The announcement is now posted for the next St Andrews Conference on Scripture and Christian Theology. I’m scheming to find my way there, mainly for the scholarly engagement, but also in hopes of playing a few more rounds on the Auld Sod.
Monthly Archives: June 2011
With so many commentaries on Romans, you’d think it would be easy to find one to use in a classroom setting. Frankly, I didn’t feel great about any of those I consult regularly. It’s difficult to find the right one that suits an intensive summer course with seminary students from various backgrounds.
I spent some time in a few other volumes in this series and they’re very good. So I looked through Matera’s offering, chose it, and was not disappointed. He states that he wrote it for use by masters level students, so I figured it would do the trick. He covers all the major theological and textual issues, laying out the positions and their implications. He writes as both a scholar and teacher and I thought it was received very well by students.
Different commentaries are good for different uses, and Matera’s will reward consultation by students and pastors preparing to preach or teach through Paul’s letter.
Election shapes the identity and mission of the people of God. God set his love upon a particular people in eternity past to save them so that through them he might draw others into his redemptive love.
God’s people pervert their identity as God’s elect when they fail to embrace election’s missional aspect. Israel was called to be a light to the nations. They were to develop redemptive relationships with the nations, seeking their good, teaching them to be the nations of the world under the reign of the God of Israel.
They failed to do this, however, imagining that their election meant that God loved them and not the nations. They stood in judgment of the nations, cutting themselves off from them and cultivating deeply-held prejudices. In doing so, they inadvertently cut themselves off from the life of God—the God who made promises to Abraham to redeem the nations of the world and who called Israel for this purpose.
In his earthly ministry, Jesus embodied the pattern of life to which God called his people. He did this by cultivating relationships with all the wrong people, at least according to Jewish prejudices.
In John 4, Jesus passes through the Samaritan town of Sychar and encounters a woman drawing water from the town well. As Lynn Cohick notes in Women in the World of the Earliest Christians, we must not over-read shameful connotations onto this woman’s character (pp. 122-128).
But Jesus’ behavior certainly offends Jewish prejudices at a number of points. He’s in Samaria, speaking with a Samaritan who is a woman. Later in the episode, the townspeople ask Jesus to stay with them, and he obliges by staying for two days (v. 40). This would positively shock a Jewish audience.
The narrative highlights the offensive character of this encounter by describing his disciples’ return in v. 27: “Just then, Jesus’ disciples arrived and were shocked that he was talking with a woman. But no one asked, ‘What do you want?’ or ‘Why are you talking with her?’”
The Jews of Jesus’ day were not merely not interested in developing redemptive relationships with outsiders; they were actually offended by the notion.
But Jesus is the Son of God, embodying the very identity and mission of the God of Israel. As such, he engages redemptively with outsiders.
And he isn’t there to preach or pass judgment. He asks for sustenance. Like many other encounters with sinners or shameful characters in the Gospels, Jesus encounters a marginalized character as an equal. Here, he makes a request for water. The narrative is striking in its casting of Jesus and the woman in a relationship of mutuality.
Even more shocking is Jesus’ description of what he is doing. The Son of God is encountering this woman in order to sustain himself. His encounter with her is his very food.
He does not say that his encounter with her is his mission. It is his food.
The disciples tell Jesus to eat, but he responds by saying “I have food to eat that you don’t know about” (v. 32). Again, “I am fed by doing the will of the one who sent me and by completing his work” (v. 34).
The life-giving sustenance of the Son of God is to encounter “the other” redemptively.
Israel, in cutting itself off from the nations, had actually cut itself off from its source of life. When they saw that mission as not worth engaging, they had ceased to be the people of the God who made promises to Abraham to redeem the nations of the world.
Interestingly, in vv. 35-38, Jesus does not tell his disciples to get busy carrying out their mission. He tells them to start harvesting their food. Their sustenance is to carry out Israel’s mission among the nations they had formerly considered outside of God’s saving purposes.
So, Jesus is sustained through missional encounters. Jesus’ disciples will be sustained through encountering the marginalized.
