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“The concept of divine election has always been, of course, one of the more controversial of all the biblical doctrines.  We shudder at the long and sometimes violent history of controversy within the church between advocates of Augustinian Calvinism and Arminianism…Much of the debate over the meaning of election, predestination, reprobation and associated concepts has been carried on at a level of systematic abstraction and binary logic that seems oblivious to the way the Old Testament speaks of God’s choice of Israel.  Between election in the Hebrew Scriptures of Jesus and election in the formulations of theological systems there sometimes seems to be a great gulf fixed.  Few and narrow are the bridges from one to the other…From the range of texts that we have now considered, the following affirmations can be made about election in the Old Testament.

missionThe election of Israel is set in the context of God’s universality.  Far from being a doctrine of narrow national exclusivism, it affirms the opposite.  YHWH, the God who chose Israel, is the God who owns and rules the whole universe, and whatever purpose he has for Israel is inextricably linked to that universal sovereignty and providence.

The election of Israel does not imply the rejection of other nations.  On the contrary, from the very beginning it is portrayed as for their benefit.  God did not call Abraham from among the nations to accomplish their rejection but to initiate the process of their redemption.

The election of Israel is not warranted by any special feature of Israel itself.  When the people of Israel were tempted to think that they were chosen by God on the grounds of numerical or moral superiority to other nations, Deuteronomy very quickly removed such arrogant illusions.

The election of Israel is founded only on God’s inexplicable love.  There was no other motive than God’s own love, and the promises he made to Israel’s forefathers (which included, of course, his promise in relation to the nations).  We might paraphrase John 3:16, in a way that John would doubtless accept, ‘God so loved the world that he chose Abraham and called Israel.’

The election of Israel is instrumental, not an end in itself.  God did not choose Israel that they alone should be saved, as if the purpose of election terminated with them.  They were chosen rather as the means by which salvation could be extended to others throughout the earth.

The election of Israel is part of the logic of God’s commitment to history.  The salvation that the Bible describes is woven into the fabric of history.  God deals with the realities of human life, lived on the earth, in nations and cultures.  His decision to choose one nation in history as the means by which he would bring blessing to all nations within history is neither favoritism nor unfairness.

The election of Israel is fundamentally missional, not just soteriological.  If we allow our doctrine of election to become merely a secret calculus that determines who gets saved and who does not, we have lost touch with its original biblical intention.  God’s calling and election of Abraham was not merely so that he should be saved and becomes the spiritual father of those who will finally be among the redeemed in the new creation (the elect, in another sense).  It was rather, and more explicitly, that he and his people should be the instrument through whom God would gather that multinational multitude that no man or woman can number.  Election is of course, in the light of the whole Bible, election unto salvation.  But it is first of all election into mission.” (Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, pp. 262-64)

Why God Chooses

de ridder“While other religions in the ancient world taught that the gods had chosen their tribe and people exclusively, Israel continued to declare that while Yahweh whom it served had chosen Israel for his people and set his name upon them, this did not mean that Yahweh was a local deity, bound to a single place or nation or land…Nor did the revelation of Yahweh at any time indicate that he had chosen Israel and Jerusalem to the exclusion of all other cities, lands and nations…Significantly, although a large part of the Old Testament is concerned with the redemptive work of God through Abraham and his seed, Israel, one cannot escape the conclusion that Yahweh is not Israel’s God exclusively.  He is concerned with the fate of all mankind…The significance and importance of this cannot be overstressed.  God did indeed elect from among the nations of the world the nation of Israel to belong to him.  He allowed the other nations to remain under the bondage of their self-chosen disobedience and under servitude to the demons to whom they sacrificed.  But he also elected Israel and set it in the midst of the very nations who had disobeyed him.  God’s election of Israel may not be thought of either as an arbitrary act in which God left all the other nations to themselves in order to show preference to Israel or as an abandonment of these nations without concern for them.  Israel’s election is God’s service to the nations, his love to the world.  Through election other nations were included in the promise (Gen. 12:1ff.).  O. Weber observes, ‘The Bible does not begin with the God who elects but with the God who is the Creator and therefore the God who can elect.’  God called Israel into his service for the service of the nations.” (Richard R. De Ridder, Discipling the Nations, pp. 16-18)

