Few issues exist in the interpretation of the New Testament which can become as contentious as questions of “sovereignty” and “free will.” Various terms like “election,” “predestination,” “foreknowledge,” etc., get thrown around in these discussions. The influence of (late) Augustine and the Reformers have remained forceful in the history of interpretation. What has been neglected, however, in most discussions is contextualizing the debate as it relates to the New Testament in its ancient context. As I was working through my doctoral program, this neglected area of study eventually became my dissertation topic (as a side note, I originally wanted to develop a broad picture of the various “metaphors” or “images” of salvation in the New Testament, until I discovered Brenda Colijn at Ashland Seminary had recently done just that in a book
I highly recommend), and now is in print in a revised version with IVP Academic entitled The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism
So what do I mean by contextualizing the discussion? I’ve had this discussion with former students on several occasions. I often ask them what the historical context can teach us about election in the New Testament. Invariably they answer by bringing up Augustine or the Reformers. It has never dawned on most of them (or me until I began this project!) that early Judaism might provide a better framework for exploring the New Testament, or more specifically as I address in this book, Paul’s writings. The writings of the Second Temple period, or early Jewish period, reveal to us the thought patterns of Jews in and around the first century. Why is this important? Because Paul, and most of the New Testament writers, were Jews who shared in these thought patterns. When these Jewish authors became Christians (which they did not view, by the way, as “converting” to a new religion… Jesus was the Jewish Messiah), they did not abandon all of their former beliefs. Very simply then, when we study the Second Temple period, we are studying the thought patterns which influenced or at least on some level reflect the beliefs of the New Testament writers.So what “writings” are we talking about here? In broad terms, this includes the works found in the OT Apocrypha (like Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, 1 and 2 Maccabees), the OT Pseudepigrapha (like 1 Enoch, Pseudo-Philo, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs), and the Dead Sea sectarian writings found at Qumran (like the Damascus Document, Thanksgiving Hymns, and Community Rule). These writings fill in our gap of knowledge of Jewish beliefs from the end of the Old Testament, or what older commentators might refer to as the “intertestamental period” or the “400 silent years” (which were far from silent!).
Furthermore, to clarify, while terms like “election” and “predestination” are sometimes equated, in the pre-NT Jewish literature (OT and Second Temple writings), they are not. The biblical “doctrine” of election begins in the OT with God’s formation of a people. For example, Deuteronomy 14:2 states,
“For you are a people holy to Yahweh your God, and you Yahweh has chosen to be a treasured possession from among all of the peoples that are on the surface of the earth” (LEB).
Election in the Old Testament primarily, then, is about God’s choice of a people. There is more (of course) I could say about the OT context, but that is the main idea.
The second thing which I find very interesting, and I think is essential in how we understand Paul and the New Testament writers’ understanding of “election,” is that Paul’s use of election terminology or concepts primarily occurs in Jew/Gentile contexts. Rather than functioning as theological abstractions, Paul’s discussions occur as he wrestles the reality of what it means for Gentiles to be included as full members in God’s people apart from submitting to the typical Jewish markers of election (e.g., circumcision). To overlook that key issue in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians in particular, I think is to miss the point of Paul’s discussion entirely.
So, those are the big ideas in terms of the framework of my argument in the book. My approach is to work through the Jewish literature in terms of certain key things which come up in these texts and Paul and to explore Paul’s thought in light of the Second Temple background. If you are interested in reading more, I hope you’ll pick up a copy!