In his book, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (1989), Reformed theologian & missionary Lesslie Newbigin includes a chapter entitled “The Logic of Election” (excerpts below) where he challenges the traditional Calvinist understanding of this doctrine. Newbigin also addresses election in his books A Faith for this One World? (1961), and The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission (1978, 2nd ed. 1995).
From The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, pages 83-84 (bold mine):
What I have called the logic of election becomes very clear in that passage of the Letter to the Romans which has often been used as a basis for false teaching about election. I refer to Romans 9 through 11. For Paul it is axiomatic that God has chosen Israel uniquely among all the nations. And yet Israel has, as a nation, rejected God’s Messiah. How is this to be understood? Does it mean that God’s purpose has been defeated? No. How, then, are we to understand it? First, we must understand that God retains his freedom. Election does not give us claims against God. This has always been clear, for not all descendants of Abraham are chosen. No one can find fault with God for this. Like the potter working with his clay, God has the freedom to dispose of his creation as he will. He could make some vessels for honor and some for destruction. Paul does not say that he has done so, but only that, if he did, we would have no ground for complaint. This is where false conclusions have been drawn from Paul. The whole passage makes clear that God has not done what he might have done. He has not made some for honor and some for destruction. What he has done is to consign all men to disobedience in order that he may have mercy on all (11:32). How can this be so? Again we ask: what is the meaning of Israel’s rejection of the Messiah? Paul’s answer is an astonishing one, but it fits exactly what I call the logic of election. God, says Paul, has hardened the heart of Israel so that the gospel which they reject will–so to say–bounce off to the Gentiles. This is exactly what has happening in city after city where Paul was turned out of the synagogues and went to the Gentiles. So the apostasy of Israel has brought salvation to the Gentiles. Does this mean that Israel is lost? No! Impossible! God can never cast off his chosen people. As proof of this he has kept a remnant (as so often in the past) as pledge that Israel is not rejected. The small company of believing Jews is the pledge that Israel is not cast off. And how is it all to end? The answer is that this hardening of the heart of Israel is until the full number of Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved (11:25). In the end, therefore, it is through the Gentiles that Israel will be saved. So the logic of election is complete. I said earlier that in the biblical view there could be no salvation straight from above through the skylight, but only as we open the door to the neighbor whom God has appointed to be the bearer of salvation. It might have seemed that this was not quite true, since Israel, in the person of Abraham, received the message direct and not through any human messenger. Yes indeed, but we learn that it is not enough to be descendant of Abraham. They have no privileged status. In the end the chosen people, the elect, will have to receive salvation through the nonelect–the Gentiles. The logic of election is complete. Not just at the beginning but all the way until the end, salvation involves us with the neighbor whom God chooses to be the bearer of salvation, and there is no salvation otherwise.
Newbigin then exposes and corrects “false ideas which have gathered around the doctrine of election and which have made it unacceptable to many Christians as well as others” (p 84). These include:
- “The idea that election is election to privileged status before God. This false belief is something against which the prophets of Israel had constantly to contend” (p 84);
- “Where those who are chosen and called do what is commanded, they have a claim on God that others do not” (p 85), rather:
God does not choose to save some and to destroy others. (He has consigned all to disobedience in order that he may have mercy on all). His grace is free and sovereign, and there is no place for an exclusive claim on his grace, a claim by which others are excluded. (p 85-86)
- And (pages 86-87):
[T]here is a way in which the doctrine of election has been distorted by separating it from the doctrine of Christ. We surely go far astray if we begin from a doctrine of divine decrees based on an abstract concept of divine omnipotence (a concept which all too obviously falls into Feuerbach’s description of theism as the projection of our own human ego onto the heavens). We have to take as our starting point, and as the controlling reality for all our thinking on this as on every theological topic, what God has actually done in Jesus Christ. It is in Jesus Christ that, as Paul says, we are elect from the foundation of the world. Jesus is not a latecomer into the world. He is the one in whom and through whom and for whom we and all things exist. And the things that happened when he took our human nature and came among us as a man make clear what the meaning of God’s election is. It is, as Paul says in the passage we have been looking at, that God has consigned all to disobediance that he may have mercy on all. The cross of Jesus is the place where all human beings without exception are exposed as enemies of God, and the place where all human beings without exception are accepted as beloved of God, objects of his forgiving grace. No one is excluded from the scope of that prayer: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is for all. […] To be chosen, to be elect, therefore does not mean that the elect are the saved and the rest are the lost. To be elect in Christ Jesus, and there is no other election, means to be incorporated into his mission to the world, to be the bearer of God’s saving purpose for the whole world, to be the sign and the agent and the firstfruit of his blessed kingdom which is for all. It means, therefore, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, to take our share in his suffering, to bear the scars of the passion. It means, as Paul says elsewhere, to bear in the body the dying of Jesus so that the life of the risen Jesus may be manifest and made available for others. It means that this particular body of people who bear the name of Jesus through history, this strange and often absurd company of people so feeble, so foolish, so often fatally compromised with the world, this body with all its contingency and particularity, is the body which has the responsibility of bearing the secret of God’s reign through world history. The logic of election is all of one piece with the logic of the gospel. God’s purpose of salvation is not that we should be taken out of history and related to him in some way which bypasses the specificities and particularities of history. His purpose is that in and through history there should be brought into being that which is symbolized in the vision with which the Bible ends–the Holy City into which all the glory of the nations will finally be gathered. But–and of course this is the crux of the matter–that consummation can only lie on the other side of death and resurrection. It is the calling of the Church to bear through history to its end the secret of the lordship of the crucified.
Free ebook: A Missional View of Election
I first came across Lesslie Newbigin on election in JR Woodward’s free ebook A Missional View of Election: How a Robust View of Election Leads to a Holistic Gospel and Meaningful Missional Engagement, where Lesslie Newbigin’s missional view of election is contrasted with the 5-point Calvinist view as represented by Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology.