Karl Barth on Providence and Heaven

For my last (rather delayed) post on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence according to Darren Kennedy, I want to briefly address the way that heaven and, interestingly, the angels function in the whole structure. According to Kennedy, heaven and the angels are actually quite important to Barth’s providence. Why this would be the case might not be obvious at all to us, but once he explains it, the coherence is evident.

So, what do angels and heaven have to do with providence? Recall that in my last post on this I mentioned that Barth rejects the idea of miracles which violate natural order, but he understands the natural order in a broad way that allows for many things to take place which we might not be inclined to consider natural. This is where heaven and the angels come in. For Barth (and, basically, N. T. Wright of all people), the term “heaven” does not refer to the uncreated presence of God, but to the second sphere of creation, the other side from earth which is hidden from our perception. The angels belong to this created heavenly sphere, and thus strictly speaking are a part of natural creation. They are not properly supernatural, but simply belong to a different created habitat, the habitat of heaven rather than earth.

In his first brief explanation, Kennedy explains:

If God does not disrupt the causal nexus, how can one account for the specific ‘miracles’ in Scripture? Barth’s answer does not envision a violation of the causal nexus, but an expansion of it to include heaven. This explanation will help to clarify Barth’s interpretation of heaven and angels in III.3. While fully a part of the creation, heaven remains imperceptible to humanity. Nevertheless, as part of the cosmos, heavenly creatures can act and reveal in the earthly realm. Thus God directs angels—whose nature is to obey perfectly—to behave in ways that seem to disrupt creation, but violate no ontic laws of creation.1

So for Barth, then, there is nothing about miracles which necessarily violates the natural causal order. He does not overrule, bypass, undo, or contradict the “laws” by which He governs creation (since, after all, in double-agency they are His own doing, and He cannot contradict Himself). Instead, heaven and the angels are part of the natural, created world, and God from His presence in heaven sends the angels to do His will in ways which affect earthly realities. A blind man, for example, may receive sight not by earthly physical processes but by angelic action, which is nonetheless “natural” in the sense that angels are a part of the created order.

Thus Kennedy argues that the realm of heaven and the angels serve as a so-called “causal joint” in Barth’s theology of providence, the point where God’s action enters into the created world. Many theologians have traditionally had a very difficult time identifying this point, explaining how and where God’s providential action is effective in the natural world. Barth by no means overcomes the mystery altogether, which would be speculative and presumptuous, but he does point to this answer grounded in biblical stories and teachings.

To understand this better, we should see how Barth sees the difficulty in the relationship of the Wholly Other God to the created world. In his understanding, God only is able to act in our world through a particular created “midpoint,” the realm of heaven which He has made to dwell in and to unite with earth. Kennedy cites this from him:

Without this special place of God, and the distance therewith posited between Himself and man in his own place, there could obviously be no genuine intercourse between them. There could be no dialogue, but only a monologue on the part of God (or perhaps of man). There could be no drama, but either God or man could only live in isolation with no relationships to others or significance for them. If this is not the case; if the theme of Christian witness is neither the life of an isolated God nor isolated man, but the history enacted between them of isolation, estrangement, reconciliation and fellowship; and if this history is really enacted in our world, then this means that God as well as man has a distinctive sphere in this real world of ours.2

This is rather similar to N. T. Wright’s view, at least at the descriptive level, of heaven as “the control room for earth..the CEO’s office, the place from which instuctions are given.”3 Kennedy does not specify whether Barth thought God acts on the world through heaven only by the angels or also by other means, but in any case the point is a mediating realm between God and man’s world.

There are oddities to this account, though. For Barth, only God and humans are truly personal beings. Angels, although superficially similar to persons, are actually not. They have no free will (of any kind), and they are used by God similarly to simple tools. On this account, he also denies that demons are fallen angels, instead incorporating them into his doctrine of Nothingness (on which I have written here). If angels have no personal agency, then they cannot have sinned unless God caused them to do so, which of course is absurd. Thus demons are placed into their own category.

This last issue is odd, and I think compromises this apsect of Barth’s providential project on Biblical grounds. Could it be reworked without it? Perhaps. In any case, it is thought-provoking, and I think as a whole Barth’s doctrine of providence seems superior to the traditional Reformed formulations.

A Riddle of Love and Election

Something occurred to me last night when I was reading Herman Bavinck on the infra/supralapsarian debate in classical Calvinism. (‘Twas a pretty good read, by the way. Bavinck is probably the best that classical, federal Reformed theology has to offer.) A strange dilemma seems to appear in the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional, individual election. Specifically, the relation between love and election is confusing.

Generally speaking, in classical Calvinism it’s said that God loves all, but God has a special love for the elect. Not all agree, of course, with some denying God’s love for the reprobate and (I imagine, since if you can think it someone else has already?) some affirming God’s equal love for all people. But my question is directed to the majority report.

So, does election precede special love or does special love precede election?

If election precedes special love, then we’re left with the question of God’s differentiation between the elect and reprobate. If, logically prior to election, God’s love for all is equal, then why do limits develop on His mercy to the people who He makes to be the elect alone? It’s also a worthwhile question what the character is of this supraeclectic love. Prior to God’s election, is this “love” to be understood as having a saving character or less than a saving character? This affects how the decree of election is understood.

On the other hand, if special love precedes election, and by definition election is God’s choosing, then God chooses the elect because He already favored them. But in that case, then God did not choose who He especially loved to begin with. So why did He love them especially if He had not yet chosen them?

Basically, if special love precedes election then God’s differentiating love seems unchosen and intrinsic to God’s relation to men, and it seems weird and arbitrary that God would naturally love some people more than others without choosing specifically to do so. But if election precedes special love, then it is unclear why or how God would give mercy to some and reject some whom He all loves equally.

Anyone have a suggestion how this is to be resolved in a classical Calvinist framework?

Layered, Christological Election as a Biblical Story

As I posted some time ago, Evangelical Calvinism has a highly Christological approach to election which, in the history of salvation, involves several “layers.” The election of Christ in eternity has as its correspondence a movement of historical election which takes place through several stages/layers of covenant (all of which, of course, mediate the one covenant of grace in Jesus).

I only recently learned how much this layered aspect is actually present in Karl Barth. I had imagined before that Barth’s Christological focus was so strict as to squeeze out the room for this idea of layers in the history of election, but Nathan Hitchcock summarizes in his PhD dissertation, Karl Barth and the resurrection of the flesh, how this layered aspect of election plays out in Barth’s reading of the Biblical story. All I really want to do in this post, then, is quote his rather epic presentation.

Election’s set of concentric circles plays out the drama of reconciliation28: the eternal decree in Jesus fructified from the One to the many through the creation of Adam, the population of the earth through Noah, then on to the manifold blessing given to Abraham. However, a thinning of the visibly elect community occurs through Moses and David, the kings and prophets, leading ultimately to a convergence back to the One in His single history of reconciliation. Of the millions who lived before Him, only a handful represented the elect Israel, and even these actors in the history of salvation narrowed until, the disciples scattering from the Garden of Gethsemane, only Jesus remained. Upon this one crucified Representative rested the whole task of reconciliation. The circles of election contracted back to the single point on Golgotha, the telos of the divine election, thus enacting God’s gracious election. As for the resurrection of Jesus, the same elective expansion occurs, this time from the divine, single point in the Auferweckung to the second, communal ring during the forty days of appearance to the inclusion of all sorts of individuals at the outpouring of the Spirit. The now-established Church expands into all the world with Christ in His prophetic mission. 

Nathan Hitchcock, Karl Barth and the resurrection of the flesh

Barth on Providence and Double-Agency

In my last post about D. M. Kennedy’s thesis on Karl Barth’s doctrine of providence, I overviewed the way Barth addressed the question of evil in the world and the divine will. God gives sin and evil space for existence in His opposition to it; His “No” to human evil defines it and gives it concrete existence as His enemy. Thus sin is included in God’s will negatively, as that which He hates and denies in order to love and create His positive will. In the end, through the Cross of Christ, all sin and evil have their intentions thwarted as their ends are subjected to the positive will of God in creation and reconciliation.

This account, as fun as it is, is not quite complete. To get the way all of this is supposed to work a little better, it is necessary to also understand Barth’s doctrine of double-agency, the way in which both God and the world act in everything which happens. For Barth, and many other theologians, it is necessary to affirm that God acts in all occurrences. Nothing happens in all of creation in which God is not actively doing something. Providence would not be providence, especially from a Reformed perspective, if not everything was in some way an act of God. So Barth would affirm, along with the Old Testament and many Christian thinkers, God’s omnicausality, His causing of all things which come to pass.

