Book Write-Up: The Chosen People, by A. Chadwick Thornhill

A. Chadwick Thornhill.  The Chosen People: Election, Paul and Second Temple Judaism.  Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.  See here to purchase the book.

In the New Testament, there is talk about election and God choosing people before the foundation of the world.  Romans 9 and Ephesians 1:4 come to mind.  For many Calvinists, these passages teach that God, before creating the world, predestined the specific individuals who would be saved and damned.  A. Chadwick Thornhill, a scholar and professor of apologetics and biblical studies at Liberty University, disagrees with such interpretations.

For Thornhill, in order to understand what Paul means by election, one should know how Second Temple Judaism conceptualized it.  Thornhill investigates pseudepigraphical literature, deuterocanonical literature, and the Dead Sea Scrolls to shed light on that subject.  What he finds is that, in much of the Second Temple Jewish literature that he surveys and explores, God elected Israel, but the true Israelites are those who are faithful and obedient to God; Israelites could disqualify themselves from their elect-status by not adhering to the stipulations of the covenant.

This differs from Calvinist views of election in at least two ways.  First, in the Second Temple Jewish literature that Thornhill surveys, God elected a group, Israel, rather than specific individuals unto salvation.   (Thornhill acknowledges, however, that Second Temple literature may refer to an individual as elect to highlight his righteousness; Thornhill also states that Second Temple Judaism often conceived of election in terms of the mission of Israel or a person within Israel, not necessarily in terms of salvation in an afterlife.)  Similarly, according to Thornhill, Paul in Ephesians 1:4 is saying that God chose the church before the foundation of the world.  For Thornhill, Paul’s point there is not that God chose before the foundation of the world the specific individuals who would be saved, but rather that God was choosing the church, and those who chose to become part of the church would be saved.  Second, much of the Second Temple Jewish literature that Thornhill surveys acknowledges free will: an Israelite can remain a part of God’s elect people Israel by obeying God, and can disqualify oneself from the elect through disobedience.  That differs from certain Calvinist views: that being part of the elect is God’s choice and not the choice of the individual; that a person is unable to come to God solely through free-will because he or she has a sinful nature; and that a person God elects will always be elect and cannot fall away from election.

Thornhill looks at Pauline passages that pertain to election (and he believes that the deutero-Pauline letters in the New Testament are actually Pauline), and his conclusion is that many Calvinists are misinterpreting those passages.  Romans 9 says that God will have mercy on whom God will have mercy, presents God as choosing Jacob rather than Esau before they did anything good or bad, and refers to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart.  Understandably, many Calvinists maintain that Romans 9 supports their position: that God by grace chose some individuals to be saved before they were even born, while rejecting others, and that God hardened some people for God’s purposes and glory, without any injustice on God’s part.

Thornhill, however, interprets Romans 9 differently.  For Thornhill, Romans 9 is about Jews and Gentiles within God’s people, the church.  According to Thornhill, Paul held that belief in Christ was what made a person (Jew or Gentile) a part of God’s people, in contrast to Jews who believed that the criterion was Jewish adherence to the Mosaic law, and who placed Gentiles outside of the covenant.  That meant that, for Paul, non-believing Jews were (at least temporarily) not a part of God’s people, whereas believing Gentiles were.  For Thornhill, Paul in Romans 9 is attempting to justify this controversial position.  Paul in Romans 9 says that physical descent from Israel does not make one a part of Israel, which overlaps with what much of Second Temple Judaism affirmed.  (Second Temple Judaism would say that physical descent by itself did not make an Israelite a part of Israel, for the Israelite had to fulfill the covenantal requirements.)  Paul’s point is that the non-believing Jews are not entitled to be called Israelites, whereas Gentiles, who do fulfill God’s requirements, can be part of God’s people.  Thornhill interprets the parts in Romans 9 about God having mercy on whom God will have mercy, and God being able to do what God wants as a potter with the clay, as a justification of God’s decision to have mercy on the Gentiles and to include them in God’s people.  Regarding the theme of hardening in Romans 9, Thornhill interprets that in light of Second Temple Jewish literature, some of which presents God’s hardening of a person’s heart as God’s response to a person’s defiant sinfulness.  For Thornhill, Paul’s view in Romans 9-11 is not that God decided to harden most Jews against believing in Jesus, as if God caused their unbelief; rather, the hardening was a response to their unbelief in Jesus, and the hardening could be reversed once they decided to believe.

