Election in the Old Testament, part 2

The predestination debate often gravitates toward the same handful of New Testament texts. The problem, to quote Paul Eddy, is, “There’s an entire 39 books before the New Testament that use the same kind of [predestination] language.”

In other words, if you want to understand what the Bible says about election, don’t skip the Old Testament. (To be fair, many Calvinists don’t. They just read it differently.)

Jesus and Paul were steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. One was a rabbi, the other a Pharisee. The New Testament quotes the Old at least 300 times and alludes to it as many as 4,000 times, according to the late Roger Nicole. In other words, it’s important.

When you read the Old Testament, you’ll find that God called or “predestined” a number of individuals: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, etc. But each was chosen to play a specific role in God’s redemptive plan. Their stories do nothing to bolster the Calvinist view that God predestines every individual to salvation or damnation.

If you want to argue that, there should be some evidence for it in the Old Testament.

And there isn’t.

Again, quoting Bethel University theologian Paul Eddy:

If you ask, ‘Who’s chosen in the Old Testament?’ it’s Israel. It’s not particular individual Israelites. It’s the nation of Israel. It’s a corporate category.

God ordained there would be a group called Israel (Genesis 12). He predestined this group to be his “chosen people,” a covenant nation. But there is nothing to indicate that he determined the individual composition of that group. From the beginning, God intended for everyone in that nation to benefit, even though clearly not everyone did. Notice Moses’ parting words to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 29:

All of you are standing today in the presence of the LORD your God — your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the LORD your God . . .

The fact that there would be a covenant nation was fixed, determined, foreordained. The individual composition of that nation was not. Anyone could opt in; anyone could opt out.

If you were an Israelite, there were several ways you could opt out. For example:

But anyone could opt in, too — even if they weren’t an Israelite. Foreigners were invited to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish precursor to the Eucharist (Exodus 12). They were welcome to make offerings to God (Numbers 15). Any foreigner who chose to live among the Israelites was presumed to be part of the covenant and to be treated accordingly (Numbers 9).

What’s more, God didn’t just give people a choice; he gave them the ability to make that choice (Deuteronomy 30):

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach . . . I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

Calvinism says that individual election is necessary because humans, in their depravity, are utterly incapable of choosing God. Specifically, John Calvin wrote that we are deprived of “soundness of will,” i.e. the ability to choose what is acceptable to God.

But God appears to think otherwise.

In the Old Testament, God initiated redemption, no question. But there was a still choice to be made. And God gave people the ability to make it, even after the fall.

It’s not because people are so awesome. Not because we deserve it. But because that’s the kind of God he is.

I believe that a God who gives us freedom even though he doesn’t have to is greater than a God who predetermines every tiny detail of the universe.

The day the tulip died, part 1

Over on the Jesus Creed blog, Scot McKnight is running a series about his personal experience with Calvinism. I can relate to his story, and I’m willing to bet $10,000 of Mitt Romney’s money that I’m not the only one.

Calvinism is enjoying a resurgence, especially among younger (and predominantly white) evangelicals. But these are not your grandmother’s Calvinists. They’re part of a theological movement sometimes described as “neo-Reformed.”

They read books by John Piper and listen to sermons by Mark Driscoll. They belong to groups like The Gospel Coalition and the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

  • The neo-Reformed often equate the gospel with the “doctrines of grace” (another name for the five points of Calvinism, a.k.a. TULIP).
  • They hold a relatively narrow view of evangelicalism, regarding non-Calvinists with a mixture of suspicion and pity (and sometimes outright disdain).
  • They relish any doctrine widely considered difficult to swallow. Limited atonement, double predestination . . . this is the red meat that, in their view, separates the men from the boys. (And yes, theirs is by and large a man’s world.)

I used to be one of the neo-Reformed. Until 2003 or so, I was a committed Calvinist. Each of the three statements above described me perfectly.

I studied at a Calvinist-leaning seminary. I wrote a 130-page thesis arguing that long before the foundations of the world, God in his absolute, meticulous sovereignty had determined every detail of human history. I attended a neo-Reformed church where predestination was the theme of almost every sermon, no matter what the text.

Eventually, I got out — because I grew to realize that Calvinism was killing my faith in a loving God.

Recently a good friend suggested I write about “why I am not a Calvinist (but used to be).” I’ve been putting it off for a while, but reading Scot’s story has encouraged me to tell my own. So… here we go.

Part 2 of this series can be found here.