(Or, The Other Mystery of Election)
The doctrine of election is a matter that raises more passionate controversy than, well, political elections. Plenty of people hate to ascribe particularity to God’s saving plan. Others simply hate the thought of it being discussed openly. And it’s more than just Calvinists that affirm this doctrine. (I myself was first persuaded of the doctrine by Aquinas before I had any regard for Calvin or the rest.) This is not a post about Calvinism, but a plea for common ground in our disputes about predestination. Because, you see, there is more than one election.
The most familiar locus of election is the unconditional election of some to salvation. Yet there is another locus of election mentioned in Scripture, another scandal of God’s particularity. I wonder if we can’t clear the way for more open, productive debate on election within evangelicalism if we take one step back. In the order of Creation, that is.
Let’s remember that humans are not the only form of intelligent created beings mentioned in the Bible, not even the only kind said to have committed sin. The angels play a big role in Scripture, and Angelology—the doctrine of angels—mustn’t be neglected. Granted, it can be hard to carve out the biblical doctrine of creatures associated with Della Reese, naked wingéd babies, and sappy superstition. Or to see how to conceptualize the angels’ ministrations without downplaying the un-mediated work of the Spirit or the visible ministrations of the Church. And Angelology is a doctrinal locus that is a notorious breeding-ground for metaphysical speculation, drawing entire rival hierarchies of choirs, and the more unrooted forms of scholastic nitpicking. And if anything, demonology fares even worse, both in pop culture cheapening and in theological speculation.
But it is precisely concerning the angels that we are told one of the most stirring examples of God’s purpose of election, and how He chose to extend it. “For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment…” (2 Peter 2:4) Some of the angels sinned, and God did not decree a means of salvation for them. Some, like Origen in his more creative moods, tried to concoct a doctrine of angelic salvation anyways. But that seems to be the minority report in the tradition, and to cut against the grain of what little God saw fit to reveal on the matter.
But it means that, before God chose Israel from among the nations, before He called out His Church from all nations, before He called individual souls to effectual repentance, God had ruled against the fallen angels and in favor of fallen humanity. Adam He loved, Beelzebub He hated. Indeed, we even get hints that the fallen angels have a kind of priority in judgment: “… The eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)
And so even at this basic level of created order, God made a choice of who to show mercy. He passed over His more glorious creatures and elevated those formed from the common clay. Even at that level, God is the God who humbles the great and exalts the lowly. The election of man over the angels is one that should rather humble us than puff us up. He passed over the glorious ones and seems poised to glorify us over them.
We can try to speculate as to why God chose to become man and not to be the Savior of angels. Any metaphysical reason we supply to say that God could not have saved the angels is rationalization after the fact. And still raises the question of why God chose to create a class of creature, some of whom would sin beyond categorical hope of salvation. But fundamentally, God’s will remains free. We can do nothing but thank Him, and praise Him for this unmerited favor.
So perhaps Calvinists and Arminians can agree on this point. Before we differ on God’s selective election within humanity, let us together marvel at God’s selective election of humanity!
(Mere Orthodoxy, your election headquarters! )
(Matt’s going to kill me for that pun…)