The 3rd Rail: Exegetical Problems with Corporate Election

KH LogoBy Ken Hamrick

See all the posts in the series, ‘The 3rd Rail’

Dr. Eric Hankins, the leader of the Southern Baptist Traditionalist movement, sees election as strictly corporate:

The idea that God, in eternity past, elected certain individuals to salvation is a fundamental tenet of Calvinism and Arminianism. The interpretation of this biblical concept needs to be revised. Quite simply, when the Bible speaks of election in the context of God’s saving action, it is always referring to corporate election, God’s decision to have a people for Himself. When the election of individuals is raised in Scripture, it is always election to a purpose or calling within God’s plans for His people as a whole. In the OT, the writers understood election to be God’s choice of Israel, yet they also clearly taught that the benefits of corporate election could only be experienced by the individual Israelite (or the particular generation of Israelites) who responded faithfully to the covenant that had been offered to the whole nation. This trajectory within the OT is unassailable. It is reinforced in the intertestamental literature and is the basis for the way election is treated in the NT. The Bible, therefore, does not speak of God’s choice of certain individuals and not others for salvation. When the Bible does speak of the salvation of individuals, its central concept is “faith,” never “election.”[1]

He offers further, in a footnote, the following:

Critics of the corporate view of election will quickly raise Rom. 8:29-30 and 9-11 (among others) in defense of their position, but the pre-temporal election of individuals is not Paul’s purpose there. Rom. 8:29-30 is setting up Paul’s point in chapters 9-11 about two groups: Jews and Gentiles. The end of Romans 8 crescendos with the greatness of salvation in Christ. Verses 29-30 articulate God’s actions toward His people from beginning to end in order to bring about His ultimate “purpose” (28): God knew He was going to have a people; He determined to bring them into existence in Christ; He actualized that people in history through His call; He justified them by faith; He has determined to bring them into resurrection glory. In light of this incredible plan to have this kind of people for Himself, Paul is heartbroken at the beginning of Romans 9 that his Jewish brothers have responded to the gospel with unbelief. The Jews appear to be “out,” and the Gentiles appear to be “in.” But God works in unexpected ways. Jews are “out” now so that the Gentiles can come “in.” But the Gentiles coming “in” will ultimately cause the Jews to come “in” at the proper time. That is why Paul will continue to preach the gospel to Jews as a part of his mission to the whole world, looking forward to the response of a remnant by faith. One thing is certain: Romans 9-11 is not teaching the election of some individuals and the reprobation of others without respect to their genuine response of faith. Ephesians 1:4, 5, and 11 function in Ephesians 2 the same way that Rom. 8:29-30 functions in Romans 9-11.[2]

This explanation fails to follow the line of Paul’s argument. John Piper provides a detailed, exegetical treatise in his book, The Justification of God, which thoroughly vitiates the claim of corporate election in lieu of individual election. He writes:

It is a remarkable and telling phenomenon that those who find no individual predestination to eternal life in Rom 9:6-13 cannot successfully explain the thread of Paul’s argument as it begins in Rom 9:1-5 and continues through the chapter. One looks in vain, for example, among these commentators for a cogent statement of how the corporate election of two peoples (Isreal and Edom) in Rom 9:12,13 fits together in Paul’s argument with the statement, “Not all those from Israel are Israel” (9:6b). One also looks in vain for an explanation of how the pressing problem of eternally condemned Israelites in Rom 9:3 is ameliorated by Rom 9:6-13 if these verses refer “not to salvation but to position and historical task.” I have found the impression unavoidable that doctrinal inclinations have severely limited exegetical effort and insight—not so much because the answers of these exegetes are not my own, but because of the crucial exegetical questions that simply are not posed by them…[3]

Not only are these “crucial exegetical questions” overlooked, but the proponents of corporate election fail to recognize the overlapping Biblical relationship, especially in the Old Testament, between individual identity of a progenitor and corporate identity of the progeny. At a profound level, the Bible portrays the individual as the nation of his progeny, and the nation as the progenitor—hence, the naming of the nation after the progenitor. Even mankind is named after our progenitor, adam. Biblically, there is a strong sense that what the progenitor does, especially toward God, the not-yet-existent descendants do while still in his loins. This comes out in important ways, such as in Rom. 5:12. And when God blessed Abraham, he did so by promising blessings to his descendants. Abraham understood this as a blessing to him as much as to them, even though he would not live to see it. The very fact that he was promised so many descendants was a blessing to him, although—again—he as an individual would not live to see it.

Just as Abraham’s favor with God brought God’s favor with His descendants, there is no way to completely separate the corporate from the individual in the case of Rom. 9 with Esau and Jacob. If God chose to love Jacob’s descendants, it was because God chose to love Jacob. If God chose to not give His corporate favor to Esau’s descendants, then it was because God did not give His personal favor to Esau.

