Down the centuries, various attempts have been made to avoid viewing divine election as God’s unconditional selection of individuals for eternal life.
In their concern to avoid pagan ideas of fatalism, many early church Fathers taught a synergistic view, in which the human will co-operates with the divine will in achieving salvation. Origen (d. 254) wrote:
‘Foreknowledge precedes foreordination.… God observed beforehand the sequence of future events, and noticed the inclination of some men towards piety which followed on this inclination; and he foreknew them, knowing the present and foreknowing the future.… If anyone in reply asks whether it is possible for the events which God foreknew not to happen, we shall answer, Yes, and there is no necessity determining this happening or not happening.’
Chrysostom (d. 407) placed a similar stress on human initiative:
‘The Lord has made our nature free to choose. Nor does he impose necessity on us, but furnishes suitable remedies and allows everything to hinge on the sick man’s own judgment…In order that not everything may depend on divine help, we must at the same time bring something ourselves.’
In the 4th century, French Semi-Pelagians such as John Cassian, Vincent of Lérins, Hilary of Arles, and Faustus of Riez similarly taught that the human will makes the first move towards God, who then meets the individual will salvific grace. They objected the unconditional election would contradict human freedom and responsibility and render preaching and pastoral care futile. God’s election applies to those whom he foresees will exercise faith. Semi-Pelagianism was rejected by the Synod of Orange in 529.
Traditional Roman Catholic teaching is that individuals co-operate with God for the achievement of salvation. Predestination is based on God’s prevision of a person’s faith and good works. Salvation may be forfeited if a believer dies in sin. The Augustinian doctrine of predestination is inconsistent with divine love and human responsibility.
Arminians believe that unconditional election would be incompatible with human freedom. God wants all to be saved (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9). All are invited to believe the Gospel; therefore, all must have the ability to respond. Salvation is synergistic: the divine will and the human will co-operate to make it effective. Grace is resistible.
Arminius (d. 1609) argued would that it would be unfair if God were to condemn people who had no opportunity to alter their divinely-decreed situation. According to Arminius,
- God unconditionally appointed Jesus Christ to be the Saviour of humankind;
- He unconditionally decreed that those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved;
- He provides ‘prevenient grace’ to all people, so that, notwithstanding their sin, they are capable of exercising saving faith;
- He decrees that those whom he foresees will believe will receive his salvation.
The Remonstrants (1610) set out the ‘five points’ of Arminianism. These were rejected by the Synod of Dort (1618-19).
John Wesley (d. 1791) opposed Reformed views on predestination, insisting that Christ died for all and that his grace is available to all. Election was unconditional with respect to individuals to service, and of nations to privileges. It was conditional with respect to the salvation of persons.
In the thinking of Charles Finney (d. 1875), election is grounded in God’s foreknowledge of personal salvibility. In other words, he elects to salvation those in whom he sees the ability to repent and exercise faith.
There is a recent line of thought which emphasis corporate election. According to this view, God wills all people to be saved, and Christ died for all people. Divine election is God’s determination to appoint the believing community to salvation. God’s election of Israel is paradigmatic in this regard. Referring to Rom 8:28-30, Alan Richardson writes: ‘Paul, of course, does not think of the Church as made up of a collection of individuals, but as a body: it is the body which is foreknown, foreordained, called, justified and is to be glorified.’ Moreover, election (for Richardson) is not primarily to salvation, but to service.
Roger Forster and Paul Marston also espouse a doctrine of corporate election:
‘The prime point is that the election of the church is a corporate rather than an individual thing. It is not that individuals are in the church because they are elect, it is rather that they are elect because they are in the church, which is the body of the elect One.… A Christian is not chosen to become part of Christ’s body, but in becoming part of that body [by free will, exercising faith] he partakes of Christ’s election.’
Election does not pertain to individual salvation, but rather to eternal destiny: ‘It is not that we are predestined to be Christians, it is rather that as Christians we receive a glorious destiny.’
For William Klein (The New Chosen People) there is a threefold election: (a) of a body of believers (Israel and the church); (b) of individuals for particular tasks (prophets, priests, kings, apostles); and (c) of Jesus himself, for his salvific work. Klein suggests that the plural language (e.g. Rom 8:29–30; Eph 1:4–5; 2 Thess 2:13) more appropriately is corporate rather than individual. So too is the language of ‘flock’, ‘house’ and ‘people’. Klein argues that ‘foreknowledge’ in the NT is not a synonym for election to salvation. God predetermines the benefits that those who have faith will receive, not the faith itself. ‘Paul’s concern in predestination is not how people become Christians nor who become Christians, but to describe what God has foreordained on behalf of those are (or will be) Christians.’
Based on Demarest, The Cross and Salvation, pp99-107.