As a contribution to discussions of the relationship between trinity and election, in this article I explore the helpfulness of a return to ancient modal and metaphysical theological distinctions. At the forefront of trinity/election debates has been Bruce McCormack's controversial claim that election could be conceived as logically prior to, and the motivation for, God's being triune. Steering clear of questions about the right interpretation or trajectory of Karl Barth's theology, I attempt to identify the motivating theological convictions of this debate's interlocutors and find constructive options which maintain or address those convictions. One option I defend is the possibility that triunity is not logically prior to election.
I begin with an analysis of three central theological convictions which seem to be at the heart of the trinity/election debates. They are: (1) a revelation axiom – that knowledge of God's nature is governed by the particular historical revelation of God in Christ; (2) a nuanced commitment to divine immutability; and (3) divine libertas a coactione – God's being free in nature and action from external constraint. I then contend that if more attention is paid to modal and metaphysical options with respect to the existence and essence of God, one will see that there are a number of viable positions which respect these convictions.
I argue that at least some of the conceptual difficulties of McCormack's position can be eliminated if we properly distinguish kinds of necessity in reference to God's being and if we dispense with any notion of priority between God's essence and God's willing God's essence. With respect to kinds of necessity, I recall the ancient distinction between properties that are (a) necessary consequents of God's essence, (b) contingent and (c) a necessary consequence of God's essence given certain contingent states of affairs. Those distinctions, along with clarifications about the nature of divine freedom vis-à-vis his essence and actions, allow us to see the range of theological positions which remain faithful to the relevant concerns of the revelation axiom, divine immutability and divine freedom.
I conclude that, while it is problematic to defend the logical priority of election over triunity, McCormack is justified in his claim that granting election as part of God's essence does no violence to divine freedom and he is perfectly entitled to the view that God's essential properties, including both God's fit-for-election-hypostatic-configuration and God's being the electing God are mutual aspects of God's single self-caused being.