I mentioned in the previous discussion that I had done a study on election a while back - as it is rather large (!) I thought I might include as a new post as it spells out some of the nuances that are hard to put into brief comments and hopefully gives an overview of some of the development of the doctrine and why it developed that way - and what I think is a good synthesis of some of the current thought. I have reduced the referencing but happy to provide you with more if you wish - Clive
“The impasse to which the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism leads suggests that the difficulty may lie with the context in which theologians have traditionally posed the question” (Stanley Grenz, Theology for the Community of God)
The context from which we attempt to explain the mysteries of God will certainly always influence our conclusions. Jesus himself framed his explanation of the Kingdom of God within an expectancy-laden Jewish context. Later Paul - the first theologian to attempt to interpret the story of Jesus in the post-resurrection world - spoke and taught in his new context. He faced new questions that didn’t exist in the pre-church world – especially concerning the issue of election. Later other theologians built on the foundation of those who had gone before, examining and critiquing their conclusions. They were influenced by the societal, political and philosophical context in which they found themselves as well as by their own background. Looking back through history we may glean insight from those who have gone before concerning the doctrine of election. In understanding their context we can see why certain aspects may have been emphasized and how these paved the way for new perspectives such as Grenz proposes.
God’s eternal purpose
The Jewish people held to a strong sense of election. They expected Messiah to bring the promised Kingdom. It gave them courage and hope that a deliverer was coming who would re-establish them as God’s chosen ones. The Maccabees had lived and died for that hope. This expectation was framed by the stories from their history – the creation, exile, exodus and priestly narratives. Jesus built his ministry around these narratives as one who called people back to their image-bearing purpose (e.g Mark 10:6, “from the beginning…”), called them out of the shame of exile (e.g. Luke 4:18-19 announcing the time of restoration to favour to the broken and scattered), set them free from the slave-masters (e.g. Luke 13:16 where Jesus frees a woman “whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years…”) and became both sacrifice and high-priest to reconcile humankind to God (e.g. Matt 20:28 where Jesus declares his calling to “give his life as a ransom for many.”)
First century Jews perceived their election in very concrete earthly terms. This coloured their perception of what Messiah would be and do. So in preparing the way for Messiah, John the Baptist pointed out that being a descendant of Abraham did not constitute automatic membership of God’s eternal community. Instead the fruits of repentance were required (Luke 3:8). That someone could be part of God’s elect yet also rejected by God was shocking to them and something Paul later referred to as a “mystery” (Romans 11:25). This mystery forms part of the Calvinism/ Arminianism impasse. Election speaks not just of those who will eventually “inherit eternal life” (Mark 10:17), but also of election to serve God’s purposes – which may not constitute the same thing. Election is to be applied therefore to those God has chosen to be instruments in achieving the purpose – Israel, Pharoah, Moses, Jacob, Esau etc. Romans 11-13 speaks of this using various illustrations.
Grenz argues for another perspective on election - that scriptures such as Ephesians 1:4 that speak of being “chosen by God” speak of God’s commitment to bring to full fruition his eternal purpose in those who have chosen Christ. Robert Shank puts it this way:
“The certainty of election and perseverance is with respect to the corporate body, the ekklësia, rather than with respect to particular men unconditionally. The election is corporate and comprehends individuals only in identification and association with the elect body. With equal truth, Paul can assure us that God has "chosen us [corporately] in Christ before the foundation of the world" and Peter can admonish us to "give diligence to make your calling and election [individually and personally] sure." (Robert Shank - Elect in the Son)
This “eternal purpose” goes beyond the salvation of lost souls to the glorification of a people who will be the community of God through eternity. Grenz say: “…Reformed theologies, whether Calvinist or Arminian, frame election within the context of the eternal past, for they enquire about the decree concerning the final salvation of individuals present in the mind of God prior to creation.” (Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God)
What is God’s eternal purpose? In Ephesians Paul says this includes “the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.” (Eph 1:10) Speaking in terms of the election of the Gentiles he says:
“… you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God's household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit.” (Eph 2:19-22)
So God’s eternal purpose is centred in Christ, includes all things in the heavens and the earth and it is corporate - involving a people called and chosen from every nation who will be fitted together metaphorically here as a holy temple; a dwelling place of God. Language reaches its limitations to describe this corporate calling. Other metaphors used to describe this reality include the “body of Christ” (Col 1:24), the “bride of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7), the “Church” (Col 1:24) and “new Jerusalem.” (Rev 21:2) Grenz summarises: “Viewed from the perspective of divine intention, election is fundamentally corporate. God’s eternal purpose… is that through the Spirit we participate in the glorious relationship that the Son enjoys with the Father.”
