Election and Predestination

Written by Paul K. Jewett Reviewed By Gordon R. Palmer

Perhaps best known for his work on women’s ordination, Paul Jewett again turns to a contested and highly charged debate. Compared with some other tomes, this book is of modest length but it covers a lot of ground as Jewett moves at rapid pace, though a repetitiveness disturbs the flow in one or two places. Jewett first gives an historical overview which serves as a frame of reference in evaluating the issues, as well as showing the complexity and persistence of the debate. He argues that every major theologian from Augustine to Barth has affirmed the importance of the doctrine and have basically agreed on its content (p. 3). The first point is reinforced in the text, but his second seems to be undermined as a diversity of interpretations emerges. We are used to hearing that Calvin and Calvinists stress predestination, but the quote on p. 77, ‘predestination, when thus explained, is the foundation of Christianity … the sum and the matter of the gospel; nay, it is the gospel itself’, is from Arminius. So there may be consensus that this is an important doctrine, but the ‘thus explained’ of Arminius is very different in content from, say, Barth.

Next, there is a chapter on the biblical material (too briefly dealt with) which shows that the problems associated with election are not all of the theologians’ making.

Jewett then considers corporate election and here gives special attention to the relationship between God’s chosen people, the Jews and the church. He rejects the view that the church’s election supplants Israel’s, seeing it as supplementary. In his consideration of election and the individual, Jewett devotes special attention to the distinctive work of Barth. He rejects the universalistic tendencies he sees in Barth, criticizes Barth’s exegesis and the tendency in Barth to make the divine choice the only choice.

His attempt to put things together is in the section headed ‘Efforts at Understanding’. He concedes that the supralapsarian view is the most logically satisfying but finds it morally intolerable and believes that it compromises the scriptural teaching on God’s love. Arminianism is criticized for contradicting Scripture in a more overt way, through poor exegesis. The solution must lie somewhere in between. He states a preference for infralapsarianism though he concedes that it too, does not helpfully meet the problem of reprobation.

After some comments on the relationship of eternity to time, and on the universal in the particular, he concludes on the theme of wonder and worship. Election is not a doctrine for sterile debate, contentious strife, but is ‘the cornerstone of the doctrine of grace’ and so should move us to wonder and worship.

This is a careful, fair and faithful study, but might be improved in my view by (1) looking at other modern work than Barth, e.g. process theology; (2) a clearer explanation of the place of logic in theology; (3) a look at what role moral criteria (however defined) play in the hermeneutical task. Jewett declares that we have moved far from our biblical moorings today in our neglect of this theme of election, and his book should help redress that as he spells out something of the pastoral and kerygmatic force of the doctrine. One interesting typing error (p. 14) is where we are told that Arminius was born in 1650 and appointed professor of divinity at Leyden in 1603. He would have needed a lot of foreknowledge for that!

Gordon R. Palmer