So what does Barth’s view of double-agency look like in his doctrine of providence? First, it must be seen that all events in all history are God’s act at least inasmuch as He creates and sustains all things. This applies on one level to mere matter, simple particles and such, as God chooses at every moment to cause their existence with their distinct natures and properties. Every quark and gluon, photon and graviton, “acts” out of its own nature under the conditions in which God has placed it, and God acts to give and sustain the nature and abilities of these particles. Thus for Barth “natural” processes or “laws” cannot be understood as some autonomous principle(s) which mechanistically force all things to work in a certain way, but rather they are simply the outplaying of the way God ever constitutes the elements and forces of nature.

Each day of creation marks the appearance of created beings with particular natures which serve the Creator’s intention. For example, light has a God given ‘nature’ corresponding to its function and purpose. Barth explains, ‘Giving it its nature, He sets it [light] with this nature in that antithesis [between God and darkness]’. This ‘nature’, however, is in relation to the living God. Acting naturally, it corresponds with its Creator:

…in its distinction from Himself He finds in it a correspondence (entsprechend) to the goodness of His creative will and acts. In this connexion only that can be called “good” which corresponds to God’s will and act as Creator, and for this reason and in this way in a positive relation to Himself’.…in its distinction from Himself He finds in it a correspondence (entsprechend) to the goodness of His creative will and acts. In this connexion only that can be called “good” which corresponds to God’s will and act as Creator, and for this reason and in this way in a positive relation to Himself’.

Barth goes on to contrast his view of the goodness of light in correspondence with the will and act of God to those who consider the ‘qualities and advantages of light’. In doing so, Barth sets his actualistic ontology and its stress on relationships in contrast with the traditional Aristotelian substantialism. Double-agency means that impersonal creatures ‘are’ in their natural existence precisely as God actively sustains them to be. Like Farrer, Barth suggests ‘two doings’, but only one meaning given by God, since the non-intelligent nature of light does not involve an intention from the side of the creature.

Barth accentuates the ‘limits’ (Grenzen) and ‘nature’ (Natur) of each creature. Every creature has a particular God-given nature allowing for varied praise and witness to its Creator. Thus the creation of plants signals the potential not for agency but for obedience nonetheless. Barth highlights the difference in the nature of plants and non-living creatures this way,

Light has only to become and be what it is. The firmament has only to divide. The waters have only to gather. The results of the activity of the action of these creatures do not extend beyond themselves to the existence of other creatures. But the earth…has a transitive character…It produces things that are different from itself….

Barth portrays creaturely life as both ‘produced by God’ and totally natural. As in Farrer’s lower levels of providential double-agency, Barth preserves the full integrity and relative individuality of the creature while affirming divine agency in each moment of existence. The Creator both creates the nature of the impersonal creature and personally acts in double-agency using ‘creaturely powers straight…’1

So for Barth, God is the “cause” of all physical occurrence by giving every physical part of creation its peculiar nature and function. All so-called “natural laws” are the result of God’s constant act of creatively ordering the world. Yet at the same time, this divine act makes the “independent” naturalness of the physical world properly real. God does, and so nature does, but nature does precisely as nature and not merely as a divine instrument 

This conception of double-agency has two particularly notable results. First is that Barth thus rejects the concept of natural evil. Hurricanes, volcanoes, mosquitos, and carnivorous survival are not, for Barth, effects of sin or the curse but simply expressions of the way that objects and forces with different created natures may interact in abrasive ways. Just as without heat and friction between objects, there could be no motion, so without these various harsh aspects of creaturely existence, there could be no natural world. This reminds me of a section in The City of God where Augustine addresses natural evil by pointing out that just because certain created things are bad for humans does not mean they are inherently bad. Instead, they are good as they act out their God-given natures even when that is problematic for us.

A second result of Barth’s take on double-agency in creation is a rejection of any idea of miracles as breaking or bypassing the created order. If all natural occurrence is in fact already God’s omnipotent action, then Humean miracles would essentially be God bypassing or contradicting Himself. So Barth defines miracles by their meaning and relation to human perception. Miracles occur by natural processes, but they are so wielded by God’s providence as to participate in revelatory significance in key moments of God’s plan.

This rejection of Humean miracles does come with two important qualifications, though. On one hand, Barth defines creation’s natural order in a way that allows for many things we might not be inclined to consider “natural” as in fact perfectly natural. I’ll save the twist on this for my next post. The other qualification is the resurrection of Christ (and thus humanity in Christ), which is neither natural nor a simple violation of nature but in fact a new creation in the midst of the old, a sequel to the ex nihilo work of Genesis 1.

More closely related to the last post, though, and addressing the issue of human evil in providence, is Barth’s understanding of double-agency with respect to persons. Personal beings are more than the sum of their physical parts, after all, especially in that they have true, intentional agency. A particle simply exists and interacts without knowledge or motive, but human persons move autonomously and make choices. It is in this sphere, then, in which double-agency means the most.

As said before, Barth acknowledges the act of God in every occurrence, thus including human decisions, even evil ones. But Barth is no fool who simply treats humans like rocks and stones moved by God deterministically. To summarize Kennedy’s presentation of Barth’s view of double-agency in persons, I’ll offer three points which describe the act of God in human action.

First, God acts creatively to sustain the human’s being and willing as a creature. God has made man with certain volitional capacities which, while never intended to host sinfulness, have become inhabited by sin in such a way that God must allow sinful wills to play out their desires for a time or otherwise go back upon His creative will in unfaithfulness to Himself. While Barth probably would have objected to the term “free will” being applied here, what we are essentially faced with is a relocation of the doctrine of free will to Creator/creature distinction, suggesting that God mustn’t control in an overruling way human wills if He wishes to preserve the integrity of His creatures precisely as creatures. Thus God acts in human action by creating and sustaining human agency and volition which would otherwise not exist.

Second, God acts in all human action to determine it as positive or negative witness to election in Jesus Christ. This follows closely from what was discussed in the last post about Gods “Yes” or “No” to all human choice. As is well-known, for Barth election means God’s predetermination to be for all mankind in the mediation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man. Unlike Calvin, who considered the election and reprobation of men as part of the general doctrine of providence applied to salvation, Barth puts election before providence as its original ground. Providence follows from election so that God acts to determine all human acts as either a positive witness to election, humanity living in his truth as elected man, or negative witness to election, humanity living the lie as a rejected man who is nonetheless elected. Those who obey God do so as servants, friends, and willing participants in God’s electing purpose, whereas those who disobey God do so as deceived creatures thinking themselves independent of God when in fact they are elected for Him in Christ. The disobedient do not intent to glorify God or witness to His grace, but God overcomes their intention to instead use their disobedience as a sign of His electing grace. Thus Barth says of them, “The rejected as such has no independent existence in the presence of God. He is not determined by God merely to be rejected. He is determined to hear and say that a rejected man is elected.”2 Kennedy helpfully shows how Barth applied this thought to Judas:

The Lordship of God determined, determines and will determine all things as witnesses to election.

The example of Judas helps to demonstrate Barth’s understanding of providence under election. It also gives a particular example of the way Barth avoids both the charge of determinism and of making God the author of sin. At no point do Judas’ actions cease to be determined by God’s active electing will, but Judas is no puppet or chessman. He rebels against God and acts as if he were a godless person. Contrary to deterministic views, Judas’ betrayal was not ‘written’, required by God’s plan or specifically necessary for God’s salvific purposes. God determines the betrayal for the realization of God’s will, but Judas did not have to betray Jesus any more than the other disciples were inhibited from doing so by God. Barth states bluntly that the other disciples shared the same perverse ‘possibility’ of Judas,

To be sure, they have not actually done it or co-operated with [Judas]. But the point is that they obviously could have done it. The possibility of doing it was their possibility too… any of the others might equally well have been the one.

