Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Election in Romans 9

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)

Brian Abasciano has written a reply to an article by Tom Schreiner. And online version is available here.

I’ll venture a few comments:

1. In the body of the text, Abasciano levels the following charge against Schreiner:
The result is that his assault on the concept of corporate election via repeated attempts to show that individuals must be in view when groups are spoken of because groups are made up of individuals amounts to knocking down a straw man if a proper view of corporate election is under consideration.

Practically, his argument knocks down a straw man version of corporate election.
Yet when you turn to the footnotes, he retreats from this charge by introducing a number of admissions or caveats:
The representative of corporate election that Schreiner interacts with most is William W. Klein, The New Chosen People: A Corporate View of Election (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990). But even though he may not give much attention to the place of individuals in the elect people, Klein certainly affords a place to individuals in his scheme; see e.g. pp. 264-65.
This is 2 pages out of a 316 page book!
But it is probably true that many advocates of a corporate orientation for Paul's thought have overstated their case so that they inappropriately present Paul and his contemporaries as having almost no concern for individuals or the implications that corporate realities have for individuals.

This is not to deny that there may be some scholars who hold the type of view that Schreiner convincingly refutes and others whose view of corporate election may be vague as Schreiner charges. His article may successfully counter the inadequate view of some scholars…
So Abasciano’s allegation is quite deceptive. He levels a blanket charge in the body of the text, only to back away from that charge in the footnotes. Is he trying to create a negative first impression that will prejudice the reader against Schreiner’s presentation?

2. Abasciano says that,
Recognition of the collectivist character of Paul's first-century culture commands a firm consensus of scholarly support.
But the literature he adduces in the footnotes generally postdates Schreiner’s original article. So how was it failure on Schreiner’s part if he didn’t interact with possibly opposing literature years before that literature was published?

And in the one case he cites of a monograph that was published before Schreiner, by Malina, he also mentions a subsequent critique of Malina.

3.Apropos (1-2), in what respect did Schreiner’s argument fail? Abasciano seems to admit that Schreiner successfully critiqued the extant version of corporate election which were in play at the time Schreiner published his article. So Schreiner hit the target he was aiming for, which was the only target then-available.

Abasciano’s complaint seems to be that Schreiner lacks a crystal ball. Schreiner’s argument fails because Schreiner didn’t seem to disprove a version of corporate election that was reformulated, after the fact, with a view to sidestepping Schreiner’s original criticisms.

To me, this would speak to the success, rather than failure, of Schreiner’s argument. He may need to respond to the reformulated version. But that doesn’t mean his original critique was defective.

4.Abasciano is fond of metaphors (especially spatial metaphors) to distinguish his position from Schreiner’s (emphasis mine):
I am speaking of the primary orientation of election, which of necessity must include individuals in its purview to some extent.

But this connection must be viewed primarily from either the corporate or the individual perspective.

If corporate election is primary, then it is the group that is the focus of election, and individuals are elect only in connection with the group. If individual election is primary, then individuals are separately the focus of election.

To show that individuals were part of the groups to which they belonged or were impacted by what their groups were impacted by contributes nothing to determining where the focus of election lies.

As we have seen, the concept always included individuals within its scope without concentrating election on the individual.

The corporate facet of the issues Paul addresses takes precedence over—but does not exclude—the individual facet.

On the other hand, a careful examination of Romans 9-11 reveals that its individual language and thought are actually corporately oriented.

The important question about election that must be answered concerns its primary orientation. Is it corporate or individual?

What it does say is that election is in Christ, which we know in Pauline theology to be partly a way of indicating a sphere of identity entered into through faith.

Christ is the sphere of election.

But even though he may not give much attention to the place of individuals in the elect people, Klein certainly affords a place to individuals in his scheme.

But the biblical view of corporate election always contained individuals within its scope based on their participation in the group/identification with the corporate representative without extending the concept of election to entrance into the elect people or shifting the focus of election to the individual.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with metaphors. But by itself, a metaphor is just an open-textured analogy. By itself, it doesn’t affirm or deny anything in particular.

