Five Misconceptions about Election

Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 1.11.56 PMBy Chad Thornhill, author of The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism.

Election is an idea and a doctrine that confuses many, delights others, and divides the church. For some it is the ultimate expression of God’s sovereignty while for others it is the ultimate expression of divine arbitrariness and injustice. The issue for us in this series by an expert on election is What does the Bible actually say? We begin today with Chad’s “five misconceptions.”

Five Misconceptions about Election

  1. Election to Salvation is about Individuals

Theological discussions about the doctrine of election typically focus on whether or not God has chosen specific individuals to save and others to condemn (i.e., double predestination), or whether God’s choice of individuals is based upon his foreknowledge of their response to the divine call (i.e., he knows who will exercise faith and chooses them). Both approaches assume divine election is primarily about God choosing individuals for salvation. Election in the Old Testament, however, focuses upon God’s choice of the nation, not specific individuals. True this begins with Abraham, but God’s call of Abraham is in order to make a great nation from him and bless the nations through his progeny (Gen 12, 15, 17). Likewise, the major texts which describe God’s choice of Israel (Exod 19:5-6; Deut 7:6; 14:2) are clearly focused on the nation as a whole. Since the covenant bears conditions, there is no indication the entire nation (i.e., every Israelite) will remain a part of God’s people.

  1. Election in the NT is different than in the OT

Frequently theologians recognize that the Old Testament puts its emphasis upon the collective of the nation in its portrayal of election, and that individuals in the OT who are described with “choosing” language are chosen for specific roles or tasks (e.g., Aaron, Moses, Cyrus, etc.), not for salvation. It is claimed, then, that the New Testament, as a matter of progressive revelation, clarifies the election of individuals to salvation. The problem here, however, is the exegetical weight which is put on passages like Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1-2 doesn’t seem to bear out what is expected of them. In other words, it seems that the NT is in more continuity with the OT than often admitted. The collective framework is assumed, though the New Testament certainly redefines the parameters of what defines God’s people, or what marks off the boundaries around them. While much attention is paid to Paul in this regard, we find the Gospels, Acts, and other NT epistles entering into this same discussion.

  1. Election Primarily Relates to Salvation

In the Old Testament, most texts which address God’s choice of the nation Israel or specific individuals have no clear soteriological implications in the text. In other words, the presence of the vocabulary of election has led interpreters to read soteriological inferences into those passage, but the passages themselves do not spell this out. We might say, then, that the chosen people will be saved (though still putting NT theological lenses over these passages), but it is clear not all those in the chosen people will be saved. Taking just Exodus 19:5 as an example, a clear condition is laid out for the people to follow (“if you will heed my voice and keep my covenant, you will be a treasured possession for me out of all the peoples”). God’s choice of the nation, in other words, did not prevent much of the nation from falling into rebellion (e.g., idolatry) and ultimately being cut off from the people of God when repentance did not follow.

  1. Paul’s Theology of Election Departs from Second Temple Jewish Beliefs

The pattern of election found in the Old Testament (God’s choice of the nation, rather than individuals, and God’s choice of individuals for specific roles or tasks) is basically repeated in the Second Temple literature. For example, Jubilees 22:11 says, “May God give unto you a seed of righteousness; And may He sanctify some of your sons in the midst of the whole earth;” and in 22:15, “And may He renew His covenant with you, that you may be to Him a nation for His inheritance for all the ages, and that He may be to you and to your seed a God in truth and righteousness throughout all the days of the earth.” The singular of “seed” here and the reference to the nation as the inheritance clearly puts the focus on the collective, while the reference to “some of your sons” indicates clearly that not every Jew would be a part of the covenant people. Jubilees indeed specifies quite clearly which offenses were believed to cut one off from the covenant people and the covenant blessings (things like improper circumcision, intermingling with Gentiles, etc.).

  1. Paul Developed a Systematic Theology of Election

It has sometimes been argued, though less so in more recent scholarship, that Romans is Paul’s theological treatise, his systematic theology, where he lays out his soteriological beliefs point by point. We should approach Romans, then, as a doctrinal statement of sorts rather than as an occasional letter. The problem with this is large swaths of Romans, portions of most of its chapters (particularly 1-4 and 9-16) contain some fairly clear occasional elements. The major situation which Paul appears to address, indeed constituting sustained attention through almost the entirety of the letter, is the relationship of Jews, Gentiles, Jesus, faith, and the Law in the people of God. Once one recognizes this as one of the major impetuses for the letter, it’s hard to not see it as influencing nearly everything Paul says therein. If the letter than is occasional (which by the accounts of most Pauline scholars today it is), the situation which prompted Paul to write must be allowed to have a controlling force in how the letter is interpreted.

How does contextualizing election as described above change our focus?

What other common misconceptions about election exist?

How does a narrative approach to divine election shift the discussion?

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.