What are the implications for how we configure our corporate patterns of life as God’s people? It seems to me that they’re quite profound.
Maddie and I drove up to East Lansing to see U2 on Sunday and had a blast. Sarah and I saw them at Soldier Field in September ’09, which was amazing, but it was a unique delight to take my daughter to her first show. It was equally wonderful that she’s now driving so that I could kick back and enjoy the trip!
Among other things, I was struck by U2’s blend of being serious and unserious. I first saw them in 1987 during their super-pious phase. They took themselves way too seriously as they advocated for social justice from a holier-than-thou posture.
They threw all that away in the 1990’s and mocked what they had become, sending themselves up in a variety of ways. Interestingly, they also began concluding concerts in the late 90’s by thanking audiences for giving them a good life. Their self-awareness led to a sweet humility. They began to take themselves less seriously while still taking their music seriously.
Sunday night was no exception and this blend of taking rock music seriously but themselves not-too-seriously was so endearing. It welcomes others into the joy and ecstasy of great rock without putting people off with hyper-piety.
If we want to think rightly about divine election, it is crucial to have the proper starting point.
When Paul utilizes election language, he begins with believers being in Christ. This reality is prior to Paul’s celebrating their identity as those upon whom God set his love from eternity past. Theologically, being in Christ comes before election.
In Ephesians 1:4, Paul states that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” Believers are plunged into Christ by the Spirit and all the blessings of salvation flow from that new reality. Believers are now included in that group of people upon whom God set his love from eternity past.
Paul considers his readers’ past as one in which they were enslaved to Satan (Eph. 2:2), children of wrath (Eph. 2:3), far from God and without hope (Eph. 2:12). That is, they were in a hopeless condition with both a past and future shaped by disobedience, spiritual death, and alienation from God.
But when they heard “the message of truth, the gospel of salvation,” they believed and were “sealed in [Christ] with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13). God radically transformed their entire identity when they embraced the gospel, uniting them to Christ by his Spirit.
They now have a new history that goes back to eternity past in the passionate love of God.
You read that rightly. God changes our pasts when he saves us.
Divine election, for Paul, is the gift of a new history. God plunges believers deeply into Christ by the Spirit at salvation and they become people whom God has been pursuing from eternity past to save.
This is counter-intuitive to Westerners. We think linearly. If we have information about what was going on at the earliest point in time, then we ought to start there.
That’s a mistake and it bears bad fruit when it comes to thinking about divine election.
Beginning in eternity past delivers to us a doctrine of election whereby God chose some for salvation and others for damnation. But that’s not how Scripture speaks of divine election. Election language is not in Scripture to answer the question, “What are some of the things God was doing in eternity past?”
I’ve already made the point that election language is God’s love language for his people. Election answers the question, “How does God regard his people?” He loves them so much that they’ve been on his mind and heart from eternity past. We made the further point that this does not exclude others, but rather demonstrates God’s universal love. God sets his love upon a particular people for the purpose of drawing even more people into his love.
Westerners are so steeped in linear thinking, however, that it becomes difficult to grasp the shape of election language in Scripture. We end up deforming election talk in the Bible and shaping it according to our thought forms.
This move distorts the God of Scripture. We now have a God who sits down before the mass of humanity in eternity past and chooses some for salvation and others for damnation.
We only get that depiction of God when we fail to start where Paul starts. He begins with believers being in Christ and theologizes from there.
If that makes time an elastic category, so be it. That’s not a problem for Paul, though it’s a challenge for Western readers of Paul. We need to adjust our thinking to properly grasp Paul’s theologizing. After all, in Romans 8:30, the future is in the past. Paul states that God has already accomplished believers’ entire salvation, including its future aspects. In the same way, when it comes to election, God changes our past.
When we theologize about divine election, then, we must follow Paul by starting with believers’ new reality in Christ. We must not start by considering God’s actions in eternity past, nor do we start with election itself. We begin with Christ. Further, we remind ourselves of the function of election talk in Scripture. It is God’s love language for his people. Moreover, we remind ourselves that this does not marginalize unbelievers, but emphasizes God’s love for them. God elects so that he might overwhelm them with his love.