However, Dr. Piper sees a different angle as “the decisive flaw” in the corporate election view:

…Its decisive flaw is its failure to ask how the flow of Paul’s argument from 9:1-5 on through the chapter affects the application of the principle Paul has established in Rom 9:6b-13. The principle established is that God’s promised blessings are never enjoyed on the basis of what a person is by birth or by works, but only on the basis of God’s sovereign, free predestination (Rom 9:11,12). The ultimate decision of who will experience God’s grace or mercy is never based on a person’s “willing or running” (Rom 9:16). We may grant for the sake of argument, that in the demonstration of this principle of God’s freedom in election Paul uses Old Testament texts that do not relate explicitly to eternal salvation. What cannot be granted without further argumentation is that Paul intends for this principle of God’s predestining freedom to be limited to God’s choice of persons or nations for historical roles. Paul establishes from Old Testament texts that God chooses the beneficiaries of his promised blessing apart from all human distinctives. But it is an unwarranted leap to infer against the context of Rom 9 that this principle applies when the promised blessing at stake is “theocratic blessing” or a “historical role” but does not apply when the promised blessing is personal, eternal salvation (as Paul views it in Rom 4:13; Gal 3:14,16)…[4]

This is a solid critique. Since Paul established that “God’s promised blessings are never enjoyed on the basis of what a person is by birth or by works, but only on the basis of God’s sovereign, free predestination,” then it is left to the proponents of “corporate election” to justify that this principle is suspended in the case of personal salvation.

Robert Culver points out another severe problem:

…Some Arminians and Wesleyans say divine election relates not to individuals but to national preference, to Israel per se as represented by ‘Jacob I loved’, etc., in Romans 9:6-13. This was developed at length by Wesley’s great orthodox systematizer, Richard Watson. I judge their lengthy arguments all crash on Paul’s plain statements in Romans 9 that 1) the election stands not of works but of God who calls (v. 11) — not applicable to a nation per se and 2) that (v. 16 KJV, cf. ESV margin) election ‘is not of him [a person, emphasis added] that willeth, nor of him [a person] that runneth’. The people of a nation usually have not one will (or opinion) but many; nor do they expend effort in ‘running’. National will is never one but of several opinions or wills nor the effort of ‘running’ (Gr. trecho. fig. ‘exert oneself to the limits of one’s powers in an attempt to go forward, to strive to advance’ Romans 1:16). The emphasis is entirely upon the effort that a person makes.[5]

While it is plausible that the persons of Jacob and Esau could be used to refer to the nations that descended from them, it is not plausible that Paul establishes this principle in terms that are exclusively individual and not corporate. Rom. 9:13-16 ESV:

As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.

Immediately following the related fact that God said, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated,” Paul anticipates the objection to that election, “Is there injustice on God’s part?” While it could conceivably be an objection to the corporate choice of Israel over Edom, Paul’s rebuttal of that objection can apply only to individuals: “By no means! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion’… So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.” The only recourse available to the proponents of the “corporate” view would be to acknowledge that such corporate election in this case resulted in God having mercy on all of Israel (and saving them) and hardening all of Edom (and damning them).

Considering how problematic it is to maintain that “when the Bible speaks of election in the context of God’s saving action, it is always referring to corporate election,” Dr. Hankins should reconsider his view. Not only has Dr. Hankins failed to show that his alternative theory of “corporate election” is even valid, much less superior, he has failed to establish that unconditional election has not been the traditional view of the majority of Southern Baptists (held by both Calvinists and centrists). Dr. Culver adds a “postscript:”

Somehow the false impression is abroad that election is a denominational speciality peculiar to Presbyterians and Reformed theologians. Historically, the most numerous defenders of the doctrine in America have been Baptists, now in a state of recovery! The latter are only very recently reawakening to this their heritage. Besides A. H. Strong, whom I have cited frequently on this and related subjects, James Petigru Boyce of Southern Baptist Seminary (Louisville, KY) brilliantly expounded the doctrine to several generations of pastors trained there…[6]

This was written by Dr. Culver in 2005. “The most numerous defenders of the doctrine [of unconditional election] in America have been Baptists.” Let’s hope for a further reawakening to our real heritage.

[Adapted from “Beyond Traditionalism: Reclaiming Southern Baptist Soteriology“]


[1] Eric Hankins, “Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: Toward a Baptist Soteriology”, Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry, (Spring 2011, Vol. 8, No. 1), pp. 87-88,(http://baptistcenter.net/journals/JBTM_8-1_Spring_2011.pdf#page=90)
[2] Ibid.
[3] John Piper, The Justification of God: An Exegetical & Theological Study of Romans 9:1-23 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), p. 58.
[4] Ibid., p. 64.
[5] Robert Duncan Culver, Systematic Theology (Great Britain: Christian Focus, 2005), pp, 680-681.
[6] Ibid., p. 681.

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