The Chosen People by Chad Thornhill— Part One

The Chosen People by Chad Thornhill— Part One December 14, 2015


One of the most important books I have read in a long time in regard to the theology of election in Paul’s letters is the recent book by Dr. Chad Thornhill of Liberty entitled The Chosen People. Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism. In the next several posts we will be interacting with this fine book through a dialogue with the author. BW3

QUESTION 1: In a detailed study of salvation language in the OT, followed by salvation language in Luke-Acts (see the Appendix to my Acts commentary), I pointed out that salvation in those contexts largely refers to rescue, or healing, or ransoming out of bondage, and does not refer to the later Christian notion of permanent salvation from all sins and the gift of everlasting life. Indeed, the OT says precious little about going to heaven, or a positive afterlife beyond Sheol or ‘being gathered to one’s ancestors’. Only in very late material, such as Dan. 12.1-3, do we begin to hear about actual bodily resurrection as a future for the believers. This led to my conclusion that while we hear a good deal about God electing a chosen people in the OT, and even picking non-chosen one’s like Pharaoh or Cyrus for a special role in human history, that this seems to have very little to do with the salvation of particular individuals as understood in Christian sources including the NT. How would you assess this suggestion?

CHAD: Yes, I think that makes good sense of the Old Testament data. The soteriological language used in the New Testament in a broader, more spiritual sense, tends to be used in a more narrow, almost strictly physical sense in the Old Testament. The exception would be the developments you note in the later prophetic literature, which I think begins to take shape with more clarity in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and is certainly most clearly developed in Daniel. The rescue envisioned throughout the Old Testament is typically either the rescue of an individual from their oppressors (e.g., David), the rescue of Israel from their captors, or some other form of physical delivery, such as healing. Passages which are often read as anticipating spiritual salvation or eternal life in other places in the Old Testament seem to me to be drawn more from Christian assumptions than from the Old Testament contexts themselves. What I think is interesting about how the New Testament develops this, is that Christian interpreters have historically focused almost exclusively on the spiritual aspect, while neglecting the physical dimension of salvation. This does not mean, of course, that God always delivers Christians from harm (nor did he always deliver Israelites), but I think it does mean a more complete view of salvation in the New Testament also takes into account the restorative dimensions of salvation, where the restoration and transformation of the whole person is in various ways in view.

QUESTION 2: Have you had the occasion to read John Barclay’s landmark book Paul and the Gift? It would seem that in various ways it supports some of your major theses.

CHAD: I have not yet read Barclay’s new book though I am familiar with other essays and lectures he has given on the topic (or related topics) and have also read some of your interactions with him on this blog. This is certainly one of the volumes I am most looking forward to reading in the coming months. Without speaking too much out of ignorance concerning how he articulates his thesis in the new work, I think his suggestion that grace carries with it expectations of behavior or obedience is correct, and it seems to me this flows out of both what he argues concerning the nature of gifts in the ancient world as well as how pistis language is used in various places throughout the New Testament, though particularly in Paul. My book will focus more on the latter than on Paul’s understanding of divine grace, but I am of course encouraged to hear that Barclay’s work develops something complimentary.

QUESTION: 3 On p. 20 n. 21 you suggest that we should see that God’s commitment to the covenant is unconditional, but from the human side of the equation it is conditional depending on how Israel relates to the covenant. The condition is Israel’s willingness to abide within the covenant’s demands. The question this raises for me is not the conditional nature of the Israel side of things, but whether we ought to be talking about covenant singular, or rather covenants plural, as Paul does in Galatians 4 and Rom. 1, and whether there are differences between the various covenants between God and his people. Are you assuming the ‘one covenant being renewed again and again in various administrations’ model of covenant theology?

