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Chosen by Grace

July 15, 2013
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Romans 11:5 reads, ‘So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace,” in the ESV. The NIV reads similarly, and the KJV (which has influenced a whole branch of translation) reads, “Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace.”

These two options are actually quite similar – “chosen” and “elected” are sometimes used differently in English translation but that is unfortunate theologizing in the translation as there is only one word in Greek for both English options. “By” and “of” grace both express a rather vague relationship between chosen/elected and grace where “grace” is used adverbially to modify “chosen”. However, a real pitfall begins to emerge here.

Imagine that I am selecting (choosing, even electing) pens. I can choose them by hand. I can choose them carefully. I can choose them by weight. I can choose them successfully. Each of those four sentences modifies my choosing in a different way. “By hand” indicates the agent of my choosing. I choose them personally. “Carefully” indicates something about my process without specifying an agent. “By weight” establishes the criteria by which I choose. “Successfully” indicates that whatever I did in choosing it worked. Obviously agent, process, criteria, and ends are very different ways to comment on the choosing. However, many people are so familiar with one reading of “chosen by grace” that they read “by grace” as describing the agent (grace does the choosing) and describe this as “plain reading”. Is it, though? Isn’t it actually a shaped reading where the debates over election have removed three options from our thinking?

Some of the possibilities on offer here may not work at all. Agency works – grace (God’s grace seen as an active force) could choose. Criteria works – the contrast is “chosen by works” and works seem to be a criterion of choosing. Process works – whatever the exact mechanics of the process God’s grace was active in shaping the results. Indeed, it is hard to distinguish process and agency in this case. Ends doesn’t work. The ends were grace? The closest one could get to this claim would be to invoke grace as a process-modifier.

The interesting thing here is that there are three choices which fall into two distinct categories (grace does the choosing or grace is the characteristic selected for) and yet most readers read straight through this semantic minefield of multiple meanings without a thought. How would one untangle this problem once one noticed it (or another like it, and there are many)? Context would be a good place to start.

The immediate context is that in the past God reserved some of Israel for Himself (those who had not “bowed the knee to Ba’al”) and God has again reserved a remnant chosen by grace. This leads immediately on to a contrast between grace and works – choosing by grace is not by works or grace would not be grace. The second half of this is the better support for grace as agency. If grace chose based on works then grace wouldn’t really be the agent that made the choices. Instead, everyone who passed a certain bar would automatically be selected. However, the first part of the context suggests that grace might be a criterion. Previously the criterion was whether or not a person had worshipped Ba’al, now it is grace.

Moreover, we could make either one of these work for the entire passage. If grace is an agent then we can simply assert that this is a break with prior practice or that it was grace that kept the people of Elijah’s generation from Ba’al-worship. If grace is a criterion then we can claim that the difference being drawn between grace and works is simply that if the choice is being made based on works then it is not being made based on grace. In this reading works would be completed successful actions while grace would be one’s desire or intent.

To actually resolve this issue one would need to read enough of Paul to be able to build a large idea of how Paul talks about grace. Oddly, most people assume a wide Pauline view and read it on to this passage. This emphasizes the circular nature of reading: you must read a small part of a text well so that you can assemble small parts of the text together into a large view of the text but you must also have a large view to bring meaning to many small parts.

I have no intention of attempting to resolve the problem that I have brought up here. Instead, I find it a useful cautionary tale about reading and a reaffirmation that “plain reading” is loaded with assumptions that are anything but default.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2013 12:41 am

    This is a great post that draws attention to an interesting case of ambiguity in the New Testament. I haven’t gone back to the text to re-read the relevant passages, and it’s been a while since I’ve dealt with these issues, but here are my two cents.

    I don’t read much Greek, but I take it that the Greek phrase(s) at issue syntactically function as adverbial modifiers, as you suggest. Given the syntactic category of the phrase (let’s focus on the Greek phrase rendered in English as ‘by grace’), it’s natural (if not inevitable) to take the phrase to modify its complement, which here is a Greek verb. That is, it seems natural (and perhaps somewhat obvious) to take the adverbial phrase to modify the nature of the choosing, so that the choosing is performed graciously, viz., it has the character of being gracious. But what does it mean to say that a choosing is performed graciously, or that it has the character of being gracious? After all, haven’t I simply restated your point that the Greek phrase functions in context as an adverbial modifier, and don’t we know (as indeed you illustrated clearly with your pen example) that an adverbial modifier can modify its complement in different ways? So then, what does it mean to say that the phrase modifies the nature of the choosing? Well, it seems to mean that the choosing was ultimately not made on the basis of perceived obligation (e.g., merit), debt (e.g., merit again), custom, etc. – in short, it wasn’t ultimately a response to an external expectation or compulsion, whether based on morals, law, custom, or whatever. (On what basis was it made? Love or nothing, I suppose. For what end was it made? So that God’s glory might be magnified and God’s people might dwell with Him in peace forever – or at least that’s part of it.)

