was successfully added to your cart.


Christian Identity

Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 5 – Election/Predestination

By | Exegetical/Study Series | No Comments

An important aspect of gnostic (and Gnostic) thought is the idea that believers come to know their true identity—that is, what they already are in truth, but of which they have lost awareness through ignorance in the world of sin and darkness. In many Gnostic texts, this (the believer’s identity, or “soul”) is expressed as a divine spark (of light) or seed that has become trapped in the (fallen) material world. The saving knowledge Christ brings is of the believer’s true nature and identity (the light), which leads to the way out of darkness. The New Testament writings share certain soteriological elements in common with the Gnostic viewpoint, though, in many ways, the fundamental differences of outlook (and expression) are even greater. One common element is a belief in what we would call Election—that believers (i.e. the ones who will come to believe and know the truth) belong to God even before they actually come to faith and awareness in their lifetime. However, on the whole, early Christian belief is more closely rooted to the traditional religious understanding of election, as found in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Election—The Terminology (“choose, call,” etc)

The two main aspects of this view may be summed up by the verbs choose (Hebr. rjb) and call (arq, etc). In the New Testament, the first aspect is expressed through several different verbs:

  • e)kle/gw (eklégœ, “gather out”), along with the derived adjective e)klekto/$ (eklektós) and noun e)klogh/ (eklog¢¡)
  • ai(re/w (hairéœ, “take [up]”) and the related ai(reti/zw (hairetízœ), which relates more properly to the decision to take or choose, along with the reasons involved. This latter verb occurs only in Matt 12:18.

The second aspect is represented almost entirely by the verb kale/w (“call [out/aloud]”), and its compound forms—e)kkale/w (“call out [of]”), proskale/w (“call toward”), and e)pikale/w (“call on”). The verb e)kkale/w is represented in the New Testament only through the related noun e)kklhsi/a (ekkl¢sía), which early on came to be used in the technical sense of a congregation or assembly of believers, i.e. those called out (of their homes, etc) to assemble together. It often carried a (theological) connotation similar to e)klekto/$—believers as the ones “called/gathered out” from the rest of humankind. The noun klh=si$ (“call[ing]”) and adjective klh=to$ (“called”), were both applied to believers as important religious terms, derived from the verb kale/w. Several other verbs and related terms are worth noting:

  • ti/qhmi (“set, place, put”) and i(sth/mi (“make stand”), both of which can be used in the sense of “appoint”.
  • ta/ssw (“arrange, put in order”), sometimes meaning “appoint”, i.e., put things (or a person) in a certain arrangement.
  • o(ri/zw (“mark [out]”), in the sense of appointing or determining something; cf. below on Predestination
  • xeirotone/w, which refers to making a choice, etc (i.e. voting), by stretching/raising the hand; cf. also on Predestination below.

The Scriptural Concept of Election

In the Old Testament, the primary idea was God’s call/selection of Israel as his chosen people. This is found frequently in the Scriptures, especially as a Deuteronomic theme (Deut 4:19-24; 7:6-11; 10:14-22; 14:2; 26:18-19) and a key motif in the Prophets (Isa 41:8-9; 44:1-2; 45:5, etc). Israel would remain God’s chosen people as long as they were faithful in observing the covenant agreement God established with them (reflected in the Torah). The tragedy of the conquest and exile meant that this idea of election had to be given a new and distinctive interpretation; and, in the Prophets, we regularly find the motif of the remnant—i.e. the chosen ones were those who remained faithful and obedient to God (cf. Isa 4:2-4; 6:13; 10:20-23; 65:9ff; Mic 2:12; Amos 9:11-15; Zeph 3:12-13; Ezek 11:16-21; Zech 13:9, etc.). The Community of the Qumran texts and the early Christian Community both drew upon this remnant-motif to express their own religious identity as the elect/chosen people of God.

