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Inviting Uncle Ned to Dinner or Divine Election Rethought

December 4th, 2006 by Jason · 7 Comments

The doctrine of election has always made me cringe. It seems like one of those Uncle Ned doctrines. The one that you have to at least invite to dinner, but nobody is looking forward to him coming. I admit my attitude towards the doctrine has not been helped by some of of self-avowed Calvinist friends who treat Uncle Ned as though he’s the long-lost favorite party guest. In other words, comments like “Election demonstrates the glory of God” or “Election is what allows us to know that God is in control of history and our salvation.” For them election means that God chooses some (usually “some” is assumed to be a rather small number) for salvation and others for … (well, they thankfully don’t venture into Luther’s double predestination idea, but I can see why Luther ventured there—it at least seems to logically follow). And if this is what election means I am hard-pressed to see how it brings glory (defined as splendor, presence, goodness) to God.

But enough preamble. What I’ve been thinking is “What if I’m asking the wrong question when it comes to this doctrine of election?” What if the whole debate got off on the wrong question back when Pelagius and Augustine were debating this issue some 1600 years ago? A short recap of the debate might be helpful, using the metaphor of a car stuck in the mud: Pelagius argued that if some wood was put under the wheels to get them out of the mud (i.e. baptism to forgive original sin) then the car could then spin its wheels and get out of the ditch (i.e. humans have an ability to order their will towards good). Augustine objected strenuously and insisted that a tow truck (i.e. God’s grace) was needed every step of the way if the car was going to get anywhere and, in fact, the wheels had no chance of even turning without the tow truck driver moving them (i.e. the human will is depraved and cannot order itself towards good without being directed by God’s grace). The Church decided that Pelagius’ doctrines ended up trivializing both sin and grace (which, oddly, was the exact opposite of Pelagius’ intentions. He hoped to encourage Christians away from the lax morality of the day). Augustine’s doctrine went on to shape much of the Western church’s discussion of sin, grace, and predestination. Yet, even though Augustine “won,” three important things in this discussion of election were lost.

First, the argument between Pelagius and Augustine (and those after them) so emphasized the individual (and whether they were “saved” or not) that they neglected the over-arching salvation story. Notice how much of the “election” talk in Scripture has more to do with the whole story of God’s work of redeeming the world (beginning with the covenant with Israel and culminating in Jesus) than whether or not a particular individual is saved. Even Pharaoh with his hardened heart, a classic Calvinist example of double-predestination, is not just a random character. He is part of a larger story: bringing about the release of God’s people and ultimately the salvation of the world through Israel’s Messiah. When we ask “but what about Pharaoh?! Was his heart really so hardened by God as to make him incapable of choosing otherwise?” I think we are asking the wrong question. It’s not a question that the text asks and if we force the question upon the text we’ll get a forced (and distorted) answer. The text is not concerned with Pharaoh the individual (we don’t even know his real name) but with Pharaoh “the-King-of-Egypt-whose-gods-could-ultimately-not-stand-against-YHWH.”

The second thing lost was Jesus. Read many of the debates between Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin and Arminius, or just your average water-cooler “let’s discuss the doctrine of election during our ten minute break” and you’ll notice a trend. Jesus of Nazareth, his life, death, and resurrection is rarely mentioned. It’s as though Jesus has become “incidental” to the whole question (except with Barth who sought to remedy the problem). I won’t say more about that here, but read Telford Work’s excellent article Annunciation as Election for more about this (and the whole election doctrine, in fact).

Finally, any sense of the purpose of election was lost. There has been a tendency to become so enmeshed with the whole issue of “who’s been predestined where?” that we’ve neglected to ask if there’s any point to the whole idea of election other than as an arbitrary expression of God’s will. And here is where Leslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society has really helped me. He centers his discussion of election on Romans 9-11, looking especially at 11:32: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” Why does it matter? Because it shows that God’s desire in election is not to choose a few at the expense of others—he desires to be merciful to all. Second, the verse hints at the purpose of election: “the universality of God’s saving love … is the ground of his choosing and calling a community to be the messengers of his truth and bearers of his love for all peoples.” Why would God need to communicate his love through a community, through cracked and broken people? Because truth, love, and stories aren’t concepts that can be transferred like an internet download, they are things that can only be understood and grasped as they are embodied in relationships.

To sum up that last paragraph, the purpose of election is not smug self-satisfaction on the part of the elect, or a means to tell who is saved and who is not, or an arbitrary display of God’s power. Rather, the point of it all is to be like Moses was to an enslaved Israel, what Israel eventually was to the Gentiles, what Mary was to the world: a community of people caught up into God’s story of redemption who seek to communicate that story to their neighbors in word and deed. Augustine was right to emphasize that God’s grace is free and sovereign—it cannot be coerced or manipulated. But Augustine and the debate since him also lost the logic of why that grace is given to the Church in the first place. To quote Newbigin again, “they are chosen not for themselves, not to be the exclusive beneficiaries of God’s saving work, but to be the bearers of the secret of his saving work for the sake of all. They are chosen to go and bear fruit.”

