Friday, August 15, 2008
RETHINKING ELECTION, IN AN ELECTION YEAR :)
N.B. I continue to work away on my two volume NT Theology, entitled The Indelible Image. Here is a preliminary sampling from the second volume where I am pulling together the threads and looking at topics in a holistic and Biblical theology kind of way. Let me know what you think. BW3
ELECTION IN THE BIBLE: WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, AND WHY?
The Biblical concept of election is an important one, as it is one of the themes we find in both the OT and the NT, and therefore it is a theme of interest not just for OT theology or NT theology, but both, and beyond that for canonical or biblical theology as well.
There are several issues of importance here, not the least of which is—What is the relationship between the concept of election, and the matter of salvation? If we begin all the way back with the primeval history of Genesis, no theology of election is enunciated of course, because election implies that there are various persons to chose or select from, for whatever ends. Adam and Eve were not ‘elect’ in the sense that later we hear Israel is elect. Election then can be defined as the choosing of a, or some, person(s) for some divine purpose or end. But is that end which God has in mind salvation? There are various things that are peculiar about simply assuming that to be the case: 1) the theme of personal or eternal salvation is not a major theme at all in the OT, early or late, and yet most of the early Biblical discussion of election comes precisely in the presentation of Israel as a ‘chosen’ people. Furthermore, when salvation is discussed in the OT it usually has a broader of more generic sense--- rescued from danger or harm or near death experiences, saved from death by illness, and the like. This is also often the sense the term ‘saved’ takes in the Synoptic Gospels. When Jesus says to the woman with the issue of blood “your faith has saved you” he means, “your faith has healed you”; 2) many of the persons said to be amongst the elect group Israel, are also said, in the end to be lost, left out of the promised land, judged by God, and the like. Whatever election meant in those kinds of contexts (e.g. the wilderness wandering generation), it certainly did not include the idea of some sort of guarantee of eternal salvation, or avoidance of divine judgment; 3) when one gets to the messianic thinking in the latter part of the OT and then in the NT, and one focuses that whole discourse on Christ, who is then viewed as the ultimate chosen one, anointed one, elect one of God, here again there is a disconnect with the Christian doctrine of salvation. Election does not imply salvation in the case of Christ, not least because Christ does not require salvation, indeed he is the savior of others. In addition to all of this, there is no disputing that in various places in the OT God is said to chose or elect one or another person for some specific historical purpose (e.g. a Cyrus is called ‘my anointed one’ in the Isaianic literature), but this has absolutely nothing to do with that person’s individual and eternal salvation. Indeed, in some cases it is obviously excluded.
All of these observations lead to a crucial point—If all the above is true, and most scholars would say it is, should we then conclude that the idea of election is somehow welded to the chassis of eternal salvation only in the NT such that in the NT election becomes a different, and suddenly much more soteriological concept? This would seem to present enormous problems for those wishing to do Biblical theology starting from the front and moving to the back of the canon, rather than vice versa. And what exactly should we make of the discussion in Rom. 9-11 where Paul does indeed talk about election and selection within the election, and in the same breath about the breaking off of various of the natural branches of the olive tree (the symbol of God’s people), at least temporarily, and the grafting in of some wild olive branches (read Gentiles) into that same tree. And furthermore, various of the natural branches who are broken off, are broken off precisely because they rejected the Christ, and are said to be grafted back in later, by grace through faith, when Jesus returns and they own their savior (see the climax of Rom. 11). This would seem to imply that salvation and election is not in the end all about God simply choosing some from amongst the many, but is also about an individual response of faith to whatever choices God has made, a response that was not pre-determined. Does election only imply salvation, if one freely responds to the call to accept Christ as the messiah at whatever point? Is election simply God’s initiative, reflecting his desire that all be saved, but an initiative that neither pre-determines nor predisposes a particular person to respond positively to the call and selection?
And what should be made of the fact that in the NT Christ is said to be the elect one, and only those who are ‘in Christ’ are said to be saved. And when the subject of salvation arises, it is always couched in the context of a clarification which says that salvation is by grace, but through faith (see e.g. Ephes. 1). What a text like Ephes. 1 suggests is that Christ, before the foundation of the world, was chosen by God to come to earth to be the savior of humankind, and to the extent we are in Christ, by grace and through faith, we are not only Christians, we are the elect, the chosen ones, being ‘in’ God’s only begotten Chosen One. God may well have names in the Lambs Book of Life, but the same document which says so (Revelation), also warns that someone’s name, whilst provisionally entered, could be erased from the Lamb’s Book of Life. In short, human history involves the interesting interplay between the divine and the human, and while God clearly has plans, and takes initiatives, throughout the Bible, the human response is seen as crucial to the outcome, and it is more than debatable whether it should be seen as pre-determined. Indeed, many Biblical texts suggest otherwise. No Biblical author disputes or denies the Sovereignty of God in all these matters nor is it denied for a moment that God is THE major actor on the stage of human history who can weave all things together for good ends, but the issue is--- How exactly is that sovereignty exercised in the divine/human encounter when it comes to the matter of personal and eternal salvation?
It is precisely these kinds of initial reflections that need to be undertaken before one can come up with a coherent Biblical doctrine of election that does justice to the sweep and variety and complexity of the canonical witness on this subject, and in the end, one must do justice to the whole witness, not just one’s personal favorite texts.
The principle of coherence and consistency in the end must be given its due if the Bible as a whole is seen as the Word of God, which means that when it becomes clear that if Text A means X, and there appears to be a Text B that means not X, either the interpretation of Text A or B or both is wrong, but they cannot both be true at the same time, in the same way, applied to the same concept or person. It cannot both be true that election in Christ is unto eternal salvation and necessarily entails eternal security and it also be true that apostasy is possible and one’s name could actually be erased from the Lamb’s book of life, after it was entered into that book in heaven in the first place.
Which theological approach better does justice to all the Biblical texts on this issue—the one which says God has pre-determined all things from before the foundations of the world (including predetermining some to be lost forever, to be vessels of wrath predestined for destruction) and that there are no genuine apostasy texts in the Bible, because an elect person can’t go there, or a theology that says that the Biblical concept of election does not involve a concept of eternal security or predetermined final salvation? I cast my vote for the latter option as making better sense of the whole sweep and scope of the Biblical witness.