If you had to describe the significance of the nation of Israel in the Old Testament, it would be hard to do it better than with the simple phrase, “chosen people.” Israel is not represented as superior to other nations either militarily, intellectually, or in any other way. Even morally, the history of Israel makes clear that they were much more interested in emulating the immorality of the cultures around them than following the Law that God had given them. The significance of Israel is simply that they are chosen by God, and the reason that they are chosen is because of God’s love for them and for their forefathers, beginning with Abraham. Deuteronomy 7:6-8 is a clear statement of this:
“For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.”
It is sometimes said that Abraham’s descendents inherit the promises God gave to Abraham; it might be more correct to say that they are included in those promises. God promised Abraham descendents, land, and blessing; the land and the blessing were explicitly to be given to Abraham’s descendents, so the descendents receiving land and blessing is not so much a matter of God fulfilling a promise to them as God fulfilling a promise to Abraham.
The National Election of Israel
It should be clear from the foregoing that Israel was chosen as a nation; that is to say, as a group, based on the criterion of descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Hebrew word bachar is used of God’s choice of Israel as a nation, Jerusalem as the place of sacrifice, and David as God’s choice as King of Israel. However, despite the fact that Israel is chosen, it is possible both for individual Israelites to be cut off from the covenant people (Gen. 17:14; Ex. 30:33, 38; 31:14; Lev. 7:20-27; 19:8; 23:29; Num. 9:13; 15:30) and for outsiders to become a part of the covenant people (Ex. 12:48-49; cf. Matt. 23:15; Acts 2:11; 6:5; 13:43). In other words, “Israel” is not a static category of individuals: it is rather a dynamic category defined by God’s gracious favor and the people’s faithfulness to the covenant.
This fact was implicitly acknowledged by Calvin. In Institutes 3.21, he argues for his doctrine of election by appeal to the Old Covenant election of Israel. He writes, “The prophets remind the Jews of this election by way of disparagement and opprobrium, because they had shamefully revolted from it” (Inst. 3.21.5). Israelites, evidently, could revolt against their election. Similarly, he writes
I admit that it was by their own fault Ishmael, Esau, and others, fell from their adoption; for the condition annexed was, that they should faithfully keep the covenant of God, whereas they perfidiously violated it. (3.21.6)
So Calvin acknowledges that while the election of Israel as a whole was unconditional, individuals within Israel were required to keep God’s covenant in order to remain within its blessings, and the history of Israel shows that the majority of them did not remain within the covenant.
Group vs. Individual Election
Calvin distinguishes this type of election from “the case of single individuals, to whom God not only offers salvation, but so assigns it, that the certainty of the result remains not dubious or suspended” (3.21.7). In other words, Calvin is forced to recognize two types of election: one in which whole nations are chosen, but in which individual participation is conditional and based on keeping the covenant; and another in which individuals are chosen and salvation is assigned to them with an absolutely certain result. But throughout Institutes 3.21, Calvin has been demonstrating individual election—election of the second type—by appeal to the Old Testament election of Israel, which is clearly election of the first type. If Calvin now wants to make a distinction between these types of election, he undercuts his whole preceding argument. The only thing he has positively demonstrated is election of the first type—that is, unconditional sovereign election of a group, in which individual participation is conditional, which is precisely what the Arminian believes. When Calvin applies this to individual unconditional election, he does so by mere assertion.
The main point of this essay is not a wholesale rebuttal of Calvin’s argument. It is simply to demonstrate how the doctrine of election is presented in the Old Testament, and therefore what the concept was that Paul was appealing to in his letters. It is, of course, possible that Paul modified the concept and used it in the way that Augustine and Calvin thought he did. But this would have to be demonstrated by the New Testament election passages themselves. Otherwise, one must assume that the original readers of the New Testament would have had in mind the Old Testament concept of election: the election of a group, in which individual participation in the covenant is required.
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