Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 3


On my last post, I made a note about method in approaching Paul’s relation to Judaism. I suggested that we are mistaken if we assume that the diverse literature of the Second Temple period is monolithic on any single topic, and election and predestination are no exceptions. Moreover, even if we were to identify absolute unity of expression in the relevant Jewish materials, it would not follow that Paul is incapable of arriving at a fresh evaluation of the topic in question, as he does on the role of the law in salvation-history. I then tried to show how Josephus’ classification of the major Jewish groups of his day according to their diverse opinions about the relationship between divine providence and human freedom makes statements to the effect that no Jewish sources affirmed divine predestination to covenant membership and ultimate salvation, like Thornhill’s, very dubious.

Building on these observations, I want to begin in this post to review some of the relevant Jewish materials for plotting Paul’s theology of election. I will make clear that we cannot affirm the equation “election = predestination to salvation” that some in my own theological tradition tend to make. Election is a complex topic and election language is used to express several ideas, making predestination one among many, which are not mutually exclusive.


Because of space limitations and because other scholars (including Thornhill) had already done a good job of cataloging the evidence, I did not review the following Jewish data in my actual thesis (it was among the painful cuts I had to make). However, in order to set the stage for our discussion of predestination in Judaism and Paul, I think it is important to review some important material that I could not cover in my thesis. Two important studies on which I am dependent should be mentioned here. The first is a revision of D. A. Carson’s Cambridge doctoral thesis, entitled Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension (Wipf and Stock, 2002). The other is a doctoral dissertation by Sigurd Grindheim, that Carson supervised at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, entitled The Crux of Election: Paul’s Critique of the Jewish Confidence in the Election of Israel (WUNT II/202; Mohr Siebeck, 2005). I highly recommend both works for anyone interested in the topic at hand. Both studies begin by treating the very complex topic of election in Jewish context, both in the Hebrew Bible and the Second Temple literature. Carson’s study goes on to focus on the relevance of this material to the Johannine literature, while Grindheim’s study turns to focus on Paul. I think it’s important to list some of the important categories these two scholars identify in the OT and Second Temple materials, along with some references, in order to illustrate how complex a topic election really is. The references I provide are by no means exhaustive and the scholars I have just mentioned provide many more. In order to keep this post short, I have chosen examples that are especially illustrative of the categories under which they fall.

Gift of Wisdom and Torah

In wisdom literature, like Sirach, election language can refer to the possession of the divinely dispensed Wisdom. Thus, Jacob (Israel) is elect because God commanded Wisdom to take up residence there uniquely (24.8–12). This notion has its roots in the first chapter of Sirach, where we are told that at creation God created Wisdom and determined to dispense her in general to all, but in special abundance to “those who love him” (1.4–10). There is a connection made in between the reception of Wisdom and the reception of the Torah in 2.16, where we are told that those who love the Lord are “filled with his law” (cf., 15.1; 17.11; 19.20; 21.11; et al.). Thus, this special measure of Wisdom that Israel receives in 1.9 should probably be equated with the special revelation that the covenant nation received when Yahweh gave her the Torah. Therefore, we see an intimate relationship here between election and the establishment of the Law-covenant. However, as we will see in a later post, this idea is complemented in Sirach by the presence of some key material advocating divine predestination (e.g., 33.7–15).

Election and Choice Quality

In 1 Enoch we find some examples of the use of election language to describe the quality of the elect one as choice. In 93.2 we see “the elect of the world” in synonymous parallel to “the children of righteousness.” It is “the elect ones of righteousness” whom God will choose (93.10). In 1 Enoch 38.1–4 “elect ones” is used to mean those who are righteous and holy, in contrast to the wicked and sinners. As Grindheim summarizes: “That which is ‘elect’ is now a quality… The connotations of the term are that which is ethically and religiously good, and that which is worthy of being elected…” (The Crux of Election, 42).