Occasionally, the Scriptures refer to Israel as the “son” of God, in a symbolic or religious/spiritual sense (e.g., Exod 4:22-23; Hos 11:1; Jer 31:9), and the faithful Israelites as “sons” (cf. especially in Wisdom tradition, Wis 2:16-18; Sir 4:10, etc). It is appropriate to refer to this as a kind of “adoption”, that is, God chose Israel to be his son. The same relationship is found in Israelite royal theology, which draws upon Ancient Near Eastern tradition; the king is God’s “Son”, the one chosen to represent God for the people (cf. Psalm 2:7; 89:27-29; 2 Sam 7:14; Isa 9:6). Both of these concepts—the people Israel and the king as God’s chosen “son”—were fundamental to the Messianic thought and expression which developed in Judaism, as seen both in early Christianity (applied to Jesus) and in the Qumran texts. For more on this, cf. the articles in my series “Yeshua the Anointed“. The idea of one chosen and anointed by God could be understood of king, priest, and prophet alike—three Messianic roles and “offices” ascribed to Jesus. In addition, we find the tradition of the “Son of Man” (cf. Daniel 7:13-14), a heavenly/divine being (identified with Jesus) who is appointed by God to oversee the end-time Judgment and the deliverance of his people.

When we consider the various verbs and terms related to the idea of election in the New Testament (cf. above), these can be divided between: (a) Jesus as the Elect One, and (b) Believers as the Elect Ones.

Jesus as the Elect One

The verb e)kle/gw (e)kle/gomai), and the derived noun e)klekto/$, are applied to Jesus in a number of passages, marking him as one who is specially “gathered out” (i.e. chosen) by God—Luke 9:35 v.l.; 23:35; 1 Pet 2:4, 6 (citing Isa 28:16); cf. also Matt 12:18 (Isa 42:1ff), where a different verb (ai(teri/zw) is used. These verses certainly are dependent upon Messianic tradition and imagery which have been applied to Jesus. In the Gospels and early Christian thought, they cannot be separated from the idea of Jesus as God’s Son, which likewise has a strong Messianic context—especially Ps 2:7, suggested by the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism/transfiguration (esp. Lk 3:22 v.l.), and cf. Acts 4:25-26; 13:33; Heb 2:5; 5:5. The Lukan version of the Transfiguration scene is particularly significant, since here (in the more probable original reading) the divine/heavenly voice refers to Jesus as “the one gathered out [e)klelgme/no$]”, i.e. “Elect/Chosen one”, parallel to “my Son”. Elsewhere in the New Testament, we find the idea of Jesus being set/appointed/marked beforehand as God’s Chosen One; these references apply different verbs (cf. above) to Jesus:

Occasionally, the specific idea of foreknowledge—that is, God knowing/appointing Jesus beforehand, before his appearance on earth (indeed, even before creation)—is emphasized, as in 1 Peter 1:20, using the verb proginw/skw (“know before[hand]”). Cf. below on Predestination.

Believers as the Elect

More commonly in the New Testament, it is believers (Christians) who are said to be chosen or called by God. Quite often, this implies foreknowledge and/or predestination (cf. below), but more significant is the emphasis on the choice being made by God. I divide the most relevant passages according to the two aspects—called/chosen; for an interesting combination of both aspects, cf. Matt 22:1-14 (v. 14).

CalledActs 2:39; 15:17 (Amos 9:12); Rom 1:6-7; 8:28-30; 9:11, 24ff; 11:29; 1 Cor 1:2, 9, 24, 26; 7:15-24; Gal 1:6, 15; 5:8, 13; 1 Thess 2:12; 4:7; 5:24; 2 Thess 1:11; 2:14; Phil 3:14; Col 3:15; Eph 1:18; 4:1, 4; 1 Tim 6:12; 2 Tim 1:9; Heb 3:1; 9:15; James 2:7; 1 Pet 1:15; 2:9, 21; 3:9; 5:10; 2 Pet 1:3, 10; Jude 1; Rev 17:14. To these may be added instances of God calling believers to specific ministry, to preach the Gospel, and so forth (Acts 13:2; 16:10; Rom 1:1, etc).

