The Chosen People by Chad Thornhill— Part Seven

The Chosen People by Chad Thornhill— Part Seven December 28, 2015


BEN: In terms of the modus operandi of this book, one of the basic approaches you take is to argue that if an idea is not found elsewhere in early Jewish literature, then it is wise to query whether we can be so sure that this idea is found in Paul’s letter. And this applies especially to the notion of individual predestination unto salvation. Of course it can always be objected that ‘Paul is the exception to many rules’ but I think this sort of approach to the evidence places the burden of proof on those who would want to insist that Paul is eccentric in his beliefs about such important matters. Would you agree?

CHAD: Yes. The way I like to put it is if we think Paul is departing significantly from his Jewish context, we should expect to see significant clarification to explain the departure. We see this with how he speaks about his view of Jesus, for example, where, though sharing in some of the contours of Jewish Messianic thought, there are some fairly startling departures (e.g., applying OT texts about YHWH to Jesus or placing him within a reframed Shema). Those things stand out significantly. When Paul takes up discussion of election, he does so without any significant revision to the framework. Instead, he basically takes the language “as is.” Paul’s startling departure is not with how election is framed, but rather that it is oriented completely around Jesus as the defining marker of God’s people and that the chosen people now include Gentiles as full members apart from full adherence to the Torah. Christianity was birthed out of Judaism, and indeed in its first few decades was in all likelihood viewed as a Jewish sect. We thus should not expect to find too severe a contrast present between them.

BEN: You could conclude that even in Rom. 8.28ff. Paul has said nothing that would contradict the earlier conclusion that Paul takes a corporate and conditional view of election. One of the planks on which you build this conclusion is the fact that Paul uses the language of foreknowing, not only in Rom. 8, but in Rom.9-11 as applied to non-Christian Israel, so foreknowing surely cannot mean ‘foreloving’ forechoosing of particular individuals to be saved from before the foundation of the universe. Unpack your thoughts about these matters for us.

CHAD: Some commentators suggest we should take Paul’s comment about foreknowledge as God’s foreloving of individuals as covenant members. The problem here is that Paul uses the same verb in Romans 11:2 as he is discussing God’s choice of Israel. Paul’s argument there is operating clearly around a corporate framework since only a remnant of Israel has accepted God’s Messiah. It simply cannot be said that foreknowledge here is foreloving unless one holds that God’s covenant love with Israel meant all Israelites were “saved,” when clearly in the context Paul is suggesting otherwise. If we view Paul’s language in both Romans 8:28ff. and Romans 11 as focusing on the collective and not individuals predetermined for particular soteriological states, we can make better sense of the verb in both places. Further, we might also recognize that Paul is borrowing again extensively from OT vocabulary without giving it necessarily new import beyond its reorientation “in Christ” and Gentile inclusion. So when we read a Jewish Paul speaking of “the saints,” “sonship,” “calling,” etc., we must hear these first as concepts which spring from the OT, traverse through Second Temple Judaism, and have a sense of content already as Paul adopts them. Paul is using these terms in a slightly different sense in that this is all oriented now around Christ, but he is not upending the import of those terms and what they stood for in Jewish theology. The language is the language of Israel, applied to the one people of God in Christ, who are heirs of God’s promises.

BEN: You quote my colleague Craig Keener to good effect, namely ‘a sovereign God could sovereignly allow much choice and still accomplish his purposes’. This is so on the macro-scale, but if we scale it down to the individual this would seem to mean that individual human beings have the ability to frustrate or reject God’s purposes for their individual lives. Yes? Or would you say that God does not have specific salvific purposes for individuals, but rather only for the group known as God’s people?

CHAD: I think that humans can reject God’s intentions for them must be clear given what Paul lays out in Romans 9-11. In a sense Israel, or we might say a majority of the Jewish people, has done just that. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone (i.e., rejected God’s Messiah). They are cut off from Christ. They are more Esau than Jacob. They are playing the part of Pharaoh by opposing God’s promises. They are vessels of wrath. They have not pursued God’s righteousness. All of these things are written by Paul as indictments against Jews who have rejected Jesus. In terms of God’s purposes, I take Paul and others in the New Testament to indicate that God’s salvific intention is that all of humanity come to the knowledge of his son, be freed from sin, be given resurrection life, and be transformed to the image of his son. Because God has granted humans to have significant freedom, this is not the case because not all have committed themselves to God’s offer. God’s promises are sure because he is faithful, and his people are secure because they are in Christ. As Oropeza argues, Romans 8:28-39 is written to ensure and encourage the collective because they are going to experience collective persecution. They are promises to the people as a community of faith. They should not be taken as an ordo describing how God’s eternal decrees have been arranged. That, I think, is clearly beyond the intentions Paul has in this section of the letter.

