Friday, August 15, 2008

RETHINKING ELECTION, IN AN ELECTION YEAR :)



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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.

53 comments:

Don B. Johnson said...

My take is there are verses that are appropriate if one is leaning towards doubt that will build one up and others that are appropriate if one is leaning towards pride that will leash that in. However, it can be a challenge to hold both sets of verses in one's mind at the same time, esp. if one is a Greek thinker as I am.

So there is a dynamic tension and we are to live in the middle of the tension.

Tony said...

Prof W: Just curious ... who's publishing this theology and when do you expect its completion (translated, when can I expect to buy it!).

I think I have all your books, except one (The Many Faces of Christology) ... let's make a deal--you write them, I'll buy them!

Thanks ...TonyM

Ben Witherington said...

Indelible Image Vol. 2 which surveys all the NT witnesses as individual discrete witnesses will be out in the next six months with InterVarsity Press. The second volume I will be finishing up next year whilst I am on sabbatical.

And Don, I agree with you there is a tension. As for your question on the rock and roll posts, my answer is it depends on the spiritual and personal maturity of the individual. The NT tells us we are to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves, and this actually has always been an issue with some aspects of culture. My word is, sift the wheat from the chaff, and in some cases this means ignore a goodly amount of the lyrics and posturing. For some young Christians, this will not be strong enough advice. The issue is like what Paul talks about in 1 Cor. 8-10. If you are dealing with someone who would stumble over this stuff, then the rule is "whatever you can't do in good faith, you shouldn't do, as it is sin for you (or put more simply, when in doubt--- don't).

Blessings,

BW3

Michael F. Bird said...

Ben,

Today I just finished teaching a week long course on "Romans in the Reformed Tradition" which, on Romans 9, was probably a little different from where you're at. I can't help but think that Rom. 9.11-13 teaches that God's election is not rooted in any foreknowledge of human action. Although, I think one can maintain a view of God's preordained election but still maintain that apostasy is a real possibility for those who profess faith.

Otherwise, I continue to look forward to your NT Theology volumes.

Tom 1st said...

Dr. Witherington,
Thanks for this post. It was quite helpful.

Just a quick question:
Can you cite some specific NT text which call Christ the "elect" one? I understand the concept, but Calvinists often claim that there's no scriptural support for such a statement.

Ben Witherington said...

The word Christ of course means the Anointed One of God, and when this is the Messiah, and not just any anointed one, the implication is very clear that he is THE Chosen one of God, to save God's people. That is, God's election and salvation runs through him. If you will read my exposition on Ephesians 1 in my commentary on Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians it becomes clear that when Paul says "in Him" we have been destined before the foundation of the world, we are hearing about God's having chosen him back then, not us. After all, we did not exist back then. We are elect, only insofar as we are in Him. See the detailed explication of this view in Markus Barth's huge commentary on Ephesians.

Michael, as for your point, I think you have to allow that Paul clearly distinguishes between what God's foreknows, and what he does in advance, as is clear from the very saying where Paul asks--- Has God abandoned those whom he foreknew (who seem to have abandoned his Son)? The answer is no, and the reason is foreknowledge is not the same as foreordination.

Blessings

BW3.

Thomas said...

Hello Prof. Witherington,
I stumbled upon your blog today while searching the web for worldly descriptions on the character of Christ. Man, what a vocabulary you have! (compliment) I have never looked-up so many words in one setting. Oswald Chambers say’s “never plan on looking-up the definition for a word later, do it now” (good advice) However, he has never read one of your blogs:) My statement is this…Since man exist inside creation, he is bound by its rules and regulations (e.g. life, death, time, joy, pain, up, down, gravity, etc). While studying the argument between Calvinist and Armeniest, I found that both sides were flawed. Inside creation, (our reality) predestination cannot exist with freewill. Scientifically you cannot say you have freewill but arrived at a predestinated location. ( Hope that made sense) God however is not bound by creation; exist outside of creation. Therefore He does not have to play by the rules of nature (physics) that He created for you and me to live by. Which brings me to this point; they are both right and wrong. The question that lingers is something that you stated in the end of this post “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.”
Do you think names are constantly appearing and disappearing in the Book of Life based on our day to day life? I am a novice in theology discussion, so please have mercy!

Rebekah said...

Does the possibility that a person's name can be written and then later blotted out imply an "Openness" perspective? (Of course, on the other hand "choosing Christ before the foundation of the world" would also imply that there are aspects of Openness theology that need some reworking. I imagine this is the case since, at bottom, we really don't have a firm grasp of God's relationship with time.)

phil said...

I love reading a blog that gets me thinking and can truly make a difference in how I read certain passages. Your position does give light to Paul's words of "continuing to work out salvation."

P.S. What is your intended message in the picture you chose for this post?

Rudi Drews said...

Dr. Witherington,

I agree in general with your blog.

However, the question occurred to me if it's not possible that word meanings have changed? Acts is a good example where salvation is used in more general way (healing), but as well as 'eternal salvation'. It could be now argued that the meaning of salvation changed in the NT.
I have the question if it's not possible that the meaning of election (like salvation)or the concept have changed in the NT.


God bless,
Rudi

Please excuse my awful English. I'm a German.

Seth and Caralisa said...

what if we're chasing the wrong rabbit and election isn't really about individual status?

what about election as service, not status?
in other words, maybe the primary question is not "who does God elect?" , but "for what purpose does God elect?"

-Seth

Corpus Christi Outreach Ministries said...

Hi Ben, Just a few recent thoughts I had. Thought they might contribute to the conversation. P.S. I vote for Henrdix! It would be highly 'unorthodox' to say otherwise. (843) ROMANS 8: 19-25 ‘the sufferings of this present time [are you ‘presently’ suffering?] are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us’. Paul compares the difficulty to the reward. The reward here is the future resurrection. Paul did not see suffering as ‘from the devil’ or the reward as something material [monetary stuff! The resurrection body will be ‘material’ - real]. Paul teaches that the whole creation is waiting for this day. Not only will we get a ‘makeover’ but there will be a new heaven and a new earth! The creation itself longs for this [almost as much as Al Gore!] This resurrection is called ‘the redemption of our body’. The next verse says ‘we are saved by hope’. John also says [1st John] that the future reality of the resurrection ‘causes us to be pure in this life’ [every one that has this hope in him purifies himself, even as he is pure]. Why? Because we know God has a purpose for our bodies as well as our spirits! The ‘getting saved by hope’ simply means the future hope of the resurrection ‘encourages’ us to live clean now. Once again ‘saved’ is a neutral term. In can apply to all sorts of things. I always found it funny how when you read certain commentaries, that you see the difficulty Christians have when coming across these types of verses. There’s a verse that says ‘the woman will be saved thru childbearing’ geez, you wouldn’t believe the difficulty some writers have when they come across this stuff. Some teach ‘she will be ‘saved’ thru the birth of a child [Jesus]’ and all sorts of stuff. I think if we simply changed the word ‘saved’ for ‘delivered’ [which are basically the same thing] that maybe this would help. But thank God that we have a future resurrection to look forward to, let this truth ‘deliver’ you from the temptation to think ‘what’s all this suffering worth, why even go thru it?’ Because we have a great promise at the other end!


(846) ROMANS 8:29-30 ‘for whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed into the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: whom he justified, them he also glorified’. Let’s talk a little. When I first became a Christian I began a lifelong study of scripture, where I continually read a certain amount of scripture every day for many years. Over the years I have varied on how fast I should read [that is how many chapters per day and so forth]. But during the early stages I always took these verses to teach predestination in the classical sense. Simply put, that God ‘pre chose’ me [and all whom come to him] before we ‘chose him’. The Fundamental Baptist church I began to attend [a great church with great people!] taught that ‘classic Calvinism’ [predestination] was false doctrine, and they labeled it ‘Hyper Calvinism’. I simply accepted this as fact. But I never forgot the early understanding that I first gleaned thru my own study. I also was very limited in my other readings outside of the scripture. I did study the Great awakenings and Charles Finney. I read some biographies on John Wesley and other great men of God. These men were not Calvinistic in their doctrine [which is fine], as a matter of fact Wesley would eventually disassociate from George Whitefield over this issue. Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist! Over time I came to believe the doctrine again, simply as I focused on the scriptures that teach it. Eventually I picked up some books on church history and realized that Calvinism was [and is] a mainstream belief among many great believers. I personally believe that most of the great theologians in history have accepted this doctrine. Now, for those who reject it, they honestly struggle with these portions of scripture. Just like there are portions of scripture that Calvinists struggle with. To deny this is to be less than honest. The Arminians [Those who deny classic predestination- the term comes from Jacob Arminias, a Calvinist who was writing and studying on the ‘errors’ of ‘arminianism’ and came to embrace the doctrine of free will/choice] usually approach the verses that say ‘he predestined us’ by teaching that Gods predestination speaks only of his foreknowledge of those who would choose him. This is an honest effort to come to terms with the doctrine. To be ‘more honest’ I think this doesn’t adequately deal with the issue. In the above text, as well as many other places in scripture, the idea of ‘Gods foreknowledge and pre choosing’ speak specifically about Gods choice to save us, as opposed to him simply knowing that we would ‘choose right’. The texts that teach predestination teach it in this context. Now the passage above does say ‘those whom he foreknew, he also did predestinate to be conformed into the image of Christ’ here this passage actually does say ‘God predestinated us to be like his Son’. If you left the ‘foreknowledge’ part out, you could read this passage in an Arminian way. But we do have the ‘foreknowledge’ part. So I believe Paul is saying ‘God chose us before we were born, he ‘knew’ ahead of time that he would bring us into his Kingdom. Those whom he foreknew he also predestinated to become like his Son.’ Why? So his Son would be the firstborn among many. God wanted a whole new race of ‘children of God’. Those he predestinated he ‘called’. He drew them to himself. Jesus said ‘all that the Father give to me will come to me, and him that cometh to me I will in no way cast out’. Those who ‘come’ are justified, those who are justified are [present tense] glorified. Gods design and sovereignty speak of it as a ‘finished task’ like it already happened. God lives outside of the dimension of time. I believe in the doctrine of predestination. Many others do as well. You don’t have to believe it if you don’t want to, but I believe scripture teaches it.

Brett R said...

Hello Dr Witherington,

I think I am safe in saying that this is a jab at Dordtian Calvinism.

The problem I see is that you conflate issues where in your last paragraph, you present a false dichotomy in that you imply that one must either accept OSAS in its present evanjellifish form along with the view that God is sovereign in an individuals salvation or reject Dordt altogether. Furthermore, you precede this with your musing: “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) “ as if Dordt/OSAS came up with this idea.

While, I’m quite sure you have read Thomas Aquinas on this matter, I am left to wonder if you have considered one of the West’s greatest theologians on Providence and reprobation. You seem to dismiss the supposedly Calvinist view of Providence with a mere wave of the hand. Perhaps this was rash.

Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 23, Article 3

I answer that, God does reprobate some. For it was said above (Article 1) that predestination is a part of providence. To providence, however, it belongs to permit certain defects in those things which are subject to providence, as was said above (Question 22, Article 2). Thus, as men are ordained to eternal life through the providence of God, it likewise is part of that providence to permit some to fall away from that end; this is called reprobation. Thus, as predestination is a part of providence, in regard to those ordained to eternal salvation, so reprobation is a part of providence in regard to those who turn aside from that end. Hence reprobation implies not only foreknowledge, but also something more, as does providence, as was said above (Question 22, Article 1). Therefore, as predestination includes the will to confer grace and glory; so also reprobation includes the will to permit a person to fall into sin, and to impose the punishment of damnation on account of that sin.


Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 22, Article 3
I answer that, Two things belong to providence--namely, the type of the order of things foreordained towards an end; and the execution of this order, which is called government. As regards the first of these, God has immediate providence over everything, because He has in His intellect the types of everything, even the smallest; and whatsoever causes He assigns to certain effects, He gives them the power to produce those effects. Whence it must be that He has beforehand the type of those effects in His mind. As to the second, there are certain intermediaries of God's providence; for He governs things inferior by superior, not on account of any defect in His power, but by reason of the abundance of His goodness; so that the dignity of causality is imparted even to creatures. Thus Plato's opinion, as narrated by Gregory of Nyssa (De Provid. viii, 3), is exploded. He taught a threefold providence.
First, one which belongs to the supreme Deity, Who first and foremost has provision over spiritual things, and thus over the whole world as regards genus, species, and universal causes. The second providence, which is over the individuals of all that can be generated and corrupted, he attributed to the divinities who circulate in the heavens; that is, certain separate substances, which move corporeal things in a circular direction. The third providence, over human affairs, he assigned to demons, whom the Platonic philosophers placed between us and the gods, as Augustine tells us (De Civ. Dei, 1, 2: viii, 14).

Todd H said...

Ack. Too many Arminian-Calvinist arguments in the history behind the post. I like Newbigin's take on election better: elected to participate in God's mission (Gen. 12:1-3).

Marc Axelrod said...

"I like what you're doing with focusing on certain themes in the NT. Richardson and Guthrie took these approaches with their NT theologies.

I'm with you on the doctrine of election. Election in scripture is mainly election for a role in salvation history, whether it is a protagonistic or antagonistic role.

Election in Ephesians is in Christ. R.A Shank said similar things about Christ being the elected one and us the ones who are chosen in Him.

I want to disagree agreeably with a previous blogger's take on Rom 9:11-13. Even there, Jacob and Esau are chosen for redemptive roles in salvation history, but nothing is said about their individual eternal destinies.

To make a long story short, I think election IS based on foreknowledge.

On another note, I think I'm going to like what you're doing with the NT theology. I also like what Marshall did with this. There's something to be said about a book by book or a genre by genre approach. While the format has the potential disadvantage of being tired and predictable, it also helps the preacher and student to get a handle on the authorial intention behind each book.

For example, Matthew,s intent seems to be to highlight the uniqueness of Christ: His virgin birth, His baptism, His temptation, His teaching (not as the teachers of the law), His miracles' his authority, his death and resurrection and commission.

Mark Clark said...

You mentioned Rom 9 -- what of the discussion about "common use," how would you interpret these verses in this way?

Also I wonder sometimes if the discussions in Scripture (i.e names in the "Lambs book of Life") is often simply speaking about huge concepts in human language so we can identify and not to be taken too far to develop concepts of salvation around. Especially in a book such as Revelation which is clearly apoc. literature.

How does this connect and/or disconnect with some of Wright's basic categories in NTPG: election, monotheism ad eschatology as basic Biblical concepts?

Thanks Ben!

on the walk said...

Thank you for this. I have been teaching this at my church for a couple of years now.
I often say it this way, "Whatever Paul means by the phrase election, it must have a coherent connection to what election means in the OT. That means that is cannot simply mean that God picked some people in advance to receive salvation."

I have a further observation that I am tentatively exploring. I have noticed that the major moments of election (in both OT and NT) the election of the elected is not only for the good of elected but rather for good of all (or at least many) others. By this I mean that God elects people to use them to bless others. Election does not make us blessed but rather makes us a blessing to others. I offer this idea with some hesitation because their may be an articulation of election that does not include this component, but so far I can't find one that does. In particular I find the case of Ephesians to be striking. In the first chapter is such a strong articulation of election. In 2:8and9 this seems to be leaning toward a conception of election without a responsibility to bless others (which would blow my theory). But then in verse 10 we find that even here God intends to grace us for the purpose of working out the purposes of God.

For the sake of an election theology that is faithful to all of scripture, I have begun advocating a notion of election that I describe as elected to fulfill a role in God's redemptive purposes. Rather than elected to receive a gift of redemption.

Thanks for this post and I welcome your thoughts

-Ethan Magness
onthewalk.besquared.org

Liam Thatcher said...

Hello,

This is your project on NT theology and ethics right? (I can't keep up with your immense prolificity!)

I just wondered if you will be writing on the ethics of war in either volume? I'm currently thinking about Just War Theory and the surrounding issues and wondered if you have anything to contribute to the debate? Or do you have any books that you could reccommend on the subject?

Many thanks,

Liam

Clay said...

I have always believed there is a much more biblical middle ground that makes sense of election. If you look at Scripture as a biblical theologian, without any systematic theological corrective lenses, election is not individual, but rather corporate. We are elect "in Christ," and it is the body of Christ that God has elected to be saved.

A corporate view of election is much more consistent with Hebrew thinking. We are far too influenced by our American individualistic paradigm and have a hard time even thinking of ourselves as members of a community. Modern worship, for example, is almost pathologically individualistic--the goal is to make each individual "feel" worshipful rather than to offer thanksgiving and praise to God as a unified body. But I digress.

If election is indeed corporate, it is no longer about whether or not God chosen me personally, but if am I part of the "chosen people" of God--which is now the church, the body of Christ in eternity.

I don't believe in using a blog post comment to lay out an entire doctrinal defense of my view--that's what my own blog is for. However, I will suggest a good author and book: The New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election, by Dr. William Klein (Zondervan, 1990). It is, unfortuately, out of print, but worth getting hold of if you can.

Butters said...

Interesting stuff. Does anyone know what N.T. Wrights views are on election? I'd be interested to know.

Mr. Witherington,

As it is not an unrelated matter, what are your thoughts on Christian assurance? Is it something Christians can have or is it always going to be a matter of uncertainty? What can assurance be based on (promises/works/spirit etc.)?

Cheers

markbe said...

Disclaimer: Gross oversimplification resulting in theoretical inconsistencies ahead.

God determines when and where we live in such a way that we will seek Him. (Acts 17:26-7) (It is possible to extend this thought into other potential aspects of election but i'm trying to not go off on too many tangents.)

Suppose God knows that if he places John in space-time A, John will not seek Him (or “freely choose”, although i hate to even use those words because they are so loaded).

Suppose God also knows that if he places John in space-time B, John will seek Him.

If God chose to place John in B, does that negate the “fact” that John sought Him of his own free will or that it was ultimately God’s decision? I call this a Calvinist-leaning middle knowledge position, but would appreciate any help with proper philosophical/theological terms. I don't necessarily hold this position, it's just my current attempt at harmonizing all the different scriptures that pertain.

Tim said...

Thank for the lucid discussion of election!

I thought I would share an interesting and enjoyable JETS article exploring the implications of Jesus' election.

(It also gets into a thought-provoking application of Plantinga's/Leibniz's many-worlds ideas in this context.)

Tim

wabbott said...

Dr. Witherington,
I think a concept of election that squares best with the biblical tradition is this: God chooses whomever he wants, whenever he wants, for whatever purpose he wants. In this sense, the concept of election has no connection to personal salvation unless it pleases God to elect some for salvation .

Following this line of reasoning: (1) Israel was God's elect because it pleased him to use Israel as an example to the nations.
(2) The Messiah is God's elect because it pleased him to use that person to inaugurate His kingdom.
(3) More shockingly, Pharoah was God's elect because it pleased God to make a whipping boy of him and show His greatness by it. The biblical witness is clear on this point.

When it comes to New Testament theology, the idea is that Christians are God's elect simply because it pleased Him to save them and for no other reason.

It is an affront to our Enlightment-oriented thinking to put things this bluntly, but I think that the biblical witness is clear: God does things because it pleases him to do them and for no other reason. Not because it is just, not because it loving, but because it pleases him. He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

On a side note: I think the quest to find a 'coherent' theory of election in the Bible is a losing battle, because the Bible does not speak with one voice but with many. It's like trying to find a coherent theory of theodicy in the Bible. If a person is really determined and has a great imagination, he may be able to contort the text to produce some kind of unified theory of evil, but historically these types of 'unifications' have not been convincing to many.

But, human imagination is limitless and the hunger for simple answers always gnaws; we can't help but try.

