The Early Church on Corporate and Not Unconditional Election

‘From William W. Klein, “Election,” in the Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, edited by Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids, we learn that the New Testament authors, apostles, and their immediate successors viewed the doctrine of election unto salvation in primarily corporate terms, and not as individualistic and unconditional, as would later be invented by St Augustine, and propagated by Luther, Calvin and subsequent Calvinists.

This grants further evidence that many of the novel theories of St Augustine (354-430) were heterodox and at complete variance with the first- and second-century theology that was already firmly established and received. Augustine did not rediscover St Paul’s alleged doctrine of unconditional election: he originated the error himself; and Luther, Calvin and other Reformers repeated his error. Dr. Klein writes the following.

4. God Elects People to Salvation

As we would expect, this final category comprises the largest number of texts. Preeminently, election is the action of a loving and gracious God to secure salvation for sinful people. God chose Christ as his “elect one” [cf. Isa. 42:1] in order that people might enter into his elect body [cf. Eph. 1:3, 4], the church. Theological debate has centered on how we should understand the relationship between individuals’ election to salvation and the corporate election of the church in Christ.

Peter certainly applies corporate categories when he speaks of the church as Christ’s elect body. He says, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. . . . Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Pet 2:9-10 NRSV; cf. Hos. 2:23; Ex. 19:6). Yet the debate throughout the church’s history [beginning early in the fifth century with Sts Jerome and Augustine] has often hinged on whether or not this corporate reality implies that God chose specific individuals to be in the elect body. First we must survey the biblical evidence.

Most scholars acknowledge the importance of “calling” language in the biblical authors’ discussion of election. . . . The author of Acts asserts that God calls people to salvation; his name is called upon them (Acts 2:39; 15:17), though it may not be precisely certain that election themes are in view. Likewise, James identifies believers as those upon whom Christ’s name is called (Jas 2:7). At the same time, people must call upon the name of the Lord to be saved (Acts 2:21). People are appointed [τεταγμένοι: perfect passive participle] to eternal life (Acts 13:48), though the ambiguity of the middle or passive voice in the Greek construction here makes it unclear whether the author wants to stress God’s specific appointment or the hearers’ decision to believe (MacDonald, 226-28). Certainly these appointed ones believe.

The elder refers to the recipient of his letter as a “chosen lady,” an appellation most commentators believe refers to a local church congregation; the corporate body is elect (2 Jn 1:1, 13). John piles up collective substantives to describe Jesus’ followers: they are the “called,” “chosen” and “faithful” (Rev. 17:14). Using a metaphor that appears to have elective connotations — “book of life” — John describes believers as ones whose names appear in the book while unbelievers’ names are absent from the book. This becomes the criterion for habitation in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 20:12, 15; 21:27).

The picture is strange, though, for on one hand names appear to be written from the creation of the world (Rev. 13:8; 17:8), but on the other hand those who remain faithful to Jesus avoid having their names erased from the book (Rev. 3:5; cf. Ex. 32:32-33). It is best not to press this metaphor too much for elective significance. It may point to God’s foreknowledge of his people [cf. 2 Tim. 2:19], while the possibility of erasure highlights the requirement for human response to God’s grace. . . . [What I omit here is a discussion of James’ view of God “electing” the poor in the world to be rich in faith and Peter’s use of the concept of the “call.” Klein concludes: “Election terminology here describes the status of believers: they are God’s chosen ones.”]

Peter employs the adjective eklektos (“elect”) as a substantive to identify his Christian readers (1 Pet 1:1-2): they are the elect. According to these verses, Peter’s apostolic ministry on behalf of God’s dispersed elect is based on or grounded in God’s foreknowledge, accomplished through the Spirit’s work of sanctification, with the goal of obedience to Jesus and the sprinkling of his blood. As mentioned above, Peter goes on to describe this elect body in corporate terms, applying to the church terms and categories that once described Israel, God’s chosen nation (1 Pet 2:9-10). He ends his letter with a reference (presumably) to his own local fellowship of Christians using the term syneklektos(“she who is chosen with you”). The local church [viewed as corporate in nature] is an elect body.

Have some been predetermined not to believe? Some draw this conclusion from 1 Peter 2:8. However, most commentators agree that this was not Peter’s intention here. He defines “unbelief” as disobedience to the message of salvation. Such unbelief leads, inevitably, to stumbling. God does not predestine some to reject Christ [all initially reject Christ, cf. John 3:18]. But God has ordained that for such unbelievers Christ becomes a stumbling block, because no salvation exists apart from him. The failure to believe and obey accounts for their stumbling. This is God’s predetermined plan.

5. Conclusion and Early Christian Developments

Does God choose individuals? In the realm of ministry, clearly he does. . . . Has God specifically chosen certain ones to believe and be saved? This controversial question cannot be solved solely on the basis of the texts examined here. Apparently the earliest Christians following the age of the apostles did not [view the matter as that of] God [choosing] some to be saved and others to be damned. The emphasis in the next century or so clearly resides with human free will to choose either for or against God. . . .

[Again, responding to Ignatius, Justin Martyr and Tatian, Klein concludes: “Those whom God saves are called his holy elect. . . . Foreknowledge did not determine destiny. . . . Free will to choose or reject God’s provision determines one’s eternal fate.” These sentiments comprised early church consensus on the issue of election and predestination and they are entirely absent of the novel theory of unconditional election.]’

source: William W. Klein, “Election,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments, eds. Ralph P. Martin and Peter H. Davids (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2008), 318-20. Found on Will Birch’s website.


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