- The Ancestral View of Election
- The Views on Election
- Introduction to Calvin vs Arminius
- A question born in Philosophy
- The Corporate View: Based on “are you in Christ?”
- Variants in the Corporate View
- A Calvinist apologist fails to understand Corporate Election
- The difference between Biblical Narrative and Proof Texts
- A detailed look at the errors of Calvin and Arminius, and how they arose from philosophy
- The limitation of the Corporate View
- The Ancestral View of Election
- The question: “Who is your father?”
The Ancestral View of Election
Studying the “Corporate View” of Election was refreshing. The paradoxical word games that Calvinist and Arminian arguments rely on are exhausting, and any serious apologist for them is forced, sooner or later, to admit that they cannot reconcile the paradoxes that both raise.
The “Corporate View”, by contrast, actually describes something which is consistent with the Biblical story from Genesis to Revelation. But still, when Paul describes Election he uses specific concepts and language which relate to ancestry. If we describe Election in any other terms we are missing at least part of the point, and the “Corporate View” does not pay attention to Paul’s mindset around Election, which reflects the historical concerns of the Hebrews.
You will notice that when I describe the “Ancestral View”, I can only cite the Bible, because to my knowledge no other author describes Election in the same terms that Paul does…
Paul did not set out to write systematic theology.
Paul’s primary concern, after ensuring that his churches comprehended the love of God in Christ, was to combat the problem of Jewish “Judaisers” entering his congragations, trying to convince Christians to enter the Covenant of Moses.
The Covenant of Moses had been the touchstone of orthodoxy for 1300 years among the Israelites, but what they had forgotten was that before that, for over 400 years, the touchstone had been the kind of faith shown by Abraham when he believed God’s promise (Genesis 15:6).
Paul was harassed and persecuted for teaching that Jews could be reborn outside of the Mosaic Covenant (Romans 7:6), and that Gentiles could be included in Abraham’s promised inheritance without entering the Mosaic Covenant (Romans 3:21-22). Therefore most of his writings have this concern not very far in the background.
In the Middle Ages, this dimension of Paul’s concern was not understood, which resulted in some interpretations of Paul’s writings which have subsequently had to be revised. Several of Paul’s letters, notably Romans for example, had been thought of as several fragments simply collated together! This was because the central argument of Romans, among other documents, was not understood: Salvation is equally for Jew and Gentile, and therefore “the Elect” people of God contains both.
If you prefer just to skip down to where I put my case for Ancestral Election,
If, on the other hand, it was “Predestination” that you’re really interested in, you might like to check this article first, then come back:
The Views on Election
Calvin and Arminius conceived of “Election” explicitly as describing the selection, by God, of individual human beings for Salvation, which makes them members of a group: the people-of-God. The “Corporate View” of Election is a third model, which instead concerns a group, the people-of-God, which is corporately Elect through their progenitor. I propose a fourth alternative, because throughout the entire Biblical narrative, a person is Elect only if they have the Elected One as their ancestor. This results in what I will call, the “Ancestral View”. There are then, four views of Election: Calvin and Arminius, both of whom conceive of Personal Election, and the Corporate View and an Ancestral View, both of which deal with Corporate Election.
The Corporate View
Shank proposes a Corporate View of Election, citing Ephesians 1:3-14 as “the foundation passage”. “The Elect body” is his term for the people-of-God corporate group which is Elect “in Christ”, because, as Pinnock observes, “in Christ” is the central refrain of that passage. In Shank’s survey of Scripture he notes that there is both a national sense, and a personal sense, in which the “servant of Jehovah” can be understood, extrapolating an “embodiment” concept in three concentric circles: Christ is, first, “the centre of the circle of the promised kingdom”, and therefore secondly also of “the people of salvation”, and therefore in turn, of “the human race”.
He also speaks of the New Testament emphasis on warnings against falling away, which he observes “obviously” can only be consonant with a corporate notion of “the certainty of election and perseverance”. Shank is arguing primarily against Calvinism, but Arminius’ definition of Election is equally incompatible because it also exclusively concerns the process by which individuals are transferred into the people-of-God corporate group. Shank’s definition, in absolute contrast, concerns the destiny of that group.