Take care,
Wayne

Ben Witherington said...

Liam I am doing both theology and ethics of the NT in these two volumes and yes indeed, I do intend to deal with the issue of war in the second volume. As for Tom Wright's views on election you can certainly get a sense of this from his Climax of the Covenant, and his forthcoming big Paul book.

Mark I have dealt with the Rom. 9-11 stuff in my Romans commentary.

BW3

LGM#3 said...

Wayne,


I think that you've misunderstood, possibly, the idea of biblical coherency. Truth by it's very nature is coherent, that is, "hangs together when all is both said and done." Otherwise, there would be contradictions. Do you think there are real contradictions in the world? Things or mental entities like be at one place at a point in time and not being in one place at the same point in time? To exist and not exist? To be God and not be God?


You know what, when I was I child I remember thinking the following: "Wow, I wish I were lucky enough to be God. That would be cool, and he's so much more in control than me; he's just more lucky than me." Come on' now, such is childish silliness. Paul says something like: "When I was a child, I acted as a child; now I'm grown, and I'll think and act like a grown up."

I think a dosage of the works of Alvin Plantinga, particularly his work on modal logic, may be able to help you with this 'intellectual', not necessarily, practical issue.

LMiii

Eclectic Pietist said...

One thought about Esau and Romans 9. We see that Esau was actually blessed by God, even though Christ did not come through his lineage. First blessing: Esau was reconciled to his brother. At one point he murderously hated Jacob, but we see that eventually he forgave his brother, and in a beautiful reunion. Second, Esau received great material blessings! He had 400 warriors at his disposal. Assuming one young man of age in a family with an average of 5 per family, this would imply command of at least 2,000 people. He was more powerful and more wealthy than Jacob. Third, he and Jacob together buried their father. This implies to me a complete resolution of any outstanding family issues. Though not elected, Esau was blessed by God. - Mike Cheek

Kyle said...

Wayne -

"Not because it is just, not because it loving, but because it pleases him."

Right, and why does electing a group for salvation and inviting all people into it please God? Because loving people pleases God.

Why was God pleased to display His wrath at Pharoah? Because in so doing more people came to know who Yahweh was, which pleased God because God is just that type of God.

The Storck Family said...

Dr. Witherington,

I stipulate that the position of the 'reformed' camp (of which I am a part) has not considered seriously and with transparent integrity the apostasy texts nor the biblical theological flow of the concept of election.

My question for you is, does open theism go too far in protecting the freedom of choices for humanity?

Jon

Ben Witherington said...

I have problems with the epistemology of the Open theism folks, particularly the notion that there are things God does not know. They seem to confuse God foreknowing and God willing something in the same way many Calvinists do. But the answer to the question 'did God foreknow the Fall, or sin in general?' can be answered yes, without saying God willed these things, either passively or actively.

BW3

wabbott said...

Kyle writes:
Right, and why does electing a group for salvation and inviting all people into it please God? Because loving people pleases God.

Why was God pleased to display His wrath at Pharoah? Because in so doing more people came to know who Yahweh was, which pleased God because God is just that type of God.


Kyle,
About your last point, I guess the maxim that "any publicity is good publicity" definitely holds sway with Yahweh.

About the notion that loving people pleases God, you may want to look at a larger context. It also pleased God to "elect" the women and children of Jericho, Amalek and Midian for for slaughter by the Israelites. It also pleased him to "elect" the Midianite virgins to be "given" as a gift to the conquering Israelite soldiers. (Numbers 31) So in some instances, it may please God to love people. In other instances, it appears to please God to "elect" people to be hacked and speared to death.

Again, the unifying concept in "election" seems to be whatever happens to please God at a particular time and not any transcendent concept of love or justice.

LGM#3 said...

Ben,

I have the same 'epistemological' problem with the open folk (e.g., William Hasker).

Lawrence

wabbott said...

LM3 writes:
I think that you've misunderstood, possibly, the idea of biblical coherency. Truth by it's very nature is coherent, that is, "hangs together when all is both said and done." Otherwise, there would be contradictions.

---

LM3,
Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I think I understand the concept of biblical coherency, but I find that it's a premise without foundation. Why would we take as axiomatic the idea that the many writings pulled together in the Jewish and Christian scriptures do not disagree with one another? They were written by various people in different times and communities with different viewpoints, so it makes perfect sense that they would disagree on some points.

About Platinga, I have to admit that I have not read much of his work. Part of the reason is that I hear that he takes as axiomatic the idea that a man who wears a pointy white hat and lives in Rome can't be wrong on theological issues. Do find him to be more rational when it comes to other subjects? If so, I may have to give him a second try.

Kyle said...

"About the notion that loving people pleases God, you may want to look at a larger context. It also pleased God to "elect" the women and children of Jericho, Amalek and Midian for for slaughter by the Israelites. It also pleased him to "elect" the Midianite virgins to be "given" as a gift to the conquering Israelite soldiers. (Numbers 31) So in some instances, it may please God to love people. In other instances, it appears to please God to "elect" people to be hacked and speared to death.

Again, the unifying concept in "election" seems to be whatever happens to please God at a particular time and not any transcendent concept of love or justice.


Again, the biblical text disagrees with you. The destruction of the nations you mention was judgment upon them, for God is a holy God. In many cases, the entire nation needed to be destroyed in order to prevent the wicked influence from dragging Israel into apostasy (and it actually did). And why is that a concern? Because through Israel God's salvation for the world would come. Again, in the end it is for holy love. The judgments scenes are difficult, but given God is working with fallible and sinful human beings in bad cultures and is revealing Himself to them in the best way they can understand (being perfectly revealed in Jesus, Heb 1), these scenes can make some good moral sense.

If God were not holy, He would also not be loving, for He would be tolerating unrepentant sin amidst His good world. A loving God must also be wrathful at times, just as we are all outraged at evil.

And the "gifts" to Israel is not sexual slavery as you insinuate. Actually, this is a profound act of grace on Yahweh's part, for those young girls would now be taken care of. Otherwise, they would be left for dead or sold into slavery in ANE, if I'm not mistaken.

God does not do things just to get jollies out of it. There is indeed always a good purpose for it, a just purpose, a holy and loving purpose. The Scriptures declare that God is this way, and His choices flow from His character, not from the fickle and arbitrary hand of some tyrant. That is not the biblical portrait of God, and the transcendent concepts of love and justice are grounded in His moral nature.

Otherwise, God would be a moral monster unworthy of our worship.

Kyle said...

"About your last point, I guess the maxim that "any publicity is good publicity" definitely holds sway with Yahweh."

What's wrong with God using a man who hardened his own heart against him as a public judgment in order to deliver Israel and demonstrate Himself to the nations as a saving God? I see nothing arbitrary about that.

