I just found out that in that that great theological fondue pot that is my mind, I have come to a conclusion that is shared with Karl Barth, kind of. (I guess that means that if I’m a heretic, at least I’m a semi-respectable heretic.) For those who don’t know of Barth, he was a Swiss Reformed theologian that I have many disagreements with (being he was Reformed, for one thing). But, he may have come up with an analysis of election (the belief that God chooses who he will save) that fits in with some of my own thoughts.
Election, free will, and all that jazz
Part of the whole free will / predestination issue, as Philip Cary explains in the audio series I’m listening to, is that popular views on the issue eventually have to conclude that if God did indeed predestine people, then God has also chosen not to save some people. This is a doctrine known as double predestination. In other words, in the event you’re not a Christian, there’s a good chance that God didn’t choose you anyway (so apparently you are in a kind of agreement with God on this point).
The Gospel then is only “good news” (what the word gospel means) for some. It’s obviously very bad news for those who aren’t chosen (at least from the point of view of those predestined for salvation). And, since free will seems kind of a bust (as I discussed in my prior post), then we’re stuck with this Good News/bad news situation.
Who was elected?
Karl Barth proposed that both Luther and Calvin (and Augustine) were wrong in their interpretation of the Jacob and Esau story as discussed in Romans 9:6-14, which is a key part to any discussion on being chosen. The prophecy about the twins (Gen. 25:23), Barth said, was never meant to be about Jacob and Esau personally, but about their descendants the Jews and the not-Jews. Consider the prophecy:
“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples from within you will be separated;
one people will be stronger than the other,
and the older will serve the younger.”
Nations. According to Barth, election is always about Israel (the original nation, not necessarily the current U.N.-created state). This reading of the Jacob-Esau story fits incredibly well with a lot of what Jesus and Paul discuss in the NT.
This removes this passage from any discussion of individual salvation and destiny, and also moves the discussion into one of purpose. As we see in the last line of the verse, it is Israel’s calling to serve non-Israel.
What it means to be chosen
Over the last few years as I have been reading and studying, I had started to wonder if we have misunderstood what it means to be chosen. As Tevye pointed out in Fiddler on the Roof, it’s not necessarily a blessing to be chosen. In fact, to think it is a blessing might be to miss the point completely.
What if the point of being chosen was not to bless those who are chosen, but for them to bless others? Israel would not have been elected to be blessed, but rather as a vehicle to bless everyone else. In other words, Israel was to not only be a custodian of God’s promises but a messenger or tool for God to achieve his global agenda. In this way all nations will be blessed through Israel (Gen. 18:18), and provides a new context for “I will bless those who bless you (Gen. 27:29).” Israel was chosen, so that you and I (assuming you’re a gentile) could be blessed; a Good News/Good News scenario.
Back to Barth
So, according to Barth, Augustine and therefore both Luther and Calvin were wrong about election, both in scope and purpose, and I think he makes a compelling argument (from what little I know—Barth also believed that the only one who was truly “elect” was Christ, which I have a harder time with). I can see why Barth has been accused of leaning in a universalist direction, as his interpretation of election removes any notion that God has predestined some for damnation. The non-elect are not the damned; rather, they are those for whom the blessings given to Israel (and now the church) are intended. This, however, doesn’t seem to rule out the option that both the elect or the non-elect could have the option of rejecting God’s calling and blessing.
This gives a different spin to the statement, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”
My grasp on these issues is tenuous at best, but I will keep struggling through. It’s a good thing I enjoy theology. As the church lady character on SNL might say, “Well isn’t that special.”