Call to Vocation

We also find that election carries with it the obligation of a special duty of manifesting God’s glory to the nations. Therefore, in some sources, being chosen is about being given a special task by God. Israel, for example, is to keep the Law as the terms of the covenant in order to display their God’s uniquely righteous character to the surrounding peoples:

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.” For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I have set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:6–8, ESV; cf. 28:9–10)

In Isaiah 14:1, when God restores Israel it will result in others being joined to the covenant. Moreover, Israel is Yahweh’s chosen servant who will receive his spirit and “bring forth justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1).

This way of discussing election extends into the Second Temple literature as well. In Sirach 45.4–5 we read that God chose Moses in order to “teach Jacob the covenant, and Israel his decrees.” In Psalms of Solomon 17.4 David’s chosenness speaks of his appointment to the office of king. Peter repeats this idea when he applies this language of Israel’s election to the church, saying that they have been chosen “in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). The concept of vocation has featured significantly in N. T. Wright’s biblical-theological work, regarding both election and Christology.

Reversal of Values

Another interesting aspect of election that shows up in the OT and especially in Paul (which is the focus of Grindheim’s study) is the way God’s choice of Israel, or his new covenant people, serves to illustrate a divine reversal of human systems of value. “That which has no outstanding inherent value becomes precious by divine election and that which is not choice in itself becomes the object of God’s choice” (Grindheim, The Crux of Election, 9). This is apparent in Israel’s patriarchal narratives, wherein Isaac is chosen over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, showing God’s disregard for primogeniture. Then, quite explicitly, in Deuteronomy 7:6–7, regarding Israel’s choice, we read:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples… (ESV)

Paul picks up this idea in 1 Corinthians 1:26 when he invites his audience to recognize that they were called by God, even though, according to worldly standards, they should not have been valued. This concept is illustrated most vividly in Ezekiel 16, where God describes his unconditional electing love for Israel as his having compassion on a new-born child who was not even loved or properly cared for by her parents, and later, in spite of her “whoring” and adultery (i.e., idolatry), he will again restore her—thus, again choosing her—through an everlasting covenant. There is no reason Israel should have been chosen, and every reason for God to have rejected her. According to Paul, the church is in the same boat. Nevertheless, God has set his covenantal affection upon his people, thus, reversing normal measures of value.

Corporate Election

Thornhill and others have focused much on the importance of corporate election in the OT and Second Temple literature as relevant background to Paul’s (and the rest of the NT’s) thought. When the corporate element of election is in focus, the texts speak of one receiving elect status and benefits by joining the elect community. Individuals are not the focus of election, but God has chosen the group, so that individuals become elect only by joining the community. The clearest examples in this category are found in the sectarian literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the Community Rule (1QS). Those who repent and undergo the lengthy and demanding process of joining the Yahad (“community”) become members of God’s new covenant people. This community believed that the temple cult was defective, so that forgiveness was available only for their members. If one left the community, his fate was destruction along with all outsiders, since salvation was only for their community, the true Israel.  As we will see in later posts, this corporate element of election that we observe here did not preclude predestination (as Thornhill and others seem to assume). In fact, divine predestination was used in this very document (in the form we have it) as the crucial theological undergirding that explains why only a relatively small number of Israelites joined the community and remained there, but the vast majority did not.


The Remnant

When discussing election in the OT, it is important to make note of the “remnant” motif. Especially prominent in the prophetic books, and a theme that features heavily in Second Temple literature, and in the Gospels and Romans 9–11, is the idea of an elect people within the elect nation—a true Israel within Israel. That is, not all of Israel is truly elect in the fullest and most ultimate sense, despite being in the covenant. According to Jeremiah 31:31–34, this problem will not exist in the “new covenant.” There is great diversity in just how this concept works out in the variegated literature in question. This notion comes into special focus when the nation is divided by those who follow Solomon. Amos gives testimony that Judah thought of themselves as a faithful remnant when the northern tribes had apostatized.