The Bible says that God does not take pleasure in wickedness, but delights in righteousness. To say God just slices people "for His good pleasure" is blasphemous and unbiblical.

LGM#3 said...

on the nature of necessity, plantinga is good or so i hear.

Brigitte said...

Em.

There is always also the BOC (Book of Concord) to look at. The Formula of Concord has a lot on Election, as well, though it was not a controverted article. It was more of a preventative measure, to clarify the position.

wabbott said...

Kyle writes:
Again, the biblical text disagrees with you. The destruction of the nations you mention was judgment upon them, for God is a holy God. In many cases, the entire nation needed to be destroyed in order to prevent the wicked influence from dragging Israel into apostasy (and it actually did)

---

Kyle,
Again let's actually look at the text and see what it says. Take the massacre of the men, women, children and infants of Jericho detailed in Joshua 5:13-6:27. Looking at the text there is no indication that the citizens of Jericho were slaughtered for any iniquity on their part. Their only sin appears to be that they happened to be living on land that YHWH wanted to give to Joshua and the Israelites. Again, I know plenty of commentaries have been written and plenty of sermons preached trying to explain it away, but the biblical text does not indicate in the least that the people of Jericho were destroyed for their behavior.

Kyle continues:
God does not do things just to get jollies out of it. There is indeed always a good purpose for it, a just purpose, a holy and loving purpose....


What good purpose could there possibly be in running spears through Amalekite, Jerichoan, and Midianite babies? Infants haven't even been influenced by their cultures. Were the babies of Jericho worshiping idols and encouraging people to work on the sabbath? Is YHWH so powerless as to not be able to find a way to keep Israel pure without ordering his chosen people to slice up women and children?

Kyle concludes:
Otherwise, God would be a moral monster unworthy of our worship.

It all depends on which God is being worshiped. I hope that people after reading and thinking about Israel's conception of YHWH will have at least a little bit of compassion on 'heretics' like Marcion who concluded that YHWH could not have been the God that Jesus was talking about.

wabbott said...

Re-posting to correct thread

Kyle writes:
What's wrong with God using a man who hardened his own heart against him as a public judgment in order to deliver Israel and demonstrate Himself to the nations as a saving God? I see nothing arbitrary about that.

Regards,
Wayne
--
Kyle,
I think it's very important to deal with the actual text as it reads and not how we would like it to read. Exodus 7:3 clearly says:
But I [Yahweh] will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you

Many other passages including Exodus 14:8 affirm this:

And the YHWH hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the people of Israel as they went forth defiantly.


So there is no doubt in the text that Yahweh is responsible for the hardening of Pharoah's heart. He is the agent of the hardening.

Many a fanciful commentary and sermon on Exodus has tried to make this passage say something else, but it says what it says: YHWH hardened the heart of Pharoah so that everyone would know who YHWH was. Pharoah was 'elected' for this purpose.

Kyle said...

What good purpose could there possibly be in running spears through Amalekite, Jerichoan, and Midianite babies? Infants haven't even been influenced by their cultures. Were the babies of Jericho worshiping idols and encouraging people to work on the sabbath? Is YHWH so powerless as to not be able to find a way to keep Israel pure without ordering his chosen people to slice up women and children?

One needs to take into account all of the data when dealing with these stories, not simply lift them out of their historical ANE context. I think many justifying reasons can be given for why the destruction had to be total.

It's not a matter of God being "so powerless as to not be able to find a way to keep Israel pure without ordering his chosen people to slice up women and children." Rather, it's a matter of what people know about Yahweh at this point, and how Yahweh accommodates to culture where its at to the level of our current understanding.

By the way, because Israel did not obey this command in its totality, they did fall into apostasy later, and God judged them in exactly the same way. So if handling a little medallion would be enough for Israel to apostatized, is it not starting to make sense that perhaps it was necessary for the destruction to be total given the context? These stories are far from clearly immoral, even if they are difficult and horrible.

At the very least, the waters are muddy. Dropping an atomic bomb on Japan incinerated women and children in total destruction, but was it therefore automatically wrong? Many morally sensitive people disagree. In a fallen world, sometimes things are messy, and God has to work with contingencies of human choice and wickedness. War is ugly, and the Scriptures never declare God enjoys it. But just because my emotions are against it doesn't mean there aren't good justifying reasons why God brought these things to pass in light of the historical and religious context of the time.

I'm not familiar with the Jericho story, so I won't comment on it, but I doubt that God just did it "because He wanted to." In the Scriptures, yes the OT Scriptures, God is depicted as always doing what is right, always being just, always being loving.

As for hardening Pharaoh's heart, the text if very clear that God did it only after Pharaoh did it. God simply strengthened his resolve so he wouldn't buckle under the pressure of the divine judgments, which would have meant prudence for him anyways, not repentance. And of course, the Bible declares that this was done in order that people, even the Egyptians, may know God's saving hand.

One can of course make our emotions flair up by taking about the horrors of war and total destruction. And one can make them flair up by talking about the child sacrifices that these Canaanites were committing, too. Perhaps if God allowed the children to live (by the way, it may have been a sad fact that Israel could never have taken care of the children given their lack of infrastructure, so to kill them along with everyone else was actually merciful compared to letting them starve to death), Israel would have themselves started committing child sacrifices (and I think they did!) What would we have said of Yahweh then, that He should have just had the entire culture destroyed so as to stop these horrifying child sacrifices for good? One wonders...

John said...

God has always intended to save those who choose to trust and obey Him and to condemn those who do not. It is a simple as that. Election is group, not individual. Individuals decide which group they want to be in.

Leon said...

A far more important theme in the Hebrew scriptures is democracy and due process. Many examples could be given. Abraham argues with God to give the people at Sodom and Gomorrah due process. Moses in his great speech at Deuteronomy 30:11-14 tells the people that the word is not in heaven but in their minds and hearts, thus calling people to listen to their individual conscience, an important foundation of democracy. The Pharisees developed this further and argued for a constitutional form of government that trumped the power of kings. Due process was particularly important to them. They argued that even God had to follow due process. And yes, you can see some of this in the Gospels too.

Leon Zitzer

wabbott said...

Kyle,
I've thought over your last post for a day and the thing that I find the most interesting is your use of the decision to bomb Hiroshima as a way to set up a moral equivalence with the genocides ordered by Yahweh in the Hebrew scriptures.

The crucial difference is that the decision to incinerate people at Hiroshima was a human decision. Even President Truman didn't have the gall to say: "I prayed about it and God told me to drop A-bombs on the Japanese". If there was a way to drop a harmless gas on the Japanese to make them drop their weapons and surrender, I'm sure Truman would have done that, but the technology didn't exist.