As ‘the great sinner of the New Testament’, Judas illustrates the perverse impossible possibility of the ‘rejected’. In his will and act of handing-over Jesus, Judas’ ‘disobedience was certainly not obedience. On the contrary, it was total disobedience.’ Nevertheless, Judas’ betrayal encounters the sovereign determination of God and therefore will witness to the grace of God…Barth has shown the omnipotence of God’s providential determination without any possibility of determinism in a mechanical or overpowering sense. God does not interfere in Judas’s actions, but determines them—‘against [Judas’] will and deserts (gegen seinen Willen und Verdienst)’—as a witness. Likewise, Judas’s sin remains Judas’s responsibility, though determined by God’s left hand. In such a view, God cannot be understood as either the ‘author of sin’ or as a monadic tyrant.3

This is a rather interesting conception in my opinion, and it works well as an account of how God can work all things to His glory without being the author, deviser, or even far remote cause of sin. God does not determine Judas to sin, but He determines Judas and his sin as involuntary, unwilling testimony to God’s grace toward sinners in Jesus. The depth of Judas’ depravity can only come to highlight the glorious love of Christ in choosing, coming, and dying for such a sinner. Rather than God glorifying Himself simply by damning the sinner (as is the case in most Calvinist conceptions of reprobation and providence), God is glorified by being the one who, even in and to the point of the sinner’s damnation, loves and mercies him, subjecting even all of his wickedness to this omnipotent benevolence.

Third, God acts in every human action by integrating it into a wider scope of providence that ultimately brings God glory and humanity grace, regardless of its intention. In Barth’s conception of double-agency, God’s sovereignty is exercised by the triumph of His intention over and against the contrary intention of the sinful creature. God does not properly cause, either directly or indirectly, the creature to do evil, but He overcomes and determines creaturely evil for His good by the power of Cross and Resurrection. Since God is in His eternity knows, wills, and acts before, during, and after all creaturely action, He may providentially incorporate all human action into a series of events into which the sinful man does not wish them to play any part, but which accomplishes the will of God. Before man acts, God sets His electing determination and His benevolent will into absolute place. When man acts, God acts alongside according to His own purpose and will determined in election. After man acts, God continues to have power to fulfill His intention even though the creature has lost power over his own intention to the unstoppable flow of time. Thus God is radically superior to human willing and doing, able by His free transcendence to act in relation to a single, limited human act from and in all of time and space. Man’s act and intention are finite, but God’s act and intention vis-a-vis man’s act are free of any limitation. And while I focus on how this relates to sin, it also has meaning for human obedience. God acts before, during, and after all human goodness so that He can confirm it and incorporate it into a greater purpose which fulfills its faithful intention beyond what the limited Christian is capable of accomplishing. Thus for Barth, all of our obedience can, by God’s providence, take on more duration and significance than we have an ability to give it.

Clearly, then, Barth affirms a strong doctrine of providential double-agency which portrays God as truly and utterly sovereign even while Barth ardently rejects and refuses the determinism or quasi-determinism of standard Reformed versions of providence. There is no hidden control of creaturely action in Barth, but there is a determination shaped by election which respects creaturely being and act even while confirming or contradicting the creaturely intention from a superior and eternal standpoint. While some questions and possible critiques remain, particularly in relation to miracles (though some of this will be covered in the next post), the overall strengths are again clear. Election in Christ is at the front, God does not in any way author sin, but God remains comprehensively sovereign, even to the being omnicausal.

Faithfulness, Election, Prayer, and Faith: An Exegetical Paper for Genesis 24:12-14

A STUDY OF GENESIS 24:12-14

An Exegetical Paper

 

ABSTRACT OF THE BIBLICAL TEXT

  1. Main Idea.

Abraham’s servant, having been sent to acquire a wife for Isaac that the covenant blessings may be passed down another generation, prayed to the God of his master in faith. He trusted in the will, kindness, and ability of God to fulfill the promises He had made to Abraham. He expected God to perform an act of sovereign election, and then confirm that act by a sign. These themes of God’s covenant love and faithfulness, God’s purpose in election, human faith, and the use of prayer fill the passage and all point forward to a fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

  1. Genesis 24:12-14
    1. Abraham’s servant prayed for a wife for Isaac (vv. 12-14)
      1. The servant entreated God (v. 12)
        1. Addressed God as “Lord, God of my master Abraham”
        2. Requested success and “kindness” (checed)
      2. The servant set the stage for his sign request (v. 13)
      3. The servant requested a sign of God’s yakach choice (v. 14)
        1. Asked for the sign of a willingness to water both himself and his camels
        2. Expected this sign as proof of God’s checed to Abraham

Introduction

God is faithful, therefore His people have every ground to entreat Him in faith. The truth of this characterization and inference can be found on almost every page of Scripture, but in some places the theme is more prominent than in others. Genesis 24:12-14 stands as a prime example of this dynamic. This passage offers a wealth of riches for the Church when studied in detail. To be more specific, in this text, once properly viewed in historical-cultural and literary context, God’s covenant faithfulness and electing purposes shine bright, with the proper human response of faith and personal prayer to his covenant partner mediated by election setting an example. In addition, as with all of Scripture, each of these themes from the text can be found to climax and find their full meaning in Jesus Christ. None of these claims needs to be particularly controversial, but they do need to be substantiated. What exactly does this passage say? What specifically and exactly did the author (and Author) mean? The investigation must begin in history.

Historical-Cultural Context

To understand any text, the original historical-cultural context is highly relevant. Every part of Scripture was written at a particular time to a particular people in a particular world. This must be acknowledged and treated to avoid appropriating a kind of Docetism into bibliology. So what is the context of Genesis 24:12-14? According to Jewish tradition, as well as the implications of Scripture and even the words of Jesus Himself, the book of Genesis was written by Moses after the Exodus, probably while he was on Mt. Sinai with God. Naturally, not all of this can be verified, and this has been a source of heated debate. Many scholars would like to assign the book, along with the rest of the Pentateuch (or even Hexateuch), to several editors and redactors, and until recently have preferred to divide this up into four primary source materials. These are J (Jehovist/Yahwist), E (Elohist), D (Deuteronomist), and P (Priestly). Traditionally under this schema the entire account of Abraham sending his servant to acquire a wife for Isaac has been associated with the Yahwist. All of this, however, seems quite unnecessary. The purpose and scope of this essay do not permit an attempt at proving or even much defending Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, but enough work on this has already been performed by many scholars. Mosaic authorship can still be, despite many critical protests, affirmed with reason.[1] This places the original context of the writing within the Exodus period. The monumental event of the Exodus is quite relevant because precisely in the shadow of this event God chooses to reiterate to Israel the full story of their origins in the purposes of God. God delivered a people and then called the people to hear the story of how He brought them into being as a foundation for their future as His covenant partner. Genesis 2:14-15 should then be viewed as part of the larger project of establishing Israel’s covenantal identity before God. Yet to go much deeper would turn this into the literary context and thus must be presently deferred.

More important to this particular text may be the historical context of the events described. When did this take place? While many scholars would like to argue that this story is simply one of many legends, folktales, or myths making up Israel’s self-written history, the biblical texts point toward a historical time around the early second millennium BC. Dating from the years given in 1 Kings 6:1 and Exodus 12:40-41 both support this conclusion, no matter which of the predominant views of the Exodus date is preferred. This “Patriarchal Period” has been subject to many accusations of anachronism and fiction, but such accusations do not necessarily convict. There is comparatively little data about the Patriarchal Period from archaeology and other sources, which allows for this kind of ambiguity. Yet the skepticism seems mostly unjustified, as several clues point to an authentic date. Genesis contains, for example, straightforward portrayals of God’s people acting in ways which are taboo later in Israel’s history, such as Abraham marrying his half-sister or Lot sleeping with his daughters. If the accounts originated in later times, these would appear problematic and unnecessary for the authors. Other evidence, such as the information on Ancient Near East customs and practices found in the Nuzi tablets, strengthen the case that, even if the early second millennium cannot be definitively pinpointed as the origin of these stories, the fanciful tale that they were invented much later around the Exilic period seem to lose much credibility.[2]

Given these factors, Genesis (including 24:12-14) should be read as a text written shortly after the Exodus about historical events which took place in the early second millennium BC. Moses wrote to Israel of events from the beginning of their history about half a millennium earlier with no clear indications of anachronism or inaccuracy. From this context, not a great deal is directly relevant to the three verses in question, but two notes are necessary. On the one hand, the mention of domesticated camels in verse 14 is treated as an anachronism by many. Supposedly the domestication of camels in Canaan did not take place until centuries later. This, however, relies mostly on an argument from silence, and frequently assertions like this are found to be false by new archaeological excavations.[3] Beyond this, there is not much of note to the context of this particular passage. Thus the literary context must be the next major focus.