BEN: It is very telling and interesting that in Paul’s little list in Rom. 9.1ff. of the things that Israel’s divine privileges and which set Israel part what he does NOT mention is circumcision, Sabbath, and kosher food laws. What do you make of this? It would seem that Paul does not see Israel as mainly defined by the boundary markers so often debated by the New Perspective folks.

CHAD: You could perhaps smuggle them in in the covenants or the Law, but they are clearly not his focus here. I think in places those come to the fore of the discussion in Paul, particularly in Romans and Galatians, because they were particular issues which had arisen in those communities. Circumcision in particular seems to have become a major issue among early Christians. I think a couple of elements exist which give us some pause from narrowing that completely as Paul’s focus. First, as I have argued, different Jewish authors of the period do not necessarily place the same degree of emphasis upon those elements. They show up with some prevalence across the literature, but they are more important for the author of Jubilees, for example, than they are for the author of 2 Maccabees or the Testaments. So to flatten those issues out as framing the entire discussion I think may be a bit unwarranted. This doesn’t mean those issues weren’t at the fore of what Paul was dealing with, but there seems to be more to the story as well. I think faithful Law observance in general is part of Paul’s target here because he is arguing that Jews must submit to God’s Messiah. Ethnicity and Torah aren’t sufficient in this new age which has broken into history in Christ. If they were, Gentiles would exempt and Jesus would be irrelevant. Going back to the spherical approach, operating within the Law as the primary means of identity for God’s people leaves out Gentiles and the Messiah. The Messiah himself is the primary means of identity, which means Jews who assume ethnic identity and/or Torah observance are sufficient are left outside of the blessings which Jesus secures.

BEN: One of the rabbit trails that Protestantism has run down since its inception is the notion that Paul is contrasting faith with ‘good works’ as though ‘good works’ were somehow problematic for a ‘sola fidei’ view of salvation. You’ve rightly pointed out that Paul has no problem with good works, even says in Ephesians believers were created in Christ to do them, and instead what he takes exception to is the insistence that his Gentile converts must do ‘works of the Mosaic Law’ in order to complete their salvation or better said be truly part of God’s people. To a large extent, we owe this false dichotomy to Luther, rather than Calvin or Wesley and it still haunts us. If you were asked what the relationship is in the Christian life between faith and good works, what would you say? What does Paul mean by ‘work out ya’lls (you plural) salvation with fear and trembling….’ ??

CHAD: I think in part the Pelagian controversy pushed the Church toward that sort of interpretation of Paul’s letters, which Luther then picks up as well. The desire became to remove any inkling of human activity (any “work”) from the process of salvation so as to avoid any Pelagian slips. Because many have divorced the two from one another, we see a great divide in much of popular evangelicalism where we have those who hold to some form of “faith alone” salvation in which good works are optional. In large measure, however, I think we should view salvation as transformative. There are a couple of ways we see this in the New Testament. The “salvation” word-group (soter-) has within it the “healing” or “restoration” aspect of meaning, so salvation can be not just rescue or forgiveness, but also restoration. Justification itself, as many theologians have recently developed, has an ethical orientation. Election, as I have argued in places in my book, has an ethical orientation. I’ve also mentioned this with the “faith” word-group as well (pist-), where these words can take on the dimension of “faithfulness” or “fidelity” in addition to “trust” or “belief.” So God’s salvific purpose are not just redemptive in the sense of forgiving someone of their sins and then letting them go about their business, God’s salvific purposes are ultimately about the complete transformation of the individual into the image of Christ, something which begins in the here and now but ultimately is completed in the eschaton. So as long as we view “good works” as something which comes after salvation as an option or simply as evidence of salvation rather than as its outflow and a part of what salvation itself is, I think we will continue to misunderstand the dramatic sense in which the Christian life is “in the now” reoriented. In terms of Philippians 2:12 (chapter 2 being one of my favorite Pauline texts), comes in the context of 2:1-11, where Paul is instructing the community to live in unity by putting the needs of others above their own just as Christ himself is our example. In 2:12, Paul tells the community (ya’ll, plural) to work out their salvation since God is at work among them. So the whole thrust of the passage beginning in 2:1 is communally oriented, and Paul picks up that emphasis again here after grounding their behavior in Christ’s model of self-sacrifice. So I would saying working out their salvation here is not working to earn their salvation, but rather collectively cultivating their unity as God’s people as the outworking of their identity as the people of God.