The remnant motif comes into special focus following the division of the kingdom after Solomon, when sharp distinctions began to be pronounced between those descendants of Abraham were seeking to be faithful to the covenant with Yahweh (primarily in Judah) and those who were engaging in open and gross idolatry (primarily Israel). Amos gives testimony that Judah thought of themselves as a faithful remnant when the northern tribes had apostatized. The prophet seeks to dispel the notion that God will not also bring severe judgment against Judah if she continues to transgress the covenant, leaving only an even smaller remnant within Judah. Isaiah 1 provides some important evidence of the remnant concept. Judah comprises “children” who have rebelled against their father, Yahweh (v. 2). This evokes God’s judgment against “the daughter of Zion” (v. 8). However, Yahweh has spared “a few survivors” lest Judah be completely eradicated like Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 9). In Isaiah 10:20–22, inclusion in the remnant is shown to be on an individual basis according to Yahweh’s powerful eschatological act of deliverance:

In that day the remnant of Israel and the survivors of the house of Jacob will no more lean on him who struck them, but will lean on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, in truth. A remnant will return, the remnant of Jacob, to the mighty God. For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return. Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness. (ESV)

A kind of remnant ideology contributed to the events that transpired during the Maccabean revolt (see especially the apocalyptic vision of Daniel 11 and 1 Maccabees, though those faithful to the covenant do not participate in violence in the former reference). In response to what was viewed as apostasy, violent actions were considered justified by the more zealous among conservative Jews. This seems only justifiable if those Jews who had compromised and engaged in what they view as idolatry were thought to be outside of the sphere of election in a very real sense. The community of the Dead Sea Scrolls held similar views, but instead of using violence to eradicate the problem and restore the nation, they withdrew into an exclusive community as the faithful remnant of the true Israel. In some ways similar (though with important differences as well), Jesus and the early Christian movement saw themselves as the faithful remnant of Israel, comprised literally of a small number of Jews who had heeded the eschatological call to repent and believe the Gospel along those Gentiles who were added to the covenant through union with the Messiah Jesus, the true Israel (e.g., Romans 9:6–29; 11:1–32; 1 Peter 2:4–10), and excluding those Israelites who did not believe (Romans 9:30–10:21). Thus, election, in some contexts, meant more than being part of Israel in general—it meant being within that part of Israel who would experience eschatological deliverance, which was not universally promised.


This all illustrates that election was a complex and pervasive concept in Second Temple Judaism (as E. P. Sanders showed so conclusively four decades ago). However, recognizing that election is ubiquitous does not answer many of the theological questions that naturally follow. The theological questions that are cause for debate and division in Christian circles are not new. There were Jews in the Second Temple period who speculated about why God had chosen Israel at all. If it was not because of some special quality in those chosen, then God seems to be capricious—which most Jews could not accept. There has always been the question of whether Israel’s election precludes her finally being rejected (or having been finally rejected) for persistently violating the covenant (e.g., Rom 9–11). Or, why were some Israelites faithful, thus comprising a remnant, while others were not? Does election effect the elect one’s faithfulness, or does God chose those whom he foresees will be faithful to the terms of the covenant? This all naturally leads to questions about human volition, divine sovereignty, and predestination? Some Jews (strangely, in my view) believed that God chose Israel because he foresaw that they alone would keep the covenant. Others said that he chose the Patriarchs for that reason (again, strangely), thus assuring Israel’s elect status. And some, even if a minority, believed that God chose Israel as his free prerogative from creation, based on nothing but his desire to display his power in the world by so doing. This act of election, prior to creation, assures the certain result of God’s purpose of choosing his people, the creation of a faithful covenant community who will reflect his glory to the nations. Over the next couple of posts, we will see some sources that saw election in terms of God’s predestination at creation, before moving into Paul’s view on the matter.


Chosen from the Beginning: Paul’s Predestinarian Theology of Election—Part 1


Since Michael mentioned my ThM thesis and my reformed theological stance, I thought it would be good to discuss the thesis for my first series of blog posts here. First, a little of my background.