    Isn’t that the same as the criterion reading? Not if one understands the criterion reading to require that God choose on the basis of previously dispensed grace (an understanding of the reading which seems to be implied by a few of your remarks). I have heard at least one New Testament scholar suggest such a reading, but that seems confused to me. Are we to suppose that God dispenses grace and then chooses or elects because He has already dispensed grace, so that the dispensation of grace is antecedent to the choosing? If so, on what basis was the previous dispensation of grace made? And how could that dispensation fail to be gracious? It seems it cannot so fail, but then the original dispensation or choice is gracious, which simply reintroduces the problem. (Note that the temporal adverbs here can be understood to imply logical priority and not temporal priority – another case of ambiguity!) Now, if one understands the criterion reading to mean nothing more than that God’s choosing is not made on the basis of perceived obligation, debt, custom, etc., but was a free gift, then that’s just the reading I advocate – call it the “manner” reading from now on, to distinguish it from the criterion reading as you seem to understand it.

    What about the agent reading? Can that work? I don’t think so. Basically, it seems to me both a category mistake and a syntactical error to say that grace chooses. First, the syntactical problem – how can a linguistic member of an adverbial phrase denote an agent? There are actually a few syntactical problems here, but I’ll mention just one. ‘Grace’ can certainly function as a noun, but when it occurs in an adverbial phrase such as ‘by grace,’ one can no more attribute agency to that occurrence of ‘grace’ than one can regard the occurrence of ‘nine’ in the noun ‘canine’ as a name of a number. In short, it doesn’t seem to me that we can take ‘grace’ as a meaningful, independent syntactic or semantic unit in the sentence – we have only the adverbial phrase rendered in English ‘by grace’, and not a normal occurrence. (And let’s remember Frege’s context principle – only in the context of a sentence or discourse does a word have any meaning.) This is just one syntactical issue, but there are others. At any rate, I think that the ontological (or semantico-ontological, if one wants to use high-falutin – though precise – terminology) problem is also relevant. In short, how can grace choose anything unless grace is capable of thought? Are we to say that God’s grace is itself an intelligent agent, capable of choosing or rejecting things? To my ear, ‘grace choose’ sounds like a category mistake on the order of ‘rectangles snore’. And I don’t know how to understand ‘active force’ here in a way that solves the problem. Sure, we can use ‘grace’ to speak of God insofar as He acts graciously or insofar as He is gracious, and Paul may well write that way on occasion. But that just reintroduces the problem, and in many cases syntax won’t allow the reading. (Consider, e.g., “God chose Israel by grace” – are we to specify its logical form as “God choose Israel by God acting insofar as He is gracious”?) Finally, consider the natural test case – namely, “works”. How could works choose anything?

    (Incidentally, in your pen example, all the sentences/readings imply what you call the ‘agent’ reading, for you take the agent reading to indicate that you are the agent, and that’s already built in with “I choose…” I would describe your agent reading as an ‘instrumental’ reading, as not all sentences/readings imply that you choose through the instrument of your hand, though again they do all imply that you are the agent who chooses, since ‘I’ – referring here to you – is the grammatical subject of every sentence in the pen example.)

    So, I don’t think that the agent reading works. And I don’t think that the criterion reading works either, except insofar as one collapses it into the reading that I call the “manner” reading (which is, I think, how the phrase “criterion reading” is naturally understood). Moreover, I don’t see any other plausible readings that we haven’t considered – I agree that the “ends” reading doesn’t work, and I don’t see how the process reading could be made to work unless it too collapsed into what I call the “manner” reading, which is not how I think you understand it. So, I think that the only viable candidate is the “manner” reading. But suppose I’m wrong, and that the agent, criterion, and manner readings are all live options. How would that be relevant to theology? Would any substantive question of Pauline soteriology turn on the correct resolution of the syntactical ambiguity? I don’t see how. For how could God’s grace choose (per impossible, I maintain) except in a gracious manner, and on the basis of a gracious criterion? Not all syntactic, semantic, or even pragmatic ambiguities have theological import, and I don’t see that the present case of ambiguity – which really doesn’t seem very difficult to resolve – has such import. Perhaps I’m wrong, but consider: whatever else the sentence “God chooses X by grace” might mean in a normal context, doesn’t it mean, at the very least, that X’s being chosen by God cannot be ultimately explained by anything that X has done, or by any intrinsic feature of X? And isn’t that the major theological question here, for better or worse?