The situation is totally different with Yahweh. According to traditional renderings, Yahweh is omnipotent. This means that he would have had to the power to solve the problem of 'keeping his people clean' in any way that he wanted. He, presumably, could have magically transported them to a remote region of the world. Or put up magical walls around their cities.

Therefore, I think the Hiroshima analogy has made the situation much worse. Now we have the picture of an all-powerful God who could have chosen to solve a problem in any number of ways but instead freely chose to have his people hack and spear entire populations to death because that was his preferred method of dealing with the situation. It wasn't necessary; he just liked that solution better.

About the slaughter of children, your wrote:
it may have been a sad fact that Israel could never have taken care of the children given their lack of infrastructure, so to kill them along with everyone else was actually merciful compared to letting them starve to death

Again, are we dealing with an all-powerful deity or not? Didn't Yahweh feed six-million Israelites in the desert with manna and quail falling from the skies? Why couldn't he have fed the children of the slaughtered in the same way?
Because Yahweh preferred to have the children hacked to death instead of feeding them?

I think the arguments presented are making Yahweh look worse and worse.

Is this really what you believe?

Kyle said...

Hello wabbott,

Yes, the analogy breaks down at one point because Hiroshima is entirely human, but we must keep in mind that God works in and through human societies for a reason; He always does this because if He were to just "magically transported them to a remote region of the world" or something crazy like that, the world would have no moral consequences and humanity would learn nothing about God. God has set up human institutions so we may bless one another and live in relationship, but unfortunately that means we can distort it and incur the consequences upon us and those we are related to (funny how we never complain when we are blessed by our families' doing, but we complain when our families' bad choices effect us. That's just how God set up society for our own good). God will show us the consequences of our wicked choices before our own eyes, so we may know they are SERIOUS. And He has to teach us about Himself in whatever way we can learn at that point in history/cultural development. Life is not about being pain-free here, it's about coming to know God.

"Why couldn't he have fed the children of the slaughtered in the same way?"

And who exactly would take care of them? Who would raise them? Who would be their fathers and mothers? The Israelites simply could not do this (even if God were to provide food) and at any rate that defeats the purpose of enacting the ban to keep Israel from falling into apostasy (so the options at the time are be left for dead or killed swiftly with the wicked families). And such a ban was the only way Israel could come to understand the radicalness of God's command to "Be holy" and "be separate" at that time in ANE. Progressive revelation is key here, and Jesus most clearly reveals the Father.

As I have said and as you have not interacted with, Israel in fact did fall into apostasy as a result of not enacting the terrible totality of this command, so apparently Yahweh did know exactly what He was doing (and it seems very reasonable that in that time in history, it was the only way for Israel to "get the point." And by falling into apostasy, more child sacrifices occurred. Is this what you prefer, more child sacrifices? Of course not.

God has Israel obey these commands because through this they learn that "God fights for us." They learn to trust and obey Yahweh in a time when they knew nothing about Him, and unfortunately in a violent way in an already gruesomely violent culture. But in that culture it was kill or be killed, so if God was going to accommodate and get a group of people to learn about Him, He had to do it in the only way they understood at that time. One cannot impose 21st century, Christianized morality upon stories in which God was working with a highly different culture. Notice that God no longer commands such things, for culture has changed and it's not needed. These are isolated instances with particular circumstances.

Yes God could do all sorts of crazy things simply to prevent suffering on this earth, but Christianity doesn't teach that God's sole purpose is to relieve pain here on this earth. The purpose of life is the knowledge of God, the only thing that can lead to eternal happiness. And it may be that only in a world suffused with suffering, pain, judgment, and the like do more people come to know God and His eternal salvation.

One must reason these stories in the whole context of Scripture and the knowledge Israel had of this God, not lift them out of the Bible and treat them as if they were moral lessons about God's essential character. When this is done, I think many good reasons could be given for why Yahweh had to command such an admittedly horrible thing.

Kyle said...

Oh, and you said:

"If there was a way to drop a harmless gas on the Japanese to make them drop their weapons and surrender, I'm sure Truman would have done that, but the technology didn't exist."

This illustrates my point that God also must work with human contingencies, freedom, and knowledge. God cannot just make people freely do something, sometimes He has to work around many messy situations in human history so that we may learn what He purposes for us to learn.

If there were a way in which less people could suffer and the same amount of people may come to understand who God is in His holiness and love, then surely God would do that. But given human freedom, God must often both permit and inflict suffering to show us judgment, holiness, trust, and a whole host of things we must learn at the level of history/culture we are currently at and in the way that He knows will be most effective given our circumstances and culture.

Kyle said...

Lastly, of course I don't pretend to solve these issues completely here. But to blithely assert that they are unambiguously intractable, or that they force us to accept the idea that God does wicked things simply "for His good pleasure," is premature to say the least. The waters are at the very least muddy.

wabbott said...

Kyle,
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I don't think there is anything "blithe" about the conversation. I think the issues are very serious indeed.

Some points for consideration:
1) You have asserted in various places that God "must" do something. He "must" work with human contingencies; he must work within a certain framework. I'll have to disagree: traditional notions are that God is both all-powerful and all-knowing. He doesn't have to work within any framework. A God worthy of the name chooses his framework. So with the latest arguments, we now have Yahweh, with full fore-knowledge, choosing a course of action where he knows that multiple genocides are going to be the result.

Yahweh has all kinds of options. In Egypt, he produced magical plagues to get his point across. He used magical manna and quail to feed the Israelites in the desert. He apparently can use magical solutions when he chooses to regardless of human contingies but in some cases he appears to not want to use magic and prefers to order mass slaughter instead.

2. About the claim that Israel's failures to fully commit genocide led them into apostasy: if their sin was not fully carrying out genocides, then why did Yahweh spare the Midianite virgins? Why would Yahweh let some of the spawn of the Midianites live while ordering the slaughter of the others if the result of letting some of the vanquished live was apostasy?

3. You have repeated an old canard about the genocides stopping child sacrifice. Please cite firm evidence that the people of Jericho, Midian or the Amalekytes practiced child-sacrifice. Even if such evidence did exist in those specific cultures and I have yet to see it, they were not democracies. In the vanquished cultures, the poor women and children run through by Israelite swords and spears weren't personally sacrificing children and they didn't get to vote on what the priests and elites in their cultures did, so what would their moral culpability be?

4. You comment "One cannot impose 21st century, Christianized morality upon stories in which God was working with a highly different culture. Notice that God no longer commands such things, for culture has changed and it's not needed. These are isolated instances with particular circumstances."