The potential body of the elect, then, is huge. Anyone and everyone who turns to Christ becomes part of the people upon whom God set his love from eternity past.
A brief word about theological method.
The narrative shape of Scripture must discipline our theological speech so that we speak faithfully of God and God’s ways with his people. Our theologizing about any notion within Scripture must be constrained and shaped by the form of that notion within the narrative.
Divine election has its proper form and shape as God’s love language for his people. It shapes our identity and mission. We are the people who celebrate God’s love for us that stretches back to eternity past. And we are the people appointed to radiate God’s love to the world in hope that even more people will be swallowed up into God’s love.
If we take divine election out of its narrative form and put it into a doctrinal system, we have just deformed it. If we take it out of the narrative that shapes it properly, we have a misshapen doctrinal notion.
We will now have a deformed and misshapen view of God, one that creates serious theological tensions.
We must not put divine election to use in order to speak of unbelievers so that we have a theological category labeled “the unelect,” or “the elect unto damnation.” That isn’t a category in Scripture.
It may very well make good sense according to how we’ve constructed our doctrinal system, but we’re no longer being disciplined by Scripture. Insofar as Scripture speaks of those outside the faith from the perspective of election, it speaks of those whom God is pursuing in love through his elect.
This is the case because of the purpose of divine election. Divine election always has a “so that,” and the “so that” has to do with God’s mission to reclaim the nations so that all of creation will enjoy God’s life-giving reign.
There’s much more to say about divine election, but with regard to theological method, we must respect the role of election within the narrative lest we deform it and end up with unfaithful theological speech.
We must keep in mind a second aspect of divine election in Scripture in order to see that it does not stand in tension with God’s love. God sets his love upon a particular people so that they might be the agents whereby God swallows up even more people into his love.
Divine election is actually an extension of God’s love for the world. This becomes clear when we consider the Scriptural narrative.
The mission of God to reclaim creation begins with God’s call of Abram in Genesis 12. God promised to make Abram (later called Abraham) into a great nation so that he would be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” (vv. 2-3). From the beginning, God’s election had a universal thrust.
After Israel grows into a great nation in the womb of Egyptian slavery, God delivers them and gives them their commission. Israel is God’s chosen people for the purpose of being a “light to the nations,” a “kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6).
Israel was supposed to cultivate a national life of justice and care for the poor, the orphan, and the widow. And, as a kingdom of priests, they were to initiate a mission to bring the nations to God and the one true God to the nations.
God’s election of Israel was not at the expense of the nations, but for the purpose of the redemption of the nations. God chose Israel to receive his love and to radiate his redemptive love beyond themselves to the nations.
Israel failed to fulfill this commission.
They perverted their election, regarding themselves as God’s favorites. God had chosen them and not any other nation. That must have meant that God loved them rather than the nations. Israel eventually came to despise their neighbors, longing for their destruction.
We see this posture toward the nations embodied in the prophet Jonah. God called him to announce judgment to Ninevah, but Jonah refused. He knew that God longed to redeem, and that if there was even the slightest hint of repentance, even on the part of a blood-thirsty nation well-entrenched in its paganism, God would pour out mercy. Jonah’s expression of agony at God’s redemption is shocking:
But Jonah thought this was utterly wrong, and he became angry. He prayed to the LORD, “Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy. At this point, LORD, you may as well take my life from me, because it would be better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:1-3, CEB).
Israel, like Jonah, longed for the destruction of the nations, perverting the purpose of their election.
Because of this enduring posture toward the nations, God sent them into exile, eventually calling them, “not my people.”
God has set himself on a mission to redeem creation and so chooses a particular people as agents of his saving love. If they become a people who do not purposefully extend God’s love beyond themselves, they cannot be called the people of God.
Divine election always has this outward thrust. God chooses a particular people from eternity past to save them so that they will be agents of his redeeming love for the world.
