Thomas R. Schreiner Refuting the Idea of Election (and Predestination) as Corporate as Opposed to Individual

While reading Thomas R. Schreiner’s “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election Unto Salvation? Some Exegetical And Theological Reflections” I ran across this subpoint in which he makes some good refutations against the concept of corporate election–the idea that God has elected to salvation a corporate entity (i.e., the Church) as opposed to individuals. I hope that you will find his argument thought provoking and beneficial.

To say that election involves the selection of one group rather than another raises another problem that warrants an extended explanation. Most scholars who claim election is corporate argue that personal faith is the ultimate and decisive reason why some people are saved rather than others. Calvinists, on the other hand, assert that faith is the result of God’s predestining work. But those who opt for corporate election think that they have a better conception of election than Calvinists, and at the same time they can maintain that faith is what ultimately determines one’s salvation. Now it seems to me that there is a flaw in this reasoning that is fatal to those who espouse corporate election. If God corporately elects some people to salvation, and the election of one group rather than another was decided before any group came into existence (9:11), and it was not based on any works that this group did or any act of their will (9:11–12, 16), then it would seem to follow that the faith of the saved group would be God’s gift given before time began. But if the faith of any corporate entity depends upon God’s predestining work, then individual faith is not decisive for salvation. What is decisive would be God’s election of that group. In other words, the group elected would necessarily exercise faith since God elected this corporate entity.

But if what I have said above is correct, then one of the great attractions of the corporate view of election vanishes. Many find corporate election appealing because God does not appear as arbitrary in electing some to salvation and bypassing others. But if corporate election is election unto salvation, and if that election determines who will be saved, then God is not any less arbitrary. It hardly satisfies to say that God did not choose some individuals to be saved and passed by others but that it is true that he chose one group to be saved and bypassed another group.

Those who champion corporate election, however, would object, and I think the reason is that they do not really hold to corporate election of a group or of people at all. When those who advocate corporate election say that God chose “the Church,” “a group,” or a “corporate entity,” they are not really saying that God chose any individuals that comprise a group at all.32 The words “Church” and “group” are really an abstract entity or a concept that God chose. Those who become part of that entity are those who exercise faith. God simply chose that there be a “thing” called the Church, and then he decided that all who would put their faith in Christ would become part of the Church. In other words, the choosing of a people or a group does not mean that God chose one group of people rather than another, according to those who support corporate election. God chose to permit the existence of the entity called “the Church,” which corporate whole would be populated by those who put their faith in Christ and so become part of that entity.

If corporate election involves the selection of an abstract entity like the Church, and then people decide whether or not to exercise faith and thereby become part of the Church, it seems to follow that the selection of the Church does not involve the selection of any individuals or group at all. Instead God determined before time that there would be a “thing” called the Church and that those who exercise faith would be part of it. The problem with this view, however, is that the Church is not an abstract entity or a concept. It is comprised of people. Indeed the Biblical text makes it clear again and again that election involves the selection of people, not of a concept. For example: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph 1:4); “God chose the foolish … and God chose the weak … and God chose the base and despised” (1 Cor 1:27–28); “God chose you as the firstfruits for salvation” (2 Thess 2:13; cf. also Rom 9:23–25; 11:2; 2 Tim 1:9). The point I am trying to make is that those who advocate corporate election do not stress adequately enough that God chose a corporate group of people, and if he chose one group of people (and not just a concept or an abstract entity) rather than another group, then (as we saw above) the corporate view of election does not make God any less arbitrary than the view of those who say God chose certain individuals.

An analogy may help here. Suppose you say, “I am going to choose to buy a professional baseball team.” This makes sense if you then buy the Minnesota Twins or the Los Angeles Dodgers. But if you do this, you choose the members of that specific team over other individual players on other teams. It makes no sense to say “I am going to buy a professional baseball team” that has no members, no players, and then permit whoever desires to come to play on the team. In the latter case you have not chosen a team. You have chosen that there be a team, the makeup of which is totally out of your control. So to choose a team requires that you choose one team among others along with the individuals who make it up. To choose that there be a team entails no choosing of one group over another but only that a group may form into a team if they want to. The point of the analogy is that if there really is such a thing as the choosing of a specific group, then individual election is entailed in corporate election.

. . .

Those who defend corporate election are conscious of the fact that it is hard to separate corporate from individual election, for logic would seem to require that the individuals that make up a group cannot be separated from the group itself. Klein responds by saying that this amounts to an imposition of modern western categories upon Biblical writers. He goes on to say that it requires a “logic that is foreign to their thinking.” Clark Pinnock also says that the Arminian view is more attractive because he is “in the process of learning to read the Bible from a new point of view, one that I believe is more truly evangelical and less rationalistic.” Those who cannot see how election is corporate without also involving individuals have fallen prey to imposing western logic upon the Bible.

I must confess that this objection strikes me as highly ironic. For example, Klein also says that it makes no sense for God to plead for Israel to be saved (Rom 10:21) if he has elected only some to be saved. But this objection surely seems to be based on so-called western logic. Klein cannot seem to make sense logically of how both of these can be true, and so he concludes that individual election is not credible. Has he ever considered that he might be forcing western logic upon the text and that both might be true in a way we do not fully comprehend? Indeed, one could assert that the focus upon individual choice as ultimately determinative in salvation is based on “western” logic inasmuch as it concentrates upon the individual and his or her individual choice. And on the same page that Pinnock says he is escaping from rationalism, he says he cannot believe “that God determines all things and that creaturely freedom is real” because this view is contradictory and incoherent. He goes on to say, “The logic of consistent Calvinism makes God the author of evil and casts serious doubt on his goodness.” These kinds of statements from Pinnock certainly seem to reflect a dependence on western logic.

Now most Calvinists would affirm that logic should not be jettisoned, but they would also claim that the relationship between divine sovereignty and human responsibility is finally a mystery. The admission of mystery demonstrates that Calvinists are not dominated by western logic. In fact it seems to me that those who insist that human freedom and individual faith must rule out divine determination of all things are those who end up subscribing to western logical categories.

. . .

There are times when Scripture strongly affirms two realities that cannot finally be
resolved logically by us. . . . Such mysteries should only be adopted if that is where the Biblical evidence leads. I believe the Biblical evidence compels us to see such a mystery in the case of divine election and human responsibility.[1]



[1]Thomas R. Schreiner, “Does Romans 9 Teach Individual Election Unto Salvation? Some Exegetical And Theological Reflections” in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society JETS 36:1 (Mar 1993): 35-39.