness or special standing before God, the sheer divine grace behind the virginal conception shows there to be "nothing particularly deserving" about her.27 One need not appeal to high-church traditions to locate election fruitfully in Annunciation. (And there may be more to Fundamentalists' insistence on the Virgin Birth than merely a reaction against modernistic naturalism.)28
Annunciation anchors election in both the Triune economy of salvation and human salvation-history. As a divine fiat, Annunciation is a Trinitarian speech-act. It decrees the eternal will of the Father, inaugurates the earthly mission of the Son, and performs the calling and creating work of the Holy Spirit. In Mary's body, promise meets fulfillment, God meets humanity, and Israel meets Church. Her unremarkable life is the Ground Zero of God's presence in creation. In her, the Triune economy does not merely decree salvation-history, but enters it.
Thus Mary's story crystallizes the themes of God's predestinating election. Like her Son, Mary bears the burden of the Father's commandments and the freedom of his promises, and the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling within her. Her divine favor evokes not the favor of the world, but its suspicion (Matt. 1:19). She feels the joy of God's election as well as the sword of God's reprobation (Luke 2:35) not merely by her being in Christ, but by Christ being in her. Her calling is not a personal soteriological finish line, but the beginning of an extraordinary life of service in personal relationship with God the Son.
Far from these blessings lifting Mary above and beyond her fellow disciples into some "co-mediatorial" role, they are the very blessings the whole Church experiences as it lives its cruciform life of Christian discipleship. Mary's unparalleled place in the divine economy is, paradoxically, our own. Annunciation crystallizes the doctrine of election precisely because like us, Mary is not Jesus, yet he is the source of all her significance. Mary's story never drifts free from the story of Israel, Jesus, and Church. The unsuspecting slave girl who forms the body and soul of her own Lord is neither a meritorious moral agent, nor a random beneficiary of a capricious tyrant. The Lukan Mary stands in good company. She stands beside Paul's Sarah and Rebecca as well as his Jacob and Moses (Rom. 9:6-18), and is among the friends the Johannine Jesus chooses (John 15:16) and for whom he prays (17:11-12). She is numbered within the Lukan crowds predestined to eternal life (Acts 13:48), and remains in fellowship with the Church in Ephesus and elsewhere.
Eastern Orthodoxy's favorite Old Testament type for Mary is the burning bush of Exodus 3. She is aflame with God's presence, yet the integrity of her created humanity is not compromised. In this image one sees the true harmony between God's sovereignty and purpose for creation, and human agency. God's predestinating election brings "a fire which does not destroy," not only to Mary the virgin, but to all those who through the ministries of God's chosen ones become dwelling places of God's Holy Spirit and members of the body of Christ. "I partake with fearful joy of the divine fire, I who am but a straw," reads the communion prayer of Simeon the New Theologian; "and, O strange miracle, I burn without being consumed, like the ineffable dew in the light, as once the bush."29
Mary's status as representative of election does not immediately solve all the problems involved in the old debates. Questions continue to haunt us, such as how to reconcile the perdition of even a few with the apparently unlimited extent of Christ's atonement, or how to understand a divine decree of reprobation in terms of God's justice. Yet Annunciation reminds us that if we are even to find these questions theologically intelligible, we must not abstract them from the concrete history of God's salvation manifested in Israel, Jesus, and Church, and offered to the ends of the earth.
Magnify the Lord: Calling a New Election
However, Annunciation is much more than an anchor for the doctrine of election and its related issues, and a point of departure for a stronger reformulation of them. It is itself an achievement and embodiment of the doctrine of election. The Magnificat, read during the vigils of the Annunciation, as well as at Matins in the East and Vespers in the West,30 is not only a beautiful expression of Jewish messianic expectation. It is a gold standard for faithful reflection on the doctrine of election. In the context of worship, it reflects the qualities of biblical election we described above. Mary's song is an eruption of praise in the face of God's favor, which has resonated with the entire worshiping Church Orthodox, Protestant, radical, and Catholic.
Like a film rated "R", the Westminster Confession advises "special prudence and care" when teaching its doctrine of predestination. The Revised Common Lectionary adopts a simpler approach: censorship. Its readings for Ordinary Time long-jump over the texts of homiletical terror in Rom. 9-11.31 By contrast, the Magnificat has needed no such restrictions. Like the doxology that opens Ephesians, it preaches and it worships, even in contexts where Calvinism is unpopular.32 Indeed, it is most popular particularly in such contexts. Catholics and Arminians are not tempted to hurl the powerful and sovereign God of Luke 1 to the floor in revulsion!
