In this first post directly addressing the subject, I will sketch the broad contours of my understanding of the doctrine of election. In later posts I will give more attention to the details.
More than we are often willing to acknowledge, the manner in which we approach the biblical text plays a critical role in determining the shape of our doctrine. Each reader of the text approaches the text heavily-laden with cultural baggage, much of which the reader is even unaware that he possesses. Bringing the assumptions, questions and methods of our modern culture to bear on the text, we are often in danger of silencing the text on the issues that most concern it. We risk twisting the teaching of Scripture out of shape as we seek to articulate its truths in frameworks that are in many respects alien to it.
There are times in our lives when the questions, assumptions and methods that we operate in terms of can radically alter. With a different set of questions, assumptions and methods texts that once seemed transparent proofs for our former position can take on a different complexion entirely.
My principal movement away from the traditional Reformed view has taken place at the level of questions, assumptions and methods. My exegetical differences with traditional Reformed positions are secondary and arise out of these more fundamental differences. I have little confidence in the value of arguing for my position by means of piecemeal exegesis, being of the opinion that most of the important questions are already addressed before we ever get down to exegesis.
I certainly intend to demonstrate that my position can make sense of the text of Scripture, but at the centre of my argument is a new ‘big picture’, rather than an exegetical argument. I am convinced that the various elements of biblical teaching will fit together far more smoothly if we work in terms of this big picture. My reasons for holding my position and rejecting traditional Reformed positions are primarily aesthetic. I have come to believe that traditional positions look incongruous and ugly when examined next to the biblical text. Even where they are technically correct, they have failed to identify the pulse of the biblical teaching, being preoccupied with concerns that are at best tangential to the concerns of the Scripture itself.
In formulating its doctrines of election, the questions that have been foremost in the Reformed tradition have generally been questions of individual soteriology. Whilst it certainly never denied the Second Coming, the General Resurrection and the New Heavens and the New Earth, Reformed theology has all too often tended to obscure these cosmic horizons behind the more constrictive horizons provided by ‘personal eschatology’. The most important questions for the Reformed tradition have generally had to do with the eternal fate of individuals. The broader ‘cosmic’ questions have often been regarded as secondary or derivative in relation to the questions of individual soteriology. In such a context it should not surprise us that Reformed doctrines of election tend to take the shape that they do.
The approach that I will be taking to the doctrine of election is one that has been informed by such theologians as N.T. Wright and James Jordan. Wright presents a persuasive picture of a cosmic purpose of God. God is in the business of putting the world to rights with His restorative justice. He is forming an international family for Abraham, to set right what Adam set wrong. However, cosmic purposes like setting the creation to rights and gathering all things together in Christ seem to be downplayed in Reformed circles. In their place there is great attention given to the divine purpose of saving a particular fixed number of predetermined individuals and condemning the rest of humanity. Almost everything else seems to be subordinated to this.
James Jordan argues for a divine purpose to bring the human race to maturity, a purpose that existed even before the Fall of mankind. In my experience this teaching is absent in most Reformed circles, where God’s purpose is almost exclusively thought of in terms of salvation from sin. By their very nature Reformed doctrines of election generally necessitate a decree of reprobation and a decree ordaining the Fall to accompany the electing decree. I have come to the conviction that there is no necessary connection between the decree of election and a decree of reprobation. The Fall was in no sense necessary for God to fulfil His purpose in election. God could have perfectly fulfilled His purpose of election in a world without sin.
What then is the decree of election? The decree of election is God’s determination to form the totus Christus — Christ, Head and body. The direct object of God’s election is not a particular eternally numbered set of individuals, but Christ Himself. The settled purpose that God is working towards is not the damnation of individual X and the salvation of individual Y, but the gathering together of all creation in His Son.
Those who find themselves in the body of Christ are not immediate and direct objects of God’s eternal election, but receive it as members of the body. We are not elect as detached individuals, but as members of Christ. In this respect our situation is very similar to that of the OT Israelite who was an elect person, but only by virtue of his membership in the elect nation.
If this is correct, there is nothing secret about the doctrine of election. It is all open and revealed. The doctrine of election is God’s determination, before the foundation of the world, to form a new glorified human family, to receive the adoption of sons in His Son. The specific members of this family are not the direct objects of God’s purpose (this does not mean that their coming into membership is left to chance or autonomous human choice). This is where Reformed theology has tended to go wrong, I believe.
God’s purpose is plainly revealed in Christ and it is good news for all. There is no room for doubt, speculation and fear. The objects of the doctrine of election are easily recognizable. They are the ‘in Christ’ people. There is no secret about their identity. They are those who have been baptized into His body.
This is the destiny that the human race was headed for before the Fall. Far from being necessary for the fulfilment of God’s electing decree, the Fall was a departure from God’s purpose for humanity. God’s purpose has never ceased to be cosmic in its proportions. God’s design is that of forming of a new creation and human race, not merely picking up some fragments of the old one. The doctrine of election need not be seen as a threat to anyone. In principle it doesn’t rule out anybody.
Such a perspective on election is only really possible when we reject the narrow, individualistic focus that Reformed theology has become accustomed to working in terms of. We must once again subordinate the salvation of the individual to a greater purpose that God has for His entire creation. I am firmly convinced that, once we do so, many untapped riches of Scripture will begin to reveal themselves to us and many formerly vexing problems will begin to dissolve.