Election in the Old Testament, part 3

In the Old Testament, God kicked off his redemptive plan by forming a covenant nation called Israel. The nation as a whole was a chosen instrument, predestined by God.

But each person had a choice to make. If you were born into the covenant, there were dozens of ways you could opt out — that is, be “cut off.” If you were born outside the chosen nation, there was nothing but your own pride to keep you from joining it.

Which leads to another important point about predestination in the Old Testament: it’s always for the benefit of others — i.e. the not-predestined. This idea is woven into the very first promise God made to Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Notice the promised blessing is unlimited in scope. Anyone who blesses God’s people (and by extension, God himself) will be blessed by God in return. And notice that God’s action comes in response to human action.

Yes, God is orchestrating redemptive history. Yes, he alone initiates salvation. But he does so in a way that leaves room for us to play a meaningful part.

The promise ends with “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is the whole reason for God’s covenant with Abraham. God is not raising up a chosen nation for its own sake, as if to carve out a tiny portion of the human race for himself. He intends to use this nation as a vehicle to bring salvation to the entire world.

After the exodus, God established his covenant with the whole nation at Mount Sinai, calling them a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19). A priest is a human conduit for grace. Someone who not only points the way to God, but helps others walk the path.

In other words, the Israelites were not predestined to be “saved” for their own sake. They were predestined to be priests. They were predestined to draw others to God — or as Isaiah puts it, to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42, 49).

In the New Testament, we see the same connection between predestination and priestly proclamation. Paul refers at one point to his “priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God” (Romans 15). Elsewhere, Peter writes to the church:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession [all of which is predestination language], that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Predestination is never an end unto itself. We are not predestined to be members of a club, we are predestined to be ambassadors and priests, proclaiming the good news to others so they in turn can be predestined to do the same.

Calvinism views predestination as a means by which God narrows the scope of his redemptive agenda, applying its benefits to a select few. But in the Old Testament, predestination works in reverse, gradually expanding the circle to include more and more people — with the end goal of blessing “all peoples on earth.”

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.

Election in the Old Testament, part 1

When discussing a contested issue — you know, like predestination — there’s often a tendency to say things like, “Let’s just go back to what the Bible says.” But it’s not always that simple. There are a couple reasons for this; but for now, let’s highlight one.

All of us read with a filter — a set of presuppositions that color what we read and how we interpret it.

For example, most people reading this are the product of a Western culture that prizes the individual above all else. We’ve drunk deeply from the font of individualism, without even realizing it.

If you grew up in America, you’ve gotten a double dose. The virtue of “rugged individualism” (it’s taken for granted that it’s a virtue) courses through our veins. It’s woven into our national mythology.

And so we tend to think of our faith, like everything else, in primarily individual terms. We read the Bible as if it were written to each of us personally. (There’s even a website selling personalized Bibles with your name inserted into over 7,000 verses.) We talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus. We invite others to accept him as their personal savior.

There’s just one problem. The Bible doesn’t talk like this, because it’s not a Western book.

It never characterizes Jesus as our “personal savior.” When it does speak of a relationship with God, it’s usually in the context of a community. To have a relationship with God is to be part of a redeemed community — the covenant people, the body of Christ, etc.

We sometimes talk about “walking with God” as if it’s just me and Jesus strolling down the beach. The Bible imagines it in very different terms:

I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. (2 Corinthians 6, where Paul quotes several OT passages)

When we come across the pronoun “you” in our Bibles, we assume it means each of us individually. But more often than not, it’s plural, not singular. It’s you the community, not you the individual.

Here’s an example:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3, NRSV)

Paul’s not describing each believer as their own little temple here. He’s saying you the community are God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in you as a community. (The NIV does a better job in this case by using the phrase “you yourselves.”)

So what does all this have to do with predestination? Everything.

Is it possible we’ve simply assumed the Bible has individuals in mind when it talks about predestination? In doing so, is it possible we’ve imported our Western cultural assumptions into the text, without even realizing it?

