Biblical Election: It’s not a Democracy
Is God a Voter, and each of us a Politician?
Since at least the Middle Ages, the Biblical concept called “Election” has been thought of in terms roughly equivalent to the democratic process. The democratic process uses the same word. But that’s not what it means in the Bible.
In the Bible the word has more to do with the concept of “choosing” than anything relating to democracy. Even then, the way it has been interpreted in many cases is badly misleading.
Election in a Democracy
In a Democracy, we all go to the polls and cast our votes. Someone is elected into the Parliament as a result. If Biblical Election meant anything like that, we would be looking at a divine “polling day”, where there are billions of candidates (us), and one voter (God). God would be casting his ballot for some of us and against others, and some of us would be “elected” into the People of God as a result.
As it happens that’s pretty much what the Middle Ages theologians thought “Election” meant in the Bible. They were wrong.
Election in the Bible
In the Bible, Election is not a process by which someone enters the group called “The People of God”. Election is something which creates the People of God… from a single person.
Abraham was “Elected”, and as a consequence, anyone descended from him was part of “the elect” unless they were “cut off”. None of Abraham’s descendants were “elected” the Election is something that happened once, for all. Each Jew was a member of “the elect”, but God did not elect each one.
Christ, in a related way, was “Elected”, and individual Christians who are “in Christ” are therefore members of “the elect”, but each Christian was not “elected”. Only Christ was elected. Ephesians 1:3-4 is frequently misread to mean otherwise, but in fact this is precisely what it is saying:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love.
– Ephesians 1:3-4
He chose a people. He chose the People of God. He chose Christ before the foundation of the world, and in that choice he “chose” all who would believe. Before the foundation of the world there were no people to choose! But God chose, in Christ, all who would believe… whomever that would be.
A Simpler Illustration
It’s like saying that you decide to open a gym for women. In making that choice, you are choosing only women as customers. That does not mean you individually select each woman, yet each one can justifiably say that she was “chosen” from the beginning to be included as a customer at your gym whereas others were excluded.
A more in-depth essay
I wrote some time ago about Election, and it is an in-depth exploration of the whole doctrine. It looks at the various erroneous theories about it that have been popular, many of which remain popular today, and a tour through the Bible showing how the Biblical authors, as opposed to later theologians, thought about the question of Election.
Implications for other doctrines
Understanding this doctrine of Election will potentially bring other doctrines into question. For example, the Middle Ages theologians argued long and loud about the basis on which individuals were elected (which of course, as we have just explained, they aren’t).
Arguments arose under the heading “Predestination”, which got just as muddled as the Election debate. I have written separately about Predestination as well:
In Ephesians 1, there is an unfortunate coincidence where the mention of “Election”, or “Choosing” in verses 3-4 (as displayed above) is immediately followed by the mention of “adoption”. To the casual reader it may seem that Election and Adoption are both equivalent to “joining the people of God”. In fact, neither of those terms means that.
One does not join the people of God by “adoption”. One joins the people of God by “birth”. One is “born of God” (John 1:13), not adopted. This is absolutely vital to understand – otherwise Gentiles would be second-class members of the People of God, and the Gospel would be completely changed!
No, it’s just that “adoption” is a word that means certain things to us which don’t apply here. Just as “election” does not mean democracy, “adoption” does not mean becoming part of God’s family having not been born into that family.
Here is an excerpt from another article I wrote about the term “Son of God”, where I mention “adoption”:
Paul’s term “υἱοθεσία” (“adoption”) and cognates (Rom 8:15, 23; 9:4; Gal 4:5; Eph 1:5) is not equivalent to this special birth (contra Ladd and McGrath), because “adoption” is something which had always been a provision for the Israelites (Rom 9:4), and in any case is not experienced until the Eschaton (Rom 8:23). “Adoption” therefore relates to an as-yet-unrealised eschatological phenomenon for the faithful, and not directly to individual conversion, which instead is by “birth”.
More on “Adoption”, in another article I have subsequently written:
In short, this is a doctrine that says, once you have become a Christian, it is impossible to become a not-Christian.
It’s a funny doctrine, because whole passages of the Bible are dedicated to insisting that a person most certainly can be excluded from the People of God (Romans 11:22, John 15:6, etc…). It comes about because of misunderstandings in some of the other doctrines, including “Election”. Because if Election was something referring to a person joining the People of God, what would we do with this?
As regards the gospel they are enemies of God for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.
Frankly, this passage is incomprehensible if “Election” means “join the people of God”. Since the beginning there have been people among the “elect” who have been “cut off” for various reasons. This is a prominent feature of the Law of Moses, in fact, and there is no basis for saying that things are entirely different in the New Testament.
This single short passage is sufficient to show that key Biblical terms are being misunderstood by those who talk about “Perseverance”, and “Election” in the terms that Calvin, Luther, and their peers did.
As with anything, a simple misunderstanding can pave the way to a whole collection of strange errors. This has been the case with the doctrines of Election, Predestination, Adoption, and Perseverance as I describe above. The strangeness has also manifested under the headings, like “Total Depravity”, “Atonement”, and a whole host of others. Ultimately they all connect together in a variety of ways, so that one’s interpretation of one of them will affect the interpretation of several others.
I trust, because I pray, that this explanation will aid understanding, provoke searching questions, and not cause unnecessary distress.