In the Gospel of John, we find the distinct motif of Jesus calling believers. This, of course, reflects the historical facts and setting of the Gospel narrative (Mark 1:20; 3:13 par, et al), but it takes on special significance in John. Note, in particular, Jn 10:3—this is connected with the related motif of hearing the voice of Jesus (3:29; 4:42; 5:25ff, 37; 11:43ff; 12:29f; 18:37; 20:16). Important also is the close association of calling with the name—for the intimate personal knowledge and relationship which is implicit in knowing and calling/hearing the name, cf. the recent note on this motif in John. In 1 Jn 3:1, calling is also related to believers’ identity as “children of God” (on this, cf. the recent daily note on Jn 1:12-13).

Chosen—Here we should consider first the references using the verb e)kle/gw (“gather out [of]”) and related words:

This choice of persons by God is depicted dramatically in the Gospel narrative through Jesus’ choosing of the disciples to follow him (Luke 6:13, and pars; Acts 1:2). He also ‘appointed’ them to be his special representatives (apostles)—this designation (Mark 3:14ff; Lk 10:1, etc) becomes the pattern and paradigm for Christians being appointed to positions of ministry, using the verbs ti/qhmi (“set, place, put”) and i%sthmi (“[make] stand”), etc (Acts 6:3; 1 Cor 12:28, etc). Jesus’ choosing of his disciples is given special theological significance in the Gospel of John (cf. below). For the use of the compound verb kaqi/sthmi (cf. above) in a soteriological context, see Rom 5:19, and note also Matt 25:21ff; Lk 12:42ff.


I will not deal here with the complex and longstanding theological and philosophical issues which have surrounded this topic for centuries, except to point out that the main problem for (modern) Western Christians—how the Divine determination and control of events and human decisions conflicts with the ideal of individual freedom—does not seem to have been a significant issue for ancient Christians (nor, indeed, for devout Jews and Greco-Roman pagans of the period). The New Testament authors, and other early believers, like the Jews in the Community of the Qumran texts, were perfectly able to hold up the principles of Divine control and human responsibility side-by-side; and, much to the surprise of many modern scholars, they scarcely felt the need even to note a possible contradiction (Rom 9:19ff is one of the few exceptions, but even here Paul does not devote much attention to it). That God (or the Gods, in a polytheistic context) exercised sovereign control over the world and human affairs, determining their course and destinies, was a basic and well-established religious belief in the ancient world, and required no real explanation or proof. The specific aspect of predestination—of God determining things beforehand—is expressed at numerous points throughout the New Testament writings, usually through verbs which contain the prepositional element pro/ (“before[hand]”). Romans 8:28-30 uses several of these in a sequential chain, with a definite soteriological context:

  • proti/qhmi (“set before[hand]”)—this verb does not always indicate action beforehand, since the preposition pro/ can simply imply something “before” (i.e. in front of) a person, etc. The derived noun pro/qesi$ (used here in Rom 8:28) can refer to a person’s plan or purpose (to do something), and is used, in a theological sense, for the plan of God. Here, believers are referred to as “the (one)s called according to His purpose [lit. the thing set before{hand}]”. We see the same context in Rom 9:11; Eph 1:9-11; 3:11; 2 Tim 1:9. Cf. also the adjective proqe/smio$ in Gal 4:2.
  • proginw/skw (“know beforehand”)—that is, foreknowledge, properly speaking; it also occurs in Rom 11:2 and in 1 Pet 1:20 (applied to God’s foreknowledge of Jesus).
  • proori/zw (“mark [out] beforehand”)—on the use of the simple o(ri/zw to indicate God appointing, designating, etc., Jesus as the Anointed One, cf. above; the compound form also occurs in Acts 4:28; 1 Cor 2:7, and Eph 1:5, 11. These two pro- verbs are followed in v. 30 by:
  • kale/w (“call”)—for the calling of persons to be (and become) believers, cf. above
    dikaio/w (“make right/just”)—this verb has special meaning in Paul’s letters, referring to salvation in terms of being “made right” with God; it carries a strong legal sense in his thought
    doca/zw (“give honor/esteem”)—that is, believers are glorified, made to share in the honor and splendor (do/ca) of the Father and Christ the Son; primarily, Paul has the end-time resurrection in mind (vv. 18-23)

