The Chosen People– by Chad Thornhill, Part Three

The Chosen People– by Chad Thornhill, Part Three December 18, 2015


BEN: One of the greatest difficulties to overcome in trying to get people to see the Bible with ancient rather than modern assumptions, is the problem of modern radical individualism warping the way we read the text. I remember the day I first realized that the you in Philippians was ‘ya’ll’ when Paul says ‘work out ya’lls salvation with fear and trembling for God is working in the midst of ya’ll to will and to do’. That totally changed the meaning of the text in my mind. What had been viewed as an individual quest, turned into a group project when I finally grasped what Paul was saying. To what degree would you say our individualistic and even narcissistic culture has led to repeated misreading of what early Jewish literature and the NT says about election, salvation, and even God’s choosing of a people?

CHAD: I think another passage which has a strong indication of that mentality is 1 Corinthians 3:16, which could be rightly translated as “Don’t you all know that you all are God’s people and the Spirit of God dwells among you all?” In other words, “God’s Spirit lives among you as the people of God,” not “God’s Spirit lives in the heart of you, the individual Christian.” I also like to point to what I refer to as the “communal imperatives,” which the majority of the commands, found in Paul’s letters where he instructs believers to carry out spiritual directives which can only be fulfilled through relationships with others. There are many other places, of course, from which this point could be brought out, such as the honor/shame dynamics of the ancient world, the nature of the ancient Mediterranean family dynamic, etc. Joe Hellerman’s work has been helpful to me in seeing the importance of the collectivistic mindset of the ancient Mediterranean world and its implications for how we read and apply Scripture. I’m not sure in terms of history of thought when the individualistic mindset became dominant in the West, but the Enlightenment certainly I think was a factor. I think an unintended consequence of the Reformation was also the individualization of Christianity, whereby ecclesial authority was diminished, the individual interpretation of Scripture was elevated, and the importance, maybe even centrality, of the individual conscience became central. These ideas certainly are ingrained into the very essence of the American construction of society as seen in the Declaration and other early American documents. Since we swim in the waters of our culture, I think it is a natural result that we end up reading these texts in this highly individualistic way, and it is not until we understand the dramatically different way in which the ancient world was organized that we can appreciate the radically different way the early church operated in contrast to how most churches understand themselves today.

BEN: In your third chapter you deal at some length with the Qumran material. It seems to me always a risk to use highly sectarian literature as a litmus test of what ‘the average Jew’ in the first century believed. This would be rather like claiming that the Branch Davidians near Waco were characteristic of what Christians in Waco believed at that time. What seems clear to me is that they are sectarian Jews, who think ‘they’ are the true Israel, the righteous remnant, and other Jews are not. Clearly enough election is not ethnically defined for them, at least in a broad sense as including every and just any kind of Jew. Coupled with this is their theology of apostasy to explain why ‘not all Israel is true Israel’. You point out of course that election is a term used of a group, and the evidence of election of an individual unto personal salvation is lacking. This is very interesting since some readers of this corpus of literature have emphasized the focus of the Qumran community being on predestination of certain persons for salvation. You also point out that there is a strong emphasis even to those within the sect that they must keep the Law to ‘stay in’ the elect group. Right? Explain this interesting combination of ideas. In most ways, the material in 1 Enoch seems to share these sorts of perspectives as well. Yes?

CHAD: I’m not sure I would see the Qumran community quite as far on the fringes as the Branch Davidians, but I understand the analogy. I would agree that they certainly weren’t viewed as in the mainline of Jews, but I think that in many ways their beliefs reflect much of what is found in other Jewish texts of the period, which is the main thing I try to bring out. To that extent, I would argue that Jubilees, 1 Enoch, Psalms of Solomon, etc. also view their communities as the true Israel. It is not just a Qumranian phenomenon. In their soteriological structure, I think they roughly parallel most of the Jewish writers, though they seemed to have understood the size of the people of God as much smaller. So, all of these communities were in some sense exclusivistic, but they vary in how broadly that is defined. The overwhelming majority of Qumran scholars interpret the sect as deterministic in their orientation, and thus reflecting some form of soteriological predestination. Even so, I think the focus is still upon the collective, not individuals. But I also argue that the determinism of the sect has been overstated, and there are indications throughout the Qumran literature which seem to me to suggest that this is the case. I wonder at times how much Josephus’ descriptions of the Jewish sects has influenced scholarly opinion on this. I was happy to find a small handful of Qumran scholars who share in my assessment, but it certainly is not the majority. As far as the conditional elements, they were certainly present at Qumran, and probably far more strictly so than any other Jewish sect, and those who were once in the community can be expelled from it, and thus expelled from the hope of eschatological salvation if they break the covenant stipulations. To me, a corporate framework makes better sense of this than saying, as some scholars do, that this means the sect would have viewed apostates as never actually belonging to the community. That is certainly a possibility, but never one that the texts themselves spell out.

