Saturday, 21 November 2009

Corporate versus individual election

Brennon Hartshorn has posted his take on Romans 9 from an Arminian perspective. Marcus McElhaney, of a more Calvinist persuasion, has addressed Brennon's post pointwise. Both are an interesting read and there is some common agreement; they may be worth perusing prior to reading this post. I do not seek to reproduce or comment on the whole exchange. Rather one paragraph of Marcus' made me think that aspects of freewill needed clarification.

In Romans 9 Paul writes
And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls—she was told, "The older will serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated."

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
Brennon's comment on verses 14 and 15 (italics above),
What about this? Was God unrighteous when He chose Jacob over Esau? The Jews at this time would have thought so. Esau was the eldest and that meant that the birthright of Isaac was naturally his. But God chose Jacob to be the one to carry on the line of Israel. Paul asserts that of course God is not unrighteous in this decision.

In verse 15 Paul is citing Exodus 33:19. Let’s remember that Paul is a Jewish Rabbi. Jews memorized large portions of the Old Testament. He had an amazing command of knowledge of these ancient texts. Would he rip the text out of context in order to prove a point about individual unconditional election? No! The context here is not about who goes to heaven and who does not. In context, Moses has asked God to show him His glory. God says it is because of His mercy that He has decided to show Himself to Moses, not due to anything Moses did. So Paul’s point is God does not owe us mercy based on what we do (will or run). The basis of God’s choice to save people is not on the people’s conduct, but on His compassion. The “IT” in verse 16 is not individual salvation; the “IT” refers to God’s choice of what to predicate His salvation on: Corporate election. Individual unconditional election has not appeared in this section. (Emphasis original.)
Marcus responds thus,
I'm not sure why we would assume that if God could do this with nations that he does not do it with individuals? In order for God to do it on a corporate scale means turning and directing the will of many people...so teaching that God does not do anything against human free will goes out the window. I agree that the verses are definitely saying that election is based on God's will and desire and nothing to do with the properties of those being elected. I mean you can't elect yourself to something and still call it "election". "Fair" is whatever God says it is as far as I am concerned. I think that Paul is really pointing out that this is how God is and deals with his creation. It's His reality. We just live in it...on His terms.
While I disagree with aspects of this paragraph, I also think Marcus misunderstands aspects of freewill.

The context of Romans 9 seems to be corporate. Paul starts by mentioning fellow (ethnic) Israelites. He then goes on to discuss individuals such as Isaac, Jacob, Esau and Pharaoh. The need of the exegete is therefore to explain why the change to individual salvation or, as Brennon attempts to do, how the individuals mentioned represent the corporate or represent God's dealings with the corporate.

The importance of assessing individual versus corporate is that dealing with the corporate is fundamentally distinct from dealing with the individual. The issue with God dealing with the individual is that if God does so in an exhaustively deterministic way then man is essentially an automaton. He is therefore unable to to truly love, nor is he responsible for his actions—good or bad.

This does not mean that proponents of freewill deny that God is able to act deterministically, he is; it is that he does not do so exhaustively because he wants creatures to love him. God could set up a clockwork world and appreciate its beauty and precision. But God created this world with men who would love and enjoy him forever.

Freewill does not constrain God, he constrains himself. God could still prevent men from thinking or conceiving some things, and he may in fact do this at times. God is able to prevent the actions of evil men and does so. Freedom is not a power that God struggles to overcome, it is a gift, an attribute of God that he bestows on man.

Now this does not apply to corporate groups because a group does not have freewill, other than the freedom of the individuals within it. And God can act in ways that affect corporate outcome without overriding the freedom of individuals that comprise it. God can raise up a nation by providing optimal environmental conditions, and he can destroy a nation by sending disaster.

In doing so we note that God's plans for groups can be brought about according to God's purpose and for his glory. God tells Israel they are not a nation of note but that he will make them great. Individuals within various groups still retain the choice to side with or against God. If God punishes a nation, individuals of such nations can still appeal to God's mercy. We see this in Rahab and the Egyptians who left in the Exodus. If God blesses a nation, individuals can still reject God's purposes; consider Korah, Dathan and Abiram.

While a Calvinist may see God working on the corporate scale as an outworking of exhaustive determinism of individuals, this perspective is a result of the Calvinist system. God is actually able to act on the corporate scale without exhaustive determinism. The non-Calvinist perspective is that God works at the corporate level to assess the actions of individuals. God does not control the motives of our hearts, he tests them.

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