Corporate Election in the New Testament

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 1.11.56 PMBy Chad Thornhill, PhD Chair of Theological Studies, Director of the MA in Christian ApologeticsAssistant Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies, Assistant Editor of Eruditio Ardescens  … School of Divinity

Klein on Corporate Election in the NT

William Klein offers one of the few works which give a sustained defense of the view known as “corporate election.” I looked in my last post at how Klein views the OT and Jewish literature and its development of the theme of divine election. Klein gives most of his attention in the recently updated and revised edition of The New Chosen People to the New Testament documents. He organizes them around 6 categories: 1) the Synoptic Gospels, 2) Acts, 3) Johannine literature, 4) Pauline literature, 5) Hebrews, and 6) James, Peter and Jude.

In his survey of the Synoptics, Klein notes several prominent themes as it relates to election. First, there is often an eschatological orientation with implications of suffering/persecution for the elect (cf. Matt 24:22-31; Mark 13:20-27), a phenomena likewise attested in Second Temple literature. Commenting on Matthew 22:14, Klein notes that the parable of the wedding banquet underscores not that some are chosen and others are not, but rather that the leaders of the Jewish nation, in spurning Jesus, were spurning their invitation to the eschatological banquet. Their places would thus be taken by those who respond appropriately to the invitation. The Synoptic Gospels frequently use election to play on the reversal of insiders and outsiders which comes with Jesus’ ministry. The poor, sick, sinners, etc. respond to Jesus’ teachings while the Jewish leaders are increasingly hardened. Klein also spends some time looking at the nature of Jesus’ parables. Rather than seeing them as a means by which to confuse (i.e., reject) some and enlighten (i.e., elect) others, Klein suggests the parables “reveal truth to those with ears to hear; they conceal it from those with dull or calloused hearts. The state of the individual heart, however, is not a predetermined matter. In God’s purpose, those who reject the truth in Jesus will not find forgiveness or healing” (56). Klein also spends time in this chapter examining “knowing” and “will” language in the Synoptics, as well as the choosing of the disciples and Jesus as the “Elect One.” Klein suggests we find no hint of individual predestination to salvation in the Synoptics, that the central issue is one’s orientation to Jesus’ and his teachings. Jesus’ choice of the disciples, like God’s choice of the prophets and kings in the OT, is for mission, not salvation.

Turning to Acts, Klein takes up examination of four themes: 1) divine determination of events, 2) God’s choosing of groups, 3) God’s choosing of individuals, and 4) God’s choosing of Jesus. In his survey, Klein sees the new development in Acts primarily as the divine determination of events (primarily God’s establishment of his eschatological time table and his plan for revealing himself to the Gentiles). God’s choosing of individuals falls largely along the same lines as in the OT and the Gospels, as does God’s choice of Jesus, though in Acts we find more explicit language that Jesus’ death was a part of the divine plan. A distinct feature of Klein’s approach is his view of the “calling” language in Acts. Klein sees calling as akin to “naming,” meaning God designates those who are his own (i.e., those who have responded to the good news in faith; see 80-81). Perhaps a point which could have been given more emphasis in Klein’s treatment is that often the soteriologically-charged election language in Acts occurs in the context of Gentile inclusion. This seems to me a significant part of explaining how Acts employs election language, and one which finds some parallel also in the letters of Paul.

Turning to the Johannine literature, Klein sees some similar themes present. Election of individuals is focused upon their task or vocation, not their soteriology. Election to salvation has the collective in mind, meaning that God has chosen a people but has not pre-determined the specific individuals who will constitute that people. God’s love for the whole world, according to Klein, demonstrates that his desire truly is for all to be saved, with no hidden will present in the corpus of the salvation of a select few. The Gospel of John, for example, “consistently witnesses that he (Jesus) gives life to those who believe in him” (109). Certainly only those whom God draws will come to him, but Klein contends John also asserts that Jesus’ mission was to draw all people to himself, not only those predetermined to be saved (116-117).

Klein’s largest section, nearly twice the length of the next longest, concentrates on the writings of Paul. Paul’s letters have certainly been the lightning rod in the discussion of election in the NT, and in many ways have influenced how the rest of the NT corpus discussion of election is understood. Klein organizes his chapter around word-groups, examining the terminology surrounding foreknowledge, the divine plan/purpose, election, predestination, appointing, and calling. Concerning foreknowledge (cf. Rom. 8:29, 11:2), Klein summarizes that God knows what his people “were, what they would be without his intervention, and, most significantly, what they would become as the result of his grace on their behalf” (136). In other words, foreknowledge and predestination here concern the people as a whole and God’s overarching plan for them, not the determination of which individuals constitute that people. Klein sees the language of divine plan/purpose as primarily focused upon God’s relation in history with his people (collectively) and on the work of the divine Son (136-143). Neither of these points of emphasis necessitates individual election. Likewise, election concerns God’s formation of a people (cf. Rom 9-11), thus Klein summarizes, “Paul’s focus is upon God’s selection of the nation Israel in its historic role, not upon specific individuals for eternal salvation. Even the choice of individuals like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was not for their personal salvation, but for their tasks in God’s historic program with his people” (149). In his treatment of Ephesians (153-156, 162-164), Klein sees election as entailing union with Christ as the prior condition (i.e., those in Christ are elect, rather than vice-versa; in my perspective, it would have been helpful to bring out the salvation-historical dimension of Ephesians 1-2 more strongly than Klein does, though he mentions this briefly (163)).

Klein’s next two chapters deal with Hebrews, James, Peter, and Jude. In Hebrews, election theology primarily underscores God’s appointment of Christ as his designated agent. Concerning believers, Klein takes the calling language in Hebrews (3:1; 9:15; 11:18) to refer to the call “to a life characterized by heavenly values now, as well as to a heavenly inheritance” (197). In James, Klein sees the emphasis upon God’s desire to bring forth a people and for that people to live in accordance with his will. God’s choosing of the poor (cf. 2:5) does not reflect individual election, but rather that this local community of those in God’s chosen people primarily consists of the poor. In 1 and 2 Peter (and similarly in Jude), Klein likewise finds the emphasis upon the collective dimension of election. God’s calling is not effectual, but rather means his “designating” or “naming” of those in Christ as his own (227). God’s desire is for none to perish, but for all to repent (cf. 2 Pet 3:9), thus election does not entail the predetermined favoring of a few.

One of the major limitations to Klein’s study is its arrangement (primarily) around terminology. This can be distracting from a contextual reading of these passages. In that many of these election texts have a salvation-historical orientation, focusing on the context rather than more narrowly on the terminology proves a valuable framework. This is not to say Klein ignores contextual factors, but only that the larger context is often not commented upon. Another point of critique, from my perspective, is that Klein limits “faith” (pistis) primarily to belief, whereas often (though not always) in the New Testament, a wider range of meaning is in view (i.e., belief, trust, and fidelity). Perhaps another point of emphasis, which Klein certainly recognizes but could be further highlighted, is the counter-intuitive nature of God’s plan. This is, in part, Paul’s argument in Romans 9. God has always done the unexpected (e.g., Jacob over Esau), so why should this (Gentile inclusion) surprise us? Klein makes mention of this in his discussion of 1 Corinthians 1 (“God often chooses what people reject” (151)), but more weight could have been given.

We will look shortly at Klein’s conclusions and (some of) his major questions. For now:

Does viewing election in the NT as corporate eliminate an individual (i.e., double-predestination) element to it?

Does Klein’s distinction of individual election to task/role and corporate election to salvation explain the textual evidence?

How does the salvation-historical dimension of election factor into how we read and understand the NT?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.