Several other pro- verbs are used to express the idea of foreknowledge and predestination—proetoima/zw (“make ready beforehand”, Rom 9:23; Eph 2:10), proxeiri/zw (“take in hand before, hand forth”, Acts 22:14), proei/dw (“see before, foresee”, Acts 2:31; Gal 3:8, of the inspired Prophets [in Scripture]); proble/pw (“look/see before”, i.e. look ahead, Heb 11:40).

The main Predestination passages in the New Testament (the Pauline letters) are Romans 9-11 (along with 8:28-30, cf. above); Gal 1:15; Eph 1:3-14; 2 Thess 2:13, though certainly many of the other verses cited above should be consulted as well. Of special significance is the way the idea is expressed—theologically, and in Christological terms—in the Gospel of John.

The Johannine Discourses

In the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, we find a sense of election and predestination, which, in certain respects, comes close to the gnostic understanding. A number of the key passages have already been discussed in the notes and articles of this series (cf. the note on Jn 1:12-13, etc), but it will be helpful to summarize and outline them here.

In three passages, Jesus refers to his choosing the disciples (using the verb e)kle/gomai, “gather out”, cf. above)—Jn 6:70; 13:18, and 15:16, 19. In 13:18, the choosing is related to his knowing them (“I have seen/known [oi@da] any [i.e. all] of [the ones] I gathered out”); moreover, the selection comes from Jesus’ initiative—it is not the disciples’ decision (15:16, cf. also 5:21). The aspect of foreknowledge and predestination in this choice is demonstrated and prefigured in the narrative, cf. 1:48—”I saw you…before his calling you”. Throughout the discourses, this sense of the believers’ identity (in Christ) is expressed in two primary ways:

1. God the Father has given believers to the Son (Jesus), who, in turn, keeps them safe and guarded (from evil) during his time on earth. We find this idea in 6:39ff and, more prominently, in the great prayer-discourse of chapter 17 (vv. 6-8, 11ff, 24). It is connected with the motif of the believer remaining/abiding (the verb me/nw) in Christ, and Christ in the believer. From a temporal standpoint, in the context of the Gospel narrative, believers first come to Jesus (and he comes to them), and, receiving him, they remain with him (and he with them). However, from the eternal standpoint, this aspect of remaining takes on a slightly different sense—believers are already in Christ, since they have been given to him by the Father, but must continue to remain in him (cf. 8:31-32; 15:1-11, etc). After Jesus’ departure (back to the Father), this situation will continue through the presence of the Spirit (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26; 16:7ff); indeed, 14:17 suggests that the Spirit is already with the disciples, but will come to be in them after Jesus’ departure. That all of this takes place under the Father’s full control and direction is clear from the statement by Jesus in 6:44: “No one is able to come toward me, if the Father…does not draw [lit. drag] him”.