In order to distinguish the position he is affirming from the position he denies, Abasciano needs to unpack his figures of speech in literal terms. Apart from further explication, he’s giving us an argument from analogy minus the argument.

What he appears to mean by these metaphors is that corporate election has a different emphasis than individual election. But that would only amount to a quantitative rather than qualitative distinction.

Yet his actual position is apparently much stronger. He thinks that Schreiner’s interpretation is wrong.

5.Abasciano is also fond of weasel words:
I am speaking of the primary orientation of election, which of necessity must include individuals in its purview to some extent.

But this connection must be viewed primarily from either the corporate or the individual perspective.

If individual election is primary, then individuals are separately the focus of election.

The dominant perspective of Paul and his contemporaries was that the group was primary and the individual secondary.
As with (4), these adjectives seem to indicate a difference of degree rather than kind. Corporate election is relatively different than individual election. Yet he seems to mean more than that.

6.Indeed, as one can see from the above quotations, it frequently mixes weasel words with spatial metaphors.

The advantage of vague language is that it makes it harder for your opponent to disprove your position. You can always retreat into the ambiguities of metaphor, or the ambiguities of comparative usage.

But, of course, if he wanted to, Schreiner could do the same thing in reverse. He could reuse all of Abasciano’s metaphors and weasel words, but simply plug his own position into the wording.

He [Schreiner] correctly points out that Romans 9 is a standard proof text for Calviniste [sic.], who hold that God unconditionally elects individuals to be saved. He also correctly observes that scholars increasingly reject the Calvinist exegesis of the chapter as a misreading of the text.2 His article seeks to refute two common objections to the Calvinist interpretation, namely, that Romans 9 (1) addresses historical, national destiny rather than salvation; and/or (2) relates to the salvation of groups rather than individuals. I have no disagreement with the main thrust of Schreiner's first major point. Paul's argument in Romans 9 surely concerns the salvation of Israel.3
The problem here is that, on the one hand, Abasciano says that Schreiner is out of the mainstream. And he cites some scholars in the footnotes to bear out his contention. On the other hand, he says that he agrees with Schreiner regarding the soteric interpretation of Rom 9.

But he cites N.T. Wright to support his contention that Schreiner is out of the mainstream. Yet Wright rejects the soteric interpretation. So is Abasciano also out of the mainstream?

In addition, merely citing the opinion of opposing scholars doesn’t prove anything. Wright construes the passage the way he does because Wright is an exponent of the New Perspective on Paul. So Wright’s interpretation is part and parcel of a whole hermeneutical package. Is Abasciano also a proponent of the New Perspective?

Likewise, Abasciano cites Witherington. But, of course, Witherington disagrees with Schreiner since Witherington is a doctrinaire Arminian. The only thing that a contrast between Schreiner and Witherington illustrates is the tautology that a Reformed commentator presents a Reformed interpretation of Rom 9 while an Arminian presents an Arminian interpretation of Rom 9.

8.There’s a systematic equivocation running through Abasciano’s article. And that’s because he uses the same word to denote two different concepts. He uses the word “election,” both for the “election” of ethnic Israel, and for the Reformed doctrine of “election.”

He then points out that the “election” of ethnical Israel isn’t interchangeable with the Reformed doctrine of election. The effect of this is to create the impression that the Reformed doctrine is unscriptural.

But that’s a sheerly verbal artifact of the classification scheme he’s imposing on the text. It is, in the first place, a conflict between words rather than concepts. Using the same word to denote differing—albeit overlapping—concepts.

This, in turn, creates a bogus contradiction. By choosing to use the same word for differing concepts, you create a purely linguistic tension, since the same word has alternate or opposing referents.

In Reformed usage, like dogmatic usage generally, “election” has a very specialized meaning. But there’s no intrinsic reason why we have to use the same word to describe God’s relation with ethnic Israel. To begin with, there’s a difference between choice and election. Election is a technical term in a way that choice is not. Choice is a neutral, generic term.