CHAD: I would say there are distinctions between the various covenants, and of course different biblical scholars count the number of covenants differently. I was quite impressed a few years back by a presentation from Dan Block entitled “Covenance” at an annual ETS session. Block’s argument, if I recall correctly, was that the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and new covenants should be viewed as a single line of covenants which clarify and/or renew, but do not necessarily replace or override the earlier versions. The Noahic and Davidic covenants (and possibly others which might be counted separately) are distinct from these. Paul’s discussions typically focus upon the Abrahamic/Mosaic/new covenant(s), and though there are differences between them, I think Block’s suggestion that they stand in a single linear path makes good sense. So in a sense, yes, I would see these as one covenant being renewed over time (so not including Noahic, Davidic, etc.), though there is both a sense of continuity, and discontinuity, as to how the new covenant develops out of these. In terms of the conditional nature of the covenant on Israel’s part and the unconditional divine commitment to it, works like Jubilees and Pseudo-Philo, and even the sectarian literature at Qumran, develop this in some pretty compelling ways and I think subsequently reveal how Jews during the period largely would have understood the covenantal arrangement(s).

QUESTION 4: You adopt the method called speech-act theory. Explain briefly the assumptions and approach of this method, and how it can help the discussion of election.

CHAD: I would first want to clarify that speech-act theory is an aspect of my method which I integrate in ways similar to how Mark Adam Elliott, in his Survivors of Israel, implements it. Speech-act theory goes back to J. L. Austin and recognizes that utterances operate on several levels. It typically recognizes three levels to an utterance: the locution (the utterance itself), the illocution (the intended significance of the utterance), and the perlocution (the effect or intended effect produced by the utterance). In terms of how this relates to interpretation, it recognizes that texts don’t just say something (i.e., convey information), but they also do something (i.e., create intended responses for their readers). So, when accounting for the socio-historical context of a text, I think a part of our interpretive considerations should be what the text was intended to do, not just what we think it meant. Election language, for example, in both Pauline and Jewish literature, at times is utilized in order to encourage or assure the hearers of their position with God’s people (e.g., Romans 8:28ff.), especially when the hearers are currently facing persecution. At other times it is used to serve as a warning against succumbing to certain societal pressures (e.g., 2 Thess 2). How we understand the language then, in my view, should seek to understand the intended effects of the communication in addition to the other contextual factors (social, historical, cultural, lexical, grammatical, etc.) involved in interpretation.

QUESTION 5: While I recognize the need to study early Jewish documents from just prior to the time of Paul’s writings, and the dangers of focusing on later post-70 Jewish works, I am a little puzzled there isn’t a chapter in this book summarizing what the OT says about election and salvation, especially since it is the OT that Paul cites again and again in Rom. 9-11 when he focuses on this subject. Is there a reason for this lacuna?

CHAD: Yes, the reason is primarily that I didn’t have a long enough word count! The OT background to the NT is, of course, immensely important. There has been quite a bit of good work developing what the OT says about election. Most scholarly treatments of that material end up viewing divine election in the OT as a primarily collective/national idea. What I found in my research was that a focused discussion of how this develops and/or shifts in the Second Temple period was largely lacking. There were, of course, those who had examined it in relation to other aspects of Second Temple thought, but none that had done so specifically with the intent of seeing how the Second Temple framework relates to the New Testament, or Paul’s writings. There has also been some very good work lately on Paul’s use of the OT, particularly in Romans 9-11 (Brian Abasciano, for example, has been developing this in great detail), so I didn’t see any particularly unique contributions I could bring in that area. Both of those areas (OT theology and use of OT in the NT) are essential to understanding the NT, but were not the “gap” in Pauline discussions I was seeking to fill.


“Preliminaries aside, we will begin our journey in chapter two by looking at how various Jewish sources and Paul’s letters discuss the concept of election as it relates to specific individuals, which I will argue typically either emphasizes the character or designated role of the “chosen one” or depicts him as a “representative head.” The third chapter will show that the Jewish emphasis typically falls on the collective, illustrated through various corporate metaphors and the remnant motif, and suggest Paul shares a similar emphasis. In chapter four, I will seek to tease out how the various groups and Paul defined the parameters of God’s people via what “markers” or “conditions” defined these various groups, both implicitly and explicitly. The fifth chapter will look at how our Jewish texts view Jew and Gentile inclusion and exclusion before examining the same discussion in Paul’s writings. Chapter six will then look at the issue of divine agency and human responsibility across these writings. In chapter seven, I will offer a rereading of Romans 8:26–11:36 based on my examination of Jewish theology and Paul’s thought. Finally, in chapter eight, after a summary of my findings I will ask what we gain from this view and also suggest further work that needs to be done in this area. This is where we are headed, but first we begin with election and the individual.”

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