Literary Context

For Genesis 24:12-14, as with any other text (in Scripture or elsewhere), the literary context is the true key to meaning. Where does this text sit in the whole book or collection of books? This particular text is found in the book of Genesis, which is ultimately inseparable from the entire Pentateuch (or even the Hexateuch). While the entire Pentateuch includes a couple of genres, the majority from Genesis 1 to the middle of Exodus is pure narrative. Many will argue that this narrative is fictional, mythical, legendary, or allegorical. While in theory one of these could be true, there is no necessary reason to think so, and the overall story should probably be classified simply as a historical narrative. This is most often contested on the grounds of theological and miraculous content, but neither of these preclude an intent to write real history. Obviously this is a highly controversial route, but the evidence does not ask for any other. In any case, unless the narrative is a pure allegory, the intended meaning of the text’s canonical form is likely the same.

The story of Genesis which sets the context for 24:12-14 is essentially of origins. Genesis tells a story about the origin of the world (Genesis 1-11) and of Israel as God’s people within the world (Genesis 12-50). The latter half about the origins of Israel begins with Abraham and God’s covenant with Him. God chose Abraham and his descendants to be His own people for divine blessing. The selection of Abraham is unexplained, presumably a simple function of God’s free election. This text, then, appears in a transition period as Abraham passed his role on to Isaac, who had also been specially selected by God as the descendant through whom the chosen people would continue. Isaac would become the patriarch for the next few chapters. Thus he, like Abraham, would need posterity, which in turn meant he would need a wife. A wife would enable Isaac to take up his place as the next patriarch and continue the line of promise. Therefore, Abraham sent out a servant to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac from his own kin rather than from among the Canaanites.

Genesis 24:12-14 lies at this point and must be taken as part of this ongoing narrative of the patriarchs. The prayer of the servant sits in the middle of this crucial transition period. God had made a covenant promise to provide many descendants to Abraham and Isaac after him. At this moment the question came in the form of the servant’s prayer, “Will God be faithful, and if so how?” The ongoing history of God’s people was found once again to hinge on God’s provision, election, and faithfulness, just as for Abraham when he trusted God for a son. John Walton highlights the issue thus:

[G]etting a wife for Isaac in a way that will preserve the covenant ideals is not an easy matter. It is for that reason that the narrator goes to such great length to demonstrate the role that God played in bringing the marriage to fruition. Abraham has not yet become a great nation. Survival of the line still hangs by a thread.[4]

Therefore, the context presents Isaac and even, in a certain sense, Rebekah, as the rightful successor(s) of the first patriarch, and the source of the blessings which are still to come in the rest of the story.

The Basic Content

So, with the context in history and the literature firmly established, the actual content of the passage can be examined. What happened in Genesis 24:12-14? Abraham sent out his chief servant to acquire a wife for Isaac, since Abraham was getting old and would die soon. The servant came to the town of Nahor and approached a well, where he then uttered the prayer of these three verses in question. In this prayer, he asked God to show kindness to Abraham his master by giving success in the wife-finding journey. He asked in particular for God to highlight a woman He had chosen by a particular sign, the sign of extraordinary hospitality in the form of an offer to draw water for both him and the camels from the well. In fact, the text is short enough that quoting the full prayer is probably warranted. The servant’s prayer reads as follows in the NIV, which the standard throughout this paper:

“O Lord, God of my master Abraham, give me success today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. May it be that when I say to a girl, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.”[5]

That is the full text of the prayer which will be discussed. The events afterwards bear note as well, however. In the rest of the narrative, God did give the sign and led the servant to Rebekah, whom Isaac married. Keeping this storyline in mind, the interpretation can begin. What does the text actually mean?

“Kindness” and “Chosen”: Two Key Words about the Faithful God of Abraham

 Key to this passage will be two words which highlight the redemptive-historical themes of the account. The first of these is translated in the NIV as “kindness.” The servant asked God to “show kindness” to Abraham, and at the end of the prayer asked for a sign so he could know that God had shown “kindness.” The Hebrew is the word checed (חֶ֕סֶד), which is used fairly frequently in the Old Testament, occurring 241 times.[6] Checed has a very wide translation range (including in the NIV such diversity as “condemn,” “devout,” and “loving deeds”), but the meaning seems to primarily orbit around some blend of commitment and benevolence. Thus in 174 instances the NIV uses a variant of “love” yet also includes at times “devotion,” “faithfulness,” and “loyalty.” In support of this blend, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, for example, predominantly translates checed as “faithful love.”[7] There is an unmistakable covenantal flavor to the included faithfulness in many of the occurrences, and many times in the Psalms checed could almost be defined: “God’s unswerving mercy and love in being faithful to His covenant with Israel and her king.”

In Genesis 24:12-14 in particular, the common rendering “kindness” fits well enough, but an argument could well be made that God’s covenant faithfulness should not be left out of the picture. After all, as mentioned earlier, this was a pivotal moment. God’s covenant with Abraham was about to transition to his son Isaac. The wife Isaac required would be the means by which Isaac could bear children according to the promise. Thus for God to answer this servant’s prayer would be to show His covenant love to Abraham and his family. Those were the stakes, and as the narrative later explains, God did just that. In yet another moment of importance for God’s people, He came through out of faithful love.

The other significant word in the passage, not repeated but certainly important, is “chosen.” The Hebrew word is yakach (יָכחַ). Though not as common as checed, yakach does show up in the Old Testament enough to notice, namely fifty-five times. The basic meaning of yakach has to do with rightness.[8] The word is quite flexible, with “rebuke” having a plurality of the NIV renderings at twenty instances, but the rest divided between many others like “judge,” “vindicate,” “complain,” or “mediate.” This passage contains the rendering “chosen,” also “appointed” or “prepared” in other translations. Many of the other possible meanings for yakach make intuitive sense (e.g. “vindicate” is to prove right, “judge” to discern right, “rebuke” to correct wrong with right, etc.), but how that ties to the concept of choosing or appointing is less obvious. Perhaps the intended sense is judging that a particular choice is the right one, recognizing that what is being chosen or appointed is right or fit for the purpose.

If this sense of discerning rightness according to a purpose is correct, then the servant implicitly acknowledged that God has a righteous plan with a particular woman who will be the best gift for Isaac. The one God has chosen, yakach, would be right for him and thus help bring about the blessings of the covenant which she was needed to fulfill. The Lord of all the earth does what is right, and the servant fully expected (and entreated) Him to do the same in this particular circumstance, in this moment on which the future of the covenant hang. Thus, even while not used in the same sentence of the text, these two important words function together. The servant prayed for the God of Abraham to show faithful love to the family by his right choice of a woman through whom the covenant could transition to Isaac, and thus God’s plan in election could reach fullness.

The Meaning of the Servant’s Prayer of Faith

These themes of God’s covenant faithfulness and sovereign election are key to understanding Genesis 24:12-14, but they are not the whole. There is the human side as well, the side in which the servant actually did the praying. The faithful God was entreated by a human in need of His faithfulness. The God of the covenant was asked by a member of His partner’s party to fulfill His terms. Clearly, Abraham’s relationship to God was not closed off and private. Instead, his servants were aware of God’s covenant, promises, and terms. All of Abraham’s household had to walk in faith, and in this passage the chief servant did just that. He expressed trust in his master’s God by making an implausible request in prayer. (This is, however, something with which Calvin wrestled.[9] How does a prayer of true faith include a prescription to God for a definite sign? While the discussion might be interesting, there is no room for addressing the question here. May the simple observation that Scripture never recognizes such a tension suffice.)

This prayer presents the basic paradigm of the God/human covenant relationship. God initiates, God gives promises, the humans agree, and finally the humans call upon God to fulfill His promises when they are needed. This basic pattern can be found repeatedly throughout the Old Testament, with Genesis 24:12-14 being a prime early example. By itself, the servant’s prayer might not teach anything but the admirability of faith. Yet this prayer was grounded in the faithfulness of God, which was again proved when God heard and answered the prayer in verses 15-20. Thus working in reverse a truth becomes clear: the faithfulness of God to His promises calls forth absolute dependence from His people. Just as Abraham earlier “believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness,”[10] now the servant trusted in God, and God gave to him the success needed for the covenant to be fulfilled.