BEN: One of the more interesting phrases to study which crops up in early Jewish literature, in the OT, in the Mishnah and in Paul is the phrase ‘all Israel’. I can’t find a single case where it means ‘every last Israelite’, but clearly it is a sizable group that is being referred to. And salvation, when it is mentioned (e.g. both in Paul and the Mishnah) in connection to ‘all Israel’ refers to the salvation of the group with a list of exceptions given in the Mishnah. Corporate election or even salvation doesn’t seem to rule out apostasy or an exclusion list in this literature. And yet, there is not a denial that the apostate were once a part of ‘all Israel’ or ‘God’s Chosen’. Would you agree? This means that election is not unconditional and requires the appropriate response.

CHAD: Yes, there is never an explicit denial of this in the literature, at least that I’ve seen in my readings. The closest we come to in the New Testament is in 1 John, where we are told “they went from us but they were not of us.” That is certainly not consistently stated in the New Testament where cases of apostasy are described. Thus, B. J. Oropeza, in his excellent three volume study on apostasy in the New Testament, qualifies his approach by saying he is looking at the textual phenomenon of apostasy, not the theological framework we apply to understand it. The question of whether these individuals “were never really saved” is largely a theological question, not one which the texts directly address themselves, and so we should recognize that how we answer that question largely depends not on our exegesis (though it of course must be rooted in it), but on larger theological questions which arise from the texts.

BEN: On p. 82 you summarize some of your findings from the exploration of various selections from early Judaism as “while God preserves the chosen people as a whole, each individual’s fate is determined by their keeping or forsaking the covenant.” This suggests that election or salvation when it comes to the individual is conditional in nature. It not merely expects a positive response, it requires it. Yes?

CHAD: Yes. I think it is important to point out that the consequent statement which often rebuts this is that it makes salvation dependent upon humans and not upon God. I would suggest that this is a bit of a non sequitur. This shouldn’t be equated to humans meriting salvation in some Pelagian or semi-Pelagian construal. Rather, this is the arrangement which God himself has instituted and it requires an initial human response and (for Paul, Spirit-enabled) ongoing faithfulness in the life of the believer to the covenant stipulations. There is no divide between salvation and obedience for Paul. Rather, the two must go hand in hand. Just as in Judaism, there are none in the covenant who repeatedly break the covenant stipulations and do not repent, so it is in Paul. The Western evangelical idea that the “saved” can pray a prayer and not follow God obediently is completely foreign to Judaism and NT Christianity.

BEN: Your exegesis of 2 Thess. 2.13-15 I find much more compelling than that of Greg Beale’s. One of the things that I found surprising again and again when I was writing my 1-2 Thessalonians commentary and reading right through Beale was that the assumption that regeneration precedes faith, and indeed causes it, rather than the new birth and faith coinciding as the sinner repents, causes all sorts of misreading of texts like 2 Thess. 2.13-15. Unpack for the readers how your reading of that Pauline text differs from Beale’s exposition. Is the basic reason you disagree with him because your reading makes better sense when Paul is compared to his Jewish contemporaries on these sorts of subjects?

CHAD: There are a number of complications about 2 Thessalonians 2 that make it a difficult passage, particularly in the beginning of the chapter. Concerning specifically 2.13-15, there is a text critical issue in v. 13 (actually one of several in that verse) which raises the question as to whether the text reads the Thessalonian believers were chosen “as firstfruits for salvation” or “from the beginning for salvation.” This obviously significantly changes the meaning of the text. The text-critical information seems to, from a number of directions, favor the “as firstfruits” reading, which would thus mean Paul is making more of a salvation-historical point than a point about the temporal sequence of God’s choosing. There are also several indications in the text that Paul recognizes the place of the human response. First, in the verses which precede 2.13-15, Paul seems to indicate that God’s delusion of the wicked comes after their rejection of him (again, this is something Oropeza has done some very helpful work on). Second, I think there is sufficient ambiguity in the two genitive constructions (ἁγιασμῷ πνεύματος and πίστει ἀληθείας) to hesitate about reading this as a description of an order of salvation. Furthermore, the combination of ἁγιασμῷ and πνεύματος could be taken in several ways, such as “spiritual sanctification”). Beyond the hesitations from the grammatical features, Paul seems to draw a contrast here between those who do not love the truth in 2:10 and those who trust the truth in 2:13. If that is the case, and Paul indicates in 2:10-11 that God’s rejection of the wicked is because of their initial rejection of him, this makes it all the more unlikely Paul is working within a predestinarian soteriological framework here. When this is coupled with Paul’s exhortation in 2:15 for the Thessalonian believers to hold fast to the traditions which they were taught (i.e., an exhortation to perseverance with an implicit warning against apostasy which would be unnecessary in a double predestination scenario), and the collective and conditional nature of Paul’s Jewish background, it seems to me that a deterministic reading does not work well in the context. To put it in other terms, if Paul is departing significantly from Jewish election theology, it seems to me he would do so in much clearer way which distinguishes his thought from his contemporaries. There are not in my estimation sufficiently compelling reasons which suggest that this is what Paul has done.