Next up, predestination in the Old Testament.

Corporate election

I spent several posts (starting here) describing my journey in and out of Calvinism — specifically, the neo-Reformed version. I left because I came to believe two things about the Bible and predestination. One, the Bible doesn’t set out to give a comprehensive understanding of predestination, what it is, or how it works. (There are lots of things we try to make the Bible say that it simply has no interest in saying.)

Two, to the degree the Bible does speak about predestination, it paints a very different picture.

And while we’re doing things in pairs… the Bible (as I understand it) differs from Calvinism on predestination in two key ways, both of which I alluded to in an earlier post:

  1. Calvinism views predestination as primarily an individual affair, by which God preemptively hand-picked certain people for salvation.
  2. Calvinism see predestination as both the means and the end, rather than as a means by which God makes it possible for any and all to come to him.

Both problems can be resolved by something known as the “corporate view of election.”

Just what is corporate election? Well, not the best name ever, for starters. Especially in the wake of the now infamous Citizens United case.

Basically, the corporate view of election says that God predestined there would be a redeemed community called the church, but he did not determine in advance the individual composition of that group.

This view stands in contrast to both to the traditional Calvinist perspective (that God predestined individuals) AND the traditional Arminian view (that God saw in advance who would choose him and predestined them on the basis of his foreknowledge — though some Arminians accept the corporate view instead).

The video below is a helpful intro to the corporate view of election, courtesy of Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, pastors at Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. They say basically everything I have to say about the corporate view, only better and more succinctly. But I’ll still give it a shot.

(Thanks to Kurt Willems for highlighting this video on his blog last year.)

The day the tulip died, part 3

I like being right.

I mean, I REALLY like being right.

Which might explain why I was drawn to Calvinism. To quote Ben Witherington:

Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.

It’s come up in dozens of conversations with friends: a sense that many Calvinists come across as arrogant. (An odd trait for a theology that starts with something called “total depravity.”) Even some Calvinists have observed with concern a tendency toward theological arrogance.*

All I know is I did little to challenge the stereotype.

Among Calvinists (or anyone who values theological certainty), there’s a strong pull to look on competing views as “theology lite.” Easy answers for those who can’t handle “red meat” doctrines like predestination.

That’s how I felt about Calvinism’s chief rival, Arminianism. The classic Arminian view of predestination says that God looked down the corridors of time, saw everyone who would someday put their faith in him, and predestined them on the basis of his foreknowledge. Also known as “individual election based on foreseen faith.”

Anyway, it felt like a copout to me. Besides, then open theism came along and unhelpfully pointed out that if God foreknows something with certainty, then there are no real alternatives. Anything he foreknows might as well have been predestined beforehand. It comes to the same result.

But there’s another way to read the predestination texts: something called the “corporate view of election.” I was introduced to this perspective by a college mentor who studied theology at Asbury. He was someone I looked up to, despite our differences of opinion. And luckily for me, no amount of theological arrogance on my part could change that.

The corporate view affirms the idea of election (or predestination) without trying to redefine it as simple foreknowledge. But it insists that election as described in the Bible is primarily corporate, rather than individual.

That is, when the Bible speaks of predestination, it speaks of a group of people — God’s holy people, the body of Christ, etc. Calvinism thinks of election primarily in individual terms, as if God were playing a cosmic game of duck, duck, goose.

The corporate view says that election only applies to a given individual if and when he or she chooses to join the elect group. In other words, God elected that there would be something called “the body of Christ.” He elected to pour out the blessings of salvation on this group. But anyone can join up with this group and so become part of “the elect.”

Not that I was convinced. Not immediately, anyway. It would be another six years or so before I gave the corporate view a fair hearing . . .

Part 4 of this series can be found here


*That’s not to say all or even most Calvinists are arrogant. I’ve known some who are and others who are anything but. I have Calvinist friends who are incredibly kind, generous, and humble. But in my experience, Calvinism — particularly the neo-Reformed variety — lends itself to theological arrogance more readily than other systems of belief.