Biblical assessment of election
To assess this view of election we will look at its origin and usage in scripture. The Greek “eklektos” is usually translated “elect” or “chosen”. Nearly every occurrence of the word’s “chosen”, “choose”, “chose” or “elect” in the NT is “eklektos” or a derivative. The equivalent Hebrew word is “bachar”, almost always translated as “choose”, “chosen”, “chose” or similar.
The usage of “bachar” relates to the common understanding of choosing. It is applied to God choosing people (Gen 18:19 - the Lord speaks of choosing Abraham) and places (Deut 12:21). He states that his choice of people is not based on their merits or strengths (Deut 7:7) He sets apart people from their mother’s womb for certain tasks (Israel/Jesus in Isaiah 49:5 & Paul in Gal 1:15). Similarly “bachar” is used for human choice. God instructs his people to “choose life” (Deut 30:19) and to choose whom they will serve (Josh 24:15). Similarly David chooses five stones to fight Goliath (1 Sam 17:40); Joshua chooses those who will be in his army (Joshua 8:3) and Israel chooses other gods - forsaking their God (Judges 10:14).
The main focus of God’s choosing in the OT is concerning Abraham and later the descendants of his grandson Jacob known collectively as Israel (“For you are a holy people to the LORD your God, and the LORD has chosen you to be a people for His own possession out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” Deut 14:2). What are they chosen for? Abraham himself was chosen as an instrument through which God would bless “all the families of the earth.” (Gen 12:3). Later he tells Israel that they are called to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Ex 19:6). To take this priestly role to continue the calling of Abraham to minister blessing to the nations they were to be set apart. They were called as a distinctive (holy) people who were to learn new patterns of life that represented the ways of God. The destructive patterns of the nations from which they had come and lived among were to be shunned. They were called and appointed as God’s representative people for the sake of his restoration of humanity and creation to himself.
Individuals within the nation of Israel were also spoken of as God’s chosen (for example Abraham, Moses, Saul, David, Solomon). These were called specifically as leaders to fulfill God’s plan for the nation. To some degree Israel was faithful to their calling as were some of the called leadership. With some he was pleased, and with some who chose other gods and did not choose “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:18-31) he was not pleased. Paul goes to great lengths to equate this OT example of how many of the people fell away in the wilderness with the temptations that we face as the NT people of God (1 Cor 10:1-13).
Peter boldly claims the full elective promises God made to Israel as now belonging to the church. Drawing from Exodus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah and Hosea he states:
“But you are A CHOSEN RACE, A royal PRIESTHOOD, A HOLY NATION, A PEOPLE FOR God's OWN POSSESSION, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; for you once were NOT A PEOPLE, but now you are THE PEOPLE OF GOD...”( 1 Pet 2:9-10)
Here “bachar” has now become in the Greek NT “eklektos”. Is there any difference between OT calling and NT calling in terms of the grounds, goal and scope? The NT church is literally the “ekklesia” – a corporate people “called out from” the world. So the goal appears to be the same as the calling of Israel – to bring blessing and restoration to the world. The grounds for NT calling are the same as the OT. The calling is based on God’s choice not on our merits or strengths. Paul says that God: “…saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity…”(2 Tim 1:9). The scope of God’s election is clearly wider in NT terms.