Introduction to Calvin vs Arminius
Calvin says that “God effectively teaches his elect that he may lead them to faith”. Arminius’ reply rejects the notion that God bestows this means-of-salvation to the Elect, “that is, to conduct and bring them to faith in Christ Jesus…”. His criticism is that the Calvinist’s model of Election is inconsistent with the “freedom of the will”, which is a reference to a philosophical debate about Determinism, a question born in ancient Philosophy.
A question born in Philosophy
This philosophical question was famously brought to bear on Christian thinking during a controversy between Augustine and Pelagius in the 5th Century AD. Seeing a “need of more moral effort”, Pelagius asserted that there was no “direct operation of the Holy Spirit on human wills”, and therefore any sin is an authentic, free choice by the human being.
Pelagius’ theological argument was against Augustine, but for Augustine’s part, the “priority of grace” did not actually “entail the denial of human freedom”, either. The argument raged, however, because for his part Pelagius denied the church’s doctrine of Original Sin, the importance for Pelagius being that one should not blame Adam for one’s own bad behaviour.
The philosophy of Determinism therefore became enmeshed in theological questions of the nature of Sin and Depravity, and extended even into questioning the ability of a human to respond to the Gospel. This philosophical intersection with theology provides a context which helps to “locate Calvinism and Arminianism on the theological map”, because these two theological systems use different philosophical definitions of “freedom” to this day.
Schreiner says that Calvinism allows for “human freedom”, in that the human is free “when they do what they wish to do”, and that it also incorporates the understanding that God causes the correct faith-response in the previously Elected person in a way that they are unable to prevent. He admits that Calvinists, “cannot grasp how” these are reconciled.
The Arminian model relies on the human to make the faith choice, which can only happen after having been illumined by the “knowledge of God and Christ, and of the Divine will”. This faith response is said to be pre-known by God. The result is a self-referencing, circular concept reminiscent of time-travel paradoxes:
The believer is postdictively said personally to have been Predestinated to Salvation beforehand, in anticipation of what God knew would happen eventually, which is that they would later respond to the Gospel and be saved.
Arminius notes the influence of Philosophy’s “strange disputes” on the theological debate: He quotes Melancthon as having likened Calvin’s Predestination to “Stoical Fate”, and because the philosopher Zeno’s teachings were apparently being enforced in Geneva on pain of imprisonment, it meant that “the doctrine of salvation is thus obscured by certain strange disputes”. He also reports that Luther “deserted” Calvin’s predestination, if he ever held to it, which the Lutheran Church confirms. But Luther’s formulation is also paradoxical, including the unreconcilable combination of the “Bondage of Will” and Unlimited Atonement, but not Universalism. This obvious paradox prompts Luther to claim, as Schreiner now sympathises, “It is wrong to pry into God’s mysteries at this point”, and Luther admits that this is a failure to resolve the issues.
The Corporate View raises no such philosophical questions.
The Corporate View: Based on “are you in Christ?”
The Calvinist “point”, which was to Arminius’ mind associated with philosophy and heresy, is said to concern, “do the elect believe?” The counter-point, to his mind “in obvious agreement with Moses and the Prophets, with Christ and his Apostles”, concerns, “are believers the true elect?” The Corporate View by comparison, could be characterised by a different question: “are you in Christ?”, because the Corporate View is that all who are in Christ are Elect by virtue of Christ’s Elect status.
Variants in the Corporate View
The Corporate View does, however, have its own variants, including Barth’s Christ-as-God’s-Election, Abasciano’s corporate “salvific” Election, and Pinnock’s “vocational” Election. For Barth, Christ is “is the election of God”. Barth means a great deal by this, but for our purposes it means that Christ is elected for judgement, which falls “upon Him, and not upon the disobedient”. He depicts Jesus as vicar of all humanity, condemned to judgement on behalf of all.
