Thomas Barlow (1607-1691): A post-Restoration Oxford disputation on unconditional election



Thomas Barlow (1607-1691) was one of the preeminent Reformed divines within the post-Restoration Church of England. Having previously been the librarian of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, Barlow became the provost of the Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1657, and the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford in 1660, while simultaneously serving as the archdeacon of Oxford. He retained these positions until he became bishop of Lincoln in 1675. Alongside his former Queen’s colleague Thomas Tully (1620-1676), who became the principal of St. Edmund Hall in 1658, he was actively involved in anti-Arminian polemics at Oxford and within the Church of England more broadly.

A number of disputations held under Barlow at Oxford were translated from Latin into English and released as part of his posthumously-published The Genuine Remains of that learned Prelate Dr. Thomas Barlow, late Lord Bishop of Lincoln (1692). One of these disputations (on p. 577-582) addresses the question of whether eternal election unto salvation is based on foreseen faith (An electio ad salutem sit ex fide praevisa?):

Election is twofold.

  1. Human, when man.
  2. Divine, when God chooseth, and of this only it is disputed. And this election is twofold.

First, of a thing, when a thing not a person is chosen. So God is often said to choose Jerusalem and Mount Sion, and Isaiah, 58.6. eligere jejunium. But of this we enquire not.

Second, election is of a person, which likewise is twofold.

  1. Of Christ as man. For so he was in the number of the elect. Math. 12.18.
  2. Of those united with Christ: namely of the angels, who persevered in their obedience; and of men, God ordain’d, and elected some men to offices and honour in this world; as Saul to the government. Others he elected to salvation and glory in heaven; and of these our question is.

Now here we say that this divine election, by which God chooseth certain men from eternity to salvation, is not an act of the divine intellect or knowledge by which he knows; but of his will by which according to his good pleasure he determines of us.

The reason is because the divine knowledge is natural and necessary; so that it is impossible that God should not know every object that could be known; but election is a free act; since it is a thing confessed, potuisse Deum vel nullos condidisse, vel conditos non elegisse, vel plures, vel pauciores, vel alios pro suo beneplacito, & jure absoluto quo in creaturas utitur. [i.e. that God could have elected none, or more, or fewer, or others, according to his good pleasure and the absolute right which he has over his creatures.]

The divine knowledge doth equally look at all objects possible or future, but not so his election; which is a discretive act, and passeth by some to perish for ever, while it prepares grace and glory for others.  Now when it is ask’d, if election be from faith foreseen?

First, we do not deny that faith was foreseen from eternity, since ‘tis manifest that the knowledge of God is equally eternal with his will. For sicut quicquid est futurum erat ab aeterno futurum, ita etiam ab aeterno cognitum [i.e. just as whatever is future was future from eternity, so likewise what was known from eternity]. But

Secondly, we enquire of the habitude that the foreseeing of faith hath to election. This habitude for foreseen faith in order to election is threefold, and may have the notion,

First, antecedentis [i.e. of an antecedent], so that God chooseth none to heaven, in whom he had not seen faith to come, or did see that faith would come before they were actually elected.

Secondly, it may have the notion conditionis [i.e. of a condition], and so faith may be consider’d as a condition necessarily required in election.

Thirdly, foreseen faith may further have the notion of a cause, and so not to be only an antecedent and a condition of election, but to have the notion of a cause from whence election follows as the effect.

Now when ‘tis enquired, if election be of faith foreseen, historical faith is not meant, nor a faith of miracles; the which unregenerate men may have; but the meaning is of justifying faith which is proper only to the regenerate.

Up till now Barlow has been clarifying that the question being addressed is whether God’s election of people unto salvation is based on God’s foreseeing of them having justifying faith. He concludes negatively that, in God’s eternal decree of election or predestination unto glory, there neither is, nor can there be, any consideration based on any foreseen antecedent action, quality, merit, cause, reason, or condition in us humans. God’s election is therefore entirely unconditional. Barlow offers a number of reasons for this:

The first reason of this conclusion, is; if election be from faith foreseen, then faith foreseen is some way a cause of election: the which consequence though the Remonstrants will sometimes deny and seem not to allow foreseen faith as the cause of God’s electing, as may be seen in the Collatio Hagiensis, p. 103. Yet elsewhere they speak it out plainly in writings held by them most authentical, namely in Actis Synodalibus Part. 2. p. 6. where they tell us, fidem & perseverationem in electione considerari ut conditionem ab homine praestitam, ac proinde tanquam causam [i.e. in election faith and perseverance are considered as a condition fulfilled by man, and accordingly as a cause]. They add this reason, because the condition prescribed and perform’d doth necessario alicujus causae rationem induere [i.e. necessarily takes on the function of a cause].

And indeed they must needs be forc’d to confess this: For, if we ask them why God chose Peter and not Judas, they say, because God foresaw that Peter would believe. So that from their hypothesis, it must needs be that foreseen faith was the cause that Peter was chosen before Judas.

Now I do subsume, that foreseen faith is not the cause, nor reason, nor motive any way of election.

First, because the Scripture allows of no cause of election extra Deum ipsum [i.e. outside of God himself]: but refers it altogether to his εὐδοκία & beneplacitum [i.e. good pleasure]. For this consult Ephes. 1.11. and Rom. 9.11.

On the other hand, If you will believe, you shall be elected, is no where to be found in Holy Writ, either expressly, or by equivalence. There is I confess this proposition in Scripture, He that believes shall be saved, but not he that believes shall be predestinated; because God never required faith as antecedaneous to his decree.

Secondly, if faith be an effect and consequent of election, then is it not the cause of it, or antecedaneous motive; because ‘tis altogether impossible, and implies a manifest contradiction, ut idem respectu ejusdem sit antecedens & consequens, causa & effectus [i.e. that the same thing may in the same respect be both antecedent and consequent, both cause and effect]. But faith is an effect or consequent of election, therefore ‘tis not a cause, or antecedent motive of it.

The minor I prove out of Eph. 1.4. According as he hath chosen us before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy, &c. And v. 5th sheweth that God did predestinate those whom he would adopt for sons, not such as were sons. But if he had chosen such as believed, then he would have chosen holy men and sons. But sanctity, and our sonship are not the cause, nor antecedent motive of election. For, Rom. 8.29. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son: not as if they were then so.

Again if election were of works, then the Apostle might have had an Answer to his Objection in a readiness, as to what he mentions in the 9th of the Romans about the children neither having done any good or evil, and in vain had the instance there been brought of the potter’s power over the clay, of the same lump, to make one vessel unto honour and another to dishonour. Whereas if election had been from foreseen faith, he had spoke more aptly thus, Hath not the potter the art to know the difference in several parts of Clay, and to separate the good from the bad? But the Apostle’s similitude is exactly pertinent, if we suppose election to be absolute, and all creatures to be in an equal state.

The editor notes that Barlow offers a final reason for God’s election not being based on foreseen faith and perseverance, namely, “that infants are elected, but not from faith and perseverance; for they are not capable thereof.”