The most recent post in this Bible Study series on Ephesians looked at the wonderful liturgical blessing (1.3-14) with which Paul begins the letter. It’s a beautiful passage that boldly describes both God’s activity on our behalf and our vocation to become “holy and blameless in love” in response. But, some of the language Paul uses in this passage raises a lot of questions and has become very controversial. This is the language of election, or God’s choosing us, and predestination. I have to admit that these are not questions I find particularly compelling, and yet they have formed one of the cornerstones of the Reformed theological tradition, and some of the ways they were used in the larger Western tradition provided theological justification for Europe’s military, political, social, and cultural conquest of the world. And so, whether I find these topics personally compelling or not, I would be remiss in not addressing them.
Here is the text that will provide the ground for today’s discussion:
… (4) Just as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world that we might be holy and blameless before him in love, (5) Having predestined us for adoption as his own children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with kindly disposition of his will, (6) to the praise of the glory of his grace, with which he has graced us in the Beloved …
These verses (and others like them) raise three different but linked questions: First, if God ‘chooses’ us, does this mean that God does not ‘choose’ others? Second, if God has predestined us for salvation, does this mean that God created others who are predestined to damnation? And third, what does this say about human freedom? These are difficult questions to be sure. While a full exploration of these issues is well beyond the scope of a single blog post, today I’d like to, in a sense, disarm the language of election and predestination by demonstrating that the questions they raise for us are our questions, not the text’s; that is to say, they carry a very specific purpose and meaning in the New Testament that has nothing to do with the ways Christians in certain traditions have developed them. First I’ll look at the origins of the language of God’s ‘choosing’; then I’ll look at how it functions here and in other New Testament texts — and some of the interpretive pitfalls we would do well to avoid. Second, I’ll turn briefly to the question of how the New Testament talks about predestination.
A Chosen People
As thorny as the idea of God’s choosing has become, it has its roots in some of the deepest layers of the biblical theological tradition, dating to the story of God’s selection of Abraham to be the patriarch of God’s chosen people (Genesis 12). This had nothing to do with Abraham’s particular ‘goodness,’ and far from Israel’s tendencies towards faithfulness (their own chronicles and prophets are evidence enough of this!), but was entirely about God’s gracious choice. This story was at the heart of Israel’s self-understanding and identity: of all the people of the world, God chose them to be God’s possession, holy and blameless (e.g., Exodus 19.5). This last piece is important: they are chosen by God’s grace in order that they might become holy and blameless: Chosenness is not an excuse for self-satisfied spiritual laziness, but involves a vocation to a transformed life of God’s peace.
So then, when Paul states in Ephesians 1.4 that God has “chosen us in [Christ] … that we might be holy and blameless before him in love,” he is drawing on this ancient doctrine, and reinterpreting it in light of what he believes God has done in the person of Jesus. Later in this prayer, Paul uses the word ‘recapitulation’ to describe the work of Christ in bringing together all of creation; this same idea is a helpful way of understanding how the first Christians understood how Jesus related to Israel’s salvation history. All of Israel is ‘recapitulated’ in Jesus’ own story: he ‘sums it up’ and brings it to its fulfillment. So, if Israel was God’s chosen (see, e.g., Isaiah 42.1), holy and blameless before God, Jesus is the fulfillment of Israels election and the calling to be truly holy and blameless — in fact, he becomes the one who shows us what true holiness and blamelessness look like. We see evidence for this idea in Luke 9.35, where at the Transfiguration, a voice from heaven, says of Jesus: “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” The same process is at play in 1.6, where Jesus is called “the Beloved” — a term first used of Jesus at his baptism by the Father’s voice (Matthew 3.17) — again appropriating a term the Scriptures had used for Israel as the people of God (e.g., Deuteronomy 33:12; Isaiah 5:1; Jeremiah 11:15 & 12:7). Both of these ideas — being God’s chosen and God’s beloved — are then applied to those who are “in Christ”. 1 Peter refers to Christians as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (2.9). Similarly, Colossians calls the faithful “God’s chosen ones” (3.2), and in 2 Thessalonians, Paul writes, “God chose you as the first fruits for salvation” (2.13). Likewise, Paul calls Christians beloved in Romans 1.7, and in 1 Thessalonians 1.4 and Colossians 3.12, Paul connects both terms with the faithful. Here we again see the ancient Christian maxim, ‘We become by grace all that He is by nature’. We are chosen in him, the Chosen one, who has recapitulated the chosen people of God. We are beloved in him, the Beloved, who has recapitulated God’s beloved people.