BEN: One of the real problems for the double predestinarian reading of texts like 2 Thess. 2.13-15 is that it then becomes difficult to understand why Paul insists that the audience must continue to hold fast to the traditions they have received, or behave in particular ways lest they ‘fall from grace’ (a Pauline phrase found in Galatians). It seems especially odd ‘if they could not have done otherwise’. It does not appear, on the surface of things, that ethics amounts to merely the response of a grateful heart for a predetermined final salvation. It looks more to me like Paul sees the response to the Gospel, and the faithful living he exhorts the audience to, as part of the sanctification process, to which the believers themselves must contribute as they work out their salvation with fear and trembling, as God works in their midst to will and to do. Obviously, they cannot do this without God’s grace working within them, but they do indeed have a choice about how they respond to and live out of that grace. In other words, Paul is not an affirmer of the P in the Calvinistic TULIP configuration, and if that is right, then the other four points also have to be reconfigured. Would you agree?

CHAD: Indeed. Some commentators will argue that Paul’s warnings, implicit and explicit, against apostasy are hypothetical warnings. This has always struck me as a bit strange. Would I warn, for example, my children against something which I did not think could actually happen (e.g., be careful playing outside in case aliens try to abduct you!)? The way I discuss this with my students is that regardless of what theological framework you are using to approach Paul (i.e., “once saved always saved” or “salvation can be forfeited”), we need to hear and teach and preach Paul’s warnings with the same urgency he delivers them. There are obviously major pastoral implications with this subject, and we ought not deal haphazardly with it and engender unnecessary doubt in the life of the Christian, but neither should we in good conscience allow the Christian to continue in a mentality which does not take seriously the warnings of Scripture along with its assurances. And yes, I would fully agree, as I discuss in my sections on Romans, that the animating factory in the life of the believer which engenders faithful obedience is God’s grace and the gift of the Spirit. This isn’t simply, as Wright says so well, an encouragement to pull up your moral bootstraps and work your way to heaven. But neither can apathy, complacency, or indifference to the teachings of Scripture be allowed to settle in the Christian life.

BEN: I was struck by your summary in this chapter. The question that should be asked when discussing these inter-related matters of election, calling, persevering, obedience is– Who are God’s people, not how may an individual be saved? This is why the answer to the question is sometimes ‘the righteous’ sometimes ‘those who are keeping the covenant’, sometimes ‘those who persevere in faith despite trials’ and so on. The answer has to do with the human response to the divine call, and in Christian terms, to the Gospel. You quote Capes et al. p. 89 n. 111 effectively “Paul always uses the term ‘elect’ to refer to those who are already members of God’s people. He never uses it to prescribe who is going to be saved. Instead he employs it to remind those who have answered God’s call that they are members of God’s covenant people”. In other words elect or chosen etc. is after the fact language, language used to reassure those who have responded to the Gospel that they are truly God’s people. Our modern individualism has led us to focus on — how can an individual be saved? Paul’s election language focuses on who are God’s people and how can you tell? Right?

CHAD: Exactly. The election debate for Paul and his Jewish contemporaries was not “how are God’s people saved” in terms of teasing out the order of salvation, but rather “who are God’s people” or “what markers or conditions identify them?” In some sense, the debate about election was a debate, as the NPP would put it, about the boundary markers of God’s people in Judaism. I think one of the difficulties with some NPP approaches (of which I generally consider my approach to embrace when the New Perspective is defined as some form of a non-works-righteousness understanding of Judaism) is they see a largely agreed upon definition of what constituted the boundaries in Judaism. I attempt to argue that this was an inner-Jewish dispute with some inherently conflicting definitions, and Paul enters into that discussion with some surprising, and some less surprising, qualifications. If election in the Old Testament is collectively oriented (which I think many if not most would agree it is), to jump to individual predestination in the New Testament without some clear historical, cultural, or social contextual indications, is misguided. Once we recognize what elements constituted the inner Jewish debate, I think it becomes much clearer to see how Paul enters that discussion and does not goes off on some other trajectory completely unrelated to it.

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