    To repeat, it seems that the meaning of a (normal occurrence of a) sentence such as “God chose Israel by grace” is fairly clear – “God” denotes the agent, “Israel” denotes the object (patient), “chose” denotes the verb, and “by grace” denotes the manner of choosing. Put together, the sentence asserts that God’s past choice of Israel was ultimately a free gift, or a free choice, and in particular it was not a choice that was made in response to a perceived obligation, debt, custom, etc. To me the issue seems straightforward. Am I missing something?

    (One more point. Given how you seem to understand the process and criterion readings, I don’t think that you’ve isolated and identified the reading that I call the “manner” reading, and which seems to me the only natural candidate. Perhaps you understand the criterion reading in the same way that I understand the “manner” reading, though your writing seems to require the different reading that I mentioned above.)

    • Eric permalink
      July 16, 2013 10:36 am

      The shortest answer to your long reply is that criterion could be the grace shown by a human and not God choosing based on God’s grace. This would obviously have an impact on Pauline theology at large since one of the major arguments of the 1500s that still lives today is a question of the interplay of what we call works (anything we do, although Paul seems to often mean “anything one does specifically to fulfill Torah”) and what God does to us.

      The agent reading does not work within modern English but within the Bible God’s attributes are sometimes described as acting as independent agents. Sometimes this does nothing but stress the manner in which God acts but at other times (especially in the New Testament) it may serve to reference earlier passages that use such workding.

      • July 17, 2013 1:33 am

        Thanks for the response. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that I don’t follow your first paragraph. Do you mean to say that God might choose some of us based on grace that we have shown? I don’t understand. As regards your second paragraph, either (a) “by grace” is elliptical for God insofar as He acts graciously, in which case the original ambiguity is reinstated and no progress has been made, or (b) God’s grace conceived as a divine quality that is strictly speaking non-identical with the Godhead (n.b. this supposition is incompatible with the doctrine of divine simplicity and much negative theology as well) can function as an independent agent, which seems impossible. (Why impossible? Because option (b) would presumably require the independently acting divine attribute of grace to be a non-intelligent entity, and non-intelligent entities do not make real choices. Tables, for example, cannot choose. Why must it be non-intelligent? Well, suppose that the independently acting divine attribute of grace is intelligent. Then we have a divine mind that is distinct from the Godhead, which is tantamount to polytheism.) I already touched on these problems in my original comment. Perhaps I’m still missing something.

  2. FNR permalink
    July 16, 2013 3:03 pm

    Great stuff Eric.

  3. July 19, 2013 7:32 pm

    I generally understand grace as action, but also perhaps as God Himself. Just as He is love, it’s reasonable to believe that He’s also grace—although some might argue that because Scripture doesn’t say this word for word, it must not be true. (That’s like saying that, because Scripture doesn’t say that Jesus ever sneezed, he must never have sneezed. To me, this is a sad way of thinking.)

    I believe we’re chosen by grace because we’re chosen by God, which is tied to His will. And will is related to nature/character. And action is the by-product of nature/character. All this to say that grace is as multi-faceted as God. Even if it’s “acting on its own,” it wouldn’t be distinct from Him.

    • July 19, 2013 7:36 pm

      Let me add that I’m no theologian and certainly haven’t resolved what you’ve presented here, either!

  4. Eric permalink
    July 25, 2013 2:50 pm

    For clarity (long overdue – my internet connectivity has been limited) my first paragraph was meant to imply that one could assume that grace shown by humans was God’s selective criteria. Such a reading could be contradicted but only by a broader reading of Paul. My second paragraph was not meant to suggest that God actually has independent attributes that walk about making decisions but that the Old Testatment sometimes uses such figures of speech as so this is a distinct option as a literary technique. And, as a literary technique, it differs in that it would potentially reference Old Testament texts using that literary technique thereby adding material to the conversation.

    I am not actually particularly interested in the exact details of Romans 11:5 in terms of how this passage should be read outside of the larger arch of Romans. Indeed, this article had sat in my half-completed folder for months because I did not have time to write some definitive statement on that issue. As the article now stands I am merely interested in using Romans 11:5 to demonstrate the un-plainness of “plain reading” and the issues involved in reading texts that involve such exegetical spirals.

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