BEN: One of the confusions of Tom Schreiner and other committed Calvinists is the assumption that when Paul talks about individuals like Jacob and Esau in Rom. 9, he is referring to them NOT as representative heads of a people, but as isolated individuals, and so Paul must be talking about the double predestination of particular individuals. As you point out even when Paul uses the singular pronoun it can refer to the representative head of a group of people. I find this whole Calvinistic line of argument: 1) far too modern considering the dyadic personality of ancient peoples and how they viewed themselves as primarily parts of collectives; and 2) more to the point it completely ignores for example Gal. 4 where Hagar and Sarah very clearly represent two groups of people—namely they are the prefigurements of the Judaizers and of Paul and those who agree with him. Paul lines up those who represent Arabia, Sinai, and the ‘now’ Jerusalem and slavery in one camp, and those who represent the Jerusalem which is from above and those who are free in another. In some ways I find this just as individualistic and wrong as Mr. Warren’s whole discussion of God having a ‘will’ for your individual ‘purpose driven life’ which is somehow custom tailored to the individual and much more particular than what the NT says about the will of God for believers in general— namely their sanctification, their exercising of God’s gifts in their lives etc. We seem to insist on reading the Bible through highly individualistic late Western eyes, and the reading of Paul especially suffers from this malady. Would you agree?

CHAD: As I developed in earlier chapters, the concept of corporate representation was alive and well in Jewish literature, and at times was specifically connected with the concept of election and the language surrounding it. Jacob and Esau themselves in Jubilees serve as representatives of two groups. Jacob serves such a function throughout the Old Testament as well. Paul is working with this existing framework of Jacob and Esau as representatives, but he reorients what this entails. There is a sense here too that God’s choosings are counter-intuitive. It is not the older, but the younger. I think this is significant because Paul completes his argument by stating explicitly that God’s people are not just made up of Jews, but also Gentiles. This would have been counter-intuitive to many Jews, so Jacob and Esau both serve as corporate representatives and as illustrations of the fact that God is the one who gets to make the rules. I think the bigger problem with the individualistic interpretation is that Paul is not answer the question here of how God decides who to save. He is rather answering the question of why we should think Gentiles can be included as full members in God’s people without submitting fully to Torah and that many Jews are being left out. This is not, then, about God’s “fairness,” as some translate adikia in 9:14, but about his rightness, or faithfulness, if you will. Paul gives the explicit download of the argument from 9:1-23 in 9:24: Jews and Gentiles are both in God’s people, and this is not based on ethnicity or Torah-observance, but their identification with and commitment to God’s Messiah.

BEN: Another ‘Durham man’ B.J. Oropeza has written a very fine book on apostasy in the NT. One of the things he stresses is that Paul’s discussion of ‘the vessels of wrath’ is a discussion of Israel currently cut off from the people of God, but they are capable of being reunited with God’s people by grace and through faith in Jesus, and indeed in Ephes. 2.3 these vessels of wrath can and have in some cases already become followers of Christ. In other words, Paul is not talking about the final pre-determined destiny of particular individuals, but rather their current state of affairs, which Paul goes out of his way in Rom. 10-11 to make clear can be a temporary state of affairs, not a predetermined destiny. In our own age, it seems that one of the reasons for the resurgence of the appeal of hard line Calvinism with its dictums about ‘eternal security’ and a radical reading of God’s sovereignty which must rule out any other viable actors having the power of contrary choice is because of the uncertainties in our changing and progressively less Christian culture. Believers are looks for a kind of absolute theological comfort food when it comes to salvation, rather than having to live by faith and faithfulness, as we are called to do. What is your perspective on these things and our cultural malaise?

