Monday, November 08, 2010

Paul's Election Language (4.4)

I post these things in part to solicit feedback, in case I have missed something significant.
Certainly Paul regularly uses language of predestination and election. It was clearly a major category of this thinking and language, but what did he mean by it? We started off this chapter with the claim that such language served two basic purposes. First, it affirmed that God is in control and that nothing happens without his approval. And yet, it would clearly go against the tenor of Paul and Scripture as a whole to suggest that God caused Peter to be a hypocrite at Antioch or directly commanded Satan to tempt Jesus. The biblical texts do not say or imply such things.

At least as important as what Paul says with his words is what he does with his words. Paul’s words are not propositions in a philosophy textbook. They are real life statements with certain common sense limits, often accompanied by emotion, and usually formulated in such a way as to persuade. Later thinkers like Augustine or Calvin then tried to fill in the blanks and connect the dots, as we all do when we reflect on such things. The problem is when we connect the dots and end up with ideas that clearly do not fit with other things Paul says.

So Paul does not use predestination language in a way that ensures an individual’s future without condition. For example, surely Paul considered himself to be one of the elect. Surely he considered himself to be justified by faith. Surely he had more confidence of his own place among the sanctified than he did the bulk of the Corinthian church. Yet he still expresses the possibility that he would not make it. He disciplines his life so that after running so well in the race of faith, he does not end up disqualified for the prize of salvation (1 Cor. 9:27). He continues on his course of suffering “if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:11, NRSV). A predestinarian can certainly explain such verses—even though Paul is unsure of his election, God is. But this explanation is something imposed on the text, not something Paul ever says.

Similarly, Paul does not use predestination language in a way that ensures that someone “prepared for destruction” (e.g., Rom. 9:22) will inevitably be damned. After speaking in the strongest of terms about God’s sovereign right to predestine the disbelieving in Israel for destruction, Paul then goes on in Romans 11:23 to say that those who have been grafted out can be grafted back in. In other words, he does not talk about predestination as if what is predetermined is unconditionally predetermined. Again, the predestinarian can explain Paul’s language elsewhere away. If we could see behind the curtain, they might say, we would see that God predestined this individual Israelite first to be grafted out and then to be grafted back in. But this is not what Paul actually says.

In the end, Paul’s predestination language functions as “after the fact” language. It primarily serves to affirm those who have responded to the gospel with faith. And it functions in this way primarily on a corporate rather than individual level. It functions to assure the “elect,” those who are here, of God’s favor toward them without guaranteeing that favor apart from their continued faithfulness. It functions in his rhetoric more on an affective and cohesive level as on a propositional level. Meanwhile, he hardly ever uses such language in relation to the wicked. He does so in Romans 9 in a context of highly charged rhetoric in relation to God’s right to do whatever he wants with his creation.

So we return to some of the insights we had at the beginning of the chapter. Paul’s language of predestination fits well with the fatalism of his world. Also like the fatalism of his world, Paul does not speak of election in a way that is mutually exclusive with freedom of choice. Rather, we know what God has willed by what happens, after the fact. Predestination language, while sounding predictive, actually functions entirely in retrospect. It does not impact who can be saved or how one is to go about mission.

So when we get to application, we can see that no matter what we believe in theory about predestination, we must all live as if we have free will. We must live as if the way we live out our faithfulness to God matters. We must live as if we can lose our right standing with God. We must conduct the mission of the church as if everyone can be saved. We must do all these things in faith that God is in control and that nothing happens without his approval. Who knows, perhaps in some way that would blow our mind, God who is beyond our understanding was able to create a world in which he both determines everything and where we have the ability to choose or not to choose him.

We end the chapter with these well known verses from Romans 8:28-30:

We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose. We know this because God knew them in advance, and he decided in advance that they would be conformed to the image of his Son. That way his Son would be the first of many brothers and sisters. Those who God decided in advance would be conformed to his Son, he also called. Those whom he called, he also made righteous. Those whom he made righteous, he also glorified (CEB).

Christians regularly invoke 8:28 with the sense that no matter what difficult circumstance you might be in, God will work it out for your good. Certainly God always does have our good in mind and helps us in all our trials and troubles.

But in context, we can see that the good in view goes far beyond my immediate circumstances to eternity, indeed beyond me as an individual to all believers taken together. The good here is to be conformed to the image of God’s Son. What does Paul mean? He elsewhere says that we will bear the likeness of Jesus in the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:49), that our bodies will be transformed to be like his glorious body (Phil. 3:21). He elsewhere speaks of Christ as the first fruits of the dead, with us following him (1 Cor. 15:20; cf. Heb. 2:10). In short, the good that God is working out, what it means to be conformed to Christ’s image, almost certainly refers to our glorification that will take place at the resurrection.

God has “decided in advance” that we will experience this transformation together, that our bodies will all be conformed to the form of his glorified body. Knowing who would participate in the resurrection, he called us, “elected” us. He planned for us to become right with God, justified. He planned for us to be glorified in the resurrection, just as Christ was.


Bob MacDonald said...

You have some nice distinctions here- " this explanation is something imposed on the text"

I think you have summarized the problems with explanation and understanding. What we need to do is obey - not explain. And that word 'obey' which derives in several languages from 'hear' is just what is commanded in the Shema (Deut 4:6). When we obey we will then understand - and that will give us real motivation because such understanding goes way beyond what explanation can do.

Don't "connect the dots" - lovely - hear the spaces of fire.

"It functions in his rhetoric more on an affective and cohesive level as on a propositional level."

also good - thanks for the helpful post.

Jason A. Staples said...

I think it's quite helpful to read Paul's predestination language alongside the very similar language from Qumran. One thing that is clear about both of them (as I see it): Both deal with the predestination of a community, much less so of individuals.

They also tend to connect conditionality with the notion of predestination -- "works all things to the good OF THOSE WHO LOVE GOD." In other words, one has to be a part of that group in order for the foreordained promise to apply.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Nice to know that our minds are what we should "do without". We are only to "trust and obey"? You certainly don't dismiss using your mind.

Not living reasonably, according to one's own values and priorities is irresponsible and irrational behavior, it seems to me...

True that one only benefits from an organization if one is a part of it.

The Catholic Church has understood "salvation" to mean being a part of the Church. But, what exactly is "salvation"? Isn't any other group accountability just as productive?

Isn't it important to value the same things that a particular group values?

Bob MacDonald said...

@Angie, sarcasm? You mean it is not 'nice to know'. I do not know how you will hear the spaces of fire - but you can if you chose to 'desist' as Psalm 46 puts it.