Ben Witherington and Chad Thornhill on *The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism*, Part 6

, posted by SEA

BEN: The discussion in chapter six about the heavenly tablets in Jubilees and their relationship to the book of life and the book of destruction is especially interesting in light of the discussion in Revelation where we have a warning that some people’s names can be blotted out of the lamb’s book of [everlasting] life, contingent on behavior. It appears that we are being told that while some things seem to be foreordained, one’s eternal destiny is not one of them or at least one’s destiny is in part conditional based on one’s behavior after one is in the book of life— would you agree?

CHAD: The majority of references in Jubilees to the heavenly tablets refer to laws which are eternally ordained along with their consequences. Beyond these occurrences though, certain events are also said to be recorded in the heavenly tablets. Some take this to mean the author is working within an absolutely deterministic framework. In some of these instances, the text seems to indicate that it still has the legal function of the tablets in mind. In others, they act as a register of the righteous and the wicked, recording the deeds of each individual, apparently for use at the final judgment. There are also indications that these records have some fluidity, since names can be blotted out, for example, of the book of life. In other words, they do not record a pre-programmed fate for every individual, but rather are a record of the fate of each individual, which can change should their relationship to God change (e.g., should the wicked repent). So, yes, there are some events which are foreordained, but it seems to overstep the data to suggest that all of human history is thereby foreordained, including the destiny of each individual person. Beyond this, since part of the purpose of Jubilees, just as many books of the period, is to reinforce the faithful and call the wicked to repentance through warnings of judgment, this purpose seems to be defeated by an overarching, meticulous form of determinism.

BEN: I’ve always found it puzzling when hardline Calvinists insist on God’s will being the real bottom line of the divine existence. By this I mean a lot of them seem to say that ‘God knows things in advance, only because he wills them in advance’, otherwise his knowledge would be contingent on various external factors. What furthermore puzzles me is the notion that God’s sovereignty means God can do anything that is logically possible to do, even including doing evil. I would have thought it would be better to say that 1) God can only act in accordance with his nature or character, so by definition God cannot sin, nor can he be tempted or inclined to do so; OR 2) even if it is theoretically possible that God could do evil or sin, since God has the power of contrary choice like humans do, he would never choose to do it because he has a perfect and perfectly holy nature. What I take the almightiness of God to mean in the Scriptures is that he is almighty to save, almighty to do any good thing in accord with his nature, but since his will is not separate from his nature or knowledge, there are ever so many things that happen in this fallen world that God can not be held responsible for, including ironically, what insurers call ‘acts of God’. Of course we can talk about God’s permissive will, things God allows to happen, but does not necessarily condone, but at some juncture one has to have a concept of whether or not God gave beings other than himself the power of contrary choice, or whether he determined all things from before the foundations of the universe. If in fact God made space in his universe for beings other than himself to have some modicum of freedom of choice between one outcome or another, then God is not the only actor in the universe who should be held responsible for his behavior. The question then becomes— are fallen human beings non posse non peccare—not able not to sin, and so in the bondage to sin. I would say there are texts in the OT and NT which suggest this is so, but at the same time there are texts which suggest that by God’s grace one can recover the power of contrary choice, whether by prevenient or saving grace. I wonder what your reflections are on these sorts of complex matters?