CHAD: If we view the vessels of wrath in 9:22 as referring to, at least primarily, Jews who have rejected Jesus, as seems clear from 9:23-24, then to view this as a fixed state, just as in Ephesians 2, does not appreciate the full scope of Paul’s argument, since Paul states in 11:23 that they will be re-grafted if they do not continue in their apistia, their “un-faith” in Jesus. So yes, it seems this is very much about the current state of affairs, and again answers the question of why we should think Gentiles can be included as full members in God’s people without submitting fully to Torah while many Jews are being left out. I suppose part of the issue is that we tend to read the Bible first and foremost as speaking to us in our context. When we step back and try to understand what it meant in its original context first, sometimes we end up seeing things differently. When we approach Romans not as Paul’s timeless articulation of his soteriology, but rather a letter written in real time and space to real people struggling with real issues related to the different ethnic identities which were a part of the early Church, I think Paul’s argument makes more sense. With that in view, it becomes apparent that the first 11 chapters of Romans are basically about Jews and Gentiles in the people of God. Perhaps some of the motivation for that interpretation lies in a quest for certainty. Perhaps it resonates with some as the Church’s “true heritage” since some of the interpretive impetus comes from the Reformers. I’m not sure as to the motivations. I do think, however it lacks explanatory power and scope for what is actually going on this passage and in the letter as a whole.

BEN: At one point in your discussion you object to two familiar lines of argument assumed to be Pauline: 1) that perfect observance of the Mosaic Law was impossible for fallen people (this despite Paul saying in Philippians he was blameless when it came to the observances of the Mosaic law) and 2) the assumption that asserting that one had obeyed the Law= asserting moral perfection. Even when one broke a law, there were provisions in the law to make amends, to make atonement. I find this especially puzzling. I have lived in the city of Lexington for 20 years without violating its laws, but this by no means should suggest that I am a morally perfect person. Moral or spiritual perfection goes well beyond law keeping, just as Christian ethics involves lots of positive things ‘against which [and for which] there is no law’. I don’t think Paul is suggesting the Law couldn’t be kept by devout Jews. To be blameless before the law is not the same as to be faultless. Why do you think this becomes such an issue for Protestant interpretation of Paul?

CHAD: I think that interpretation raises problems on a number of levels. First, it makes the entire Old Testament basically about God teaching humans a lesson about how they cannot be perfectly obedient and thus be saved. It also, as Sanders of course argued to get the NPP ball rolling, ignores that Jews in the Second Temple period weren’t trying to earn their salvation through perfect obedience. They were concerned with faithfulness to the covenant, which is a different matter altogether. The other problem is Paul never says any of this. It is read as an implicit premise, but it is not a necessary one, and one which I think confuses things more than it clarifies them. This was, of course, a large part of Stendahl’s critique in his famous essay. Paul is established as a paradigm for the existential journey to salvation where denunciation of the Law is the sinner’s recognition that they cannot save themselves. Paul is thus decontextualized in order to make his journey relatable. But this also flattens out what he actually says. Paul was not experiencing an existential crisis about how he could be saved, knowing that his works were not good enough, when he encountered Jesus. Augustine’s crisis, which became Luther’s crisis, in the history of interpretation became Paul’s crisis. But Paul never speaks of such a crisis when he gives his own narrative. This is why our starting point in interpretation should begin with the original context, its historical, cultural, and literary setting, and then proceed forward through the history of interpretation. Too often, however, we start with our starting place and end their as well. This reflects our narcissistic culture as well, since it attempts to make our story one and the same with Paul’s.

BEN: On p. 245, you take ‘the righteousness of God’ throughout Romans as referring to Jesus himself, the righteous one, so that when Paul contrasts the righteousness which comes from doing works of the Law, with the righteousness of God, the latter would seem to refer to the righteousness which comes from accepting Christ. Thus you disagree with the view, it would seem, which equates ‘righteousness of God’ with the covenant faithfulness of the Father to his prior agreements with Israel. Have I understood you correctly? And where do you stand on the ‘imputed righteousness’ concept? Does Christ’s righteousness substitute for the need of believers to be actually righteous?