The Remonstrance and the TULIP were never intended nor used as liturgical texts, and they should not be evaluated as such. On the other hand, Gabriel's announcement, Mary's and Elizabeth's monologues, and other Annunciation passages may in fact not only be ideal liturgical texts, but also excellent constructive theological texts. They are shaped not by Pelagius' anti-Manichaean agenda, nor by Augustine's anti-Pelagian agenda, nor by anti-Calvinist and anti-Arminian agendas in the Low Countries, but by the ecumenical agenda of Spirit-empowered corporate worship. They are narratively concrete rather than philosophically abstract. They actually comfort and strengthen the Church in the ways Calvinism intends predestination to do, and assure and empower the oppressed better than endless Arminian altar calls. They hold together Reformed respect for God's sovereignty and specific mercies, and Arminian respect for human freedom and God's limitless love. They are models for further reflection on the doctrines of election and predestination. It is in the Church's liturgies, after all, that the biblical visions of election have survived and prospered in the face of both the Pelagian and Augustinian visions.
The Christian practice of Annunciation honors the most vital aspects of biblical election: Its Jewishness; its origin in God's loving character; its themes of reversal, mission, and bias towards blessing over cursing; its salvation-historical particularity; its continuity rather than arbitrariness; its focus in worship; and its climax in Jesus Christ. All these are ways in which traditional doctrines of election could be improved. So let us consider a kind of "Marian TULIP" whose five points are informed principally by election as we find it celebrated throughout the first chapter of Luke:
Total human capacity for receiving God's free gifts of redemption.
Prior divine favor on the humble and excluded.
Sufficiency of God's saving acts in Christ.
Unrivalled power of God's mercy to accomplish his purpose.
God's eternal faithfulness in fulfilling his covenant promises.
These five points reframe election and predestination in a more God-glorifying way than either the Remonstrance or the Canons of Dort, and better convey the sense of the faithful. They better reflect the hymnody and prayer language of worshiping churches. Unlike their alternative schemas (but like Rom. 8:30's chain of election), all five apply to Jesus himself, rather than merely to sinners, so that our Lord's election is no longer obscured. It is true that they lack the theological precision of both the Calvinist and Arminian formulations. They are susceptible to both Calvinist and Arminian interpretations. But they are not susceptible to Pelagian interpretation, so their interpretive leeway need not be considered a weakness. Indeed, it hints at ways the longstanding rift between moderate and radical Augustinians might be healed.
Hypothetically, then, let Pelagius rather than Elizabeth ask the incredulous question, "Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me" (Luke 1:43)? Let Mary represent the Church that came to him bearing the Gospel of salvation to which he responded with both faith and works. Its answer to him would be (1:46-55):
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked upon the humility of his slave girl.
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
For the Mighty One has done great things for me.
Holy is his name,
And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm,
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,
He has put down the mighty from their thrones
And exalted the humble;
He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he has sent empty away.
He has helped his child Israel,
To remember his mercy,
As he spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his posterity for ever.
Is that such a poor response?
1 This article is part of a Christology of the liturgical year now under development, tentatively entitled The Reason for the Season: Christology Through the Liturgical Year. Many thanks to Jonathan Wilson, Nancey Murphy, James McClendon, Christian Early, Brad Kallenberg, and Allen Tennison, for their helpful critical comments.
6 Rees, 15: "The very arguments for man's responsibility, exercised by use of his free will, which Augustine had deployed against the Manichees, were now being adapted by Pelagius to suit his own case that man had the power to save himself, always provided that he had accepted the saving grace of baptism of his own choice."
7 The sixteen arguments Jerome attributes to Caelestius (De Perf. Iust., ii-vii, 1-16) richly illustrate this. See John Ferguson, Pelagius: A Historical and Theological Study (Cambridge: Heffer, 1956), 62-64.
13 Ferguson, 168. In his sympathetic review of Pelagius, Ferguson admits that Pelagius' theology may be justly criticized for its "absence of any clear doctrine of the atonement" (183). Ferguson himself fails to appreciate the significance for election of Jesus' place in the history of salvation.
14 Is it fair to Pelagius to make him the scapegoat for all of Western Christianity? Pelagius is rightfully named as the instigator of the controversy (Ferguson, 159), in his objection to Augustine's prayer in Confessions 10.40. But the blame deserves to be shared, both by the Englishman who started it, the African who accepted his terms, and by the Europeans who appropriated Augustine's response without paying sufficient attention to its context or limits. Really, all are culpable who fail to appreciate the Jewish shape of election in Scripture.