One interesting quality of the servant’s prayer is the narrative introduction. In particular, verse 12 opens up saying, “Then he prayed.” The word “prayed” here is translated in the NIV beyond the basic meaning, which is simply “said.” There is no technical sense of prayer here, only a conversation. This is supported by the tone, which lacks any liturgical refinement, specific theological terminology, or accompanying posture or rites. Such a tone is in accord with the general prayer habits of the patriarchs, which tended to be simple, personal, and informal. [11] The servant just spoke to God. He asked God for some help as anyone else might ask a human friend. That God answered such a prayer on multiple occasions, including this one, indicates a profoundly personal orientation between God and His people. Liturgy has a place, as the Torah demonstrated, but this prayer stands as an example that there was never a time when God was first met in rigid procedure rather than personal encounter. Yet even this personal encounter has another layer.

Despite the informal and conversational tone of the prayer, there is also an element of mediation. The servant did not address Yahweh as “my God.” Instead, he called Him, “God of my master Abraham.” The servant may have been implicated in the blessings of the covenant and perhaps by membership in Abraham’s house something of a covenant member, but ultimately the covenant was between God and Abraham, not God and the servant. God chose Abraham specifically. His descendants and other members of his household only could participate by virtue of their relationship to him. The shape of election is visible here as three parties are visible: God, Abraham, and those who belong to Abraham. God elected Abraham freely, and through Abraham’s election the servant received a covenantal status from which he could entreat the God who elected Abraham. A mediation appeared between God and His people, a person through whom His faithfulness and their faith could intersect.

Christ Embodies Checed and Yakach

At this point all of the themes visible in this text—God’s covenant faithfulness, His gracious election, His people’s answering faith and dependence, and the personal nature of a covenant relationship—all cry out for a point of unifying fulfillment. If God is truly faithful to His covenant, if the servant prayed for the fulfillment of that covenant through an act of kindness and election, then how did this all unfold? In the short term, the answer is quite simple. God answered the prayer of the servant by electing Rebekah as a wife to Isaac (in a way suspiciously similar to the election of Abraham in the beginning). Yet the overall context of Scripture points also further. After all, God did not set up His covenant with Abraham to no purpose. Abraham and Isaac were the beginning, but a day of fulfillment was always destined, a day in which all God’s purposes would climax. So what does the canonical context of Scripture add to this text?

Jesus Christ once declared, “You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, yet they testify about Me.”[12] The wider context, indeed the true meaning, of all Scripture is Jesus. This applies no less to Genesis 24:12-14 than to any other passage. For this reason, He should be viewed as the true key which unlocks the secrets remaining in this text. Jesus fulfills all of the themes of the servant’s prayer and the story in which the prayer is embedded.

In Jesus, God’s checed, His loving faithfulness and faithful love, broke fully into the world and was (and continues to be) truly actualized. Of Him the Scriptures say, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”[13] Indeed, the fuller meaning of checed as covenantally faithful love is clear in the rest of Romans, as when Paul declared that God’s covenant faithfulness is demonstrated through the faithful work of Jesus Christ.[14] The merciful promises that God made to Abraham, which in this particular passage were in a state of transition and needed another divine act to be accomplished, were kept by Him through all the years until their fulfillment in Jesus. Both of the primary shades of checed, the kindness which the servant asked God to show to Abraham, benevolence and faithfulness, were completed once for all in the work of Jesus, Himself both God and the human covenant partner.

The theme of God’s yakach, His choosing or election, is also fulfilled in Christ. Jesus is called the Chosen One.[15] He is the one human through whom all of God’s purposes have finally been accomplished. Rebekah was chosen by God to advance the covenant by helping Isaac have seed, but Jesus is the final chosen Seed[16] who crushed the serpent’s head.[17] The servant prayed that God would choose someone to show kindness to Abraham, and in Christ God chose someone to show kindness to the entire world. The fulfillment of the servant’s prayer for Rebekah was ultimately a fulfillment designed from the beginning of God’s covenant to lead up to Jesus. Moreover, as the Chosen One around whom God’s people are now constituted, the mediation has changed. The servant’s relationship to God was in some sense mediated by Abraham as the covenantal head. Election was defined by relationship to God’s chosen human, Abraham. Now this has shifted. The elect head of God’s people is now Jesus rather than Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Moses,[18] and all God’s people find their election not in themselves, but in Christ[19] and His mediation.[20] Thus the prayer has been fulfilled for God to show kindness through one He chose, and “God of my master Abraham” has been replaced with “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[21]

Christ Embodies the Reality of Faith-filled Prayer

In addition to the fulfillment of the prayer itself, the concept of God’s faithfulness calling forth the faith-filled prayers of His people has also been given a new dimension in Jesus Christ. On the one hand, Jesus fulfilled the role of the one who is constant in prayer and faith. Like the servant who trusted in God and asked for His will to be done, Jesus had true faith in His Father and persisted in prayer, “and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”[22] The servant prayed for the will of God to be accomplished, and so did Jesus.[23] Jesus in fact went beyond the role of the servant, taking a full and active role in bringing about God’s will, not just as the prayerful man but also as the faithful God. In Christ the prayer and the answer, the faith-filled entreaty and faithful response, became one.

However important the prayerfulness of Christ may be, though, this is not the end of the fulfillment of prayer. Because of what Jesus has accomplished, the Holy Spirit has been poured out on the people of God.[24] Now that the people of God have been given the Spirit, they can pray like the servant but in greater faith with greater power, for their prayers are enhanced. The Spirit they have received is the Spirit of God Himself, who knows the deep thoughts of God,[25] and thus they are given deeper intimacy and deeper power in their prayers. They can entreat the God who has already fulfilled the decisive promises of His covenant, knowing that He has already proved Himself fully and forever faithful in Jesus Christ. Thus the prayer the servant offered in faith has become but a type and shadow of the reality of prayer which Christ has given to His people by His Spirit.

Finally, of course, Jesus also fulfills the personalization of the covenant between God and man. There was, to be sure, a personal quality to the patriarchal intercourse. The prayers did remain relatively informal and conversational. However, there was always a degree of barrier, if for no other reason that the theophanies and Christophanies were short, temporary, and not of full and abiding human substance. As the old age continued, the barriers between God and man only grew as the Torah was instituted and a personal relationship with God was inhibited by the cultic system designed to shield man from God. Yet in Christ God has made Himself fully personal to His people, taking on their own flesh that He might speak to them, act to them, and know them as one of their own.[26] In the Incarnation God became bone of human bone and flesh of human flesh,[27] fully and personally revealed Himself[28] to His creatures from within the depths of individual human existence. Now God’s people can pray to Him in a more personal and intimate way than the servant ever could, crying out “Father!” by the Spirit Jesus poured out on them.[29] With this relationship in play, God makes good on all of His promises and hears His people as a faithful Father, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Exegetical Conclusions

Having studied the role of the faithful God, the prayer of the faith-filled man, and the fulfillment of both of these in Christ, the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14 should be quite clear by now. In the original, local context, the account of the servant’s prayer to the God of Abraham makes for a powerful display of multiple biblical themes. The faithful love of the covenant God was expressed in both the request itself and the answer. An appeal was made to the electing purposes of God. The necessity of prayer from a posture of faith within a covenant structure of mediation and election was also demonstrated. Abraham’s servant appeared as a great example, and his request glorified God in its fulfillment. All of this is multiplied when taking into account the wider, canonical, redemptive-historical context. The faithful love of the covenant God went from the provision of Rebekah to the self-giving of God in Christ. The electing purpose of God was revealed in the appearance of the Son of God as the Chosen One in whom the Church is also chosen. Prayer and faith found perfect human expression in the life of Jesus, and by His Spirit the people of God can now pray and trust God in a new, more vital sense than in the past, in the days of Abraham, his servant, Isaac, and Rebekah. In all of this, the glory of God in covenant, promise, faithfulness, wisdom, sovereign choice, and love shines manifold.

By this point the basic theological lessons should be clear, but they bear repeating with concision and clarity for the sake of summary. The first point is that God is always loving and faithful. He is always characterized by checed, a devoted will to do good to His people. This is proved in His fulfillment of the promises to Abraham both in answering the servant’s prayer for Isaac’s wife and in providing Christ as Savior and Messiah. Therefore, God’s people can always count on Him today. God can always be trusted to do what is right and fulfill all of His promises, which are a “Yes” in Christ.[30] The theme that God chooses, and chooses for a redemptive purpose, is also important. God’s election is not seen in this text as an exclusionary act by which certain people are selected and others rejected for grace and redemption. Rather, God’s election is shown to be a means of setting the whole world right through the choosing of one important character at a time. First Abraham was chosen, then Isaac, then in this account Rebekah, and in the end Christ was the Chosen One of God through whom all God’s plans were accomplished. Any theology of election today must be oriented around the fact that God has chosen Christ in this inclusive and outward-oriented way just like with Rebekah. An articulation of election must be in accord with something Karl Barth once wrote, namely that Christ “is both the electing God and elected man in One.”[31]

Finally, the power and nature of faith-filled prayer stands as an essential lesson. Through this text God’s will to be faithful to the entreaties and requests of His people is made known. Praying and trusting just as the servant did, just as Christ did, in the power and mind of the Spirit who has been poured out on God’s people by Christ, is immensely powerful and will move God to act, not for no reason at all, but because He has made a covenant to which He promises to be faithful. This text serves as a reminder that God has set the terms by which He may be approached and thus on His character and act alone hinges Christian confidence in the power of prayer.