This, then, is the theological realm of Paul’s thought on election. It’s a way of understanding how our Christian faith relates to Jesus and how, in turn, Jesus relates to Jewish salvation history. Far from being intended as a way of perpetuating exclusivity, what we have here is a way of understanding how ‘chosenness’ has been opened up to the whole world, no longer limited to a particular bloodline and culture. Here in Ephesians 1.4-6, this idea is top of Paul’s list of the blessings we have received for which we ought to bless God.
Yet it’s still true that the idea of God choosing a particular people, however its boundaries are understood, implies that there are people God has not chosen. And, as the past five hundred years of world history has demonstrated so clearly, this can have — and has had — disastrous consequences. Is the idea of election by its very nature too exclusive to be useful? Judith Plaskow, writing in Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s feminist commentary on Ephesians, certainly thinks so:
The concept of an all-powerful God who destines certain people for salvation before the creation of the world, distinguishes between children of light and children of darkness, and places all creation under his [sic] feet as he rules from the high heavens is profoundly problematic on numerous levels. It attributes all agency to God, negating the possibility of human freedom. It denies the complexity of human beings, all of whom contain some admixture of good and evil. And it turns God into a dominating male other who has been used to justify myriad forms of human domination.
All of us are faces of the God who dwells within each of us; the same standards of justice should apply to everyone. When we harm, diminish, or oppress anyone we harm ourselves. And this is true not simply of human beings but also of the whole of creation. We are linked to each other in a remarkably complex, intricate web of life.*
I addressed many of these points in a post last June looking at how Christian ideas of election went wrong and were used to justify European conquest:
On this, in all honesty, the Scriptures are a mixed bag. On the one hand, they tell us that God commanded a genocide of the Canaanites (see the whole and horrifying book of Judges), and that God “hated Esau” (Malachi 1.3). But on the other hand, there are hints that the story is far more complicated than that. God chose Abraham, but Abraham lived peacefully among the Canaanites, who continued to prosper (and who, even when the Israelites returned in full force, were not in fact eliminated). God chose Isaac over Ishmael, but Ishmael is granted his own covenant with God: he too would be the father of many nations. Even Esau, whom God purportedly “hated” is shown as having every wealth and success an Ancient Near Eastern pastoral nomad could want. The story of Jonah shows God caring enough for Israel’s enemy Nineveh to send that city a prophet so they might repent. And in what is one of the most wonderful, if overlooked, prophetic oracles, God tells Israel, through the prophet Amos:
Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel? says the LORD. Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir? (Amos 9.7)
Israel may be God’s chosen people, but that does not mean the other nations of the world — even their enemies — are outside of God’s loving providence. In fact, this oracle (somewhat snidely) implies that the Philistines, who arrived in the Promised Land after they did, have the same right to be there as the Israelites do!
These stories and texts suggest that, even under the ‘closed’ covenant with Israel, ‘chosen’ does not mean ‘superior to’. Not being the protagonist of the main plot of God’s story does not mean that they don’t have their own important plotlines in that story. In the New Testament … there is no such thing as a ‘Godless’ people, for God is “not far from each one of us” and in God “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17.27f). And Jesus himself chastised his disciples for trying to stop someone from healing, saying: “Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward” (Mark 9.40f). Elsewhere, he says, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10.16).
