Bottom up or Top Down?

Predestination is a fairly big topic with Christianity. Part of what makes it so interesting, I think, is that so many other things come into play – anthropology, sotieriology, christology, metaphysics, philosophy, etc – predestination really is one of the broadest things to talk about in Christianity. There’s a lot of differing views about this issue but generally it can be boiled down to a manageable number. But before you talk about predestination as such, I think there’s a pretty important contextual issue lurking in the background: is predestination bottom-up or top down?

To break that down a bit: how does predestination work? What are the mechanics of it? Does God select people who will be saved from all eternity (this would be the bottom up approach)? Most in the Reformed tradition would agree with this. The rest are either positively damned by God (this is not as common a position within the Reformed tradition) or passed over by God (this is a bit more common). In a nutshell, God chooses whom He will save.

The other approach is the top-down approach, and it’s a position most commonly associated with Karl Barth, though this idea can be found in somewhat different forms (but the overall spirit is the same) in some of the Fathers – Athanasius comes to mind. Basically on this approach, Jesus is the elect (and the reprobate, but that’s something I’m not quite familiar enough to explain that well) humanity. In Jesus, humanity has been elected. On this view, all humanity is elected in God’s election of Christ. This is a very, very, very rough breakdown – Barth really developed the snot out of this idea and it takes up about a billion pages in the Church Dogmatics.

The bottom up approach is, like I said, often associated with Reformed theology and specifically Calvinism – though I would argue that Calvin did not embrace such a version of predestination – I’d argue that Calvin held to a universal atonement, though not necessarily of the kind Barth held to. The classical Reformed position of limited atonement developed later than Calvin and is not the way he would have gone with the doctrine (all of this is in my humble opinion, of course). There’s some metaphysics behind limited atonement that I don’t think jive with Christianity – but that’s a discussion for another time.

The point of this is that I hold to the top-down approach – that in Christ God has elected humanity to be joined to Himself. All humanity has been elected in Christ by virtue of Christs election by God.

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