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.