Of the making of many books there is no end. Of the making of books on divine predestination there is also no end.

Travis James Campbell’s recent book The Wonderful Decree focuses its attention on divine election and God’s desire for the salvation of all. Campbell attempts to explain and defend how God can both desire the salvation of all while unconditionally electing some to salvation. This is not a new question. The compatibility of these doctrines has garnered a copious amount of literature going at least as far back as the Augustinian and Pelagian controversy in the fifth century.

Still, as Campbell rightly has recognized, there has been and continues to be a temptation within Reformed theology to affirm some of the tenets of hyper-Calvinism such as the denial of God’s common benevolence towards both God’s elect and the reprobate as well as an affirmation that God is the cause of sin and evil. Hence, when push comes to shove, biblical scholars have often felt forced to either abandon the doctrine of unconditional election or God’s universal love for all. Campbell emphatically affirms both.

In fact, Campbell takes it one step further, he argues that God not only has a general love for all human beings, but, in fact has a saving love for all—“that God genuinely and savingly (or redemptively) loves every single human person.” (68)

The Argument

Campbell lays out his argument in a succession of chapters building on top of each other. After an extensive (and emotionally moving) autobiographical memoir explaining the genesis behind the study and Campbell’s investment in the topic, his next chapter lays out many of the basic presuppositions and definitions behind his work. Some parts of this chapter, such as his definitions of atheism or compatibilism are fairly basic, if not bordering on the simplistic. After all, I’m fairly skeptical of applying the labels of compatibilism (free will is compatible with determinism) and libertarianism (free will is not compatible with determinism) to any of the early modern Reformed theologians (pg. 44). Am I to believe that Aquinas and (say) William Ames disagreed on the freedom of the will (pgs. 43–44)?

The real heart of the book begins in Part 2 with his defense of unconditional election. Campbell begins with a “biblical” defense of the doctrine before entering into a philosophical/theological defense. The former is fairly run-of-the-mill, but there are times where the reader is left unsure how clear the concept of the doctrine is in the author’s own mind. More on this below.

Chapter 4, where Campbell gives an argument from classic theism (as affirmed by the three main monotheistic religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) to unconditional election is the most intriguing and perhaps the most helpful in the book. Riffing off both Duns Scotus and his notion of logical moments in the divine mind as well as the classic distinction between God’s natural and free knowledge, Campbell argues that, given God’s freedom along with his omnipotence and omniscience, unconditional election must be affirmed: “[B]y choosing a world wherein [Bonhoeffer] is saved and [Hitler] is lost—even a world wherein free will makes the difference—God has, in effect, unconditionally chosen one person over the other” (pg. 113).

His discussion of the various uses of middle-knowledge to skirt around or soften the unconditional nature of election (at least, once God decrees to create this world) in chapter 6 is fascinating and repays a careful read. Campbell helpfully disambiguates older accounts of middle-knowledge with newer versions of it, which often coincide with a belief in trans-world damnation.

Among many other issues, Chapter 6 offers a helpful corrective to those in the Reformed tradition who have been uncomfortable with the language of God desiring the salvation of all. Less helpful is his discussion of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism which wrongly assumes that the ordering of the decrees is the primary issue in dispute, when much of the medieval and early modern debate (at least) centered on the object of election/predestination (terms often distinguished).

Campbell’s curiosity at Robert Reymond’s appeal to the angels in support of his supralapsarianism belies Campbell’s ignorance with regard to the history of the development of these doctrines (pgs. 208–209). He should have spent more time considering the nature of the election and reprobation of the angels—a subject widely discussed in the medieval and early modern periods—and how that decree is obviously supralapsarian. As the strongly infralapsarian Reformed theologian, John Davenant, admitted: “In the election and reprobation of the angels, it is clear that God is able to elect and to reprobate before any foreknowledge of sin” (De Praedestinatione, cap. 1). Perhaps Campbell would also be surprised to know, in light of his claim that the unfallen angels “are saved by works” (pg. 208), that a prominent Christian position throughout history has been that Christ was the mediator of those angels, providing them with persevering grace.

After defending unconditional election and God’s desire for the salvation of all, Campbell’s last chapter attempts to tie, or better, reconcile these two seemingly contradictory ideas. By way of various appeals to scholastic distinctions, such as God’s antecedent and consequent will and sufficient and effectual grace, Campbell believes that Reformed theology can be shown to be logically valid and biblical. It is in this chapter where most of my concerns with Campbell’s arguments arise.

Campbell argues that it is not within God’s nature to grant irresistible grace to all. In fact, he quotes B. B. Warfield multiple times saying: “God in his love saves as many of the guilty race of man as he can get the consent of his whole nature to save.” Such a position confuses God’s foreknowledge and ordination with his ability (Cf. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 25 a. 5 ad 1). Does Campbell really think God’s justice demands that he not give saving grace to all?

Campbell’s notion of God’s antecedent will, whereby God wills all human beings, as his creatures, to glorify and enjoy him forever (to use a well-known Reformed phrase), is certainly Thomistic and some Reformed theologians have accepted its truth, yet his notion of a universal sufficient grace, which he builds upon this antecedent will, is a radical departure from standard Reformed orthodoxy.