2. Believers belong to God, come from Him, are born out of Him, etc, even before they actually come to faith in Christ. In fact, in a number of places, Jesus makes it clear that the reason people are able to come to him is that they (first) come from God. I summarize here the most relevant passages:

  • 3:3-8—one cannot see or enter the Kingdom of God, unless first having been born “from above [a&nwqen]” and “out of [e)k] the Spirit”. Traditionally, this birth is thought to take place following one’s acceptance of Jesus (and baptism, etc); however, in the Johannine idiom, to see almost always means seeing Jesus (the Son), that is, coming to know him, to have faith in him. It is thus possible to understand this saying in the sense of spiritual birth preceding the believer’s recognition of Christ.
  • 3:19-21—In verse 21, Jesus states that “the (person) doing the truth comes toward the light”. On the surface, this suggests that a person who is living a good, righteous life will recognize Jesus and come to trust in him; indeed, this would be the conventional religious understanding. However, in the Gospel of John, “doing the truth” essentially means trusting and believing in Christ (who is the truth), as stated clearly in 6:29. In other words, a person is, in a sense, a believer even before actually coming to faith in Christ. Much the same is indicated in 7:17; for a more precise formulation, cf. 18:37 (below).
  • 8:47—”the one being [i.e. who is] out of [e)k] God hears the words of God; through this [i.e. for this reason] you do not hear, in that [i.e. because] you are not out of God”. Along with 18:37, this is the clearest theological statement to the effect that only those who are from [e)k, “out of”] God can hear/recognize the word of God, and thus come to Jesus.
  • 10:3-5ff—The idea of believers hearing the voice of the Son (Jesus) who speaks with the words and voice of his Father is an important theme in the Gospel of John. In the parable of chapter 10, the sheep hear (i.e., know, recognize) the voice of the shepherd because they (already) belong to him (he knows them), vv. 14, 26-29.
  • 15:19—Here Jesus tells his disciples “you are not out of the world, but I gathered you out of the world”, playing on the double meaning of the idiom “out of [e)k] the world”. On the one hand, Jesus chose them “out of the world” (that is, from the rest of the people); on the other hand, the disciples are “not of the world” since they come from God and do not belong to it. The statement in 17:16 is even more striking: “they [i.e. the believers] are not out of [e)k] the world, even as I am not out of the world”.
  • 18:37—”…I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth; every one being [i.e. who is] out of [e)k] the truth hears my voice”. Only the person (already) belonging to the truth, that is, to God, is able to hear the voice of Jesus and come to faith in him.

On the textual variant in 20:31, the closing words of the Gospel proper, and a possible way to interpret it, cf. the separate note.

Gnosis and the New Testament: Part 4 – Religious Identity and Tradition

By | Exegetical/Study Series | No Comments

Closely tied to a gnostic understanding of salvation (cf. Part 2) is the sense of religious identity being defined in terms of knowledge. This was discussed to some extent in Part 3, but it requires further elaboration and examination of some of the key New Testament passages. According to the gnostic (and Gnostic) viewpoint, the (elect) believer comes to know, that is, to become aware, of his/her true identity in relation to God (or the Divine). Among certain Gnostic groups we find the idea that a spark or seed of the Divine has been ‘trapped’ within the fallen material world or sin and darkness. Knowledge of salvation comes—proclaimed and revealed by the Savior (and/or his messengers)—to believers trapped so as to have been ignorant of their true identity as offspring (sons/children) of God. There is, indeed, something of this religious worldview reflected in the New Testament Scriptures, but not quite in the manner expressed by many Gnostics. It is in the Pauline and Johannine writings that we find the closest parallels. A number of the most relevant passages are summarized here:

The Pauline letters

1 Cor 2:6-16—I have discussed the entire section 1:18-2:16 in an earlier series of notes. The logic of Paul’s theology can be described this way:

  • The Gospel contains the secret, hidden wisdom of God
  • This is conveyed to the apostles and preachers of the Gospel through the Spirit
  • Those who receive/accept the Gospel receive the Spirit which is at work in them, allowing them to understand
  • The Spirit instructs and guides believers so they can discern the wisdom of God—we thus have “the mind of Christ”