Tags: theology

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Dec 5, 2006 at 12:00 pm


    Thanks for this—it was really good. I was also recently reminded that the last part of God’s promise to Abraham was that all the the families of the earth will be blessed. So, as it was put to me, the covenant is a universal election precisely because it is Jewish. Others like to focus on the logos and its ‘universal’ nature and that is okay too, but I also like the connectedness with our own history that this aspect reminds us of. Anyway, great, well-though-out post. Thanks again.



  • 2 Jason // Dec 5, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    Eric, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Good point about Abraham, I hadn’t thought of him when writing but he certainly fits into my idea of elected for a purpose.

  • 3 Camassia // Dec 7, 2006 at 8:27 am

    I liked Telford’s article too, but after reading Newbigin (The Household of God, in my case) I must admit I don’t totally understand his attitude towards election. He (like Telford) sees election as a call to serve others, but the service mainly takes the form of converting people. Yet if people are converted, aren’t they “elect” also? I don’t really understand how he conceives the relationship between the elect and the non-elect.

    Because one enduring question that the doctrine of election deals with is why some people believe and others don’t. How electing some people achieves the purpose of having mercy on all was never explained, at least in the book I read.

  • 4 Jason // Dec 9, 2006 at 11:45 am

    Good point Camassia. It would make election just a very good marketing campaign if its only point was to convert others. Here’s one of his quotes I was working from (pg. 86):

    “They are chosen not for themselves, not to be exclusive beneficiaries of God’s saving work, but to be the bearers of the secret of his saving work for the sake of all. They are chosen to go and bear fruit.”

    I suppose how you read Newbigin might depend on how you interpret that last sentence. I took “bear fruit” as meaning to do all those things Jesus talks about when he refers to bearing fruit in Matt. 7 (i.e. loving your enemy, being a peacemaker, prayer, fasting, giving, etc.).

    Here’s my thought on how electing some achieves the purpose of having mercy on all: if the purpose of election is to bear fruit (in the way I described above) then through the elect he has mercy on all. Of course, that begs the question of “why go through a middle-person? why doesn’t God just have mercy on all directly?” Newbigin answers that “neither truth nor love can be communicated except as they are embodied in a community…” He bases that off of Paul’s words in Rom. 15:14-15: “And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?” Whether that’s convincing…it seems at least a start in the right direction.

  • 5 Camassia // Dec 11, 2006 at 8:28 am

    Well, my reading of Newbigin was influenced by how the election point was used in The Household of God: as a segue to going on (and on and on) about the importance of evangelism. Household was really a manifesto for ecumenicism, so election was not really its main point, and perhaps the book you read put a different cast on it. However, it was striking to me that while Newbigin was willing to compromise a great deal to include as many churches as possible into The Church, he insisted that a church that didn’t evangelize was violating its essential nature, suggesting he saw it as more important “fruit” than almost anything else.

  • 6 micky // Apr 12, 2007 at 10:13 pm

    About 3 years ago I dropped into a black hole – four months of absolute terror. I wanted to end my life, but somehow [Holy Spirit], I reached out to a friend who took me to hospital. I had three visits [hospital] in four months – I actually thought I was in hell. I imagine I was going through some sort of metamorphosis [mental, physical & spiritual]. I had been seeing a therapist [1994] on a regular basis, up until this point in time. I actually thought I would be locked away – but the hospital staff was very supportive [I had no control over my process]. I was released from hospital 16th September 1994, but my fear, pain & shame had only subsided a little. I remember this particular morning waking up [home] & my process would start up again [fear, pain, & shame]. No one could help me, not even my therapist [I was terrified]. I asked Jesus Christ to have mercy on me & forgive me my sins. Slowly, all my fear has dissipated & I believe Jesus delivered me from my “psychological prison.” I am a practicing Catholic & the Holy Spirit is my friend & strength; every day since then has been a joy & blessing. I deserve to go to hell for the life I have led, but Jesus through His sacrifice on the cross, delivered me from my inequities. John 3: 8, John 15: 26, are verses I can relate to, organically. He’s a real person who is with me all the time. I have so much joy & peace in my life, today, after a childhood spent in orphanages [England & Australia]. God LOVES me so much. Fear, pain, & shame, are no longer my constant companions. I just wanted to share my experience with you [Luke 8: 16 – 17].

    Peace Be With You

  • 7 Abel Ramirez // Jul 2, 2008 at 9:48 am

    Read a new article on the doctrine of election at:

    See what you think.

    God Bless!