So, while there is a dominant narrative in the Scriptures that follows one chosen family that became a chosen people, there are also many indications that this is not as black-and-white for God as it seems conceptually to us.
To wrap up this section, the importance of election lies in its affirmation of God’s love and grace; any philosophical speculation about those ‘not chosen’ is just that — speculation — and is not in the scope of what these texts are trying to tell us about God. There are enough counter-narratives in the Scriptures, and enough bad fruit that Christian misunderstandings of this doctrine have produced, that we should be very careful in how we use the language of election, particularly with respect to those we see as being outside our community of faith. As Ralph P. Martin correctly notes, “The negative aspects of election (sometimes referred to as “the doom of the damned”) which developed later are not much in evidence in the New Testament and are not found at all in this text.“ Continuing with Martin’s helpful summary of election in Ephesians 1.3-6, we can conclude:
- “First, the New Testament writers proclaim God’s electing mercy not as a conundrum to tease our minds but as a wonder to call forth our praise.”
- “Second, they offer this teaching not as an element in God’s character to be minimized or apologized for but as an assurance that our lives are in God’s hands rather than in the grasp of capricious fate.”
- “Third, the emphasis on election is never stated as an excuse for carelessness in spiritual matters … We are chosen to be “holy and blameless” in God’s sight.”
Predestination and Human Freedom
A related concept to election is predestination, the belief that the salvation of the faithful was decided by God from all eternity. This idea has sparked a lot of theological speculation in certain quarters, so that if one has had any exposure to evangelical theology, it’s impossible to hear the word ‘predestination’ without immediately thinking of the debates surrounding the Calvinist doctrines of ‘limited atonement’ — the belief that God’s saving work does not extend to everyone but only to the elect — and ‘irresistible grace’ — that for those who are among the elect, there is no way that God’s saving grace could not be effective in their salvation. Essentially, these two doctrines combine to eliminate any role for human will and freedom: God has intentionally created some people for eternal damnation and others for eternal salvation. Needless to say, this has always been a very controversial idea. It seems to reduce human life to following a pre-ordained script, and creates an image of a rather callous and capricious God that is hard to square with the God who is elsewhere defined as being Love; as though God is internally divided between a desire to punish sinners and a desire to save the world and so splits the difference. The problem for those who don’t want to go down this road is that Paul does use the language of predestination, and it’s hard to conceive of what it can mean if it does not mean what Calvin (who, it should be noted, drew heavily from Augustine on this point) thinks it means.
The difficulty comes down to this: Irrespective of how we choose to sort out the biblical evidence, we have to acknowledge four things that the New Testament teaches but are difficult to reconcile with one another (verses listed are examples and not exhaustive):
- God has ‘chosen’ and ‘predestined’ the faithful (Ephesians 1.4-5, Romans 8.29)
- God’s saving acts have the whole cosmos as their scope (John 3.16, Romans 5.18 & 11.32, 1 Corinthians 15:20–28, 1 Timothy 2.4, 2 Peter 3.9, 1 John 2:2)
- Human choice is real and matters (Deuteronomy 30.19, Jonah 3.4-10, Matthew 25:46)
- Not everyone will be saved (Matthew 7.21 & 25:46, Luke 3.17, 2 Thessalonians 1.8-9)
The different theological traditions that have emerged surrounding predestination and human freedom are essentially different ways of trying (and generally failing) to reconcile these four statements. Often what happens instead is that one of these beliefs is simply prioritized as the most important. If we prioritize the first and fourth statements, we get the Calvinist ‘double predestination’; if we prioritize the second, we get a kind of universalism; if we prioritize the third, we get something like the standard Arminian compromise. (If you’re interested in these philosophical questions, I encourage you to pick up Perspectives on Election, edited by Jack W. Cottrell, which offers a helpful and gracious commentary on several common perspectives.)