If Abasciano talked about God’s choice of Israel, then this would not generate a superficial conflict with doctrine of election, for he would be using different words to purport differing concepts.

Or, he could speak of God’s adoption of Israel. The Bible uses adoptive language for God’s relation to Israel. Once again, this would relieve the artificial discrepancy when he uses the same word for two different things.

9.Another equivocation involves the way in which he uses the term “individualism.”
The fact that Schreiner repeatedly argues that corporate election entails Calvinistic individual election, amounting to an election of individuals as autonomous entities before God, only shows that he is assuming individual election to be primary…The fact that Schreiner presupposes this stance suggests a failure to look beyond a modern, western, individualistic viewpoint.
But Abasciano has given us a total, point-blank misrepresentation of Calvinism. An individualistic model of salvation would be autosoterism, in which a libertarian agent achieves salvation through his own autonomous effort or merit.

Needless to say, that’s the antithesis of Calvinism, in which God choose which individuals will be redeemed and regenerated. It bespeaks the superficiality of Abasciano’s hold on the opposing position that he would commit such an elementary blunder.

10. Abasciano also has an odd way of opposing corporate solidarity to Reformed theology. He says, for example, that,
The examples of Isaac and Jacob embody the OT concept of corporate solidarity or representation in which the individual represents the community and is identified with it and vice versa.17 The concept is especially evident in the case of kings and patriarchs, who are seen to represent their people and sum them up in themselves, especially in the context of covenant. The observation is important because it provides the model for the corporate representative role of Christ in the NT as the seed of Abraham (Gal 3:16), the true Israel and embodiment of the covenant people of God.
You really have to wonder if Abasciano knows the first thing about Calvinism. Calvinism is the very theological tradition that accentuates the principle of federal headship. To oppose federal headship to Calvinism is both ignorant and nonsensical.

At the same time, Calvinism also takes the position that election and reprobation cut across family lines. Ethnicity and destiny are not conterminous.

The burden of proof should lie on those who would claim that Paul departed from this standard biblical and Jewish conception of election.
Three problems:

i) This assumes that there was a “standard Jewish conception of election.” Did the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essence all share the very same concept of election?

ii) He begs the question by assuming his interpretation of the Biblical concept, so that Schreiner is “departing” from the Biblical concept.

iii) Paul, in this very chapter, is debating with a hypothetical Jewish opponent. So Paul’s stated position stands in explicit contrast to at least a certain strain of Judaism.

That is why there can be no true human freedom if the Calvinistic doctrine of the absolute divine determination of all things is true. That is also why the Calvinist interpretation that takes Romans 9 to teach that God absolutely determines who will exercise faith and Romans 10 to teach "that those who do not exercise faith are responsible and should have done so"56 foists an illogical position on Paul.

However, to claim both that God absolutely predetermines human actions and that human beings are free is nonsensical.57

57 This is true despite John Calvin's and Jonathan Edwards's valiant attempt to rescue the assertion from absurdity. Against their view, see Bruce R. Reichenbach, "Freedom, Justice, and Moral Responsibility," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man (ed. Clark H. Pinnock; Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 1989) 281-87.”
Several problems:

i) Abasciano is only giving one side of the argument. There is no attempt to even present, much less refute, the philosophical literature on compatibilism.

ii) Reichenbach is hardly the last word on the subject. Moreover, Reichenbach is an open theist. Is that Abasciano’s own position?

iii) More to the point, the relation between determinism and responsibility is a philosophical question, not an exegetical question. A Reformed theologian doesn’t need to answer this question to justify his exegesis.

13.The really fundamental flaw in Abasciano’s analysis is his notion of how corporate identity allegedly constitutes individual identity:
Thus, either the corporate focus of election determines the identity and benefits of the individual based on participation in the group, or the individual focus of election determines the identity and benefits of the group based on the individuals who have been grouped together according to their similar individual characteristics/status.

