Election, A radical New Perspective on

Calvinism is right to highlight the biblical rhetoric of election, foreknowledge and predetermination. It is wrong, however, in its understanding of the narrative in which that rhetoric is deployed; it is wrong about the purpose of election.

Reformed orthodoxy claims that election is an absolute premise of personal salvation. John Piper, for example, writes:

Election refers to God’s choosing whom to save. It is unconditional in that there is no condition man must meet before God chooses to save him. Man is dead in trespasses and sins. So there is no condition he can meet before God chooses to save him from his deadness.

We are not saying that final salvation is unconditional. It is not. We must meet the condition of faith in Christ in order to inherit eternal life. But faith is not a condition for election. Just the reverse. Election is a condition for faith. It is because God chose us before the foundation of the world that he purchases our redemption at the cross and quickens us with irresistible grace and brings us to faith.

Election and the martyr church

Context is everything. Take Paul’s highly rhetorical statement out of context, separate it from friends and family, subject it to solitary confinement throughout long periods of cultural change, beat it about the head a bit, interrogate it mercilessly from behind the blinding light of a rationalist individualism, and you could probably get it to sign a confession that it is a longstanding supporter of the Calvinist doctrine of the election of a limited number of predetermined individuals to salvation. But before it was so dreadfully abused by the theological mukhabarat, it was a happily law-abiding member of an argument, and I suggest that our humanitarian task now is to rehabilitate it.

The election of Gentiles

The story of what happened in Pisidian Antioch is well known (Acts 13:13-52). Paul and Barnabas are invited to speak in the synagogue. Paul relates how God chose their fathers, brought them out of Egypt, suffered their folly in the wilderness for forty years, destroyed the “seven nations in the land of Canaan”, gave them that land as an inheritance, raised up David as a king, from whose descendants he has finally “brought to Israel a Saviour, Jesus, as he promised” (13:17-23). The rulers and residents of Jerusalem rejected this saviour and had him executed, but God raised him from the dead, which Paul understands as a fulfilment of Psalm 2:7—meaning that God has given to Jesus, as Israel’s king, not the land of Canaan but the nations as his inheritance (Ps. 2:8).

Redefining evangelicalism

Scot McKnight has started working through David Fitch’s massively titled book The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions). I strongly recommend following him if you’re interested in the future of modern American evangelicalism.

My own feeling is that an evangelicalism that understands itself according to the standard definition of Bebbington and Noll, which Scot cites, does not have much of a future. On the one hand, I agree that evangelicalism has become largely “an empty politic”. On the other, the standard definition provides us with, at best, a severely emaciated account of how the idea of “gospel” or euangelion works within the biblical narrative. The two failings, of course, are not unrelated.

Paul's argument about election in Romans 9

I have been trying for a few weeks to write a response to some difficult questions, put to me by a friend, about the Canaanite genocide, hell, election, and the “ludicrous contortions that a Calvinist needed to make in order to explain how God was fair to judge the non elect”. I have come to the conclusion that this whole issue of “election”, which is so badly represented by neo-Reformed writers and preachers today, needs to be addressed properly. Well, quasi-properly—this is only a blog, after all; it is meant to provoke thought, shake assumptions, imagine alternatives, not provide definitive answers. My plan is to examine the major New Testament passages that have a bearing on the theme in some detail, starting today with Romans 9, and then to write a summary Lexicon piece.

Did Jesus preach to the spirits in prison between his death and resurrection?

Here’s another approach to Easter at an exegetical tangent. This question came up as part of a discussion about the supposed “intermediate state” between death and resurrection. My view is that Jesus died, was dead, and was raised from dead, setting a pattern for all subsequent deaths and resurrections. This seems to me the point of Acts 2:31: Jesus was not abandoned to Hades, he was not left in the grave, he was not left dead, his flesh did not see corruption (the women only went to embalm his body two days after he died); he was raised to new life. Peter Wilkinson, however, seems to think that Jesus could not simply have been dead, body and soul, but that his spirit or soul had to be somewhere. He points to this passage in support of his view. It’s certainly a difficult text to understand, but I don’t think it is saying that between his death and resurrection Jesus went somewhere (hell?) to preach to an obscure and limited set of “spirits” from the time of Noah.

The resurrection of the sleeping saints from their tombs

What does the peculiar and commonly overlooked incident of the resurrection of the saints at the time of Jesus’ death (Matt. 27:51-53) tell us about the meaning of Easter? From a historical-critical perspective the little story is highly problematic and has had even some more conservative commentators scratching their heads and wondering what it’s doing there. A.B. Bruce tentatively suggested more than 100 years ago that we “seem here to be in the region of Christian legend”. R.T. France thinks that the historical character of the account must be a “matter of faith, not of objective demonstration”. Even Leon Morris seems reluctant directly to affirm its historicity, preferring to say that Matthew is “giving expression to his conviction that Jesus is Lord over both the living and the dead”.

Heaven

By comparison with “hell”, which in its traditional sense is not a biblical idea, “heaven” ought to be a fairly straightforward theological concept to explain. Surely heaven is simply what belief in Jesus is ultimately all about? It’s where we go when we die. It’s what makes sitting through—or preaching—all those tedious sermons worth while. The party at the end of the cosmos. The thumping rock and roll worship session in the clouds around the throne of God for ever and ever. The marriage feast that will make the impending Royal Wedding celebrations—there will be a reception, surely?—look like a bunch of scruffy winos picking over the congealed remains from a discarded pizza box.

Hell, The unbiblical doctrine of

I set out a while back to write a general piece on the unbiblical doctrine of “hell” as part of a glossary or lexicon of key concepts but got side-tracked. Since then the brouhaha over Rob Bell’s book has prompted extensive reflection on the matter, and it now seems worth providing a rough summary of the position that I have argued for in a number of recent posts. Unfortunately, it has turned out rather longer than intended, but hopefully it will be the last word on the subject of “hell” for a while.

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