CHAD: I tend to view sovereignty through the lens of reigning since the terminology is connected. To say God is sovereign is to say he is the ruler of the cosmos. This does not, by definition, require a meticulous form of determinism. Those who say it does are simply loading determinism into the meaning of “sovereign,” where I don’t think the biblical accounts require that. One of the interesting passages for me which connects to this sovereignty language is the Lord’s prayer. To pray, “May your kingdom come, may your will be done, on earth as it is in the heavens,” seems to recognize that not everything which is happening on earth, then or now, is God’s will. In other words, it is not God’s will when people disobey God’s will! I think saying God is not the only actor is right. Humans have significant creaturely freedom (which of course does not mean they are free to do anything they want or can think of). God is the supreme actor, but this does not mean humans have no role to play. We cannot take this, as you suggest, to mean that humans then can pull themselves from their depraved state and save themselves, or even that they have an uninfluenced path to salvation. This is part of what I found unsatisfying about Wright’s language of the Spirit’s role in salvation is that it seems to want to create both an influencing role and a causal role. In my view, humans do not receive the divine gift of salvation apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, which occurs through receiving the good news about Jesus. The Spirit’s work does not, however, guarantee an outcome, it does not have a causative force, since the human, being drawn and prompted by the Spirit and upon hearing the truth, must ultimately respond to it. So the work of God, both in what Christ accomplished and in the ongoing work of the Spirit through the people of God in the world, precedes any “decision” a person might make. Salvation is truly gracious, it is generously and freely offered by God to the world, on the basis of the work of the Son, through the moving of the Spirit, but ultimately must be received and appropriated.

BEN: One of the things this chapter suggests is that the deterministic language that we find for example even in the Qumran texts has to do with the fact that God set up a moral structure to the universe such that ‘whatsoever one sows, that he shall [eventually] reap’ if he does not repent. Put another way, sinful actions have negative consequences, and the reverse with good deeds. The idea that God has predetermined that actions have moral consequences seems to be what even some of the most deterministic texts at Qumran are really arguing for. Would you agree?

CHAD: Most scholars who study the Qumran materials have taken it as a foregone conclusion that the sect operated under an exhaustive form of determinism. The Hodayot, or “Thanksgiving Hymns,” evidence this perhaps most dramatically. In 1QH 7, for example, we read “the wicked you have created for [the time] of your wrath, from the womb you have predestined them for the day of slaughter.” Seems pretty clearly a form of double-predestination. The hymnist goes on, however, to write, “For they walk on a path that is not good, they reject your covenant, their soul loathes you.” 1QH 12 states that the wicked “have not chosen the path of your [heart] nor have they listened to your word.” This seems to indicate that the sectarian who wrote this hymn understood there to be some place for human volition. So even in these more deterministic texts there are indications that there may be more of an interplay at work. There are petitions, for example, for God to intervene and prevent the sectarian from sin. In the Damascus Document, we seem to find a sort of foreknowledge understanding in which God does not choose those whose evil deeds he knows ahead of time. The author also admonishes his hearers to “choose what he is pleased with and repudiate what he hates.” So viewing this not as an exhaustive form of determinism, but rather as some combination of God ordaining what is good and what is evil (i.e., some pre-existing divine law or order) and knowing ahead of time the actions of the wicked or righteous seems, at least to me, to make sense of some of the tensions we find in the Qumran literature between the more deterministic language and the presence of petitions, admonishments to choose the righteous path, and mechanisms in place to deal with apostasy from within the chosen community itself.

BEN: In the back and forth between divine action and human response, or divine determinism and human responsibility you seem to want to stress that insofar as we are talking about Paul, while he refers to both these things that we should not take him to mean “that God acts in such a unilateral manner so as to make the presence of human responsibility either illusory or meaningless.” (p. 212). You add that Paul does not see God and human beings as equivalent actors in the human drama, so that their actions have the same force or efficacy. You simply want to leave room for viable non-coerced human choice for which they can be held morally responsible— right?

CHAD: Yes, that is exactly right. And that is the interplay which I think we also see across the spectrum of Jewish literature. While some texts (Jubilees, Qumran, 1 Enoch, etc.) emphasize the divine prerogative, they do not eliminate, at least in my view, the presence of human volition. Likewise, texts which emphasize human volition (Ben Sira, Psalms of Solomon, etc.) do not indicate that human agency is somehow independent of the working of God (i.e., there is no works-based salvation in view). There does not seem to be to be any truly deterministic framework present in the Second Temple literature. Rather there is an interplay between divine agency and human agency which exists in the Jewish framework. I think Paul is working within this framework as well. The initiative and prerogative of the work of salvation lies with God. Humans do not bring something to the table which can bring about their own salvation. This does not mean, however, that there is no place for human agency at all. Rather, Paul sees the presence of both, though not of equal measure or efficacy, at work in the divine plan.