From a theological standpoint, there is some question as to what extent God—specifically the Spirit—is present and at work in believers prior to hearing the Gospel and coming to faith. Given Paul’s statement in verse 11, how do people respond in faith the Gospel without the work of the Spirit? Paul typically employs the language and image of a favor (xa/ri$) or gift—i.e., the Spirit as a gift given, presumably at the time one receives the Gospel, though it may also be connected with the moment of baptism. However, the quotation in verse 9, apparently citing loosely and adapting Isa 64:4, adds an interesting dimension to this; consider the last portion of the quotation:

“…the (thing)s God prepared for the (one)s loving him”

In the context of 1 Cor 1:18-2:16, these “things” are the hidden things of God, the wisdom of God, which, according to Paul’s way of understanding it is: (1) manifest in the person of Christ, (2) revealed in the Gospel, and (3) made available to believers through the Spirit. Yet these things were prepared or made ready by God ahead of time (in the past), for those in the present who are already loving Him. This same idea is suggested in 1 Cor 8:3—”if any (one) loves God, this (person) has been known under [i.e. by] Him”. Here the sense of predestination is stronger: God has known the believer ahead of time, the perfect tense indicating past action which continues into the present. Cf. also 1 Cor 13:12.

Rom 7:7-25—Paul frequently uses language and imagery expressing the idea that God, through Christ, has delivered humankind from bondage to the power of sin (cf. above for this same idea from a Gnostic standpoint). It is described in almost cosmic terms in Rom 5:12-21, while here in 7:7-25, we see it presented from the vantage-point of the individual believer. Paul sets himself, rhetorically, in place of this representative human being, using the first person (“I”). This person could be identified with those who are “loving God” (prior to receiving the Gospel), desiring (in his spirit) to fulfill the Law of God, but unable to do so because of the power of sin residing in the “flesh” and controlling it. Uniquely Pauline is the idea that revelation—in the Law (Torah), prior to encountering the Gospel—brings a kind of preliminary saving knowledge, in that it brings knowledge (i.e. recognition, awareness) of sin. But Paul’s understanding in this regard is two-fold: (1) the Law brings (saving) knowledge, but at the same time (2) through the Law God has imprisoned all human beings (including believers) under sin (Gal 3:22-24; Rom 11:32). For more on Paul’s teaching on the Law, cf. the articles in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

Rom 8:19-25—Here we find the cosmic image of creation groaning and suffering in bondage. Again, we have the idea that God is the one who has set it under bondage (to sin and death). Admittedly, the reference in verse 20 is somewhat ambiguous, where it states that the thing formed (creation, collectively) was set under the order of (i.e. subjected to) sin and death “not willingly, but through the (one) putting it under (this) order”. Commentators debate just who “the (one)” is, but, in my view, based on the context in Romans, and other passages in Paul’s letters, it should be understood as referring to God the Father (the Creator). In certain Gnostic systems, the Creator—that is, the one who fashioned the fallen and sinful material condition—was a kind of inferior divine Being (a Demiurge). This is foreign to Paul’s thought, but the idea of God setting Creation (and humankind) under bondage to the power of sin has certain points in common with Gnostic theology. The eschatological theme in Rom 8:19-25 involves the eventual deliverance of creation from this condition of bondage, and is tied directly to the presence (and identity) of the elect believers (the “sons/offspring of God”). Indeed, this is specifically described in terms of revelation—the earnest expectation and hope of creation is to receive (from God, or from heaven) “the uncovering (a)poka/luyi$) [i.e. revelation] of the sons of God”. This could be understood in the sense that the sons of God (believers) are already present in creation, but that creation is unaware of their true identity. In verse 21, the future hope for creation is defined as being “set free from the slavery of decay, into the freedom of the honor/splendor of the offspring of God”. The implication is that all of creation will be renewed in the same way that believers in Christ are renewed—in particular, Paul has the end-time resurrection in mind (v. 23).