I became a Christian when I was 15. It was the typical youth summer camp conversion, but it was my first very real experience of God’s presence and the first time I believed the gospel. At that time, my family and I attended a small SBC church on Sundays and I attended an Evangelical Bible church on Wednesdays for youth group. This continued through high school. After my experience at camp, I became somewhat interested in the Bible as it pertained to debates with other religions and pseudo-Christian cults. Our youth group did a series on world religions that I found fascinating and I had a friend whose family were Jehovah’s Witnesses, which made me interested in defending the deity of Jesus. Also, in school one of the only classes I paid attention to was our discussion of Greek mythology in my classes on literature. I was not a driven student at that time, but I was interested in religion.

Since I was such a poor student, I had no intention of going to college after high school. Eventually, I came to believe that God wanted me to join the Marine Corps. Unlike most Marines, not long after my initial training courses for my specialty, I found myself working under a Christian who invited me to church. I was stationed at Camp Pendleton and began attending Calvary Chapel in Vista, Ca. I was hooked from my first visit because this was the first church that I attended where there was a concerted effort to ground all we believed and did in the Bible. At that time, I began reading the Bible on my own for the first time and not long after believed that I had a gift for comprehension and theological inquiry. Wanting something deeper, I found myself attracted to the Reformed tradition (of the Baptist variety), since I found them to take a more scholarly approach to the Bible than I had experienced to that point, and I had become convinced of that tradition’s approach to God’s sovereignty in human redemption. I wanted to study the Bible in the original languages, so after completing my 4-year obligation in the Marine Corps, I enrolled in Dallas Christian College (an institution in the Restoration Movement tradition) to earn a degree in Biblical Studies and Biblical Languages. During this time I excelled in my studies and believed that I should pursue more advanced training focusing in New Testament, so I attended Dallas Theological Seminary because of their rigorous ThM program that focuses heavily on biblical languages (despite my rejection of dispensationalism). I have now completed my coursework there and will receive my diploma this December. I plan to begin PhD work in New Testament studies in the near future as well.


I mentioned above that during my journey I became convinced that the Reformed tradition has broadly understood the biblical material about God’s sovereignty in relation to salvation better than alternatives. Today I would describe myself as lowercase “r” reformed since I do not subscribe to the traditional confessions. I’m a member of a Southern Baptist Convention church with a Calvinistic persuasion. I don’t want my scholarship to be focused on this topic as a hobby horse. In fact, my main area of interest is the Jewish background to the New Testament. It was this topic, not primarily my Calvinistic convictions, that led me to write my thesis on predestination in Pauline literature.

My academic work led me naturally to consider the history of Pauline scholarship. Paul’s writings have always been a place emphasis in my study. You don’t have to do too much reading in Paul before you come across the debates about his historical context that arose during the 1970s with the publication of E. P. Sanders’ Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Sanders took on what had come to be scholarly truisms regarding Jewish religion in Paul’s day, demonstrating that they were, in fact, misrepresentative caricatures. Sanders demonstrated that Judaism was very much a religion founded upon the belief in a gracious God who had initiated the salvation of Israel and provided for its maintenance through his covenant. His extensive treatment of the Jewish materials created a wake in Pauline scholarship that continues to ripple today. All subsequent studies on Paul would have to grapple with Sanders’ work.

Like most Evangelicals, I was introduced to this world of scholarship through N. T. Wright and the debates over the new perspective. Wright and others took Sanders’ findings in the Jewish materials (rejecting much of what he had to say about Paul), and used them to create new paradigms of exegesis in Paul’s letters. This had its most significant impact on the topic of justification in Paul. I came to believe that much of what this new school had to say was insightful and helpful, but that it lacked explanatory value for understanding some key issues in Paul. Regardless of my disagreement on some issues, the appeal to the Jewish background to Paul led me into those primary sources and to read the best works that engaged in the debates about Paul’s relationship to 1st century Judaism. Again, I found Sanders’ work in the Jewish material to be extremely valuable, but reductionistic, since it did not engage in a discussion of what “grace” meant to different Jews and it did not deal adequately with the possibility that Paul evaluated his contemporaries in ways different from their own self-expressions.

