This semester at the Episcopal Church at Yale we have been working through the Letter to the Romans in our weekly Bible study, which wrapped up last week. In a previous post I gave an overview of what I take the argument of Romans to be. In this post, I want to focus in on a particular topic, the issue of “divine election.”
To give a brief summary of what we said before:
Paul’s fundamental concern in his ministry is arguing for the full and unconditional inclusion of Gentiles in the early church.
This is in opposition to those who would have argued that the Gentiles could only be included in the church after submitting to the Jewish law. As I said in the last post, Paul argues that the law has not brought salvation to the Jews, that both Jews and Gentiles are in need of salvation.
Paul then argues that this salvation comes through the faith of Christ, which establishes a new people of God– those united to Christ, sharing in his faith through their own “obedience of faith.”
In making this argument, Paul raises serious questions about the role of the law. We can see him wrestling with the implications of this in chapter 7, I think, where Paul tries to work through his own relationship with the law while acknowledging that the law does not bring about salvation.
In making this argument Paul also raises a serious question about the nature of divine election.
Before we get into this, I want to summarize how the conversation about divine election is normally constructed in theology. This is important because I think the way that I am about to construct the conversation is very different from how this is normally done and I would be remiss if I left anyone thinking that what I was arguing for was a standard view.
In my experience, the issue of election is generally considered in terms of two concepts: the order of salvation and eschatology.
Lets start with eschatology: generally election is seen as having to do with the eternal state of individuals in the eschaton. In other words, the term elect refers to those who, at the end of time, will spend eternity with God. There is one exception to this understanding of election which I will mention momentarily, but an eschatological focus seems to be a generally accepted dimension of meaning for this phrase.
The order of salvation is a much more contested issue in most theological discussions about election. This gets us to another major theological term: predestination. The question that I have heard most frequently debated concerning election is the question of whether the elect are chosen by God before they are known or foreknown by God to be those whom would choose faith. In other words, this becomes a debate about free-will: does God choose faith for those God will save, or does God choose those who will themselves freely choose faith?
This issue of predestination gets complicated and touches on several other issues that we won’t get into now. In general, though, this issue breaks down into a few recognizable camps. One of the most vocal camps, especially in evangelical theology today, is the Calvinist or Reformed camp, which holds that God predestines those who will be saved and thereby determines that they will choose faith and salvation. Human free-will is an illusion on such a view and the eschatological fate of individuals is entirely up to God. In opposition to this viewpoint are several versions of what is usually referred to as Arminianism, all of which hold that humans freely choose salvation rather than God determining their choice.
One other view worth mentioning is that of 20th century theologian Karl Barth. Barth considered himself a Calvinist, but reconfigured the argument a good bit by arguing that election is not an eschatological concept having to do with the eternal fate of people’s souls but that election refers to God’s predestination of Christ. In choosing Christ, God chooses to identify with and redeem humanity. Barth leaves the last bit somewhat open to interpretation, with some taking this as moving in a universalist direction and others interpreting Barth here as making room for human free-will within a Calvinist paradigm.
Now that I’ve laid out that crash course in the theological understanding of election, we can return to Romans.
The first thing that I am going to suggest is that I don’t think any of these views map onto the argument of Romans particularly well.
Certainly Romans has an element of being concerned with people’s salvation. Certainly Paul talks about election, predestination, foreknowledge, and Christ as the “new Adam” or the “first-fruits” of salvation, all terms that play major roles in each of the aforementioned theological viewpoints. But with all of that said, I want to suggest that the way election functions in Paul’s argument in Romans is not the way election functions in any of these theological models.
Instead I want to argue that election functions as a way in which Paul deals with the question of how the inclusion of the Gentiles relates to the Jewish self-understanding as the chosen people of God.
To set this up, lets remember that throughout this letter Paul has used the law in two ways.
First, he has used law as a marker of what the Jews thought made them unique amongst ancient societies: God had revealed the law to them, therefore they had a special status before God.
Second, Paul has used the law as a foil to faith, arguing that the law has not brought about salvation (the Jews are ultimately in the same boat as the Gentiles) and therefore salvation must come about thru some other means, namely the faith of Christ producing faith in us.
In making this argument, Paul has raised a serious question about Jewish identity. If the law has not brought about salvation, if both Jews and Gentiles are to be saved through some new means, then what does this mean for the ancient promises God made to the Jewish people? What does this mean for the Jewish identity as the chosen (or elect) people of God?
It is to answer this question, I think, that Paul turns in Romans chapters 9-11. And his answer is that God’s relationship with the people of Israel is based on God’s own prerogative. The claim Paul is making is essentially this: God choose (or elected) to establish a relationship with Israel in the past, but it is entirely within God’s rights to change the nature of that relationship or to establish a new relationship with the Gentiles.
Three things need to be said in unpacking that basic argument:
First, in some ways this argument is a necessary step for Paul to make in responding to his opponents. At the end of the day Paul cannot make the claim that the Gentiles are to be fully included into the church without being required to submit to the Jewish law unless Paul has a way of setting aside the law, and that in part requires setting aside the status it affords the people of Israel as the chosen or elect people of God. So in making this claim Paul is in essence working out the logical conclusions of his own theological position with regards to the question of Gentile inclusion.
Second, the biggest objection that could be given to Paul by his opponents in response to such a claim is that this in some way makes God out to be a liar (or at the very least, arbitrary), going back on his promises to the Jewish people. In response to this Paul offers several prophetic passages in chapters 9-11 as evidence that in fact the inclusion of the Gentiles is completely in line with what God has said to the people of Israel in the past. God always intended to bring salvation to the Gentiles and now he has done it Paul argues. In no way has God broken his word, instead it is the people of Israel who have failed to keep up their end of the bargain.
Third, Paul uses this argument as the basis for issuing a challenge to the Gentiles. The covenant with Israel which God made in the past was intended for Israel to bring about the salvation of both the Jews and the Gentiles, Paul has argued, but was conditional on Israel’s obedience. Israel’s rejection of Christ has led to the Gentiles being “grafted in” while Israel has itself been pruned out of this covenant, Paul goes on. This illustrates the importance of faithfulness to God, Paul argues. The “obedience of faith” must be maintained in order to continue in the new union with Christ.
It seems likely that Paul is drawing a large part of his motivation for this argument from the actual concrete situation that he faced in his ministry. By and large his gospel had been rejected by his Jewish hearers while a growing number of Gentiles were coming to faith in Christ. Paul needed to justify his ministry theologically, and that required an explanation for these concrete facts. In doing this, however, Paul places the question of election into a different realm of theology than any of the standard accounts we discussed above place it in: rather than being a question of eschatology or soteriology Paul seems to see the issue of election as a question of ecclessiology: theology about the nature of the church. The force of Paul’s argument seems to be that the composition of the church cannot be limited by human expectations or boundaries but is instead open to whomever God wills.
While certainly this has implications for eschatology and soteriology, it seems to me that Paul has little interest in Romans in making an argument about whether or how God predestines individual souls to salvation. Instead, Paul seems much more interested in asking how the racial make-up of the church in his day worked within a theological framework. In this way, Paul is advancing what for his day is actually a very progressive argument of inclusion, but he is doing so in a way that is grounded in a very high notion of both divine prerogative and human responsibility to maintain the “obedience of faith,” offering a perspective which is very interesting to consider in our present day context.