There are many assets to this book.  First of all, from a scholarly perspective, Thornhill’s project is understandable, logical, and even necessary.  If one is to understand Paul’s view of election, should one not investigate how Second Temple Judaism conceptualized it?  Second Temple Judaism formed part of (or at least influenced) Paul’s historical context, after all.  Plus, Paul himself refers to the election of Israel in Romans 11:28, which may indicate that the election of Israel plays some role in Paul’s understanding of election, making Second Temple Judaism’s view on the election of Israel relevant to Paul’s view.  Second, Thornhill tries to interpret Romans 9 in light of his conclusions about Second Temple Judaism, and that may benefit those who are interested in a fresh look at Romans 9, or who at least want to explore other views than what Calvinists have offered.  Thornhill raises interesting considerations: I think of his point that Romans 9:21-23 does not necessarily mean that God made people to receive his wrath and precluded them from ever receiving God’s mercy, for Paul says in Ephesians 2:3-4 that God had mercy on people who were, by nature, children of wrath.  Third, while many Calvinists focus on how Romans 9 may relate to individual election unto salvation, Thornhill does well to concentrate on the actual subject of Romans 9-11: Jews and Gentiles in the people of God.  Fourth, I found Thornhill’s summary of Paul’s Gospel interesting, albeit not particularly comforting.  Thornhill states on page 215 that “God pronounces right-standing, grounded in the faithfulness of Jesus (see Rom 3), over those in Christ who keep the law by the empowerment of the Spirit.”  On the one hand, that sounds somewhat like salvation by works, and it may not comfort those who look at their lives and feel that they fall short of God’s standards.  On the other hand, Paul in Romans 8:1 affirms that there is no condemnation for those who walk in the Spirit and not after the flesh, so Thornhill is not getting his view of Paul’s soteriology from nowhere.

I have some critiques of the book.  First of all, I did not find Thornhill’s interpretation of Romans 9 to be ultimately convincing.  Paul in Romans 9 does seem to suggest that God unilaterally hardens some people, for Paul addresses the question of how, assuming this is the case, God could find fault with anyone, for who could resist God’s will.  That question would only make sense if Paul were saying that God unilaterally hardens people: Paul realizes that what he is saying sounds unfair, as Calvinism looks unfair to a lot of people.  I do not conclude from this that God chooses people to be damned and hardens them so that they cannot believe and thus get a one-way ticket to hell, however, for I place Romans 9 in the context of Romans 9-11: God is hardening many Jewish people temporarily, but the hardening will go away once the fullness of Gentiles has entered God’s people; then, all Israel will be saved.

Second, Thornhill’s evaluation of Second Temple Judaism struck me as one-sided.  Thornhill seems to portray Second Temple Judaism as embracing libertarian free-will, but there are elements of Second Temple Judaism that believe that God needs to transform a person’s heart for the person to yield to God.  Thornhill is aware of scholarship about this, for he refers to it (i.e., Preston Sprinkle’s Paul and Judaism Revisited: A Study of Divine and Human Agency in Salvation; Jason Maston’s Divine and Human Agency in Second Temple Judaism and Paul), but he does not really wrestle with it.  The reason this is significant is that it could mean that Paul believing that God enabled some people to believe (as Calvinists say) would not historically be an implausible position for him to take, against the backdrop of Second Temple Judaism.  This is not to suggest that belief in divine grace or transformation of the heart is only consistent with Calvinism; Kyle Wells, after all, says that, for Philo of Alexandria (first century C.E.), God’s transformation of the heart occurs in response to a person desiring such transformation and turning to God, so Philo believed in free will and God transforming the heart.  I am suggesting, however, that Thornhill should have wrestled more with divine grace and transformation of the heart, since they are concepts in Second Temple Judaism that are relevant to Calvinist interpretations of Paul.

Thornhill does wrestle with passages from the Dead Sea Scrolls that some scholars interpret as deterministic, and readers can form their own judgments about whether they find Thornhill’s arguments convincing.  Thornhill concludes that they are not deterministic, that they do not relate to God deciding beforehand who would be righteous and who would be wicked.  Thornhill should have interacted in more detail, however, with Josephus’ statements about the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes on the issue of determinism (Jewish Wars 2:162-164; Antiquities 13:171-173).  Whether Josephus is correct in his characterization of the groups’ beliefs, he does show that determinism was on the radar of a first-century Jew, namely, himself.  That being the case, would Paul embracing determinism be so unusual, against the backdrop of Second Temple Judaism?  (By the way, Philo and Josephus rarely appear in this book, and they should be considered more, since they were first century C.E. Jewish thinkers.)

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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