From the perspective of divine election, then, there are (1) the people upon whom God has set his love, and (2) those whom God is pursuing in love through his elect.
When we regard the two groups from the standpoint of election differently, we take our place alongside those whom God called “not my people.”
Many Christians flinch at biblical talk of election. It seems a dark corner of Christian theology that is better left alone. It’s like God’s dirty secret that we’d rather not know about, the skeleton in God’s cosmic closet. We’re afraid we’re going to find out that God’s heart is like the Grinch’s—two sizes too small.
Is it really the case that before creation God sat down with the names of everyone who would ever live and chose some for salvation and some for damnation? How arbitrary! How unloving!
Further, how can we reconcile this with the open call of the gospel, that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved?
Well, relax. Scripture’s election talk does not stand in tension with God’s love. It is, rather, an extension of God’s passionate love for humanity and God’s mission to reclaim creation.
We rightly understand election when we recognize two aspects of this notion in Scripture. I’ll develop the first of these in this post.
Election talk in the Bible is God’s love language. God uses it to express love for his people. “Before you had any notion of me at all, before you could do anything to earn my love, I set my love upon you and I sought you out in order to save you.”
This isn’t language that describes a cold, dispassionate act before time began. It’s the language of God as a Lover and it is used specifically and solely to speak of his relationship to his people.
Lovers enjoy revisiting with each other the first moments of awakening desire. “You didn’t even know my name at the time, but when I first saw you, I was absolutely smitten. I made sure that we sat next to each other just so I could talk to you.” It’s a way of delighting in the love that they share.
The same holds when election talk is applied to the church. Paul tells believers in Asia Minor that they were on God’s heart and mind from eternity past (Ephesians 1:3-14). He set his love on them and pursued them to save them. These “nobodies” in the world’s eyes are precious to God.
My point, then, is just to say that election language in Scripture functions very specifically to shape the identity of the people of God. We are the ones who have our origin in the love of God from eternity past. He set his love upon us and sought us out to reclaim us and redeem us.
That is the only function of election language in the Bible.
We pervert divine election when we take it out of the context of God’s love for his people and use it to speak of those outside of God’s love. Now we have the “elect” and the “nonelect.” We only end up with that latter category when we take election talk out of its biblical context as God’s love language for his people. But the “nonelect,”—or the “elect unto damnation”—isn’t a biblical category.
When Scripture considers the group of people outside of God’s saving love, it sets election talk aside and picks up other sets of language. Scripture talks about those to whom the elect are sent in order to demonstrate God’s love. Scripture talks about those whom God longs to redeem. Occasionally Scripture talks about those who are enemies of the gospel, perhaps those who have rejected God and are persecuting God’s people.
But the Bible does not consider “those whom God has chosen for damnation.” When it comes to election, the two groups are the elect—those upon whom God has set his love in order to save—and those to whom the elect are sent so that they might also be swallowed up into God’s love.
We must be careful to respect the biblical function of election talk. Too often election talk has been excised from its biblical contexts and put to use in doctrinal systems. It does not belong there. That move distorts the Scriptural depiction of God.
Consider an analogy. I am talking to my kids about how crazy I am about my wife. I do this often and usually embarrass them. My kids might ask me, “well, what about Mrs. Jones, our neighbor? Why are you not crazy about her?” I would respond by putting “lover” talk aside and utilizing a different set of language. “Lover” talk is nowhere on the horizon when it comes to Mrs. Jones. She’s our neighbor. She’s really very kind, but as it happens, she is better regarded in the category of a casual acquaintance who made us cookies last Thanksgiving.
I do not think of my wife as being my lover and all other women as “not my lover.” Their identity with reference to me is that they are friends, co-workers, neighbors. I use other language tools to speak of them.
Divine election, then, does indeed appear throughout Scripture. God sets his love upon a particular people and commits himself on a course to pursue them and save them. We can celebrate God’s love for us that stretches back to eternity past. But when we turn to consider our friends and neighbors outside of Christ, we must think and speak in terms other than divine election.