As I was nearing the completion of the required course work at DTS, I still had to write a thesis, and I was having trouble coming up with a topic. Then I came across two newly published books that shaped my project. The first was John Barclay’s 2015 work, Paul and the Gift. This work has had a huge impact in Pauline studies, with some saying (and I agree) that this may be the most important book on Paul written in over 100 years. In my opinion, Barclay’s study is the single most important book on Paul’s theology of grace. Whereas Sanders showed that grace is pervasive in 1st century Judaism, Barclay has provided much-needed nuance, demonstrating that “grace is not everywhere the same.” Different Jewish authors understood grace differently, and the task is to locate Paul’s discourse about grace within this complex spectrum. Barclay’s approach to the question of grace in Second Temple Judaism was to treat the topic in five sources—The Wisdom of Solomon, Philo, the Qumran Hodayot, Pseudo-Philo (Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum), and 4Ezra. Barclay detects six “perfections of grace” in the material he surveys (which also includes some Greco-Roman material and major interpreters of Paul in history). These are superabundance, singularity, priority, incongruity, efficacy, and non-circularity (pp. 70-5). Although I didn’t agree with Barclay’s reading of Paul in every respect (only about 98%), his work confirmed and solidified much of what I was finding in my own study. Most notably for me was his treatment of the Hodayot (“Thanksgiving Hymns”) discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls (1QHa), which contain some overtly predestinarian language and emphasize the efficacy of God’s grace, as I believe Paul does, though Barclay disagrees somewhat at this point. This I thought, in agreement with Barclay, is markedly different from what we read in some texts that emphasize human volition in opposition to divine determinism, such as Jubilees and The Wisdom of Solomon. From this, it seemed abundantly clear to me that Judaism’s grace and election theology cannot be reduced to a single monolithic concept so that every author is thought to reject predestinarian election.

Barclay’s monograph had really reconfirmed some convictions I had arrived at after reading John Piper’s work some time before. Today, Piper is known for his prolific authorship and speaking as a pastor. However, he began his career as a New Testament scholar. While teaching in Bethel University, he published his monograph on Romans 9, The Justification of God: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Romans 9:1–23 in 1983. This was a masterful and robust exegetical study of this passage that is so remarkably different from the kind of writings Piper has produced since, such as Desiring God, that it’s hard to image the same man producing both. One aspect of Piper’s argument that I remember being very impressed with was his appeal to Sirach 33:7–15 (with some appeal to the Dead Sea Scrolls), following Gaird Maier’s study (Mensch und freir Wille nach den juedischen Religionsparteien zwischen Ben Sira und Paulus) as crucial background for understanding Paul’s potter/clay imagery in Rom 9 in a predestinarian sense. The combination of these studies by Barclay and Piper had me convinced that a compelling case for understanding Paul’s election theology in predestinarian terms in the context of Second Temple Judaism was not only possible, but could be made compellingly.

As much praise as I have for Barclay’s study, another study impacted me as profoundly, but in the opposite direction. Also in 2015, A. Chadwick Thornhill published a version of his dissertation completed at Liberty University, called The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism. With both my theological background and academic interests, this title obviously called out to me. I have always tried to remain intentional about laying my own presuppositions and cherished views on the table for scholarly scrutiny. If what I believe does not hold up to the evidence, then it is not worth clinging to. So, as best I could, I read Thornhill’s study with an open mind. He essentially makes the case that elsewhere in the Jewish sources we find no evidence of belief that election was understood in terms of predestination unto salvation. Therefore, Paul should not be read as affirming any such thing. Instead, the careful reader of Paul should see his election discourse as it relates to salvation in terms of corporate theories rather and individual predestination.