Pinnock talks about a “vocational” Election, as opposed to an explicitly “salvific” one. By this he means that the Elect have been Elected for a vocation, but he is not disputing that this Election results, ipso facto, in the Salvation of the Elect. In fact, “this is assumed”. He agrees with Barth that the “focus” of election is Christ as “the predestined one”, but for Barth the initial purpose of Election is theological: “the elected man Jesus was foreordained to suffer and to die. That is how … his Election, [is] understood in the New Testament”.  By contrast, Pinnock finds that the Elect are Elected in order to proclaim the Gospel, and that the goal “is not the salvation of a few, but the gathering of the nations into an eschatological fellowship”. However, the question about whether Corporate Election is primarily “vocational” (so Pinnock), or primarily “salvific” (So Shank, Barth, Abasciano), is moot. Pinnock accepts that Salvation is implicit in the vocational Election, and Shank recognises that the “purposes of God towards the whole human race, … were manifested … in the election of Israel”.
A Calvinist apologist fails to understand Corporate Election
Schreiner makes the error of concluding that Barth “seems to lead to universalism”. Instead, it depicts something akin to the Arminian “universalistic Salvation”: “Universalistic”, in the sense that the gospel invitation is “for all”.  This is not “Universalism”, because Barth recognises the requirement that, along with all of the other things which account for Salvation, there is necessarily, “our assent to the divine intervention on our behalf”, which Christ has not accomplished for us. Schreiner, in diametric opposition, says that this is precisely what God does give as a free gift, albeit only to the Elect,  on the strength of a peculiarly Calvinist reading of Ephesians 2:8-9, and erroneously carrying this presupposition to Barth’s work makes Barth’s ideas appear, to Schreiner, to be inevitably Universalism.
In his polemic against Schreiner, Abasciano raises the Old Testament precedent for Corporate Election. Schreiner attempts to refute it with a transparently straw-man argument suggesting that Corporate Election is the Election of an empty group, as does Ware against Pinnock. Schreiner goes on to use the Election of Abram to argue that Old Testament Election is primarily Individual Election, failing to discern that this explicitly was the Election of “a multitude of nations” in him (Genesis 17:5), and not just a man.
Ware raises Romans 8:29-30 as an objection to the Corporate View, claiming that “Paul clearly indicates specific individuals whom he will save”. Wright, however, argues that this passage is an appropriation of Exodus motifs, in keeping with a demonstrable rhetorical framework employed by Paul across the whole Book of Romans. This assessment would make the referent of Romans 8:29-30 corporate, in parallel with the Election of corporate Israel, the “firstborn son” of God (Exodus 4:22).
In fact, this passage has more to do with the Jew/Gentile question than it does with Election proper. See this related article specifically looking at these few verses.
The difference between Biblical Narrative and Proof Texts
It goes without saying that each expositor would consider their view, “Biblical”. But as Osborne observes, whereas each of those experts and their modern apologists after them has their Biblical proof-texts, their key logic is built on Philosophy rather than on the Biblical narrative. Oddly, he describes the “narrative approach”, as a “current fad in academic circles”, but the Biblical writers demonstrably received and wrote the Scriptures under this same “fad”, the key to which is “narrative sequence” (so Wright).
A detailed look at the errors of Calvin and Arminius, and how they arose from philosophy
The doctrines of Calvin and Arminius arise from the narrative of Church history and its interception with philosophy as follows:
By the time of Calvin and Arminius, Christian iconography had long reinforced the “fear of eternal damnation”, providing the backdrop to the innovation of Indulgences for the Crusades in the 11th Century. The continued and expanding abuse of Indulgences was salient to the Reformation of their day.
This fearful theme “permeated the atmosphere”, so it is no surprise to find theology developing around the axiom of how, or why, one is to be saved, as if that was the point of the whole Bible. But this concern, anachronistic then as it is now, is actually the inverse of the Old Testament one, which concerns how a person who was born Elect might avoid being cut off from the Elect (Genesis 17:14; Exodus 12:15,19; 30:33; 30:38; 31:14; etc.). In keeping with the Corporate View of Election, The New Testament also reflects on how the individual might fall away from the Elect (Matthew 7:19, 13:40; John 15:6; Romans 11:17-24; Galatians 4:11; and others, per Shank), as well as how one might join the Elect. This is the ongoing Biblical concern, across all time.