Divine election does not mitigate or threaten God’s love. It is an extension of God’s love for his people.
More to come on the purpose of election…
My new institution, Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, is looking for an Old Testament person. I’m delighted to be starting there full-time this fall. Check it out!
I’m teaching a summer class on Romans and gearing up for the U2 concert next week at the same time so I’m hearing layers of resonance between Paul and these peerless contemporary theologians. One of these is the inter-connections between Spirit, cross-shaped existence (cruciformity), and community life.
Paul writes to a community in crisis over the identity of the people of God. Jewish Christians are holding their heritage as God’s historic people over-against the non-Jewish Christians in an effort to regain their positions of prominence in the community. This has provoked all sorts of fleshly responses and counter-responses leading, understandably, to communal breakdown.
There’s a sense in which the factions in Rome are giving competing answers to certain questions. Who are the people of God? Among whom is the Spirit of the God of Israel present? What are the markers of the people of God?
Paul configures their situation and communal-relational strategies according to the gospel. The people of God are not marked out by those who are Jewish (or any other ethnicity), but by those who participate in the death of Christ and share together in resurrection life (Rom. 6-8). Anyone and everyone can enter and enjoy this reality, both Jews and non-Jews, through participating in the faithfulness of Jesus.
God’s Spirit inhabits and animates the cruciform community and unites them to Christ and to one another. This reality is activated and experienced by their embrace of one another (Rom. 15:7-8) just as Christ has embraced them all.
This three-part reality cannot be split apart. The Spirit of the cruciform God does not inhabit triumphalist communities, nor communities that do not welcome one another. They are inseparable—Spirit, cruciformity, and community.
This interconnected matrix is displayed beautifully by U2 in their song “Breathe.” Drawing upon the classical Christian notion of spirituality as breathing, along with the biblical identification of Spirit and God’s very own breath, U2 connect true spirituality to embodied practices of fearless love and joyful embrace.
The song begins by noting the gritty realities of this world and how they make us jaded and cynical. A door-to-door salesman shows up—ugh!
16th of June, nine 0 five, door bell rings
Man at the door says if I want to stay alive a bit longer
There’s a few things I need you to know. Three
Coming from a long line of travelling sales people on my mother’s side
I wasn’t gonna buy just anyone’s cockatoo
So why would I invite a complete stranger into my home
But then he goes on to remind himself that there’s a richer description of reality needed:
These days are better than that
These days are better than that
Then the cruciform dynamics kick in, revealing a pattern of daily dying and daily being-given-life realized through embrace of others:
Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn
Every day I have to find the courage
To walk out into the street
With arms out
Got a love you can’t defeat
Neither down or out
There’s nothing you have that I need
I can breathe
The second verse is much like the first, except it focuses on what prevents this sort of “others-engagement”—fear.
16th of June, Chinese stocks are going up
And I’m coming down with some new Asian virus
Ju Ju man, Ju Ju man
Doc says you’re fine, or dying
Nine 0 nine, St John Divine, on the line, my pulse is fine
But I’m running down the road like loose electricity
While the band in my head plays a striptease
The frenetic pace of life and the threat of bad news drive us inward toward self-protection, but we must not surrender to this temptation.
The roar that lies on the other side of silence
The forest fire that is fear so deny it
The remainder of the song is pure exhortation to get out there and love. Encounter the other and adopt postures of embrace and welcome. That’s the way we activate the cruciform, community-creating, community-sustaining Spirit, and that’s the only way we enjoy the Spirit’s presence among us.
I find that U2 captures so well the true spirit of Paul’s community-oriented vision and how the life of God is lived on earth. You can see the sort of prophetic/pastoral role they play in a particular context as they appeared on Letterman a while back. At the end of the song Bono particularizes the lyrics and exhorts New Yorkers to get out there into the snowbound streets. In fact, at the end of this version Bono explicitly mentions the Spirit breathing and empowering this vision of life. It’s powerful stuff.
Live! Breathe! And do it by welcoming and embracing one another.