What needs to be highlighted at this juncture is that a corporate election which on the one hand allowed a full and vigorous role to the individual in the context of community and on the other hand subordinated the individual to the collective by granting elect status to individuals based on their membership in the covenant community was the view of the OT and the scriptural texts Paul uses in Romans 9.

Personal identity was derived from the group rather than the group drawing its identity from the individuals contained in it.

Paul's own election is best seen as deriving from his membership in the corporate remnant.

The focus of election is clearly the corporate people of God with individuals participating in election by means of their participation (through faith) in the elect group, which spans salvation history.
i) Now, there are situations in which social identity is constitutive of one’s individual identity. Ascribed status is a case in point. To some extent this is true in tribal societies, where your place in the clan determines your social class and social obligations. An extreme case is the caste system.

Another example would be a club, like a fraternity, in which the old members admit new members or expel other old members.

In these cases, corporate entity is the causal factor in fellowship or disfellowship. That’s the level at which the group is constituted. Members are born into the group, or voted in, or excommunicated—by the collective membership.

ii) That, however, is not the model of corporate election in Reformed theology, and—more to the point—it is not the model of corporate election in Reformed prooftexts for Calvinism, like Jn 17, Rom 9-11, and Eph 1-2.

Rather, God is the agent who constitutes the collective. God adopts ethnic Israel. God hardens a potion of ethnic Israel. God selects and preserves a faithful remnant. God determines who belongs to which subset or cross-section of various collective entities.

So the source of incorporate is vertical rather than horizontal. The in-group does not ultimately confer or revoke this status.

iii) At a purely administrative or disciplinary level, the in-group may be responsible for inducting new members into the collective or sanctioning apostates and backsliders. But even that assumes the prior existence of the in-group, as well as preexisting conditions of membership. And it is God who establishes who that framework. God who stipulates the terms of membership. God who separates Israel from the nations. God who separates the church from the world.

iv) In addition, mere, institutional membership in the organization is not, of itself, a salvific arrangement. Saving faith and piety are not conferred by the collective on the members thereof. To the contrary, spiritual renewal, as well as spiritual preservation, also comes from the top down (God).

1 comment:

  1. Let's say, for the sake or argument, that Paul's answer to the question, "Why aren't more of my Jewish brethren being saved...indeed they are being hardened!? Is God unfaithful?" is "God has chosen to elect a new Israel." Then, we might ask, what is the basis of that election according to Romans 9? The Arminian position, remember is that election is based on foreseen faith. Where is that connection made in Romans 9? Paul discusses justification by faith earlier in Romans, but where does he ever say that God elects based on that?

    And if Paul's answer is simply "God has chosen a new Israel, and those in it are elected based on their faith." Then what are we to say of the question "Who resists His will?" given after his discussion of Moses and Pharaoh. That question, at that juncture, makes no sense if Paul's answer is "God has chosen a new Israel whose members are elected into that category by faith." Paul juxtaposes Moses and Pharaoh not to illustrate his mercy to Moses who had faith and Pharaoh who had none, but to emphasize that hardening = no mercy. God's mercy to Moses is not based on his faith as a reward, indeed Moses was a murderer, and Pharaoh certainly was a devil but where does Romans 9 say he was hardened because he was a devil?

    And isn't the text specifically arguing against corporate election of a category of people to salvation? If all are not Israel who are Israel, eg. descended from Abraham, then election is not corporate based on genetics. Isaac and Ishmael are juxtaposed, not because one was accepted or rejected for his faith and the other for his faithlessness respectively, but before either had done anything good or bad. So, where is the actual argument in this text that God is electing a new Israel based on the faith of those who hear the gospel? And isn't the Arminian position an ethical attempt to get God off the hook, as it were? If people can be blamed for not believing, and election is based on foreseen faith, then how is God unjust for electing based on foreseen faith? The Arminian position is that God is not unjust for doing this. So, we're back to Paul's objection, that the person reading him will think God is unjust for doing these things, indeed raising up a man to harden him and reject him, showing him no mercy; thus, the Arminian's solution does not fit the objection.