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.

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.

C. Ehrlich | Wed, 05/04/2011 - 16:14 | Permalink

So, when God elects, he elects a class of people for specific responsibilities and priveleges.  Also, it is somewhat arbitrary which particular class of people he chooses, and which individuals happen to constitute that class (these determinations, at least, aren’t based upon merit).  So why can’t individuals (whether inside or outside of the chosen class) legitimately make a claim of unfairness?  

Is it because an individual’s exclusion from the chosen class implies no real comparative disadvantage, all things considered?  Or, if exclusion from the chosen class does imply an all-things-considered disadvantage, is the idea that these disadvantages are fully deserved by everyone to begin with?  Both options raise further questions.


@C. Ehrlich:

I have not attempted to address the problems of election on philosophical grounds. It seems to me that scripture rarely asks the question of why people are not included in the covenant people except in situations where they were already part of the covenant people. It all functions within the frame of the initial choosing of Abraham. If we accept that God may choose a servant or priestly people for his own possession and for his own purposes, it seems to me that the rest of the biblical “doctrine” flows quite reasonably from that—provided that we interpret it in narrative, historical and eschatological terms. If salvation is not the core issue, as Reformed and evangelical theologies would have it, the problems that you highlight fall effectively outside the scope of an intrinsic biblical theology.

That does not mean that these are not real problems. It’s just that to my mind the biblical narrative needs to be clarified first, and here I think we simply have to recognize that the New Testament applied the rhetoric of election decisively to the emerging Jesus movement in order to associate it with the narrative of Israel’s election.

@Andrew Perriman:

“If we accept that God may choose a servant or priestly people for his own possession and for his own purposes….”

I guess the question one might reasonably have is what all is involved in accepting this claim.  In particular, does the idea that God may choose someone (or some group) “for his own purposes” mean that God may legitimately choose to harden someone’s (of some group’s) heart(s) and then (also for his own purposes) severely punish the same for having such hardness of heart?  

@C. Ehrlich:

Yes, that is a reasonable question. To some extent I think it can be addressed by approaching it as a concrete historical problem rather than as an abstract theological problem. The rhetoric of predetermination or election is a way of making sense of historical reality in the context of the covenant between Israel and YHWH. If the Babylonians or Romans destroy Jerusalem and slaughter massive numbers of Jews, is that merely an accident of history? Is it a sign that God is powerless or has lost interest in his people? That he has forgotten his promise to Abraham?

Given the fact that the covenant texts warned of just such disasters if Israel failed to keep the commandments, given the analysis of the prophets, the conclusion was bound to be reached that these catastrophic events were acts of divine punishment, and that the obduracy and rebelliousness of the Jews in the decades before the war against Rome, which was just another routine clash between an intensely religious people and a pagan superpower, was somehow being used by God to fulfil some further purpose—in this case, the overthrow of pagan imperialism. The same would apply to the hardening of Pharoah’s heart: the rhetoric draws the “historical” into the purposes of God. The alternative is to say that God is absent from these critical historical events.

@Andrew Perriman:

Perhaps the suggested dilemma is this: either these critical historical events are intentionally brought about directly by God to fulfill his purposes (as when we say that God hardened pharoah’s heart), or God is absent from such events. 

But the seemingly obvious alternative is that God allows his own purposes to be frustrated by his creation, despite always being present in these events. So, rather than insisting that God has a particular purpose in causing such catastrophes, we might instead say that God only has a particular purpose in allowing (the possibility of) such catastrophes.  The difference seems significance; it’s like the difference between a parent allowing her child to fall and the parent shoving her child to the floor.  “Why did you let me fall?” is still a pressing question, but it’s a lot different than “Why did you shove me to the floor?”


@C. Ehrlich:

I wonder how far we can really take the moral logic from a biblical point of view, if only because we are dealing with a radically different worldview. I imagine that something of this sort of debate can be found in scripture—in the prophets, in Romans? But surely there is an overriding insistence always that God is finally in control? Even if it takes centuries and everyone gets tired of waiting, the creator God will eventually vindicate himself, will deliver his people from oppression, will judge the wicked.

It is driven by the deep theological conviction, the confession, that God is ultimately sovereign. John’s vision of a new heaven and new earth in Revelation, in which there is no more sin and death, is driven by the conviction that God is ultimately sovereign, that he, and not death, will have the last word. But that reflects a different way of thinking to our natural moral reasoning.

@Andrew Perriman:

But the notion of control blurs the relevent distinction.  In either of the cases mentioned above, the parent is in “control” of whatever happens (whether because she allows her child to fall or she actually shoves him to the floor). In other words, the overriding insistence that God is in control doesn’t settle the issue here.

Maybe the concern is that it is somehow illegitimate for us moderns to ethically evaluate the scriptural teachings and their implications, written as they are by people with a radically different worldview.  I don’t buy this at all.  But perhaps it’s just because I don’t fully grasp what is motivating this concern.  

peter wilkinson | Wed, 05/04/2011 - 16:46 | Permalink

I thought I had provided all the answers here, and to a lesser extent here, Andrew, allowances for the appalling textual quality of my contributions having been granted. Election, predestination and foreknowledge work both within and beyond a limited historical timeframe according to this perspective, and also avoid the Scylla of modernist Calvinistic individualism and the Charybdis of Arminian angst. And so all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Hi Andrew,

Curious, have you read Suzanne McDonald’s book “Re-imaging Election” and/or Gregory MacDonald’s (Robin Parry’s) book “The Evangelical Universalist?” Your sketch of election sounds quite similar to their approaches and proposals.

I also argue against classic/Federal election through TF Torrance’s ‘Christ-conditioned’ view of election; it’s more “dogmatic” than you seem comfortable with, but it could jive quite easily with what you’re getting at (in fact it would provide what you’re saying with a little dogmatic rigor ;-).

@Bobby Grow:

Bobby, I’ve not read Robin’s book. I’ve discussed it with him, but I don’t think I can comment on any similarities.

Is Suzanne McDonald related to Gregory MacDonald?

To be honest, I am suspicious of all dogmatic formulations that have their origins in old theological debates. There may well be a real congruence with the sort of historical reading that I am advocating, but I tend to feel, no doubt unrealistically, that dogmatics, if it has a future at all, needs a clean start. It won’t properly hear the narrative-historical argument until it stops trying to settle old theological disputes. But that’s just my prejudice. Feel free to ignore it!

Interesting blog you have there, by the way—for all sorts of reasons.

@Andrew Perriman:

As I see it… “election” was always primarily about ‘purpose’ as opposed to ‘position’ i.e., it was functional – for God’s people to “serve” his wider creation. Thus biblical election as I understand it was never about attaining a position [heaven] post mortem, but rather all about “service” in this life.

I have some more thoughts on this HERE.

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