CHAD: I think there is a pretty clear connection between Romans 10:3 and 3:21-22. There Paul very closely associates the righteousness of God with the faithfulness of Christ. This is similar as well I think to Romans 1:17, though different verbs are used, where the righteousness of God is revealed in the good news. If the good news is the message about Jesus, and God’s righteousness is revealed in it, then God’s righteousness is revealed in Jesus’ faithfulness. Circling back to Romans 10:3, when Paul says that they have ignored the righteousness of God and were seeking to stand in their own righteousness, I think he is saying they have ignored Jesus and are continuing on in Torah. The problem is that Torah, Paul says in 10:4, was supposed to lead them to Jesus (I take telos as “goal” rather than “end” here for a variety of reasons). This doesn’t necessarily clearly tie into Romans 3:5, which is the other mention of the phrase “righteousness of God” in Romans, though Paul could be anticipating his further description in 3:21-22. This is less, then, again about Jews trying to earn salvation by keeping the Law or doing “good works” and not being able to measure up, than that they have rejected God’s Messiah, who the Torah should have helped them to recognize and to whom they should submit. So I wouldn’t see Paul’s discussion about righteousness in these passages as primarily about imputation. That doesn’t mean Paul might not develop that elsewhere, but I don’t think that is his focus here.

BEN: On p. 250 you say election does not stand on ancestry or keeping of the Mosaic Law, but rather, in Paul’s view, on whether or not a Jew or gentile embraces the Messiah and obeys the Gospel call to faith as the means of right standing with God. The problem then for Israel is not merit based theology or even legalism but rather the simple failure to embrace Jesus their Messiah. Unpack this for the readers a bit.

CHAD: I think there are a number of indications through Romans 9-11 that this is what Paul is after. I previously mentioned Paul’s Isaac/Ishmael (ethnicity) and Jacob/Esau (Torah-observance) contrasts in the beginning of Romans 9. If election is not based on these factors, the question is raised in 9:14 as to whether or not God is righteous. Paul’s response is to invoke the Moses/Pharaoh contrast, indicating that those who are hardened now are the Jews who have rejected Jesus (which is confirmed in chapter 11, I think further indicating that this is what Paul was talking about in chapter 9). Paul then asks why God still finds fault and who resists his will? He answers by invoking the potter metaphor, which illustrates that God is free to form his people however he chooses, even if that means a people made of both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews who have rejected the Messiah are now vessels of wrath, not the Gentiles who have trusted him. The Gentiles attained the “from faith” righteousness but the Jews did not because they stumbled over the stumbling stone, that is, Jesus (cf. 9:32-33). Paul then remarks at the beginning of chapter 10 that they missed the goal of the Law, which was Jesus (i.e., the righteousness of God). The righteousness which they lacked was Jesus himself, not because they were chasing an unobtainable form of righteousness which could come through obedience to the Law. They must confess Jesus as Lord and embrace his resurrection (10:9). Their rejection is not for the lack of hearing, since they heard the good news but have not heeded it (10:16-18). So though there is a remnant who have trusted Christ, of which Paul is included, the rejection of God’s Messiah means most Jews are outside of the people of God. Paul states, however, that this will be reversed if they do not continue in their lack of faith in Jesus (11:23).

BEN: Admitting that the matter is complex, I am wondering whether you’ve considered the evidence for ‘houtos’ meaning ‘in the same manner’ in Rom. 11.25-26, which would suggest that Paul envisions the final salvation of ‘all Israel’ on the very same basis, by grace through faith in Jesus, as for Gentiles. I would also suggest that when Paul associates the miracle of Jacob’s repentance and turning with ‘life from the dead’ and ‘the Redeemer coming from heavenly Zion/Jerusalem’ to accomplish this task (noting the way he paraphrases Isaiah, largely following the LXX) he must be talking about an event at the parousia which follows the full number of Gentiles coming in. The mystery Paul refers to is the reversal or the order of salvation— Gentiles first, Jews later. Comment a bit.

CHAD: I do think that Paul envisions the Jewish regrafting as occurring through faith in Christ. I think seeing the “Deliverer” of 11:26 as Christ makes sense contextually. I’m not sure if houtos is carrying all of that freight in terms of conveying that Jews will be regathered through the same means as Gentiles, but I think the reading in the context is clear that Jesus is the resolution. I also think that understanding the mystery here as the reversal of the order of salvation makes sense. My understanding of “mystery” language in Paul (which is a transliteration rather than a translation) is that Paul uses it to talk about some secret which was previously unknown which has now been disclosed. So Paul is explaining the mystery, not alluding to some hidden or obscure knowledge which he doesn’t make known. Since he immediately speaks about the fullness of Gentiles and the partial hardening of Israel following that comment, it seems the likely referent. I think it is certainly possible to read the parousia as the time of the occurrence from the coming from Zion language, but Paul doesn’t seem to be concerned here with primarily describing the time frame as much as assuring that this will come about.

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