If you have read this blog for more than a couple of months, you know I’m a big fan of Lesslie Newbigin. My favorite works of his include Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, A Walk through the Bible, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Now just because I like him, doesn’t mean I agree with everything he says. For example, he is not very strong on inerrancy- in fact he rejects it. Moreover, he is more open to the idea of ‘anonymous Christians’ and to people coming to a saving knowledge of God through other religions than I am comfortable with. Another area I have disagreement with Newbigin is on the doctrine of election (and I’ve been asked to comment on it). Honestly, I was a bit surprised by his understanding as I know him to be a Scottish Presbyterian minister and missionary. Let me outline his understanding and offer a response at the end.
Basically, Newbigin sees election as inclusion in God’s mission of bringing salvation to others. He equates “God’s electing grace” with “his choosing of some to be the bearers of salvation for all.” His theology of election seems to have little to do, if anything, with salvation, except that the elect are chosen to carry the message of salvation to others. He writes, “They are chosen not for themselves, not to be the exclusive beneficiaries of God’s saving work, but to be the bearers of the secret of his saving work for the sake of all. They are chose to go and bear fruit. To be chosen, to be elect, therefore does not mean that the elect are the saved and the rest are the lost.” Newbigin goes right to the brink of universalism in this chapter before stepping back from that precipice. He asks, “Does the argument so far point to a universalism, that is to say, to the doctrine that as God wills all to be saved, all will in the end infallibly be saved?” He argues some passages, including Romans 9-11 and Romans 5:18 point that way, while at the same time admitting 1 Corinthians 9:27 points towards the possibility of even the apostle Paul being disqualified in the end. He suggests we hold these two poles in tension.
Honestly, I like a lot of what he says in the chapter. For example, he reminds us that “God retains his freedom. Election does not give us claim against God.” Yes. Absolutely. That seems to have been a huge misunderstanding for God’s people through all time. Also, he rejects the idea which has plagued the church (and Israel) that election is election to a privileged status, emphasizing that election means inclusion in God’s purposes to spread the news of salvation to the nations. This can hardly be doubted as it’s the pattern is seen repeatedly throughout the Bible starting with Abraham who was blessed to be a blessing (for an incredible, but huge, account of this see Christopher Wright’s The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative).
Despite the many points of agreement, I do not buy into, fully, Newbigin’s ‘logic of election’. Here are some of the points that stick out as erroneous. First, Newbigin asks, “Without question the point of view of the Bible is that God chose Abel and not Cain, Isaac and not Ishmael, Jacob and not Esau, David and not his elder brothers…But can we believe that almighty God, creator of heaven and earth, does act in this seemingly arbitrary way?” This doesn’t seem like a fair way to pose the question. Apparently Newbigin believes Calvinists are open to this charge, thereby making God seem capricious and/or irrational. This line of reasoning fails on a couple of points. First, no good Calvinist would say God chooses in an arbitrary way. From our perspective it may seem arbitrary (maybe Newbigin included the word ‘seemingly’ very thoughtfully). God has his reasons for electing some and not others, but he does not fully disclose these reasons. If I ask a room of kids a question and all of them raise their hands to offer an answer, I will chose one. I may not explain my choice, but rarely, even for me, would it be random or arbitrary. What God does disclose is that there is no reason in us that makes us worthy of his election, but it doesn’t follow that there is no reason period. Secondly, I think his reasoning fails because his own explanation of the ‘logic of election’ breaks down at the same point. At no point does he explain how or why God chose Jacob not Esau. He offers the purpose for the choosing – to take salvation to others, but not the reason – why Jacob and not Esau.
Second, I don’t think Newbigin’s exegesis of Romans 9-11 is correct (great theologian of missions and religion, poor exegete). In fact, I would argue it’s a case of eisegesis – reading into the text what you want. He writes, “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 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 consign all men to disobedience in order that he may have mercy on all (11:32).” I think Newbigin missed the flow of the argument in Romans 9. Paul begins asserting his sorrow that the vast majority of God’s chosen nation have not accepted Christ. This prompts the question, have God’s promises failed? Of course not. Paul asserts that not all of the chosen people are in fact elect children of Abraham. Again, Paul anticipating his readers objections asks, ‘is God injustice in choosing Jacob and not Esau?” Paul’s answer is a resounding ‘No!’ God isn’t unjust – he has mercy on whom he wants (though mercy is by definition undeserved) and hardens whom he wants. He creates some, like Pharaoh, but be objects of destruction through whom his power and wrath will be displayed. Again, Paul anticipates the objection – how can poor old Pharaoh be blamed if it was God’s will to harden him. What can someone do to resist God’s will. The example of Pharaoh serves as an example of God’s sovereign hardening – a hardening that Paul argues can also be seen in his kinsman. True, the hardening serves a purpose – it is so that the Gentiles might be grafted in. Yet it is not a purely hypothetical situation as Newbigin implies, but a reality of which Pharaoh serves as a prime example (see also Judas, Acts 1:16).
Third, I think Newbigin needs to nuance his use of ‘elect’ in important ways. For example, he writes, “In the end the chosen people, the elect, will have to receive salvation through the nonelect – the Gentiles.” It is true that Israel is elect. Yet, not all in Israel are elect (Romans 11:7) – not all are true children of Abraham and heirs to the promise. It’s also true that the Gentiles are non-elect. Yet it is also true that some Gentiles are elect (see for example, 1 Peter1:1, Romans 8:33) and thus incorporated with the the elect of Israel to constitute the people of God.
Go back to a part of the Newbigin’s quote above: “To be chosen, to be elect, therefore does not mean that the elect are the saved and the rest are the lost.” This seems to me a very unlikely understanding of election (I think you can reasonably debate the basis for election – i.e. middle knowledge, etc – but I don’t know any of theologians who follow Newbigin in this. I’m open to correction on this). Look at Romans 8:31-34, “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” It seems in this section that the ‘us’ whom God is for, the ‘us all’ for whom God gave up his Son, God’s elect, and the ‘us’ whom Jesus is interceding for all refer to the same group. The elect are those who have been justified by God.
There are other issues in this chapter, but I think I’ve hit on the biggest ones. Still, I’m a huge fan of Newbigin.