Application

With Genesis 24:12-14 now exegeted at both the local, simply historical and the wider, theological/Christological level, there remains only a short bridge to find relevant applications to the life of the modern Christian. Indeed, both the event described and the theological interpretation are full of meaty substance. There are in fact three primary applications to draw from the exegetical work in this paper, not to say that nothing else might be added by further or other work. They correspond to the faithful love of God, the electing purpose of God, and the prayer of faith, in accord with the primary teachings of the passage.

First, in this text God’s loving faithfulness is displayed in such a way that Christians today can stake all of their hope and assurance on Him. God was benevolently faithful to the covenant He made with Abraham by answering the servant’s prayer, and He further demonstrated His merciful devotion by completing the telos of the covenant in Christ and His faithfulness. Because of this pattern of faithfulness, God’s people can trust Him in each day, in each battle or struggle. They may find themselves in a crisis or a critical transition in life, but just as He answered the servant to fulfill His covenant love He will answer His people today. Therefore, Christians have every reason to trust in God unfailingly.

There is also an application from the electing purpose of God. God chooses to use particular people to propel His purposes, and He chooses to bring about salvation through covenants He makes real human beings. This began in Abraham, and in this text continued as the servant prayed for another act of election, and God answered the prayer. This serves as a reminder that God can choose to use anyone at any time to accomplish any purpose He wishes. The Church as God’s chosen people in Christ can be seen as a means by which God brings about His will, which should impel her members to find their place and take up whatever action to which they are called.

At the last, then, the final application returns to prayer in faith. If God is faithful, if God loves, if God chooses and works through human beings, then His people have every possible reason to believe, to trust, and to expectantly pray for God to act. God has plans and will fulfill them, and precisely because He works in this way there exists a call for His people to call out to Him. He has bound Himself by covenant to act when entreated, to do His will when His people seek His will. The servant was an example for all today. He trusted in the God of his master Abraham and asked for His help at the appropriate redemptive-historical moment. Likewise, the righteous are called to trust in the God of their Lord Jesus Christ and ask for His help in every moment of need. Prayer and faith, promise and faithfulness, all fulfilled in Christ—this is the meaning of Genesis 24:12-14, and by this meaning Christians must move forward in their lives, submitting to God’s voice in the Scriptures.

Works Cited

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics – Volume 2. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1957.

Calvin, John. Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1. E-book. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005.

Kohlenberger, John R., III. NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers. E-book. Zondervan, 2015.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11. E-book. Holman Reference, 1996.

Matthews, Kenneth. The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51. E-book. Holman Reference, 2005.

The Holy Bible: Holman Christian Standard Version. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2009.

Walton, John. The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis. E-book. Zondervan, 2011.

Wright, N. T. Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision. Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Footnotes

[1] Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1A, Genesis 1-11, (Holman Reference, 1996), location 1606, Kindle ebook.

[2] All of this is discussed in more detail in Kenneth Matthews, The New American Commentary – Volume 1B, Genesis 12-51, (Holman Reference, 1996), loc. 842-930, Kindle ebook.

[3] Ibid, loc. 950.

[4] John Walton, The NIV Application Commentary Set – Genesis, (Zondervan, 2011), “Genesis 23:1–25:18,” Olive Tree resource.

[5] Genesis 24:12-14 (New International Version).

[6] John R. Kohlenberger III, NIV Word Study Bible with G/K and Strong’s Numbers, (Zondervan, 2015), entry H2617, Olive Tree resource.

[7] See, for example, Exodus 15:13 (Holman Christian Standard Bible), compare NIV.

[8] Kohlenberger, NIV Word Study Bible, entry H3198.

[9] John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis – Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005), notes on Genesis 24:12, theWord Bible module.

[10] Genesis 15:6.

[11] Matthews, NAC Vol. 1B, loc. 7812.

[12] John 5:39 (HCSB).

[13] Romans 5:8 (NIV).

[14] N. T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, (Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), ch. 7.

[15] Luke 23:35.

[16] Galatians 3:16.

[17] Genesis 3:15.

[18] Romans 9.

[19] Ephesians 1:4.

[20] 1 Timothy 2:5.

[21] Romans 15:16.

[22] Hebrews 5:7.

[23] Matthew 6:10.

[24] John 15:26.

[25] 1 Corinthians 2:10-12.

[26] 1 John 1:1-3.

[27] Hebrews 2:14.

[28] John 1:14.

[29] Romans 8:14.

[30] 1 Corinthians 1:20.

[31] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1957), part 2, 3 (§32).

Romans 9 in 500 Words or Less

Romans 9 is an interesting and often difficult passage. I’m going to very briefly sketch the way I am inclined to read it, particularly to note the way I don’t think it supports the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election, but rather undermines it.

Contextual setup: Paul has been defending his Gospel of justification by the faithfulness of Jesus the Messiah and our union with Him instead of justification by observing the Torah. This naturally leads to the question: what has happened to the Jews who have rejected Jesus? They seem cut off from the promise. What does this mean for God and His faithfulness to the covenant?

First, Paul explains that he really does care. He loves his people, and he wants them to be saved. They’ve gone through so much with God already. But that’s just it. God hasn’t been unfaithful. God has always worked this way, limiting and redrawing the limits of the people of God by His sovereign choice. It began with Abraham, but being a descendant of Abraham was not enough to inherit the promise later, when God chose to narrow election to Isaac’s line. Was this because Isaac was more worthy than Ishmael? No, for in the next generation God narrowed election through Jacob rather than Esau before either had been born.

Did this make God unjust? Certainly Paul knew his audience would agree God had the right to do this. He has mercy as He wills, and sometimes He actually hardens people in order to accomplish His purposes in election. When He chose Moses and Israel under his leadership to finally come out as His people, He hardened the (already wicked) Pharaoh so that His salvation for Israel might be all the more fully displayed, and indeed that His name would reach the ends of the earth. (Paul gives no indiciation here of a reprobation to damnation for Pharaoh. All that has been mentioned appears to be a particular act at a redemptive-historical moment for Pharaoh to rebel.)

This is entirely justified. God is allowed to redraw  election and harden its enemies whenever and however He pleases, despite man’s objections. He can freely form and reform Israel as a potter does clay and judge the vessels which are cut off by this reshaping. Therefore now Israel is shaped around, her election narrowed to, Christ rather than merely Abraham and circumcision or Moses and the Torah. There is no injustice in this, even if a great deal of clay is now set aside for damnation.

But ironically, Paul points out that this narrowing also expands election. By making Christ the new head of Israel’s election (as God did before with Isaac and Jacob) and hardening many of the Jews to reject Him, the door has swung wide open for Gentiles to inherit the promise and join the people of God. Now even the Gentiles can enter the chosen people through union with Christ by faith, the barriers of the Torah and Abrahamic descent overcome.

