Corporate Election in Ephesians 1:4 – Part 1

by Oct 11, 2019Debates, Ephesians0 comments

- ...and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph. 6:17 NRS) -

The following is part 1 of a debate on corporate election as found in Ephesians 1:4.  The debate was held on Facebook in July 2018.  My opponent for this debate was Aaron Vriesman, who graciously provided the Reformed view, while I presented the corporate view.  I have not recorded his argument since I do not have his permission, but you can find it on Facebook.

Part 1 – Introduction – Berakah

It is my intention to argue that it is corporate election that we find in Ephesians 1, that Christ is God’s elect, and that it is only when we are “in Christ” that we are declared the “elect.” Corporate election is a subset of the view that election is conditional through faith, but argues that election is inherited from Christ when one is in Christ. I define election as God’s covenantal choosing for a relationship with God, a relationship that leads to salvation.

I want to begin by stepping back and looking at the broader picture of Ephesians 1 and how it relates to the rest of Ephesians. From there, I will address key verses and terms that concern this topic. I am taking this approach because context always determines the meaning of terms. Hence, if we deal specifically with just words or phrases, we will miss the meaning that Paul is trying to convey.

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, …” (Eph. 1:3 ESV)

In most of Paul’s letters we have an introduction, with a greeting and then a statement that provides the purpose for writing the letter. In Ephesians, following his greeting in Ephesians 1:1-2, we encounter something unique in this letter – a Jewish berakah, running from 1:3 to 1:14, a praise hymn to God the Father for what he has done. The Jewish character of a barakah is well attested in the Jewish Scriptures (1 Kings 8:15, 56; Psalms 41-12, 72:18, 19), in other Jewish literature such as what we find at Qumran (e.g., 1QS 11.15; 1QH 5.20; 10.14; 11.27, 29, 32, 33; 16.8), in the New Testament (Luke 1:68-75), and in rabbinic Judaism (Barukh Attah Adonai Eloheinu Melekh ha-Olam; “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe”).

Throughout Ephesians, Paul builds on this praise hymn, allowing us to understand the purpose of his use of this hymn as his introduction to his letter.

In Christ

In the first 12 verses of this barakah, there is a repetition throughout this praise that what God has done for “us” has been done “in Christ,” “in him,” “through Jesus Christ,” and in the Beloved.” These phrases (or their equivalent) are mentioned 10 times in the barakah. That is, everything that God is doing is centered on the Messiah – Jesus. Paul’s focus is that the blessings we receive are found in a person, Jesus Christ. These blessings are drawn from Jewish Scriptures and Paul elaborates on many of them later in Ephesians.

For example, to be “holy and blameless” (1:4) is not only found in the design of humanity at creation (the image and likeness of God), but also in the covenant with Israel (Deuteronomy 7:6-8) where Israel’s character is to be “holy to the Lord your God.” Paul recapitulates this later in Ephesians 5:25-27 where Paul used the same language about what Christ’s sacrifice has done for the church (the ekklesia or “assembly”) “that she might be holy and without blemish” (5:27). Here, Paul is viewing the church collectively, as the community in Christ. That is, it is the group that is in view, and in Ephesians 1:4 the plural indicates a group as well.

In the next verse (1:5), Paul says “in love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved…”. He again mirrors this in Ephesians 5:25-27, where Paul tells us that Christ loved the church (singular) and gave himself up for her. This also reflects a collective sense for the use of the first-person plural pronoun.

Likewise, when Paul uses the language of choosing (eklegō), we have comparable text in Isaiah 41:8-9, where the choosing is of Jacob/Israel. Paul develops this in Ephesians 2, with different language, where those who are far off (the Gentiles) are brought near (2:12-13). I will deal more with this term later.

So, in Ephesians 1:4, it seems best to understand the use of the first person plural pronoun as corporate, referring to the whole of God’s people in Christ, as noted by William Klein (Denver Seminary) in the Expositor’s Commentary.

“As with God’s choice of the nation Israel, Paul expresses believers’ election in corporate terms: God chose us in Christ. Or to put it another way, Christ is the elect one in whom the church is included. Paul does not teach that our “souls” preexisted in the heavens with Christ (a Platonic idea), nor that we as individuals were present physically in some mythological sense prior to creation (as in later gnostic teaching). Rather, as Schackenburg, 53, puts it, “If God made his plan of salvation in (the preexistent) Christ, he also included us ‘in Christ’ in his plan” (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary).

However, I would take this a step further. I would suggest that the use of this first person plural pronoun is exclusive, meaning that it does NOT include the audience of the letter. This becomes evident in verse 12, where Paul says that “so that WE WHO WERE THE FIRST TO HOPE IN CHRIST might be to the praise of his glory.” Here, the “we” is defined as “the first to hope in Christ,” and these were Jewish believers. The Jewish character of the berakah provides strong evidence that the author of Ephesians, who is a Jew, is viewing this redemption he has just described from within a Jewish covenant – with the Messiah as the focus. That is, these 10 verses (3-12) are describing what God has done for Israel in the Messiah. It is a particularly Jewish blessing.

Paul is drawing on the Jewish view of election, where Israel was chosen by God to be his people, as we see in Isaiah 41:8-9. The OT prophets certainly understood that individuals within Israel could be righteous or unrighteous and that their behavior would affect both themselves and the whole. In fact, the covenant provides for such. But it was Israel itself that was elect via Abraham and the covenant they had with YHWH, and membership in Israel meant that you were elect via that covenant. That is, in their understanding, Jews inherited the “election,” and the blessings of that election via their participation in the whole. In the same way, the blessings of Israel would only be realized when one is “in” Israel’s Messiah (the Christ). It is a very Jewish view of how election would work.

– Continued in the next post

Corporate Election in Ephesians 1:4 – Part 2