Thank you Kevin. I have had my own struggles when I was ‘presented’ with the teaching of the Doctrine of Election etc. I had been a believer for 12yrs and not once had I ‘connected the dots’ that created those doctrines. They just didn’t seem ‘right’, and confused me for quite a while. When I ‘looked’ into the doctrines you mentioned above, I found thay they ‘hinged’ upon each other ie Scriptures were being interpreted through the lens of one doctrine which then lead to another doctrine etc, which then ultimately changed the plain interpretation of many other Scriptures…………
Your articles regarding these doctrines have been extremely helpful to ‘clear the mud’ that had been thrown in my eyes 🙂
It’s very gratifying to hear that these reflections make things simpler. I am convinced that Paul communicated very clearly, to people who were not professional theologians. I feel that if we think of his writings as deeply complex, it is because we have misunderstood something… something that his audience would simply have known.
I’m so glad you’re blessed by it. 🙂
I have a few comments and questions.
1. Recently found your article on Ancestral Election. I’ve been exploring Corporate election, and I liked what you had presented. Are there any additional or more detailed explanations that I can look for to get a better feel for it?
2. So far I like your site and the posts that have been through it. So far, from reading your articles, I assume you hold to the inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity, the divinity and humanity of Christ, the sin of man, the work of Jesus on the Cross, Christ being the only way to the Father, the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, and Christ’s second coming.
-Correct me if I am wrong on those, but since I could not find a general statement, this has been what I have gathered.
3. Finally, I have found your sight a refreshment. I have been in the middle between Calvinism and Arminianism for a while now (due to them both not being fully biblical and having holes in them.) And I have recently discovered the Corporate view. One thing I have found that I do not agree with in the few views or explanations I have found on the corporate election is the ability for a believer to remove themselves from the elect.
-I was wondering if ancestral election address whether believers can lose their eternal life or not.
-And if it the view does not address it, what are your thoughts on it.
Thanks for the detail you have provided in your posts. I have your site now bookmarked for future reference and exploration.
Thank you so much for commenting! I’m encouraged by that. Welcome indeed!
On Q1, you will see that I’ve footnoted my comments. Those resources have a lot of detail, to which I merely refer. If there is one or more you’re interested in, I’ll send you the excerpt I referred to (or attach it to the blog article) to support my references – I believe that would be within the provisions of copyright law.
You will note, however, that I could find no commentator whom I found was doing justice to the way Paul of Tarsus would, in my view, have explained Election. I think he would have expressed it purely in terms of the principles so readily visible in the Biblical historical narrative, and that’s what I have tried to do, too.
Q2: You’ve posted quite a list there! I feel confident that in each case you would be satisfied with my response, which would not be “yes” or “no”, but instead a conversation. The reason you won’t find an actual credal statement here, using the kind of phrases you have listed, is for two (related) reasons: 1) I don’t like reducing things to a creed unless absolutely necessary; I think it is rarely warranted, and often causes unnecessary arguments. 2) The phrases themselves are subject to heavy interpretation and debate. Two people could each affirm, for example, “Biblical Inerrancy”, and each mean something different by that term.
I am impressed that you’ve run a discerning eye over a selection of my views and formed a working hypothesis of what my doctrinal understanding is. I would suggest that’s what we do with the authors of the Biblical texts too, and that level of imprecision is, I feel, generally appropriate. I earnestly hope for two things: Firstly, that we find much to agree on in our respective points of view, and Second, that we also find areas where we don’t necessarily completely agree. A third hope would be that we can continue to encourage one another even as we (almost inevitably) find that on various points we may not hold precisely the same view. I like the saying, “If two men always agree on everything then one of them is unnecessary” 🙂
Q3: My views on this subject have come as a result of a journey away from the generally recommended method of reading and interpreting the Bible, to an alternative approach. The generally recommended approach is to take the New Testament as the clearest point, and to interpret the rest of the Bible through that lens. The danger is that if we have misunderstood anything, even just a little, we then use that error as a lens through which to interpret the whole book. This method is, I suggest kind-heartedly, “reading the Bible backwards”.
What I prefer to do is to receive each text in the context of it’s original author and audience, and interpret it, so far as it is possible, in that context. I like to read the Bible “forwards”, meaning that I build up my understanding of concepts in the order in which they are introduced and explored chronologically across time. Each revelation is used by subsequent generations to aid their own interpretation, either as a lens or a foil.
The result is that the New Testament looks different. The difference, I would suggest, is that it looks the way it looked to the original hearers, none of whom were Calvinists, nor Arminians, and none of whom were discussing Determinism, Free Will, or Metaphysics. All of those considerations arose afterwards, and I would suggest that commentators have woven those philosophical concepts into texts which did not originally address those topics at all. This is, in short eisegesis.
What I found in my review of Corporate Election was that while it seemed to end up with something that was compatible with the views of Biblical authors (in contradiction to those other ideas from Calvin and Arminius…), the Corporate View had still been constructed “backwards” by its defenders.
Quote from the article:
What I did with my “Ancestral View” (The green text in that article) was to construct it “forwards”. The matter of whether or not someone could be excluded from the Elect, having previously been included, then became simple: Election had always been a matter of birth – if one was born a descendant of Abraham, one was elect. One was always at risk of being “cut off” (“blotted out” from the “Book of Life”), if one committed crimes against the covenant.
The New Testament is, I suggest, precisely the same. We are offered birth into the Elect family, but just as we are then “grafted in”, God is amply capable of having us “broken off” again, as Paul so clearly says in Romans 11 (and Jesus says in John 15 with a similarly clear metaphor). The only reason modern commentators find this a difficult conclusion to arrive at is because it is incompatible with other conclusions they have already drawn (in my view erroneously), as a result of 5th Century philosophical debates (eg. Augustine and Pelagius), or 16th Century theological ones (eg. Calvin and Arminius).
Oh dear, I feel like I’m writing another whole article here 🙂
I’d like to encourage you to comment further, wherever you like on the site (Your comments will now be auto-approved). Lots of small questions would probably make for a more fruitful conversation, and they also then form a real supplement to the article itself for subsequent readers.
God bless you, and thank you again for participating in the blog!