BEN: On page 213 you say that the Law is not the problem, but rather sin, the Law being the hireling of the tyrant sin. The problem with this assessment is that even if human beings were not fallen, the Law is still not the Holy Spirit. The Law can tell a person what they ought to do, but it cannot enable them to do it. Furthermore, Paul says that the Law, in effect turns sin into trespassing, a willful violation of a now known law, so if we are talking about fallen human beings, the Law certainly makes things worse. This is not to say that the Law is the bad guy, it’s just that in Paul’s view the Law is impotent. It cannot change human nature. Talk a bit more about your view of Paul’s view of the Law. Why do you think that ‘law’ in Rom. 8.2 must refer to the Mosaic Law? This is not at all clear to me, especially when Paul talks about ‘another law’ at the end of Romans 7 which is clearly not the Mosaic Law, and in fact Paul uses the term nomos in a variety of ways. For example ‘the law of Christ’ does not refer to Christ’s take on the Mosaic Law in toto. It also includes the teaching of Jesus, the teaching of the apostles, as well as those portions of the old covenant that are reaffirmed.

CHAD: This is where I take some queues again from Snodgrass and his “spheres of influence.” Snodgrass takes the genitives here as spherical where Paul contrasts “the Law of the Spirit of life” with “the Law of sin and death.” These are not two Laws or simply “principles,” but rather the Law in the realm of the Spirit where it can properly function because the human actor is empowered, or the Law in the realm of sin and death where human flesh lacks the empowering influence of the Spirit. The problem, as I see it, which Paul discuss in Romans 7 is that sin and death, taking advantage of the impotency of human flesh, coopted the Law and used it for their own purposes (i.e., to bring death and increase sin). So it was not the Law which was the problem, but humans. The Law, Paul says, is holy, righteous, and good (7:12). The two Laws which Paul contrasts in 7:22-23 seem to me to preview what he says in 8:2. The Law of God is at war with the Law of his mind and makes him captive to the Law of sin. These are not different Laws or simply principles, but rather the same Law under different operating forces. The “ego’s” mind (whoever Paul is describing here with “I,” which is, of course, debated), his will, so to speak, is aligned with the Law of God, but his flesh, weakened and lacking empowerment from the Spirit, is enslaved to the Law of sin. Since the focus on chapter 7 has been on the Mosaic Law in particular, and Paul continues with the nomos language, it seems to me that discussion spills over also into chapter 8.

BEN: Talk about your reading of Ephesians 1. It sounds rather like Markus Barth’s view that Christ is the elect one and we are only elect insofar as we are in Him. This would make good sense of the statement that God chose…’in Christ’ because at least Christ existed, according to Paul, before the foundations of the universe, whereas, we did not. It’s not just about choosing before the foundations of the world, it’s about choosing someone back then. I agree with your point about ‘pro-orisas’ simply meaning deciding in advance, without any necessary deterministic component being implied. Do you take the reference to ‘saints chosen in Christ’ to refer to Israel being chosen in Christ the Elect One, or perhaps to Jewish Christians like Paul being chosen in advance to be the light to the nations? However one parses this it seems clear that election is one thing and salvation is another. Jesus is the Elect One and yet he doesn’t need to be saved! Israel’s election was to a particular historical purpose, and some of Israel is clearly ‘not saved’ along the paths of history. In fact, I would say that the OT does not talk about salvation in the Christian sense, of being saved in Christ meaning being given everlasting life.

