Is the doctrine of election an invention of Paul?

One of the things I love about my job is that I get to talk theology with people. Theology, while something that is intellectually satisfying, is more than that. Doctrine–in its best and only authentic form–is a pathway to union with God. We believe because worship and we worship because we believe.

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I received this question yesterday. It’s a great question and its worth answering albeit in fewer words than do the subject justice:

The notion of election seems to me to be solely Paul’s idea. Jesus doesn’t mention anything about it but is quite the opposite, including everyone to the exclusion of no one except those whom deny him.  So why did the Presbyterian Church adopt this notion?

Implicit in your question are at least two presuppositions: (1) that the parts of the Bible containing the words of Jesus are somehow more authoritative than the parts of the Bible that contain the words of Paul, and (2) that the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Paul are somehow in conflict.

I disagree with both of these presuppositions.

By the third century CE the Christian Church acting through its bishops had decided and largely agreed to the Canon of the New Testament (i.e., which gospels and letters written in the ancient church were considered inspired and authoritative for the church).

The ancient church’s belief—as is ours today—is that all scripture is inspired and authoritative and that there is not one subset that is more inspired or more useful than the rest. We don’t set one scripture against another, but seek to read them together in a way that does justice to both and to the entire canon. Of course, for many of us the words of our Lord produce special affection since he–and not the Scriptures–are the object of our worship. Yet, the church believes that the teaching of the apostles stand in continuity with the teaching of our Lord rather than somehow being discordant.

The differences between the teachings of Jesus and those of Paul found in our Scriptures are fewer than at first might appear. Some of the differences are simply in terms of word choice. Jesus talks a lot about “the kingdom of heaven” and Paul talks a lot about “righteousness.” In reality the difference between the two is more one of language than of concept.

Differences should also be considered in terms of the genre and purpose of the parts of the Scripture. The gospels capture Jesus rabbinic teaching while developing his disciples in preparation for the inauguration of the church after his ascension. Paul writes as a church leader—an overseer—in order to correct errors and to encourage right belief and practice in early Christian congregations. It is reasonable, therefore, that Paul’s compositions should appear heavier or harsher since in virtually every epistle he is correcting an error of belief or practice.

Additional resources:
Bruce M. Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament. (Oxford UP, 1987): p.75ff.
David Wenham, Paul: Follower of Christ or Founder of Christianity? (Eerdmans, 1995): p.377ff.

2 Replies to “Is the doctrine of election an invention of Paul?”

  1. I appreciate the post Jeff.

    I like how Christopher Wright (Mission of God’s People) frames election – ‘election for mission.’ Wright says “the first time we really see God choosing and calling someone – ie., putting election into action – it is precisely not so that Abraham and his family alone get saved, but rather that by being blessed he should become the agent of blessing to others” (72). Election is an extension of the desire of God – not an individualistic soteriological maxim but rather an ‘othering’ in the very heart of God (72). So election isn’t Paul’s teaching, it goes way back as a structural reality of Hebrew narrative.

    Thanks!

    Like

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