The limitation of the Corporate View
The Corporate View, although essentially casting the contours of the definition of Election properly, still stops short of describing Election in the same terms that the Apostle Paul does. It is not incompatible, but its apologists fail to describe it around the same key contemplations as the Bible does.
The Ancestral View of Election
Throughout the Biblical narrative, a person is Elect if their ancestor is Abraham:
I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God.’
– Genesis 17:7-8
so when Paul was thinking about Election he was concerned with ancestry: Those of whom Abraham is the ancestor are the Elect:
O offspring of his servant Abraham,
children of Jacob, his chosen ones.
– Psalm 105:6
But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend
– Isaiah 41:8
… and Abraham is “the ancestor of all who believe” (Romans 4:11), therefore all who believe are Elect:
So, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’
– Galatians 3:7-8
This is not just an innovation of Paul: Jesus also discussed Election in terms of spiritual ancestry, concluding that some of those physically descended from Abraham were not “sons of Abraham”, nor “of God”, but instead their father was “the devil” (John 8:39-47), and in a similar context claimed that, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9, Luke 3:8).
The question: “Who is your father?”
In this ancestral notion of Election, the touchstone question which has stood for all time, obviously cannot primarily be, “are you in Christ?”, because in the Old Testament, the questioning predates the Advent of Christ. It is also misleading to ponder, “do the elect believe?”; or “are believers the true elect?”; rather, the question has always been, “who is your [spiritual] father?”
Those who are in Christ now have Abraham, who is Elect, as their spiritual “father” (Galatians 3:16), and are therefore Elect themselves. Paul carefully explains that those who genetically are descended from Abraham ought to be “circumcised of heart” (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:28-29), which means being obedient to the written law (Romans 2:25-27), but they aren’t (Romans 3:9), and therefore despite their physical circumcision they are “not a Jew” (Romans 2:28), which is to say, “broken off” (Romans 11:17), from the Elect. Therefore what God provides in Christ is a new birth into the Elect family; a unique birth, in which God becomes their father (John 1:12-13), Jew and Gentile alike (Romans 1:16).
If a person is born among the Elect, their “Predestination” was not their own, but was in their ancestor’s Election. Hebrews 7 lays out the mindset behind this concept in explaining the relationship between Levi and Melchizedek: Levi was “in the loins of [Abraham]” when the tithe was paid (Hebrews 7:9-10). Why? Because if Abraham had died at that moment, Levi would never have been born, and in this sense Levi was “in Abraham [specifically, in his loins]”. Again, in terms of Original Sin, the same theological reasoning is expressed in that we were all “in Adam” when he sinned, but “as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22 cf. Romans 5:18-21).
Now, when a person places their faith in Christ, they are “born from above” (John 1:13, 3:3), and by virtue of that birth they are Elect, “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), at Christ’s Election. What’s more, they are also included in Abraham’s Election because they count Abraham as their ancestor (Galatians 3:29). The “abba father” prayer of Romans 8:15-17 therefore represents Paul’s doctrine of Election:
… you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.
– Romans 8:15-17
Shank, Barth, Pinnock and Abasciano do not fully explore the ancestral aspect of Election, but what they describe as the Corporate View does still essentially accord with what is revealed in the Biblical narrative.
In conclusion, Calvinism and Arminianism do not describe Biblical Election, and are instead engaged in an ancient philosophical debate about Determinism, using proof-texts from the Bible. Shank’s Corporate View, by contrast, is a faithful description of what the Biblical narrative reveals, even if his reasoning has not arisen straight from that narrative as Paul’s does. The Corporate View is not a “middle way”, but rather a third alternative to both Calvinism and Arminianism, which are themselves, “profoundly different views of God”. Election is corporate, and importantly a matter of Ancestry.
Paul himself is at pains to explain Ancestral Election, primarily to equip his churches to refute Judaisers. The most densely packed texts for understanding the Ancestral view of Election are Romans 4 and Galatians 3.
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