The Reformers – a search for certainty
So we have established that God calls people and nations to his purposes apart from their merit from prior to their birth to fulfill his purposes. However as Jack Cottrell says: “…the biblical doctrine of election is much broader in scope than election to eternal glory. Its broadest context is the total redemptive purpose of God. In choosing the cast for the grand drama of redemption, the sovereign God selected certain people to fill certain roles or to accomplish specific tasks.” (Jack W.Cottrell, Grace Unlimited). Paul tells us that salvation and calling are both from eternity and neither is according to works (2 Tim 1:9). Strict Calvinism would say that certain people have been chosen for eternal glory and others have not (the concept of “limited atonement”). They say that while we do have freewill, God either hardens us away from himself or persuades us irresistibly toward himself because in our state of total depravity we are incapable of responding to him without this irresistible grace. To dispute this they say is to assume that God places higher value on human freewill than on his own glory. Why must there be this dichotomy?
To answer this we need to understand the Reformers context. Calvin (1509-1564) was greatly influenced by Augustine (354-430). Augustine didn’t draw a distinction between election to works and election to ultimate salvation. He says: “There was one lump of perdition … out of Adam to which only punishment was due; from this same lump, vessels were made which are destined for honour. For the potter has authority over the same lump of clay …whose just damnation was already assured.” (The Christian Theology Reader)
Augustine saw the passage in Romans 9 regarding the potter and the clay in terms of original sin and original guilt - assuming that we are born into not just a nature marred by sin but into actual guilt. Perhaps Augustine’s context helped him to make this conclusion. He lived in an age when the judgment of the Emperor was final and institutions including the Church saw themselves with this kind of power. Ordinary people were powerless before the might of the empire, so it was assumed that they were equally powerless before God. So to Calvinists “grace” was a force that compels those who are not capable of believing into belief. (The Augustinian concept of Prevenient Grace “…it is God who makes them to will the good which they refused…”)
To this the Reformers introduced the concept of penal substitution. Rather than the arbitrary and unquestioned word of authority, law had become important.
“The predominance of the penal conception may be connected historically with the demise of the feudal system and the rise of nations. The law of the state replaced the honor of the ruler as the foundation for social order. In response, theologians came to view sin as a transgression of the codified law…” (Grenz)
Grenz adds that to Reformers the law-court model became the “quasi-orthodox doctrine of the atonement…” Now the issue of election became focused on who are the justified and on what basis are they justified? Any passages that discussed election or pre-destination were then viewed from this context. This assumption created much of the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism.
The Reformers also reacted to the superstitious folk-religion that much of Christianity had become under medieval Christendom, whereby the common person was enslaved by ignorance to the rich and powerful church/state. One of the greatest upheavals in history was taking place. Columbus had “discovered” the “New World” in 1492. Galileo (1564-1642) was developing the “Scientific Method” - paving the way for the “Age of Reason”. Science and discovery were deeply challenging some age-old assumptions of cosmology. The printing press (invented in the late 15th century) paved the way for literacy and mass communication. The Church was in defensive mode. Within this mindset theologians wanted certainty of doctrine. The written word was becoming increasingly powerful. Words began to be more than descriptions of truth – they became actual truth to be defended and used as weapons. “The enlightenment gave us rationalism, the scientific method, and knowledge used in service (or submission) to some other aim… to assert a certain kind of mastery over our environment in service of our worldview and goals.” (Tim Keel, Intuitive Leadership)
Narrative began to be replaced with dogma. Mystery – equated with superstition – bowed down to doctrinal certainty. Concepts from scientific method were applied to theology to formulate statements such as the TULIP doctrines (Total depravity, Unconditional predestination, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance). So Reformation systematic theology was the result of the cultural shift away from institutional power to the quest for power through knowledge.
