Reading the Decree

I am going to be taking a look at the doctrine of election through a couple of recent releases – the first, by David Gibson, is Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth (T&T Clark, 2009). This book has been out for a little while now, but I am also going to be looking at Suzanne McDonald’s new book Re-Imaging Election (Eerdmans, 2010). Here, I will focus my attention on Gibson’s read of Calvin and Barth on election. I think that this volume is particularly interesting because of the exegetical emphasis – putting Calvin and Barth’s exegetical considerations in parallel with their doctrinal development. Or, better, that for both thinkers, doctrine and exegesis are not two discrete tasks, but are united around, in one way or another, their “christocentrism.”

Utilizing Muller’s distinction between “soteriological christocentrism” and “principial christocentrism” Gibson invokes a corresponding hermeneutical distinction – extensive and intensive. A hermeneutic is christologically extensive when the center of christology “points outwards to other doctrinal loci which have space and scope to exist in themselves at a measure of distance from Christology and from each other” (15). Christology does not “dictate” or “control” but “shapes” and “influences” them. Likewise, a hermeneutic is christologically intensive when the center of christology “defines all else within its circumference” (15). This christology draws everything to itself, so that all other doctrinal material is read with an explicit reference to christology. Calvin and Barth represent these two facets respectively.

The major strength of this volume is also what makes it a bit laborious to read. In his lengthy third chapter, Gibson works through a play-by-play of Barth and Calvin on Romans 9-11. This is incredibly valuable, but it also hard to follow at points. I had to have a Bible open next to me to figure out what we were talking about (which, one might say, is the very point). What I particularly liked about Gibson’s approach is that he doesn’t lay out the material as if Calvin offers the “commonsensical” reading of the text and Barth ushers in philosophical abstraction (or anything of that sort). Instead, he seems satisfied to allow the various exegetical decisions to govern his overview. Furthermore, at every major exegetical difference, Gibson highlights how each thinker’s christology is wielded in such a way as to form their reading. Neither thinker approaches the text blindly, and therefore christology is the guiding doctrine of each.

To close the volume, building upon his analysis in chapter three, Gibson turns to hermeneutics and election. Again, Gibson’s task is to highlight, now with a specific focus on hermeneutics, that Calvin and Barth’s christology are fundamentally different – one extensive and the othe intensive – and that this forms their reading. Gibson draws the line between the two thinkers as he closes his discussion of Calvin and the hermeneutics of election:

It is Christ’s words, his teaching, about election that Calvin is interested in, and not in the first instance his being as the divine Word. This point by itself is sufficient to suggest that the hermeutical significance of Calvin’s Christology in his doctrine of election needs to be carefully explicated. Calvin does not hold to Christ himself as the basis of the revelation of the doctrine of election, and because of that he is able to assert a looking to Scripture (the source of the doctrine’s revelation) as the place where the believer must look for the knowledge of election. Christology for Calvin is not the source of the doctrine of election; rather it is brought into play as an example of how his own argument from Scripture about election accords with Christ’s teaching on the matter. Calvin’s Christology is not principial for his doctrine of election” (176).

Both thinkers attend carefully to the Scriptural witness, but, as Gibson goes to great lengths to show, the main difference is an understanding of how Christology itself relates to biblical interpretation. For those of you who have done some work in this area, what do you think about Gibsons’ conclusions? Because of the nature of this volume and the lengthy exegetical material, it is not easy to summarize. That said, what thoughts are there out there concerning his development.

7 thoughts on “Reading the Decree

  1. Kyle,

    Thanks, I hadn’t heard of this book before, but now it’s a must read!

    I think, from what you’ve said, Gibson may be right (in general) — relative to the two “Reformers.” Calvin’s conception of the ‘Word’ is nowhere near as nuanced as Barth’s. Related to that, the two “Reformers” have distinct understandings of “Revelation” (at least in their respective “precision”). But, I would also want to say that Calvin is obviously present within Barth’s reification. Calvin is pre-modern, Barth modern; the point of over-lap is certainly christology, as Gibson notes. But, I think it is safe to say, that w/o Calvin there would be no Barth.

    As I reflect further, from what I hear from Gibson (through your voice), I don’t hear anything that original. Muller notes the same kind of stuff on Calvin as he highlights the locus method (so Gibson’s ‘extensive’) that Calvin supposedly operated from (even though his writings reflect a ‘confessional’ method). To me it sounds as if Gibson is just appropriating Muller’s thinking, and applying it as the cipher to his own work. If Gibson’s work is so dependent, then I suppose the legitimacy of his reading (esp. in re. Calvin) stands or falls on the success of Muller’s attempt to make Calvin a Calvinist (which I don’t think Muller does).

    Anyway, I’ll be picking this book up, soon. Thanks.

  2. Thanks for this post, Kyle. I was eyeing the book at SST and am curious how Dave reaches the conclusions that I’ve heard he reaches with regard to Barth’s reconfiguration of the doctrine of election.

    What I’m curious about is the final bit of what you quoted: “Christology for Calvin is not the source of the doctrine of election; rather it is brought into play as an example of how his own argument from Scripture about election accords with Christ’s teaching on the matter. Calvin’s Christology is not principial for his doctrine of election.”

    Contextually, does Gibson praise this perspective or otherwise lift it up as preferable to Barth’s ‘radical christocentrism?’ It seems to me — at least as a preliminary judgment, having not seen the full context of the argument — that pointing to Scripture instead of Christology as source and norm of one’s doctrine of election is not to be commended.

    But perhaps Gibson would say that Christ’s person is certainly in there somewhere — it’s only logically subordinated to Scripture on this dogmatic point (i.e., not everything we say needs to be christocentric). The question between Calvin and Barth, then, would be over the logical relationship between election and Christ (as well as Scripture’s role in mediating that relationship, or disclosing that relationship, or what have you).

    • Darren, on that quote, I think all Dave is doing there is to reiterate the distinction from Muller – soteriological christocentrism and principial christocentrism – to basically note that this holds true against Calvin’s exegetical concerns. Basically, you hit it on the head in the last point you made. Gibson, as I recall (I wrote this review a while ago and just got around to posting it!), chooses not to make any significant judgment calls, but instead focuses on detailing out each account. In short, his point is not to pit christology and scripture against one another, but is actually to focus on how each christocentrism leads them exegetically to the doctrine of election that they propose.

  3. Muller says the two principum of the Reformation (post) were scripture, then God. If Gibson is following Muller — and the “order of knowledge” — then his points on Calvin make sense (if he is following Muller, that is).

    Darren, I guess on your commendable point, it depends on who’s perspective. But I agree with you.

        • Of course not ;-). Although I fear people might think the same thing about me and Torrance, hehe.

          I just meant your comment took on new meaning when I knew it was coming from the most venerable, Darren (from Scotland) :-). When I responded to you, initially, I didn’t realize I “knew” you; I just thought you were “some” Darren from cyberspace somewhere. ;-)

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