I immediately saw three problems with this study: (1) Having just completed Barclay’s study (which was not available to Thornhill at the time of his research), and through my own reading of the primary Jewish sources, I knew that it simply is not true that the notion of election in terms of predestination to salvation is absent in Second Temple Judaism. Reading Thornhill’s study after Barclay’s made me wonder if the former would have said all that he did if he had the opportunity to read Barclay’s work before publishing The Chosen People. (2) Even if we were to grant Thornhill’s reading of the Jewish literature, it would not of necessity follow that Paul must have agreed with his fellow Jews regarding election and predestination. Paul is quite unique among Jewish authors of his day, for example, in his understanding of the role of the law in God’s economy of salvation. Paul tells us in several places that the law was given to reveal and increase transgressions, leading to death, whereas, his Jewish contemporaries would have said that it was given to curb sin and provide a means of obtaining life. (3) In the most detailed treatments of the topic of election in Paul’s letters, he seems (on my reading) to say some things that sound very much like what Thornhill says Paul could not have believed. So, I found Thornhill’s study to be lacking on historical grounds in these three ways, making a critical evaluation of his study a helpful avenue to consider afresh Paul’s relation to Second Temple Judaism with regard to election and predestination.

In the following posts, I’m going to rehearse some of the key findings in my study, beginning with what I regard as the most relevant materials in the Second Temple literature.

A Research Paper on James Dunn’s Christianity in the Making Vol. 3

I am posting a recent paper on volumes two and three of James Dunn’s Christianity in the Making. This paper stems from a class with Dr. John Taylor of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (though he has shared that he will be joining Gateway Seminary in California). It has been my great privilege to be his student. Dr. Taylor has been very flexible in allowing me to take specific classes tailored as much for my interests as for my benefit.

Concerning this particular paper, readers should know that the material originates from my first seminar to cover early Christianity critically reconstructed, and as it emerged from Jerusalem and grew to encounter the larger Mediterranean world. Since the class was specifically devoted to James Dunn’s magisterial Christianity in the Making, the reading was significant, and since it covered so much material and an era that I had previously little familiarity with (the sub-apostolic era, second generation Christianity), I am sure more learned readers will find various faults within my paper (though hopefully minor ones).

I share the paper, however, because of the joy it brought me in both researching the topic and writing on it. James Dunn is an immensely talented research writer. His work has been formative on me not only for this reason but for others as well. His notable objectivity in handling the many challenging research questions is impressive. In some ways, reading his work feels almost like looking over his shoulder as he works through the research questions and discussions himself. Dunn seems to limit his own input to the conclusions of vast segments of research within his books, though like a skilled narrator he is carefully building his case all the while. In addition to objectivity, Dunn has a gift for viewing the whole and seeing discordant ideas and material within it. He has a remarkable talent for seeing where diverse ideas come into conflict with the larger picture. In short, he discerns unity within the diversity. Thank you Dr. Dunn for you contributions, and for inspiring me to learn and to dig deeper. And thank you Dr. Taylor for doing the same, and holding me to a high bar of excellence. All mistakes are my own and much of the reflections are raw thoughts checked only against tertiary resources. As always, dear readers, thank you for reading Jesus and Paul and the New Testament Blog!

(My initial paper in the class covered volume one, Jesus Remembered, which is more aligned with my specialized doctoral interests in the historical Jesus, and I am heavily re-working and improving this paper for publication. The following paper, then, deals only with the second and third volumes, though most attention is given to the third.)

The Importance of Jesus Tradition in Understanding Paul

Kathy Ehrensperger writes

I consider it a necessary and fruitful enterprise to explore the significance of such research results that demonstrate Paul’s embeddedness in Judaism when dealing with the issue of the relation between Jesus and Paul, or, to put it another way, of the relation of the Jesus traditions as remembered in the Gospels and the Jesus as remembered by Paul and his team in the Pauline Letters.

So thrilled to read this in her essay “At the Table: Common Ground between Paul and the Historical Jesus.” I have earlier voiced the opinion that Paul’s theology be thought of first and foremost as influenced by and indebted to Jesus traditions (since the Gospels were written after most/all of Paul’s Letters). I think that the recent push to read Paul within Second Temple Judaism broadly will be misguided insofar as it ignores this foundational hermeneutical task in understanding his thought. So in some respects, Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, which sees Pauline theology as a brand of Second Temple Judaism richly rethought around Jesus Messiah, is a step in the right direction. Ehrensperger’s essay in Jesus Research volume two continues by pointing out the rich agreement between Jesus tradition in the Gospels and 1 Corinthians on the subject of table fellowship / meals.