I hang out with a bible study full of high school guys pretty much weekly. Sometimes we swim for 4 hours at the super fancy Laurelhurst Beach Club (I hate that 30 foot high dive…and quietly scorn the small 9 year old who mocked my half hour of “I don’t want to jump off” before my 30 foot free fall), sometimes we play catch, sometimes we play videogames, sometimes we actually read the bible–surprise!– and often we have great conversation.
Lately my friend Ben has been digging into his bible and has been struck by several things. Firstly, he’s struck by the fact that God does choose us (Luke 10:22). Secondly, he’s struck by the fact that it seems therein like he doesn’t choose some people. The question is one of the theological word “Election” or in other words “How God chooses us.” It’s a really good question.
I wanted to use this space to think about the issue as he and I have talked about it for 2 purposes. To begin with, I’ll be out of town this weekend and his questions are somewhat pressing. Secondly, I just like doing this sort of thing.
I guess that the issue for me has two main points:
A) How do we look at Election?
B) How do we read the text when it seems to contradict itself or give opposing ideas regarding the Lord?
One at a time.
I think that in the context of scripture the idea of Election often receives a strange idea off of some people. Particularly from some very reformed theological thinkers (when you read this, think theology related to the protestant reformation and emphasize the John Calvin therein). Election to certain folks carries the implication–founded on a few key texts–that God chooses folks from eternity. Those going to eternal life and those going to eternal suffering.
While I am a member at a Presbyterian church I really don’t think this is what’s going on. On the one hand, I don’t think scripture clearly conveys this idea in the way that most reformed theological thinkers are puttin’ it out there and on the other, I have severe issues with the idea of a creative, loving God that casts people into damnation before they actually existed.
When I approach the text and think about election I think we need to take election in context. It starts with the idea of calling. For the majority of texts referring to election I think it’s easiest and most accurate to take it in terms of the nation of Israel. God calls (chooses) Israel through their forefathers–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–but calls (and thus elects) the entire nation to Himself in Exodus 19. Here’s the passage:
“At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain.Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.'”
This is a the first call of the nation of Israel. They are elected here, but how are they elected?
They’re chosen to participate in a covenant relationship and to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
The words priest and holy need some clarification. The role of a priest is one who represents God to others. The priests in Israel interceded on behalf of the people for God and vice versa. Holy is another way of saying set apart, representing God’s holiness to others through their lived witness. The essential elements of their call are formed in and through their relation to God and others. What is clear here is that they are called to a purpose. Specifically the purpose of being witnesses to the relationship the Living God has with them. Representing who He is and what He desires.
This happens in and through the covenant, in other words, they’re also called to participation. God asks something of them as well. They choose Him back by the way the participate in the covenant. In Deuteronomy 30:19 they are urged to “choose life” by participation in the covenant.
I think in this key passage really does a lot towards helping us understand the original context of election of Israel. When can we look at this and then relate it to the New Testament passages with which we need to interact. New Testament uses of the word election (particularly by St. Paul) do not change this context, if anything they add to it’s depth as a theological idea. We now have a broader understanding of call/election.
As we hit the NT we note that Christ is the one true Israel. He is the one whom God chose, and the one who perfectly chose God back living a witness to that relationship. The call now shifts a bit for us as Christians. We actually participate in the only true participation in the covenant. We are a part of the work of God in and through Christ.
It is clear that we are chosen by Him (as mentioned before) still. John 15:15 reads “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go bear fruit…” But there does also seem to be a significant perspective regarding the fact that we choose Him back. The Rich young ruler walks away, the crowds in Athens and Phillipi reject the Gospel, Paul persecutes the church and then receives a call which he then accepts.
Over and over again the reverberation of “choose life” seems to be there. Human choice, moral responsibility, and free will are obvious. The participatory aspect of the call does not appear to change.
True, at points it does seem that Paul is pushing a reformed perspective on election (i.e. Romans chapter 8), but He also clearly pushes an idea that we have something to do with choosing our life in Christ in the same book (check out Romans 12). Inevitably however, we read Romans 8 we always have other passages to balance it with. There is more than one clear message being conveyed regarding election, it’s implications, and what we are to make of them.
While I honestly believe that Israel’s election a la exodus 19 is and should be a substantial foundation for how we begin to look at the issue of election, by no means does it settle the scriptural outliers. Especially with regard to eternal life.
A tension remains between certain texts on what happens regarding eternal life. Some texts imply that it’s what you do that gets you there or not (Matthew 25:31-46) and others seem to imply otherwise (Romans 8:30 I want to read the greek and really wrestle with this text. I’ll get there someday.)
This brings us to the next point, how do we read the text when it appears that it contradicts itself? What we have at the very least is tension. Lots of people hate tension. In this context more than most. We want to know. Yet, this point regarding eternal life is a very good example of how the text does not resolve the tension. It’s not meant to.
I think it’s important when we read this to realize that the tension does not go away. No matter which verses you end up emphasizing, there is always a series of others that can–and often do–emphasize another theological pole on various issues. While I don’t have a clean-cut, “This is what I say!” to throw out there I do have an idea.
A friend of mine once noted these poles on the issue of predestination/entirely human decisions regarding eternal life can and do function as sign posts. They both exist to say “You cannot live here,” there’s always scripture to prod you out of a comfortable theological trench and force you to awkwardly stand in the no man’s land of “I just don’t know.” The discussion is and likely will always be in tension.
Maybe something we need to acknowledge about the bible is that it’s purpose is not to answer all of our questions, but rather it is meant to be a place where God reveals Himself to us. A special place where He makes Himself known. This is why the bible was put together to begin with. The church noted the places where God was speaking. He was speaking then and speaks now in and through confusing statements, apparent contradictions from various biblical authors, translated foreign words of a 2000 year old set of historical documents, and the broken attempts of His church to make sense of it all.
It’s a super uncomfortable place to be when we read the text and come up with what we do not desire: “I don’t know” as opposed to answers, but the bible is not a fact book. It’s a part of God calling us to be on a journey that features unresolved tension whose end and constant companion is the One who said to Israel,
“…I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”
Hopefully this was a worthwhile read. Keep the thoughts and questions coming.