For example, Campbell argues that God gives to every human being (on account of this antecedent will for the salvation of all) “sufficient grace that renders it genuinely possible for them to believe” (pg. 247, 250). This grace is sometimes called, by Campbell an “extrinsically efficacious grace” (pgs. 248, 253). What this grace actually entails is rather ambiguous even though it makes up the core of his understanding of what it means for God to desire the salvation of all.

Indeed, certain critical questions are left unresolved. For example, if this sufficient grace is grace sufficient to salvation (which is what sufficient grace has historically entailed), how can we say that the heathen who never hear the gospel have been given sufficient saving grace? Wouldn’t this suggest that saving grace is given to all, regardless of whether or not they hear the Gospel preached?

If the grace is external (rather than internal), then that grace which is sufficient needs to be the gospel, which alone is sufficient unto salvation (Rom. 10:14–15). Is not the internal grace of Christ tied to the external grace given via word and sacrament? It is true that some Thomists (following Aquinas, De veritate, q. 14 a. 11 ad 1) have argued that the light of nature plays the role of (something like) a sufficient grace insofar as, if it is used rightly, then God will either directly give that person the gospel to be believed or send some preacher.

Yet, this idea has been universally condemned by the Reformed. Not even the English hypothetical universalist, John Davenant, believed this (De Morte Christi, pgs. 69–70). He, like the Canons of Dordt (3/4 Rej. of error 5), explicitly denies that God gives universal sufficient grace to all (De Morte Christi, pg. 28). In short, Campbell never explains how those who never “first hear and understand … the basic truths of the gospel” can be said to have been given “sufficient grace” (pgs. 271–272). Again, the point worth making here is not to deny that sufficient grace is given to some, namely to those who hear the gospel message. I think that this can be theologically and biblically argued for. But that is a far cry from demonstrating that such sufficient-to-salvation-grace is universal.

It would have been more in keeping with the Reformed tradition—at least some stands of it—if Campbell had argued at greater length (as he briefly does on pg. 251) for God’s provision of Christ on behalf of all human beings as a universal remedy for sin. Instead, he opts to ground God’s universal saving love on the much more controversial notion of a sufficient external grace granted to all human beings. One wonders where the neo-Thomist Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, upon whom Campbell seems to rely for his notion of sufficient grace, argues that an external sufficient grace is granted to all human beings.

Coming to Terms with Campbell’s Terms

One of the biggest flaws with Campbell’s book is his use of terms. This is disappointing given that Campbell appears to be at pains to be clear and precise, having dedicated a whole chapter, ch. 2, for definitions of various terms. One more example is worth noting. His description of election and reprobation (judged by how these terms came to develop in the period after the Reformation) is quite deficient. This leads him to the claim, found throughout the book, that election is unconditional, but reprobation is conditional.

This confusion is due to his lack of an important early modern distinction which could have helped him—viz., the distinction between negative and positive reprobation. Although Campbell typically defines reprobation as a passing over of those God decrees not to save (pgs. 66–67), which is negative reprobation, he then wants to insist that it is on the basis of people’s sin that he damns them (pg. 198), which would be positive reprobation. By equivocating on the term reprobation and then calling it conditional, he unintentionally obscures the fact that negative reprobation, which is the only proper corollary to unconditional election, must also be unconditional. After all, if the object of predestination and reprobation is fallen humanity, as Campbell affirms, then there cannot be a reason why God reprobates some without there also being a reason why he chooses to predestine others! If the reason why God chose to reprobate Judas was on account of his sin, then why not Peter, also a sinner?

Maybe Campbell, in his desire to affirm the conditionality of reprobation, simply wanted to emphasize the (infralapsarian) fact that the object of reprobation is fallen humanity, and thus all humanity is undeserving of any predestination to grace. If that’s the case, then that’s what he should have said. Early modern Reformed theologians unanimously affirmed both the justice of reprobation (especially from an infralapsarian perspective) as well as its unconditional character relative to why God does not will to grant infallible saving grace to certain human beings—that is, why God (negatively) reprobates some.

Given what I have said thus far, perhaps I have given the impression that the book is not worth reading. Let me be clear: it is worth reading. Campbell’s book functions as a good dialogue partner. He wrestles with many different ideas related to God’s decree, theodicy, middle-knowledge, etc.—many of which are worth considering. He argued several important points including a strong affirmation that the object of predestination is fallen humanity (pg. 125), a needed recognition that Molina did not deny unconditional election unlike some of his middle-knowledge followers (pg. 135fn5), an emphasis on God’s ability to reach out and save any sinner (pgs. 151–152), and his interpretation of Calvin relative to God’s desire for the salvation of all (pg. 179).

But given all of the ambiguity related to the various theological terminology, I cannot recommend the book as a good guide to reconciling divine election and God’s universal desire for the salvation of all. That book, at least in the modern period, has not yet been written.

Posted by Michael Lynch

Dr. Michael Lynch (PhD, Calvin College) teaches Latin and Greek at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE.