By 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? This second post by Chad offers five corrections about election.
Five Corrections about Election
- Paul’s Election Discussions are about Jews and Gentiles
One of the major observations which influenced my approach in The Chosen People (IVP, 2015) was recognizing that Paul’s most dense discussion of “election” in Romans 9-11 and Ephesians 1-2 occur in the context of discussing how Jews and Gentiles fit together in the people of God. If God’s covenant with Abraham, as the father of the Jewish people, and Israel via Moses, established the nation as his chosen people, it’s no wonder Paul felt the need to discussion this in light of both the Christ event and the large-scale inclusion of Gentiles in God’s people. Indeed, what Paul seems to be doing in Romans 9-11 is arguing for the validity of Gentile inclusion along with the necessity of Gentiles to recognize the historical primacy of Israel in God’s plan. In Ephesians 1-2, the issue seems to be Gentiles ignoring or forgetting this historical primacy of Israel, and so Paul feels the need both to affirm the unity of God’s people (Jews and Gentiles on equal footing with no second-class citizens) and the dependence of the Gentiles on Israel as the people through whom the divine plan worked. Yet for Paul, the fact that Abraham was chosen to bless the nations and that the nation of Israel was to be a kingdom of priests, seems to indicate that he viewed these divine intentions as finally coming to fruition, even if still in an inaugurated, not fully consummated, form.
- Election has a Salvation-Historical Context
What the New Testament authors, Paul included, are doing with their theology of election is best viewed in a salvation-historical context. There is a story to election which was begun in Genesis, took various twists and turns in the historical books and the prophets, and has taken another dramatic shift in light of Jesus. To neglect this dimension of election theology in the New Testament is to, I think, miss the major thrust of what these authors are doing. It is not simply that God chose a nation in the OT but now we know that he really chooses individuals. Rather, it is that God chose a nation, a nation which largely (though not completely) derailed their mission through syncretistic practices, were exiled, and were awaiting restoration, a theme which clearly runs throughout the Gospels. A restoration has begun in the work of Jesus and his bringing of the kingdom, but not as was expected. Certainly God’s chosen agent was not expected to die and be resurrected. But also the Gentiles were not expected to be included in God’s people now and without submitting to the various commands in the Law which defined Israel as a people. When we recognize the overarching story which frames what the New Testament authors say, our theologizing about election takes some decidedly different turns.
- Election Defines the “Who” of God’s People
Less we think that all Second Temple Jews (at least as evidenced in the extant literature) agreed precisely in their election theologies, we should recognize that a debate about election was indeed occurring. The literature of the period shows us, however, that this debate was not about “how” people become a part of God’s people (i.e., God chooses certain people to save and others to condemn), but rather the “who” of God’s people. The debate was about what marked the boundaries of the people of God. For the author of 1 Maccabees, it was adherence to the Law and support of the Hasmoneans. For the author of 1 Enoch, it was calendrical adherence (among other things). For the author of Jubilees, it was circumcision, sexual purity, Sabbath observance, and avoidance of Gentiles. For the author of the Psalms of Solomon, pious observance of the Law and separation from the corruption of Jerusalem were required. The Qumran community and the Pharisees and Sadducees were clearly at odds with one another over this very issue as well. We could go on, but this illustrates briefly that different Jewish groups held different beliefs about who God’s people actually were, or what markers defined their boundaries. The New Testament authors do not ignore from this conversation, but rather contribute to it. For the NT authors, however, it is not a matter of which interpretation of the Law marks the boundaries of God’s people, but rather Jesus the Messiah. Those who are “in him,” who follow him and obey his teachings, constitute the people of God, made up of Jews and Gentiles alike.
- Election is Fundamentally Counter-Intuitive
A thread that runs throughout the story (or perhaps stories) of election in the canon is that God’s choices are fundamentally counter-intuitive. Nothing about Abraham in the narrative indicates that he made a fitting choice. Deuteronomy 7:7 informs us that God did not choose Israel because of its significance, rather it was quite insignificant. God chooses Moses, “slow of speech and tongue,” to be his spokesperson (Exod 4:10). Jacob becomes the heir to the blessing even though he is not the firstborn. David is the least of all his brothers, but yet is made king, where Saul, the perfect candidate, fails. And most striking, the son of a carpenter, under educated, is God’s Messiah, a Messiah who bids his followers to come and die is himself is crucified. Over and over in the biblical story we see that God’s plan contradicts human intuitions. This, I think, is largely part of Paul’s point in Romans 9. If God chose Abraham, and Jacob, and Moses, why should we dispute his inclusion of Gentiles as Gentiles in his people, a people who are defined by a crucified Messiah. It’s no wonder Paul writes that God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27).
- Election Relates to Mission and Formation
Finally, election in the biblical story is predominantly not about salvation (though God’s people will be “saved”). Rather, election in the biblical story, as seen in God’s choice of Israel and his defining of his people around Jesus. Israel is chosen to be a holy people and a nation of priests. In other words the kind of people they are, and what they do, is central to what it means for them to be chosen. As a nation of priests, they are clearly intended to minister to the nations. For Isaiah, this means they are to be a light to the Gentiles. Jesus brings the kingdom and sends his followers out on a mission, to be a community of love which in word and deed proclaims the message of the kingdom and the king to the world. The ethical and missional impulses of election are at the center of the biblical story of the elect, and thus must be at the center of our understanding at what a biblical theology of election entails.
What other corrections about how election is commonly framed are needed?
What does the counter-intuitive nature of election teach us about how God works in his world and among his people?
How do we work out the ethical and missional impulses of election in our churches today?