6 Theses on Election

  1. Election begins and ends with Jesus Christ. As Barth has said, Jesus is both the electing God (Col. 2:9) and elected Man (Luke 9:35). He is the origin of creation (John 1:1-3) and its goal (Eph. 1:9-10). Anything else we say about election must trace back to this source, to the election of Jesus Christ as the one predestined to be revealed as God for us (1 Pet. 1:2).
  2. All other “elections” are grounded in relation to Christ. Of course, in Scripture Jesus is not the only one called “elect” or “chosen” by God. The terminology is applied to Israel (Deut. 7:6, 1 Chr. 16:13, Ps. 105:6), David (Ps. 78:70, 89:3), Moses (Ps. 106:23), the followers of Christ during the coming suffering (Matt. 24:22), Christians in general (Rom. 8:33, Col. 3:12, Titus 1:1),  and particular churches (2 Jn. 1:1, 13). Each of these is defined in relation to Christ, who is the goal of Israel’s election, the fulfillment of David’s dynasty, the greater prophet than Moses, the Rabbi to the apostles, and the one in whom believers find their own election (Eph. 1:4). No one could ever be elect except by relation to Christ.
  3. The election of God’s people in history is corporate-relational. Contra classical Calvinism and certain forms of Arminianism, election is not fundamentally an individual reality but one pertaining to groups. Yet this is not simply groups defined generically or abstractly, but the particular peoples are defined by relationships to particular individuals. Thus individuals share in the blessings of a specific election by virtue of their relation to its chosen covenantal head (Gen. 26:24, 1 Kgs. 11:12-13, Rom. 6:4). Israel was defined by a biological/covenantal relationship to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-2, 17:1-14). Noah’s family was chosen to by saved through the Flood by their marital and biological relationships to Noah (Gen. 6:9, 18, 7:1). David’s descendants became a chosen dynasty through their father (2 Sam. 7:12-16, Ps. 89:3-4). Finally, Christians make up a chosen people, the Church, because of their Spirit-grounded faith-relationship to Christ the elected Man (Eph. 1:4, cf. Rom. 8:1, 1 Cor. 1:30). This is essentially the opposite of the Calvinistic view: for Calvinists, we are incorporated into Christ because we have been elected, but I submit that we are elected because we have been incorporated into Christ.
  4. Election in its historical form is primarily vocational and not immediately soteriological. To be elect is not the same as being promised salvation, though the two are associated. The primary purpose of election in human history is for elect men to become witnesses of God and examples of His salvation to other men (Gen. 12:3, Matt. 28:19-20, John 15:16, Rom. 1:5, Gal. 1:15-16). Election is a calling, not a mere present. God’s salvation does not necessarily come to all people who are part of an elect community (Heb. 10:29, 2 Pet. 2:1, 1 Jn. 2:19). This is not a question about “losing salvation” but a statement that election is not automatically salvation. Members of the elect community who disobey their calling and, in doing so, deny their relationship with their covenantal head are removed and face judgment (Gen. 17:14, Exod. 31:14, 1 Kgs. 14:14, Ps. 37:9, John 15:2, 6, Rom. 11:22). Only those who participate in the obedience of their elected heads will finally be blessed, just as their heads obeyed God and were blessed (Gen. 26:2-6, Matt. 7:21-23, Heb. 5:7-8).
  5. The elect community is inherently self-expanding. The limit of the elect community is not a fixed number. Rather, election is meant to expand ever outwards as more people are blessed by the witness of the elect. Those who are not already elect find themselves blessed by the elect (Gen. 12:3, 30:27-30, 39:5, Josh. 6:25, Mic. 4:1-2, Zech. 2:11, Rom. 11:11-12). In this way those who are not a people become a people, and those who were unloved become loved (Rom. 9:25-26). Election therefore has an inherent outward pressure which works like leaven (Matt. 13:33) until through the witness of the elect the whole world is covered with the knowledge of God as water covers the seas (Isa. 11:9).
  6. There exists an outer ring of election which ultimately encompasses all people. If election begins and ends in Christ, then in some way it affects all of the human race. This is because, on the one hand, Jesus is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1:15) in whose image humanity was originally created (Gen. 1:26-27). This image defines humanity, and with it comes a calling which parallels the callings seen in other Biblical elections (Gen. 1:28-30), a calling which is finally bound up with Christ. So human nature and existence are not finally separable from the glory of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Jesus in His Incarnation identified Himself with and lived for all who share the same human flesh and blood (Heb. 2:5-17). The atonement implicates all humanity (2 Cor. 5:14-15, 1 Tim. 2:6, Heb. 2:9). This ultimately means that Christ has chosen all people for Himself, and the Father has chosen all humanity in Christ. This, per thesis 4, is not a guarantee that all people will be saved, but promise that no one lies outside the salvific will and choice of God.

What’s So Calvinist about Evangelical Calvinism?

If you’ve followed some of my posts about Evangelical Calvinism, you might have to wonder what exactly makes it deserve the label “Calvinism.” After all, we reject the defining U, L, and I of TULIP. Without the meaty bulk of the Calvinist system, what substance is left for the title “Calvinist?”

Without getting into too much detail either theologically or historically, here are a few basic ways that EC identifies itself with wider Calvinist tradition.

  • EC was born of Calvinist descent. The major influences which led to EC’s development were Calvinists or their students. EC draws from Calvin himself, John Knox, and the Scottish Reformation, for example. Karl Barth, a very important EC forerunner, studied extensively from the Reformed tradition, including especially Calvin. T. F. Torrance was a student of Barth and a Scottish Presbyterian. It likewise appeals to the Scots Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism not dogmatically but as helpful touchstones. This is in contrast with Arminianism, which may have begun within a Reformed context with Arminius but quickly morphed into a radically non-Reformed system, hardly similar or sympathetic to any of the Reformers, under the influence of people like Wesley.
  • EC stresses the absolute priority of God’s action in salvation. Both classical and Evangelical Calvinists agree that God’s active decision to reveal Christ to someone through the Spirit is the necessary condition for the event of salvation, not merely a generic “prevenient grace” enabling a “free will.” The Spirit who moves as He wills must choose to personally appear and present Jesus as Lord and Savior to us before we can respond to Him. It is only in this encounter that we become freed for faith in Christ. We simply differ as to whether our response is inevitable when this revelation takes place. EC actually takes the divine initiative a step further by holding that even our response when it does take place was originally created in the human faith of Jesus Christ, and only imparted to us by the Spirit, rather than awakened simply in ourselves.
  • EC emphasizes God’s free choice of election before anything else in salvation. While we do not agree about who the elect are or what exactly election entails, both of us agree that God’s decision to elect, to choose a people for Himself, plays a vital role in the history and cause of our salvation. While most Arminians tend to make election into a pretty pointless formality (“I know that Bob will believe, thus I will save him.”), Calvinists both classical and Evangelical agree that God’s decision of election plays an active and causative role in our salvation. We also agree that God’s election is unconditional, again in contrast to the conditional element of common Arminianism.  Even the corporate election of more modern Arminians is conditioned on the Fall, whereas some classical Calvinists and all EC agree on a supralapsarian election, a kind of election which comes before and apart from even God’s decision to allow the Fall.
  • EC makes good use of John Calvin. All Calvinists like Calvin, right? While EC doesn’t take up Calvin’s actual doctrine of predestination, EC does implement Calvin’s concept of the duplex gratia, double grace, of justification and sanctification flowing from union with Christ. This is key to the EC understanding of how salvation works and begins, using a framing that is more personal than legal. EC also makes use of Calvin’s work involving assurance and many similar themes.

I could perhaps address some other deep theological and historical connections between Evangelical Calvinism and classical Calvinism, but this should be a pretty good start. I also realize that most, if not all, of these points probably raise a handful of questions, so if you have them feel free to comment and ask.

In Other Words: An Alternative Dictionary of Election

I’ve written in the last several months on occasion about my move away from classical Calvinism into something which, when I feel the need to name it (and I often don’t), I’d call Evangelical Calvinism. And while I have provided a couple of posts giving some details about this transition, I’ve heard people say to me since then that as they read Scripture it seems harder and harder to get around election, predestination, God’s choosing, and the like. So doesn’t that support the classical Calvinist view of things?

Alas, I suspect this is mostly the result of a vicious cycle of reinforcement by assumption, an implicit question-begging. I tend to think that the prominence of Calvinistic thinking in the Protestant tradition has created widespread assumption about words like “election,” “predestination,” and “chosen” actually mean. So when people see them in Scripture, it registers in a Calvinistic way, regardless of whether the author would have been using them in a way that matches up with or even basically agrees with modern Reformed systematic theology textbooks.