This makes it sound like Yahweh adapts himself to the morality of various human cultures, but traditionally isn't God supposed to be the author of an unchanging morality? So taking the virgin daughters of the vanquished is ok morally in ancient Israel, but it's not ok now? Genocide is ok then, but not now? Would it be ok to re-introduce slavery and indentured servitude back in America? Why not? Because morality is whatever Yahweh says it is at a particular point in time?

Might not Yahweh change his mind again and order his people to rise up and slay the wicked nations? How can anyone say with certainty that he might not? Are his soldiers of the 21st century prepared to commit genocide again if he introduces a new dispensation where this becomes the norm again? Please think seriously about this, because many in our world have already concluded that God does want them to slaughter the infidels. Could you convincingly argue based on his history that he does not?

5. Finally, a point underlying the entire discussion. The discussion so far has taken the Israelite stories at face value. But the burning question is: why are you so intent on asserting the theological correctness of the Bronze-age Israelite stories? Isn't is possible that the ancient Israelites, at least in some instances, misunderstood what God was all about and did horrible things in the name of God because these of their misunderstanding of the divine? Isn't this possible? If not, why not?

Kyle said...

1) You have asserted in various places that God "must" do something. He "must" work with human contingencies; he must work within a certain framework. I'll have to disagree: traditional notions are that God is both all-powerful and all-knowing. He doesn't have to work within any framework. A God worthy of the name chooses his framework. So with the latest arguments, we now have Yahweh, with full fore-knowledge, choosing a course of action where he knows that multiple genocides are going to be the result.

If genuine human freedom is thrown into the mix, which Scripture teaches, then God is indeed in some sense limited in what possible worlds He can actualize. So it many instance, He must do something in order for us to understand, or in order to work with and through our freedom for His good purposes. God will choose a very good world, but our choices limit what possible worlds are feasible to Him. This is known as the Free Will Defense. Perhaps if God chose another world, there would be several more genocides given the wickedness of human beings. God is limited due to His choice for humans to have genuine freedom, and the good things that brings (such as true relationships and love).


Yahweh has all kinds of options. In Egypt, he produced magical plagues to get his point across. He used magical manna and quail to feed the Israelites in the desert. He apparently can use magical solutions when he chooses to regardless of human contingies but in some cases he appears to not want to use magic and prefers to order mass slaughter instead.


Yahweh has reasons for choosing the paths He does. In this case, there would be no one to take care of the children of the wicked - they would have starved to death. Unfortunately, sometimes our families have to pay for our wickedness, just as they are blessed for our righteousness.

Plagues aren't going to remove these wicked people from the earth, and having food to provide for the children isn't enough in this case. Once again, one must look at these issues on a case by case basis and consider all of the factors. God's commandments are relational and situation-bound for the greatest good He wants to accomplish.

About the claim that Israel's failures to fully commit genocide led them into apostasy: if their sin was not fully carrying out genocides, then why did Yahweh spare the Midianite virgins? Why would Yahweh let some of the spawn of the Midianites live while ordering the slaughter of the others if the result of letting some of the vanquished live was apostasy?

I don't know all the details but I can conceive of many reasons. Perhaps in this case they were old enough, or the threat of apostasy wasn't as strong as the wickedness of Canaan, or the Israelites now had enough infrastructure to take care of them, etc.

3. You have repeated an old canard about the genocides stopping child sacrifice. Please cite firm evidence that the people of Jericho, Midian or the Amalekytes practiced child-sacrifice. Even if such evidence did exist in those specific cultures and I have yet to see it, they were not democracies. In the vanquished cultures, the poor women and children run through by Israelite swords and spears weren't personally sacrificing children and they didn't get to vote on what the priests and elites in their cultures did, so what would their moral culpability be?

There are lots of extra-biblical sources that people like the Canaanites and the Amelikites were insanely evil. Here's one site for you:
http://www.christian-thinktank.com
/qamorite.html

Moreover, in the biblical narratives God often gives them alot of time to either repent or for the righteous people to leave the city. He would prefer them to just leave than to slaughter them, but many of them stayed and He had no choice. And staying there is tolerating it. If Yahweh says leave and you don't, you are kind of asking for it.

The fact is that the biblical narratives depict nations that are judges as being evil, or as being a threat to the nation of Israel. What else could God do in a culture that was kill or be killed? God does not kill for fun, He always has good reasons.

This makes it sound like Yahweh adapts himself to the morality of various human cultures, but traditionally isn't God supposed to be the author of an unchanging morality? So taking the virgin daughters of the vanquished is ok morally in ancient Israel, but it's not ok now? Genocide is ok then, but not now? Would it be ok to re-introduce slavery and indentured servitude back in America? Why not? Because morality is whatever Yahweh says it is at a particular point in time?

You misunderstood me. I do actually think Yahweh reveals as much of His character as stubborn, slow-to-understand, and sinful humans can bear at that time in salvation history. This doesn't mean Yahweh changes, but it does mean human beings often take a long time to "get the picture." God has to teach us progressively about Himself.

Second, the Midianite virgins were not given as sex-slaves, which is your insinuation, they were rather actually being taken care of. This was an act of profound grace for them. And finally, these are not "genocides" properly speaking, for they were not killed for merely being one race. They were killed for a good reason.

God also sent a flood to wipe out the known world at the time, but it's interesting how few people raise their hands about that. God takes lives all the time, and He always has good reasons. Many of us forget how holy God it.

Might not Yahweh change his mind again and order his people to rise up and slay the wicked nations? How can anyone say with certainty that he might not? Are his soldiers of the 21st century prepared to commit genocide again if he introduces a new dispensation where this becomes the norm again? Please think seriously about this, because many in our world have already concluded that God does want them to slaughter the infidels. Could you convincingly argue based on his history that he does not?

This is a non-sequitor. God had good reasons for commanding war, just as we often have good reasons to do it. These circumstances no longer exist, there is no longer a physical nation of Israel, people are no longer in a violent, war-making culture.

It's not a matter of Yahweh's morality changing, it's a matter of Yahweh working with what He's got. He couldn't just command whole nations to set up peaceful democracies and expect them to drop all of their weapons and live in peace! How is this reasonable? Isn't it more reasonable to maintain that God works with what He's got in terms of human culture, progressively and patiently guiding it to a full revelation of Himself? God has the sovereign right to take any life, whether my own right now or someone's through an army. He always has good reasons to do that, but I fail to say how it presents a moral problem with God.

Killing and war are never tolerable. But I think they can be rendered moral and even necessary in some circumstances.

5. Finally, a point underlying the entire discussion. The discussion so far has taken the Israelite stories at face value. But the burning question is: why are you so intent on asserting the theological correctness of the Bronze-age Israelite stories? Isn't is possible that the ancient Israelites, at least in some instances, misunderstood what God was all about and did horrible things in the name of God because these of their misunderstanding of the divine? Isn't this possible? If not, why not?