I am convinced once again that the problem here is less with Scripture than it is on Christians pressing its words beyond what they intended to accomplish. When Paul talks about election and predestination here in Ephesians, he’s not doing systematic theology. I don’t think he gave a spare thought to what the theological consequences of his words might be hundreds of years down the line. The point Paul is making — and in response to which he intends us to praise God (we cannot forget this liturgical context for the passage!) — is that God, from all eternity, had a plan and has enacted that plan in Jesus. In a religious and philosophical world that was often very fatalistic, Paul insists that the whims of fate do not have ultimate sway over our lives, but that we are held secure by the unconditional grace of a loving God. And I think we do Paul a disservice if we try to press his ideas beyond that (as intellectually unsatisfying as that may be).
While this may seem like a cop out, it’s actually the most common approach taken to these questions in ancient Christianity outside of the Augustinian tradition. Seventh-century theologian St. John of Damascus says the following:
We should understand that while God knows all things beforehand, He does not predetermine all things. For He knows beforehand those things that are in our power, but He does not predetermine them. For it is not His will that wickedness should exist, nor does He choose to compel virtue. (On the Orthodox Faith 2.30)
And, fourteenth-century theologian St. Gregory Palamas, in a sermon on Matthew 22 (which includes the line, “Many are called but few are chosen”), preached:
But whereas it is reasonable to suppose that, if they had not been called, it would be unfair for them to be rejected, it is untrue that not everyone was called. When the Lord was carried up to heaven after His resurrection from the dead, He said to His disciples, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16: 15).
If, when someone was invited, he were to obey the summons, and, having been baptized, were to be called by Christ’s name, but were not to behave in a way worthy of his calling, nor fulfil the promises made at his baptism to live according to Christ, then, although he was called, he was not chosen.
If we want to understand why or how this is so, we’re going to be disappointed, but again, that’s not the point the Scriptures are making.
It may be hard to reconcile these theological commitments — that God has a plan and yet we are free, and that God longs for all creation to be reconciled and yet some will not be — but it’s easier if we understand election and predestination to be primarily corporate, rather than individual, and vocational. I think Clark Pinnock hits the right balance when he writes:
Election is not about the destiny of individual persons for salvation or damnation but about God’s calling a people who in the New Testament setting live according to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ and proclaim good news to the world. The goal of the electing will of God is not the salvation of a few but the gathering of the nations into an eschatological fellowship. …The focus is not on the salvation of the elect body itself (though this is assumed) but on the hoped-for consummated new humanity. (Perspectives on Election)
There may certainly be consequences of this for how we think about God’s calling for us as individuals due to the fractal nature of Christian faith, but the focus of these doctrines is first and foremost on Christ, and second on those who are ‘called’ and ‘predestined’ in Him.
Despite the theological loose threads the interpretation of election and predestination outlined in this post may leave behind, I am overall pretty satisfied with it. It does justice to the biblical witness — both its words and its intent — without going down any unnecessary and problematic rabbit holes. It turns these doctrines from something that divide humanity from the outset into a statement on God’s universal desires for humanity and indeed the whole created order. It imagines — I would argue with Paul — that God’s providence is not about power, control, and ‘being right’, but about the constancy of God’s gracious plans for creation. In so doing, it rightly foregrounds the role of Jesus of Nazareth, who is first and foremost, “the Beloved,” and “God’s Chosen,” and in whom we receive all the blessings for which we in turn bless God (1.3). Finally, and to my mind most importantly (since truth is to be judged by the goodness of its fruit), this reading is ecological: that is, it cuts off at the roots a lot of the negative consequences the doctrine of election has had in its historic abuses — genocide, religious nationalism and national messianism, the Doctrine of Discovery and its erasure of Indigenous peoples, and on and on.
And so, with all this in mind, I am pleased to pray with Paul the words of his wonderful Blessing:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ:
Who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ,
Just as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world that we might be holy and blameless before him in love,
Having predestined us for adoption as his own children through Jesus Christ, in accordance with kindly disposition of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, with which he has graced us in the Beloved.
* See the series Bibliography for the series for details on works cited.