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.
Given this absolute and universal premise—and a massive disposition towards rationalistic theologizing—the whole Calvinist system may be deduced more or less as a matter of course: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.1 But while it preserves the biblical rhetoric of election, foreknowledge and predetermination, the system has almost entirely lost sight of the original narrative or argument.
The fundamental problem, I think, lies with the Reformed and modern evangelical preoccupation with the “final salvation” of individuals and the inheritance of “eternal life”. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the light of the modern gospel of personal salvation—whether the rigid Calvinist form or more pragmatic and humane evangelical variants—seriously distorts scripture.
It is the misplaced prioritization of personal salvation that generates all the problems associated with the doctrine: the tension between divine sovereignty and free will, the problem of all those people who, arbitrarily, don’t get to hear the gospel, the “ludicrous contortions that a Calvinist needed to make in order to explain how God was fair to judge the non elect”—to quote the statement that originally inspired these posts.
The seminal election of Israel
The core of a biblical theology, in my view, is the choosing of a people from among the peoples of the earth to exist as new creation, as an ongoing corporate and prophetic witness to the reality, sovereignty, compassion and justice of the good creator God. Recently, some Arminians have adopted a New Perspective slant on the question of election (the Wikipedia article on Arminianism lists Robert Shank, Paul Marston, Roger Forster, Jerry Walls, Thomas Jay Oord, Roger Olson, and Joseph Dongell), arguing that the election of Israel was corporate, not individual, and that election in Paul is an extension of this model. This is a good step in the right direction, but I think that the narrative-historical approach needs to be pushed further.
Within the historical confines of the biblical narrative the historical character of the witness of the people of God is determined largely by the clash with pagan empires—from Babel to Babylon to the “Babylon” which was Rome. These powers pose a constant threat to the survival of this new creation in microcosm, not least because sinful Israel is inherently flawed and susceptible to judgment. So the election of this people needs, on more than one occasion, to be reasserted during times of crisis.
The eschatological election of a servant community
The judgment against Israel and against Greek-Roman paganism that is foreseen in the New Testament—wrath against the Jew followed by wrath against the Greek—constitutes one of those times of crisis. The assurance is there, articulated apocalyptically, that the hostile powers that threaten the existence of the people of God will be overcome. Christ will be victorious over Caesar. But this will come about through a reassertion of God’s election of a people under eschatological conditions.
This is where the election of Jacob as YHWH’s servant in Second Isaiah, rather than the original election of Israel, becomes the controlling paradigm. In the New Testament people are elected and pre-appointed to constitute the faithful servant community which—not least through its willingness to suffer as Christ suffered—will ensure the continuing witness of the new creation community beyond the two horizons of judgment on Israel and judgment on the pagan world.
This is true for the Jewish remnant: Jesus chooses his disciples not for salvation but to abide in him, to live out his story, to be persecuted as he was persecuted, in order to bear fruit (John 15:16-20). It is also true for those Gentiles who have been chosen to participate in the historical process of the judgment, restoration and vindication of the people of God.
So what God basically chooses in the New Testament, as a continuation and reaffirmation of his original election of Israel, is a martyr community that will eventually be saved when judgment comes on the Jew first, then the Greek, will be vindicated for its trust in the story of Jesus, and will inherit the pagan world.
The fate of individuals certainly matters here—that is why Paul is so anxious to stress in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 that the dead will not be excluded from the vindication of the churches. But the election of individuals is entirely controlled by the narrative of eschatological transition: they become part of a servant community that has been chosen to walk the narrow and difficult path that will lead to the life of the age to come.
In this narrative the philosophical debate over free will and the sovereignty of God barely arises. Ironically, the one point in the New Testament where the unfairness of divine election is addressed is Romans 9:19-20, where it is the Jews, God’s chosen people, who complain that it is unfair of God to boost his reputation in the pagan world by choosing to judge part of Israel and have mercy on another part. In other words, it is not non-election that creates the problem; it is election, because it imposes a massive responsibility on the community to embody the righteousness of God, to be an authentically new creation and not the same old creation with a religious gloss on it.
What about us?
Finally, we must consider briefly whether, in the light of this, it is appropriate to use the rhetoric of election, etc., today. I realize that this overview will leave a lot of questions unanswered in people’s minds. The challenge, it seems to me, is to grasp again the sense of a vocation in general terms to be new creation for the sake of the glory of the creator God, but also more specifically to respond fittingly to the current “eschatological” crisis of the collapse of Western Christendom and the emergence of a renewed post-Christendom and post-modern people of God. If that feels more like a burden than a privilege, if it humbles us, if we feel like complaining that it is not fair that we should have to carry this responsibility, then perhaps we may also claim to have been chosen from before the foundation of the world for this purpose.