Election According to Scripture, Pt. 3

Deforming Divine Election

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.

17 thoughts on “Election According to Scripture, Pt. 3

  1. joey

    This makes so much sense to me. I can see that your stating the issue in the way you have (Our theologizing about any notion within Scripture must be constrained and shaped by the form of that notion within the narrative) is true of most “doctrinal issues.” Baptism would be another example. Baptism, too, is part of the narrative and is properly understood as such.
    Great point!

    1. timgombis

      Seriously, Joey, this could have been a very long post, rehearsing the number of doctrinal notions that are perverted when taken out of their narrative context! Not to start a fight on here, but justification is most definitely one of those!

  2. S Wu

    The method is so important. One of my frustrations when I study the Bible with people is that presupposed doctrines inevitably dominate the discussion.

    I came to faith from a non-Christian (and non-Western) background. For many years I read the Bible again and again, trying to understand what God has to say about himself and his salvation for humankind. My experience is that the Bible is indeed shaped by stories – the divine drama, if you like. It seems that the theological method you propose makes a lot of sense to me.

    1. timgombis

      Because its texts are shaped by non-Western writers and worldviews, Scriptural texts are inevitably distorted by Western readers. This doesn’t leave us hopeless, but it certainly means that we must be provisional about conclusions and in vigorous conversation with others from other worldviews so that we truly hear what the Spirit says and so that we rightly represent the one true God.

      1. S Wu

        Well said, Tim. I have to say that every culture has its own baggage and we all need to hear from each other.

  3. Jerry

    There is a Calvinist in me that wants to rise up and defend my doctrinal convictions and rescue the Sovereignty of God. But having re-read this post I see that is not necessary at all. Like Paul (and you, brother), I can rest assured that God is FREE and JUST in His sovereign plans and purposes. Vessel prepared for glory and vessel prepared for wrath are not mine to worry about. God is just(ified) to destroy the Amalekites and to save the Ninevites. Both stories fit into the narrative of God’s redeeming work.

    If I am hearing you correctly, you are not disagreeing with that at all.

    ‘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. ‘

    By ‘doctrinalizing’ and ‘systemitizing’ the narrative, we do damage to it. We inevitably limit His freedom (as if we could), or pervert His justice, in our attempt to defend His freedom and His justice.

    All I know (need to know) is that if God could find it in His mercy to call and to save me, who can’t He save?

    1. timgombis

      We all have the tendency to speak from our preferred systems and conceptions and to make Scripture bend to how we’ve always understood it.

      You’ve said it well: “We inevitably limit His freedom (as if we could), or pervert His justice, in our attempt to defend His freedom and His justice.”

      The danger, though, isn’t that we’re limiting God’s freedom but we just may be speaking of some other being than the one true God. Barth’s discussion in his Romans commentary on our speaking not of the one true God, but of the ‘No-God’ in our projecting our own desires is huge here.

      One way to avoid this is to constantly return to the narrative and see to it that we’re speaking faithfully of what we find there.

      1. Jerry

        Maybe that explains why the “church” is increasingly less effective — we’re “speaking not of the one true God, but of the ‘No-God’ “? The god we’ve created isn’t nearly as glorious as the God who created us.

        Again, good stuff here, Tim.
        (Look at the timestamps on these replies to your post — we’re getting up early to get the next installment!)

      2. timgombis

        Our projections are always a lot like us and less like the God who is unlike anyone or anything else. Thus, as you say, less glorious in every conceivable way.

  4. aubee91BradK

    I very much agree with what you are writing here, Tim, as do apparently most of the folks reading these posts. However, I am not a Calvinist. And there don’t appear to be many Calvinists reading. I reject the Calvinism of John Piper but, to his credit, his claims to “7 Point Calvinism” in believing that just as God chooses who he will save he also chooses who to damn appear to be logically consistent. If one assumes (as Piper does) that God elects some unto salvation, isn’t it required that he also elects the rest unto damnation? Piper would cite passages such as Ephesians 1:5-6; Acts 13:48; Revelation 17:8; John 10:26; 12:37-40; Romans 9:11-18; 1 Peter 2:7-8 in support of his view. Isn’t it fair to say that *IF* (and it is a huge if) scriptures teach that God chooses some people for salvation according to his own (hidden?) purposes and doesn’t choose some others, that those scriptures also implicitly then teach that there is a theological category of the “unelect” or the “elect unto damnation” in scripture? There is no exegesis in what you have written so far, so the question of whether there is such a category in scripture is still an open one, right?

    1. timgombis

      Good points. I aim to treat Romans 9 in a post or two, because that’s the text (aside from 1 Peter 2) that seems to indicate “double predestination,” or election unto life and election unto damnation. I don’t think that double predestination is in Romans 9, but I’ll wait to get to that post to (hopefully) demonstrate that (or, at least to provide reasons why I say that).

      My basic argument, though, is that the OT and NT texts that speak of election function as Israel’s unique identity with regard to God and the mission to reclaim the nations. This language is then used by NT writers to speak of the church and their being claimed by God and sent into the world to embody God’s mission to reclaim the nations.

      I do recognize that it sort of makes sense to argue that since there’s an elect unto salvation there must be an elect unto damnation. The problem is that is never how Scripture uses election language. Doing that, then, is precarious. Further, reading the contexts in which election language is used indicates that the groups are “the elect” and “those to whom the elect are sent.” So, “the other” group isn’t “the unelect.”

      What makes a critique of double predestination difficult is that it is an argument from silence, using human reason. But since that position doesn’t match the contours of Scripture and doesn’t employ election language in the way that Scripture does, I think it falls short and can’t be called in any sense “biblical.”

      You’re right that there isn’t much exegesis here. I hope to handle Romans 9 shortly, and may have to treat a few other texts, too.

      1. S Wu

        Exactly, Tim. The other language in Paul that I can think of is “in Christ”. Quite obviously there are those who are not in Christ. But it seems to me that everything in Paul – and the Paul in Acts – suggests that he intends to proclaim Christ so that more will join the communities that are in Christ. So, it is not that some are “elect” and the others are “unelect”.

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