15 With Augustine's appraisal of the logical consequences of Pelagius' teaching, Brown contends that "Pelagianism as we know it, that consistent body of ideas of momentous consequences, had come into existence; but in the mind of Augustine, not of Pelagius" (345). But by then Pelagius' thought had already been systematized and radicalized by followers like Caelestius (Ferguson, 58ff). For our purposes, Pelagianism is more important than the one after whom it is named.
16 While Arminius' Analysis of the Ninth Chapter of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans does interpret Rom. 9-11 collectively rather than individually, it draws on Gal. 3-4 in order to develop a typological reading of the characters of Rom. 9 that generalizes them as types of "children of the promise" and "children of the flesh." Their narrative context in Israel's concrete history of salvation is lost. See The Works of James Arminius, trans. James Nichols and William Nichols (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1986), 3:485-519.
18 Cf. McClendon's similar observation: "Jews and Christians must learn ever to construe divine election as election to service, service to others, so that Abraham's God (and now the risen Christ) is thereby disclosed, by serving all, to be the God of all the earth (Gen. 12:3)" (278).
19 This is not to claim that the text does not support such a conclusion. It only claims that the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is not Paul's immediate argument. Says James D.G. Dunn in his Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 9-16 (Waco, TX: Word, 1988): "The theme [of Rom. 9-11] is Israel's destiny, not the doctrine of justification illustrated by Israel [Schlier]" (520). See also Dunn, "The New Perspective on Paul: Paul and the Law," in Karl P. Donfried, ed., The Romans Debate, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 299-308, as well as other essays in that volume.
20 "`Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.' By this salutation, the archangel sets Mary apart from the very beginning. She is the Elect One of God." Catherine Aslanoff, ed. The Incarnate God: The Feasts of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995), 1.55.
21 Despite the absence of textual indications and Mary's self-description as a handmaid, the passage is often read as an affirmation of Mary's sovereignty. Aslanoff mentions a nineteenth century Russian bishop's sermon in which he claimed, "In the days when the world was being created, when God pronounced the life-giving and powerful words, `Let it be,' the word of the Creator made creatures appear out of nothing. But on this unique day, when the divine Myriam pronounced her brief and obedient `Let it be so,' I hardly dare to say what happened then the word of the creature caused the Creator to come into the world." See Aslanoff, 1.59, quoting Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, The Meaning of Icons (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1989), 172.
22 Stephen N. Williams' review of John Sanders' The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence in "What God Doesn't Know" in Books and Culture 3 (Nov./Dec. 1999), 16, offers a satirical angle on this insight.
23 Is God's choice of Mary conditioned upon foreknowledge of her response, as Arminians claim? Perhaps the answer is provided in Luke's account of God's appearance before Zechariah. The priest, whose life of virtue would satisfy even a Pelagian (Luke 1:6), nonetheless expresses disbelief at God's unexpected good news. Yet rather than taking away his promise of joy and gladness (1:14), Gabriel simply silences him perhaps to keep him from praying for stones and serpents? until the bundle arrives and his words give God the proper glory (1:64, 68-79).
25 Lossky himself speaks of "mutual consent" of God and woman "not a passive acceptance of the Annunciation, but an active surrender of Herself to God's will, a voluntary and independent participation of the Mother of God, and, in Her Person, of all creatures, in the work of Salvation" (173).
26 John Howard Yoder calls Mary "a Maccabean," resisting the spiritualizing of the Magnificat's themes over the centuries and locating her even more firmly in the salvation-history that had continued into the intertestamental era. See The Politics of Jesus, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 21-22.
27 Millard Erickson, Systematic Theology Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 757. He continues, "There were probably countless Jewish girls who could have served to give birth to the Son of God. Certainly Mary manifested qualities which God could use, such as faith and dedication (Luke 1:38, 46-55). But she really had nothing special to offer, not even a husband. That someone apparently incapable of having a child should be chosen to bear God's Son is a reminder that salvation is not a human accomplishment but a gift from God, and an undeserved one at that."
31 After apportioning a week for each chapter in Rom. 5-7, the lectionary devotes four weeks to Rom. 8, then jumps from Rom. 9:1-5 (week between August 7 and 13, Year A) to Rom. 11:13-16 and 29-32 (week between August 14 and August 20) and Rom. 11:33-36 (week between August 21 and 27). Rom. 10:8-b-13 does appear in Year C's First Sunday in Lent, but it too conveniently avoids the general thrust of chapters 9-11.