CHAD: Election ultimately occurs “in Christ” (as I would say as does also salvation, sanctification, etc.), so Paul I think is framing his discussion here in a participationistic model. Those who are “in Christ” are the “chosen people.” So God’s choice occurs before the foundation of the world because Christ has always been God’s chosen sphere of salvation. To put it another way, I think God’s plan all along was for humans to be conformed to the image of Jesus. In the incarnation, of course, that becomes clear. Humanity as it has always been intended to be is what Jesus himself is, and those “in Him” are, are becoming, and will become, just that: like Jesus. I think that the “saints” language in Ephesians, particularly through chapter 3, makes good sense contextually to be seen as referring to Israel, or more specifically to Jewish Christians. So what Paul is actually doing in Ephesians 1:3-13 is developing something of a salvation history of the people of Israel. This section is packed with language straight out of the Old Testament about the people of God. They are “chosen,” “holy,” “in love,” “adopted,” “redeemed,” “forgiven,” full of “wisdom,” have the revealed “will” of God, “hoped beforehand in Christ,” etc. It would take a dissertation (maybe one has already been done?) to tease out all of the Old Testament allusions which are packed into those verses. So they are the people of God, but the divine plan was a single plan all along, so Jewish Christians stand not just in the line of promises made in the Old Testament, but they also stand within the fulfillment of those promises through the work of Christ. If Paul is working toward addressing the problem of the need for Gentiles to appreciate their dependency upon God’s promises to Israel, to establish the history behind those promises first seems to me a necessity, and thus a satisfying interpretation of what is going here at the beginning of the letter.

BEN: Ephes. 1.13 seems particularly crucial for your argument that up to then Paul is talking about the Jewish believers, and the priority of their being addressed first by the Gospel, but in 1.13— the ‘also you’ refers to the turn to the Gentiles. Help the readers understand this exposition by Paul.

CHAD: It seems more than coincidental to me that Paul consistently uses first person plural pronouns in Ephesians 1:3-12. There is a lot of “we” and “us” going on. When he gets to 1:13, he states, “in whom also you (“yall”), when you (“yall”) heard the word of truth…” There is then some interchange between the “we” and the “you” throughout Ephesians 1-3. Some have suggested this is just stylistic variation, which I don’t think sufficiently explains the data. Others have said Paul is probably just referring to his companions with the “we” language, but his companions barely figure at all in the letter. What does figure prominently in the letter, and especially in the first three chapters, is the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in the people of God. So in light of that, I think Paul’s “we’s” clearly refer to Jews or Jewish Christians, and his “you’s” refer to Gentile Christians, in particular those who are the intended audience(s) of the letter.

BEN: You deny Paul is talking about double predestination in Ephes. 1. What then are to make of statements about being dead in sin, or being children of wrath? Is Paul talking about their condition before conversion, or at the eschaton?

CHAD: In the context of this statement in Ephesians 2:1-2, Paul has just mentioned the resurrection of Jesus in 1:20. So I think the connection here with death is not describing a predetermined state but rather is working within the conceptual framework of the resurrection life. Those who are not “in Christ” have not shared in his resurrection and thus are dead in sin. I don’t see any need contextually to read any more into it than that. If Paul’s pronouns are indicative of his audience here, which I think they are, Paul is specifically speaking to these Gentile converts who were formerly under the rule of the “powers,” the powers which are still operating over those who are not Christ. That Paul does not intend “children of wrath” or “sons of disobedience” as descriptions of those predestined by God for judgment seems clear since he is talking about the former state of his own audience who are now believers. In other words, their position changed from “out” to “in” when they trusted in Christ, which would not be possible if Paul were referring to a previously determined and fixed state.

BEN: What does it mean to say that God prepared before hand good works for the saved to walk in, rather than saying God prepared the people before hand for good works? What’s the difference?

CHAD: I take this to mean something similar to what we saw at Qumran and in other Second Temple texts where God has determined right and wrong, good and evil, and their boundaries. The kind of works which God’s people, those conformed and being conformed to the image of Christ, are to be doing have been determined ahead of time. From a theological perspective, though this is not explicit in the text, I would say that the good activities which God has for his people to do flow from God’s nature rather than being something which God arbitrarily determined. In other words, because God is good and God is love, the good works which are predetermined for his people are those which flow from God’s very essence as good and love. The intended result of God’s preparations are that his people will walk in the works he has prepared, indicating again, it seems, a serious volitional component to the whole schema. Paul develops the theological framework for that case here and lays out its ethical implications beginning in chapter 4 of the letter.

[This post was taken from Ben Witherington’s blog.]