Arminius (1560-1609) was a follower of Calvin. “The whole debate concerning the nature of freewill was within the context of Calvinism” – (Gonzalez - The Story of Christianity Vol 2). Arminius began to doubt the strict Calvinist view of predestination as standing in opposition to free will, finding in it a harsh view of God. His position was that despite humankind’s state of total depravity, “prevenient grace” dispensed by the Holy Spirit allowed for all people to have the possibility to believe. He said: "…the grace sufficient for salvation is conferred on the Elect, and on the Non-elect; that, if they will, they may believe or not believe, may be saved or not be saved." His view of predestination was modified from the Calvinist view (that those who would be saved was completely pre-determined by God) to the view that this is not pre-determined but that God speaks of the “elect” through fore-knowledge of those who will respond to prevenient grace.
The post-modern context
Karl Barth (1886-1968) paved the way for Grenz’s view by questioning where his own Reformed tradition and assumptions were taking the German church in the years leading to the Second World War. He saw the danger of exalting Empire - institutional and cultural pride. He saw the necessity of bringing the focus back to Christ - the elect one (Luke 9:35). All of creation has its source, meaning and destiny in him (Rom 11:36). Christ is the rejected and elected one for all humanity. All are therefore called and chosen. Barth has been accused of Universalism. Erickson disagrees explaining Barth’s position is that: “Although all are elect, not all live as elect. Some live as if they were rejected, but this is one’s own choosing and doing.” (Millard Erickson - Christian Theology ). Our job as God’s elect Church is to announce the defeat of evil by the life, death and resurrection of Christ. As Paul majestically puts it:
“…God…reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 5:18-19)
Interestingly this perspective has similarities to the view of Irenaeus (140-202) from a time before Church and Empire had become enmeshed. “Irenaeus viewed the atonement as cosmic or all-inclusive in its intention. Jesus not only redeems individuals but also humankind; he came not only for individual creatures but for creation.” (Grenz)
We are in the midst of a new historical upheaval comparable in scale to that which triggered the Reformation. As medieval became modern, so modern is becoming post-modern. Just as Western society has again moved to new forms of communication (the internet and the “information age”) so there has in tandem been a change in the way we think. Post-modernity is in part a reaction to the perceived sterility of the cold, legalistic, individualistic perspectives of modernity including the truth-claims of Reformation theology. Scientific rationalism has not produced its promised utopia for the same reason that systematic theology has not brought us the Kingdom of God. The focus is too narrow and does not take into account the full nature of truth and the full nature of humanity. While modernity focused on rationality, post-modernity focuses on experience and narrative. Many view post-modernity as simply a cynical rejection of Absolute Truth yet when we read the gospels we see Jesus as startlingly post-modern. He doesn’t make abstract truth-claims but instead invites people into a life (a story); into a way (following and learning of him); and into a truth that resides in a person, not a list of doctrinal statements (John 14:6).
When Jesus explained things his usual response was not a theological treatise but an instruction (“follow me”) or a story (“…the Kingdom of God is like…”). These views of the Kingdom are about restoration of relationship with God, with each other and with his creation. So Grenz’s relational view of election goes further toward describing reality as Jesus described it. Linear thinking, scientific method, rationalistic or legalistic thinking is simply inferior when it comes to expressing the immensity of God’s ways given the nature of God and the nature of humanity. Language and science and mathematics are only weak attempts to describe reality. Experience, pictures, relationships and narrative are actually much better as they communicate on so many different levels.
What is required is a re-assessment of some basic assumptions that have been made by putting everything in terms of a penal substitution model. Simply classing the “fall” in terms of disobedience to God’s law misunderstands the nature of humanity created in God’s image (Gen 1:26). Instead from a relational perspective we see that God desired fellowship with his created beings in a similar way to what was already experienced within the Godhead. This means that we have a degree of sovereignty. We are “a little lower than God” (Psalm 8:5 - NASB) but we do bear enough of his image to possess authority to resist his will to some level – not in an ultimate way that can thwart his plans and ultimate purpose, but enough to feel the effects of our choices and influence those around us. God has given us this great dignity as those who can potentially know him. But with that comes great responsibility and real consequences. We can choose to own our independent “kingdoms” or we can chose to submit our creativity and authority to his sovereignty in loving worship and become all we were created as humans to be as part of his eternal community.