cousar“Paul constantly reminds his readers that the risen Christ is none other than the crucified one, whose wounds cannot be removed by exegetical surgery.  The crucifixion of Jesus is not only a past, datable, verifiable fact in the church’s memory, but also an ever-present reality to guide and determine the church’s life.  It is precisely this dimension in Paul’s letters that makes them hard to read and accept.” (Charles B. Cousar, A Theology of the Cross: The Death of Jesus in the Pauline Letters, p. 4)

cousar“The cross is relentlessly a scandal for Christian faith.  Because the event of the cross is a dynamic phenomenon in the memory, narrative, and life of the church, the exact ‘bite’ of the cross for faith is not static or stable.  It is a memory that insists on beginning present reality; it is a concrete event that restlessly becomes paradigmatic in various contexts and circumstances of the life of the church.  For that reason, its claim, power, and threat must repeatedly be reasserted and rearticulated…Our North American dominant cultural values are massively resistant to a theology of the cross, precisely because the cross places suffering at the heart of God’s character and at the heart of meaningful, faithful human life.  Cultural resistance to meaningful suffering has as its counterpart theological resistance to the cross that issues either in resistant disregard or in resistant distortion and trivialization.” (Walter Brueggemann, “Foreword” to Charles B. Cousar, A Theology of the Cross: The Death of Jesus in the Pauline Letters)

Gerhard Von Rad, on the crucial (but often missed) connection between Genesis 1-11 and the election of Abraham in Genesis 12:

von rad“The whole primeval history, therefore, seems to break off in shrill dissonance, and we now ask the question even more urgently: Is God’s relationship to the nations now finally broken; is God’s gracious forbearance now exhausted; has God rejected the nations in wrath forever?  That is the burdensome question that no thoughtful reader of chapter eleven can avoid; indeed we can say that our narrator intended by means of the whole plan of his primeval history to raise precisely this question and to pose it in all its severity.  Only then is the reader properly prepared to take up the strangely new thing that now follows the comfortless story about the building of the tower: the election and blessing of Abraham.  We stand here, therefore, at the point where primeval history and sacred history dovetail, and thus at one of the most important places in the entire Old Testament.” (Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis, p. 152)

Election and Mission

mission“Israel came into existence as a people with a mission entrusted to them from God for the sake of God’s wider purpose of blessing the nations.  Israel’s election was not a rejection of other nations but was explicitly for the sake of all nations.  This universality of God’s purpose, that nevertheless embraces the particularity of God’s chosen means, is a recurrent theme and a constant theological challenge.” (Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative, p. 65)

“YHWH had chosen Israel in relation to his purpose for the world, not just for Israel.  The election of Israel, therefore, was not tantamount to a rejection of the nations but explicitly for their ultimate benefit.  Election is missional in its purpose.  If I might paraphrase John, in a way he would probably have accepted, ‘God so loved the world that he chose Israel.’” (p. 329)

“We cannot speak biblically of the doctrine of election without insisting that it was never an end in itself but a means to the greater end of the ingathering of the nations.  Election must be seen as missiological, not merely soteriological.” (p. 369)

saint_irenaeus_oflyons“If we can speak of a ‘Great Church’ at all, this is at least partly because polemical theologians like Irenaeus identified certain views as incompatible with Christian truth and declared those who persisted in holding them to be beyond Christian fellowship.  Often, this was a thoroughly sensible line to take.  There seems, even now, little point in worshipping the Creator of all material things as good, all-powerful, provident and beneficent, alongside someone who despises this creator as an ignorant and vindictive tyrant whose power is relative and limited.  Not to exclude heretics from the Church, Irenaeus argued, would damage its mission.  Non-Christians would supposed that they were representative of Christianity and turn their ears away from the proclamation of the truth.” (Denis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction, p. 17)

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