My goal here is to offer a basic alternative dictionary, or glossary, for the terms associated with election that show up in Scripture. These are not entirely original; they will follow on thoughts which have been thought and presented many times by many people before me. Nor will I flesh out a defense of this alternative dictionary here, but hopefully it will become clear in reading Scripture with this list in mind how these definitions can plausibly work. Basically, these are for “test driving”: you take the definitions, read the Bible, and see if the interpretive results are a smooth ride or end in a crash. Without further ado, here they are:

  • Predestine — The Greek word, proorizo, literally means to “arrange/limit/set/order/appoint beforehand.” At simplest this only requires setting something up or making an arrangement in advance, not anything in particular about God assigning an overriding destiny1. As an alternative, I would suggest the more broad meaning of simply making a decision or plan beforehand. In the particular theological usage in reference to believers, the specific pre-arrangement would be God’s intention from the start to redeem the human race and conform us to the image of Christ. This is what God has prepared for us in Christ through His Cross, which He also arranged beforehand. Predestination is thus not God choosing individuals X or Y to end up saved, but God’s gracious choice before and apart from all human response to provide salvation from sin and glorified existence in Christ. It is not something fundamentally about you or me as individuals, but fundamentally about Christ and all who are found in Him.
    Verse references with “predestine/predestined”: Acts 4:28, Romans 8:29-30, 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1:5, 11.
  • Elect — The Greek word translated “elect” is eklektos, which literally means “select” or “choose.” Many times that it shows up, it should really not be taken as any more than that. Just like in the real world, there are many kinds of choosing. It can not be assumed that this refers specifically to choosing an individual to end up saved, or to get saved. Christ Himself is called the Elect One/Chosen One on multiple occasions2. This word is applied also to King Cyrus of Persia3, the nation of Israel, and Christians. Obviously, there is a possible range in meaning. I suggest with many others that when used of believers, the meaning is essentially corporate, that is, it is about the body of Christ as a whole, in Christ the Chosen One, instead of about specific people picked out to be saved over other people. (Basically, I think it’s all about Jesus instead of all about man!) In fact, I would add several layers: God freely chose the world He created, He chose humanity as the ones to bear His image and represent His authority over creation, He chose Israel within humanity as the people in whom He would reveal Himself, He chose Jesus Christ as the Messiah of Israel, and we are chosen because we are a part of all of those layers, being created human beings united to Jesus Christ.
    Verses which speak of believers as “elect”: Matthew 24:22, Mark 13:27, Luke 13:7, Romans 8:33, Colossians 3:12
  • Call — A word frequently used by Calvinists in support of irresistible grace is “call,” which they relate to the doctrine of the “effectual call,” the way that God’s inner invitation through the Spirit infallibly brings the elect to faith and salvation. Paul uses it apparently exclusively of believers, implying that believers were somehow “called” by God in a way that unbelievers have not been, and more significantly this call seems strongly associated with conversion4. So is salvation the result of some kind of call God only gives to a certain group of people?
    I don’t think this is necessarily the case. I rather think this call is indeed a supernatural invitation given through the Spirit to participate in the life of Christ by faith, but that Scripture does not clearly teach this call to be something only given to those who become believers. Rather, I suggest that the Spirit can and does give out this call frequently along with the Gospel to whomever He pleases, and that it can and often is rejected and denied (for an inexplicable reason). The reason Paul only ever mentions believers as having this call is simply because they are his audience, they have experienced and obeyed this call, and now are bound to live up to it. As a side note, I add that this call is not merely to get saved, but to participate in Jesus’ own life of self-sacrificing, martyr-oriented love, which accords with a number of Paul’s uses of the word.
    Verses which refer to the “call”: Romans 1:6, 8:28-30, 9:11, 1 Corinthians 1:9, 7:17-24, Galatians 5:13, Ephesians 1:18, 4:4, Philippians 3:14, 1 Thessalonians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 2 Timothy 1:8-9

There are probably some other words that I could address, but these three seem the most important. Obviously, this short post isn’t enough to make my case in full detail, or answer any objections that might be brought against my suggestions. But I do think test driving these definitions in Scripture will yield a mostly smooth ride, and that they will be found to work at least as well as the Calvinistic versions. More detail on these may come later, but for now I hope this is useful.

Using Psalms: Psalm 2 and the Sovereign Son

Why do the nations rebel and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers conspire together against the LORD and His Anointed One:
“Let us tear off their chains and free ourselves from their restraints.”
The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord ridicules them.
Then He speaks to them in His anger and terrifies them in His wrath:
“I have consecrated My King on Zion, My holy mountain.”
I will declare the LORD’s decree: He said to Me, “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father.
Ask of Me, and I will make the nations Your inheritance and the ends of the earth Your possession.
You will break them with a rod of iron; You will shatter them like pottery.”
So now, kings, be wise; receive instruction, you judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with reverential awe and rejoice with trembling.
Pay homage to the Son or He will be angry and you will perish in your rebellion, for His anger may ignite at any moment. All those who take refuge in Him are happy.

Psalm 2

Psalm 2 is relatively well-known, and I think it will be very fun to go over, because it has some cool layers. So let’s get right into it.

The first question I want to look at is: “Who is this psalm about?” Historically, this psalm was written about the king of Israel, which is specified most clearly in verse 6. There is a temptation to assume, based on terms like “son,” that this psalm was written about Jesus, but this is unlikely. There are no obvious reasons to assume the author (presumably David or a member of David’s court) had a prophetic vision about Christ, and everything the psalm says is understandable in the language of divinely chosen kings. Kings were considered “anointed” (v. 2) by God1, and the imagery of the king as God’s “son” was also common2.

So this psalm was written about the king of Israel (probably David), possibly to celebrate his coronation. It starts off with a challenge to the surrounding pagan world. They are fighting and striving, especially against Israel and its king (and thus also against its God!), but it is vain. God laughs at them because they cannot succeed against Him and His anointed king.

Then the psalm moves on to God’s support and exaltation of His chosen king. God announces that He has set up His king in Jerusalem, and even says of him, “You are my son; today I have become your father.” This was, as I’ve mentioned, not unusual language for the relationship between God and His appointed king, the king being imagined as adopted into the royal divine family to share in an inheritance of power and blessing. In verses 8-9, God blesses His king and promises Him power, dominion, and victory over enemies.

Finally, in 10-12 God issues a warning to all of Israel’s enemies: submit to God and His king, or else you will be in danger of judgment. But those who trust in God will be protected.

Several important themes can be seen here, some working in the background and some in the foreground. One important concept is the role of the king to Israel and to God. To Israel, the king represents God. He stands in God’s place of authority and must be obeyed in order to obey God. Yet to God, the king represents Israel. He stands in the place of His people before God and must be held responsible for the entire nation. This double-sided representation makes the king function as a unique mediator-like figure.

Understanding this representative layer helps see some of the broader ideas in this psalm. God’s choosing of His king in Israel parallels His choosing of the nation Israel within the world. God’s promises to bless and protect His king, exalting him above his enemies, also parallel His promises to Israel as a whole3. The fate of Israel is bound up with the fate of the king, and the fate of the king is bound up with the fate of Israel, and God has by electing them both bound His own name and purposes up with their fate. God’s glory is now to be achieved not by itself, but by exalting and blessing His elected people and king.

Of course, we know what happens after this psalm. God did indeed grant these prayers, exalting King David and the whole nation of Israel under his reign. He gave military victory and great glory to His people, and by this means made quite a name for Himself as well. But soon things changed. David was not an entirely faithful king, and introduced a break between Israel and their God. Soon he was judged, and indeed the entire nation was split in half two generations later because of his sin. David failed, and the promise appeared to be voided.

Yet God is relentlessly faithful. Years later, a descendant, an heir, of King David was born. He had a rightful claim to His ancestor’s throne, and unlike David remained faithful unto death. He was Himself the representative of Israel, and as their representative suffered but was raised and vindicated. He has been given authority over all nations, and the ends of the earth are His possession. God is putting and has put all of His enemies under His feet. Jesus Christ, the King of Israel, now reigns on high in fulfillment of this promise. Being unswervingly faithful Himself, the promise will never lapse again, but will expand and work until fulfilled completely.

Moreover, even we Gentiles now can share in this blessing, because we “take refuge in” and “pay homage to” Jesus, the King of Israel and Son of God. The blessings promised to Israel are now for all who believe in Him, whether Jew or Greek. Jesus has replaced David as the hope of God’s people, and represents God to His people in a way that David never could, for He is the image of the invisible God, the exact expression of His nature.

This now for us reorients the psalm. If we pray this or sing this, Jesus is the King whom we exalt. The world around us still rages and plots in vain to overthrow Him, but God has pledged to vidicate and bless Jesus and His people no matter what, up to and including raising us from the dead! Therefore we need have no fear, for we are secure if we trust in the King Jesus. But the world must be told to repent and submit to the Son, if they wish to escape the judgment coming on His enemies. Therefore let us pray this psalm in honor of King Jesus, confident in God’s promise that no matter what our enemies do and say, He will vindicate and resurrect us just like He has done to His Anointed One.