God also possesses qualities that we do not – omniscience and omnipotence. He is ultimately sovereign and does not choose to share those qualities with his creation. This perhaps explains why we struggle to comprehend how freewill and sovereignty can fit side by side without conflict. We are not ultimately sovereign or all powerful or all knowing. Perhaps in our attempts to dissect and predict God we are violating our boundaries – trying to eat from a tree that promises to make us wise (Gen 3:6) but professing to be wise we become fools (Rom 1:22)? Our grandiose schemes of salvation and justification may be no more than wanting to “be like God and know good and evil” (Gen 3:5) when instead we are simply called “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Mic 6:8)? “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house [or a systematic theology] you could build for Me?” (Is 66:1). Do we think we can contain God and predict his every action like he is some kind of scientific experiment?
So in the context of the cultural move from “modern” to “post-modern” it makes sense that contemporary theologians have tried to take perhaps a less deterministic and more humble view of election in terms of the larger narrative and the eternal purposes of God. This change in context is comparable to another cosmological shift, whereby ultimate human destiny is not the centre of God’s purposes as the Reformers assumed. Wright says: “We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way round.” (NT Wright - Justification, God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision), Grenz explains:
“The proper orientation point for theology, however is not the unfathomable eternal past. Instead we must look to the revealed intention of God for his creation in which his work will culminate… the final goal of history is logically first in the order of being.”
Application to ministry
What does this all mean for us today? Society’s critical issues today often stem from hopelessness, anxiety and loss of community. The gospel from a perspective of Christ-centred corporate election means that we are ministering directly to these gaping wounds. We do not take an individualistic view of salvation but a multi-faceted view that includes responsibility for our communities. We present a God who is the liberator of lost humanity, who as Barth points out has become the elect one on behalf of all humanity – both as sufferer and overcomer. We have only good news to announce – a free gift of reconciliation. We also have good news that we are all called to be part of an eternal community that has real relevance in practical day-to-day life.
We are called as temples of God – to be filled with his presence so we never need to be alone – and to share this “koinonia” life with others (the Greek word we translate as “fellowship” which literally means “the shared life”).
God’s presence and acceptance and his guarantee to complete the good work he has begun in us as his elect people gives great confidence. We know that our sovereign God is committed to us so there is no need to strive. All this is based purely on God’s kindness in Christ. There is nothing we can do except gratefully respond and humbly submit our creativity and authority to his.
For discipleship it means that we are called for purpose, and we are called into a purposeful community. We are also uniquely called from our mother’s womb for good works that he has prepared for us. Our calling goes beyond simply proclaiming the gospel message but a recovery of our creational mandate to take responsible dominion (Gen 1:26) and model to the world how humans were created to be.
For worship this perspective means that our focus is on Jesus as the centre - not primarily on us or on our needs. Christ is the meaning and summation of all creation. Our lives and indeed every institution, movement and belief system ultimately must be measured up to him. He is to be feared and worshipped – not because he is arbitrary and vengeful – but because he is majestic and wise.
Grenz reverses the perspective of the Reformers. They were looking from ancient times – when God chose those who would be his - and trying to reconcile this with the concept of what part humans play in this sorting process. If it were based on human choice how could God possibly know who would choose him and who would not? Arminianism attributes this to God’s foreknowledge. Calvinism attributed this to God’s sovereignty over all things in that any real choice on the part of humankind would reduce God to less that omnipotent and reduce his glory accordingly. So Calvinism says that God has chosen who will be saved and granted them irresistible grace. Both movements were focused on penal substitution rather than relational reconciliation. So putting together Grenz, Wright and Barth the goal of God is the eternal corporate community of God’s elect within a renewed, put-right creation. The Church is both the agency of this plan and it’s goal, whereby we become the dwelling place of God, the New Jerusalem, and the Bride of the Lamb.