Of course it's possible, but as a Christian I take Scripture to be normative in at least some sense. So I want to try to understand it charitably, within its historical and canonical context, and see what it could be teaching me.

I have enjoyed this too, but I don't have much time left to discuss it. I do think many good justifying reasons are available, nor do I think these are clear reasons to doubt God's character when the issues are fully understood.

Kyle said...

One more comment on the unchangeability of God's morality and these stories. God is holy and will always be holy. But how does God communicate that He is holy to different cultures? He will have to work with the value systems that they have in place, which means His punishments, commands, rewards, and so forth will be in some sense relative to the circumstance. God's commandments cannot just be lifted out of their historical context and placed upon a table as nice, neat, philosophically precise, universal moral axioms. They are often historically contingent, even though there are universal moral principles behind them.

This is why, for instance, God will punish someone by striking their whole family dead in the OT. Lineage and family line were subjects of great pride in ancient culture, so to have your name wiped off the earth was a serious punishment. And so, God uses this value system to punish people in a way that they would grasp the seriousness of His holiness.

We can think of several analogous situations in our everyday lives when we relate to others. If our children love to go to the movies, we punish them by removing what they value. God's holiness and love never change, but the way He reveals these principles to us will often be through our current and time-bound historical community and its values. God even reveals Himself progressively in the NT as He guides people slowly away from the cultural practice of slavery by Christianizing it. People often need to be eased into moral truth that is culturally radical. God is aware of this; He knows He cannot just snap His fingers and get people to see through their cultural blinders in a moment. Human freedom and culture are the wildcards here.

wabbott said...

Kyle,
I must commend you on the imagination behind your replies. They are among the most novel I have encountered.

The thing is that we have to recognize that most 'theologizing' like this is an exercise in imaginative elaboration. It's certainly not in the text, but is a matter of people in a culture centuries removed overlaying explanations to 'make things fit'.

For instance, in your most recent post:
how does God communicate that He is holy to different cultures? He will have to work with the value systems that they have in place, which means His punishments, commands, rewards, and so forth will be in some sense relative to the circumstance.

And we know this how? Has Yahweh written a book that talks about his methods and motivations that others are not privy to? No, this is humans doing what they do best: providing an imaginative, coherent explanation for what is by nature fragmented and incoherent.

So, by this explanation, Yahweh thought it very important to tell the Israelites to honor their parents, but didn't think were quite ready to know that owning other humans or taking virgins as spoils of war was wrong. And he needed to wait until the 20th century to decide that whole-sale slaughter of cultures wasn't such a good idea (though he might keep the idea on the back-burner in case he needs it again)

Here's the main point, by your hermeneutical method, the Bible could say absolutely anything and you will always be able to find an imaginative elaboration to explain why Yahweh did right and could have done no other.

If Abraham had gone ahead and sacrificed Isaac, you would then say that it was a troubling story for us but was necessary for the world to know that God demands our absolute obedience and, well, after all, Isaac was in a better place now anyway.

And there is a perfectly good reason that Yahweh honored the lies and deceits of Jacob and Rebekkah and that this was perfectly consistent with striking Annanias and Saphirah down dead (in the New Testament!) for lying about money.

And how Yahweh had no other choice but strike Onan down dead for refusing to ejaculate in his brother's wife, but has not a thing to say about Tamar prostituting herself and fooling her father-in-law into sleeping with her.

Nor does he feel strongly enough against human sacrifice to tell Jephthah that sacrificing his daughter was a bad thing even if he did make an oath to Yahweh about it.

And if there was a story in there about Yahweh sending bears to rip little boys to pieces because they made fun of a prophet for being bald, I'm sure there is an imaginative elaboration for why Yahweh had no choice but do that as well.

So, I certainly can enjoy hearing a good yarn from a fruitful imagination, but we have to keep in mind that that is what we're talking about here.

My question stills remains: why all of the effort to justify these stories? Why can't they be seen for what they are: the tales of a Bronze Age people about how they perceived God, which may have nothing to do with how God really is.

Keziah said...

Dear Wabbott,
I have been reading the comments with interest. I struggle with all those stories in the Old Testament too and I also struggle with the election/predestination issue as well. Hmmm.... sounds like I struggle a lot.
Seems to me, and I know I am generalising, that we have created God in our own image. We like the nice God who is loving, meek and mild, and handing out blessings but avoid all the bits that portray him as a God of wrath.
I wonder about our counterparts in countries where Christians are persecuted, tortured and brutally killed. I wonder what sustains them in these circumstances. I wonder if it is correct doctrine. I know I wonder a lot too.
All these things seriously trouble me :>)

wabbott said...

Keziah,
Thanks for your thoughtful comments. The thought that men have created a god in their own image is a common charge toward people of a liberal theological bent and I think there is some truth to it. The people who level the charge, however, for some reason do not apply it to the Israelites for whom the charge appears to be just as true.

After study and reflection, the stories of a God who orders mass murder, overlooks slavery, honors lies and deceit, etc. do not bother me any more. The reason is because I now believe that the Hebrew Scriptures are Israel's stories about their experience of God, not God's stories about his experiences with Israel. People who tell stories of their experiences of God can be right sometimes and wrong sometimes. We can easily see this is the case in the Koran, but we sometimes find it harder to see in our Scriptures.

Hope you are enjoying the journey.

Keziah said...

Hi Wabbott,
I am actually enjoying the journey - but my thinking and questions have often got me into trouble with other Christians. I have been told not to question and to "come against" any doubts I might have. I believe God gave me a brain for good reason. This is why I believe there are so many erroneous things taught in some churches - because people just don't question what they are fed. I would love to wipe those old testament stories but then how could I believe anything that is in the bible. What's to say that Paul wasn't delusional and I can disregard anything he wrote.
I'm quite sure some Israelites were guilty of seeing God in their image too. Christians - or those claiming to be Christians - have committed terrible mass murders over the years in the name of God. I can't imagine having books called the Crusades, or Bosnia in the New Testament.
I don't think God honours us at all - only what we are in Him.
I know this doesn't help much - just some thoughts on the subject.

wabbott said...

Keziah,
I don't think there's a need to wipe out the violent and troubling stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. They're part of our tradition for better or worse. Those stories in themselves don't necessarily affect the reliability of other parts of the Scripture.

An example from outside of Scripture: the Roman historian Suetonius is one of our most important sources of information about the Caesars. But Suetonius also tells a story about Augustus Caesar being the offspring of his mother, Atia, and a Roman god. If we discount the probability that Augustus was the literal 'son of god', this doesn't call into question the accuracy of all of the history written down by Suetonius.

Hope this is helpful.