Col 1:12-13—As part of the great declaration in vv. 9-20, describing the person and work of Christ, the author (Paul) states that God the Father is the one

“who (has) made us able (to come) into the portion of the lot [i.e. the inheritance] of the holy ones in the light, (and) who rescued us out of the authority of darkness and made us stand together (away from there) into the kingdom of the Son of his love”

There is, in this description, language and imagery that is similar to gnostic modes of expression—the dualism of light and darkness, the idea of being rescued out of a realm of darkness, believers as “sons of light”, believers as heirs of God, the kingdom of the Son, etc. Of course, these can be found at various points throughout the New Testament, but their combination here, within two short verses, is what gives the passage a “gnostic” ring. The deliverance out of darkness is tied directly to the work of God through the person of Christ; elsewhere in Paul’s writings, it is connected more properly with the proclamation of the Gospel (2 Cor 4:4-6). The idea of believers being called out of darkness is found in 1 Pet 2:9, and goes back to Old Testament imagery, preserved within the early Gospel tradition—Matt 4:16; Lk 1:78-79, etc, and cf. 2 Pet 1:19.

Eph 5:13-14—Here, in connection with the same light/darkness dualism we find the additional idea of the soul “awaking” to its true nature. This is expressed in the quotation (possibly from an early hymn) in verse 14:

“Rise, (you) the (one) going down to sleep, and stand up out of the dead, and the Anointed (One) will shine (light) upon you!”

This line itself suggests the initial conversion of a believer—i.e., of responding to the Gospel and coming to faith. It may originally have been associated with the ritual of Baptism. However, here Paul (or the author) cites it as part of ethical instruction (exhortation) directed to believers. The context clearly has to do with abandoning sinful behavior and associations, and walking according our true nature, that is, as “offspring (i.e. children) of light”. The image of the soul waking to its true nature and identity is a common gnostic motif, though here the orientation is ethical rather than soteriological. The exhortation “walk according to the light, as you are in the light” is stated in a similar context in Galatians 5:16-25, but in terms of the Spirit: “If we live in/by the Spirit, we should also step in line (i.e. walk) in/by the Spirit”.

Other passages could be added to these mentioned here, but those above give a suitable number of representative examples from the Pauline writings.

Johannine writings

These will be discussed further in the supplemental article on knowledge and revelation in the Gospel and letters of John. Here I will simply list some of the more notable references:

In the Gospel1:9-13; 3:5-8, 18-21; 5:37-43; 6:44-47; 7:17, 28-29; 8:12, 31-38ff; 10:3-9, 14-16, 27ff; 11:25-26; 12:35-36; 14:21-24; 15:3ff, 15-16, 19; 17:6-26; 18:37

In the Letters1 John 1:5-7; 2:5-6, 19-20ff; 2:29-3:2; 3:10, 19; 4:2-6, 9-10; 5:1ff, 10-12, 18-19; 3 John 11

The strong dualism running through the Gospel and letters of John will be discussed in the last part (Part 6) of this series.

Other aspects of Christian Identity

There are other important aspects of Christian identity—that is, of the believer’s religious identity in Christ—which serve to counteract or counterbalance any gnostic tendencies, such as could be drawn from the language used in the passages cited above. Again, we are best informed about early Christian tradition and instruction in this regard from the Pauline letters. Here are some of the more notable aspects:

  • Paul’s use of the expression “in Christ” (e)n xristw=|), and the related idea of belonging to Christ, which can be called mystical and spiritual(istic), rather than gnostic. That is to say, we are united with Christ, both symbolically, and through the presence of the Spirit, and participate in the power of his death and resurrection. The expression is so common in Paul’s writings that it functions virtually as a title for believers, a religious identification. Of the many references, cf. 1 Cor 1:30; 15:18-23; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 2:4; 3:26-28; Rom 3:24; 6:11; 8:1f; 12:5; Phil 2:5; 3:8-12; Col 1:28; 3:1-4; Eph 2:6ff. It is rare in the New Testament outside of Paul (1 Pet 3:16; 5:10, 14, and note Heb 3:14).
  • The idea of believers as a “new creation”, may seem, on the surface, to have a gnostic tinge to it, but it can just as easily be understood in the opposite sense—believers in Christ come to be completely different than they were before. The main passages utilizing this expression, or varying forms of it, are: 2 Cor 5:16-21; Gal 6:15; Col 3:9-11ff; and Eph 2:14-18. The Johannine idea of the “new birth”, of believers born out of God, is perhaps closer to gnostic patterns of thought.
  • The symbolism of the rite of Baptism was important for Paul, in that it symbolized the believer’s identification and union with Christ, specifically in the sense of participating in his death and resurrection—cf. 1 Cor 6:11; 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; Rom 6:3-4ff; Col 2:11-12; 3:9-11. Paul inherited the ritual motif of “putting off” the old, sinful way of life, and “putting on” the new life in Christ. The various Gnostic Christian groups seem to have retained Baptism, along with other rituals, though certainly giving to it a somewhat different meaning and significance, even as Paul may have done. He perhaps was the first to connect baptism specifically to the idea of believers sharing in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.
  • The emphasis on the real, physical death (the crucifixion) of Jesus as central to the Gospel message, would separate Paul from many of the Gnostic groups known in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Gnostics, with their strong (metaphysical) dualism, especially when assuming the evil of the material condition, appear to have struggled greatly with the fact of Jesus’ death on the cross, and attempted to explain or interpret it in various ways (some less plausible than others). In 1 and 2 Corinthians, where he may be combating certain gnostic tendencies, Paul sets the message of the cross in direct contrast to the (supposed) wisdom and knowledge of the world. Cf. especially 1 Cor 1:18-2:16 and my earlier notes on this passage.
  • Likewise Paul’s teaching on the presence and role of the Spirit in (and among) believers also distinguishes his understanding of Christian identity from that of the later Gnostics. While most Gnostics emphasized the invisible and eternal world of the Divine (against the evil physical/material world), they, for the most part, do not seem to have been Spiritualists—that is, they do not define and understand their religious identity and experience predominantly in terms of the (Holy) Spirit. For Paul, on the other hand, the Spirit was fundamental to his thinking and teaching; even when referring to knowledge and revelation, he almost always qualifies and connects it in relation to the Spirit. Of the many relevant passages, cf. 1 Cor 6:19-20; 12:13ff; 2 Cor 1:21-22; 3:17-18; 5:5; 11:4; Gal 3:2-3; 5:16-26; Rom 5:5; 8:9-12; Eph 4:30.
  • In his emphasis on Christian love, Paul draws on early Gospel tradition going back to Jesus’ own words. The so-called “love command (or principle)” was fundamental to Paul, especially in his ethical teaching—cf. Rom 12:9-10; 13:8-10; 14:15; 1 Cor 8:1ff; 12:31-14:1; 16:14; Gal 5:6, 13-14; 1 Thess 4:9; Col 3:14. In 1 Corinthians, Paul sets love against (spiritual) knowledge, arguing that love is far superior and necessary for governing all aspects of Christian behavior, especially for our relationships to others in the Community of believers.
  • Paul repeatedly mentions the suffering of believers—their endurance of hardship and persecution, etc—as an important mark of Christian identity. For Paul, it was closely tied to the idea of our participation in the death of Jesus (cf. above). The experience and endurance of suffering also served as a example to other believers, and as a witness to the Gospel. Cf. 1 Thess 2:14ff; 2 Cor 1:6f; 2:14-17; 4:7-12; 6:3-10; Gal 4:19; Phil 1:12-14ff; Col 1:24, etc. Gnostic groups also experienced persecution—including, sadly, at the hands of other “orthodox” Christians—but they would not have ascribed much importance to (physical) suffering in this life.

Some of these points can be found elsewhere in the New Testament, including the Johannine writings. However, there are several other aspects of Christian identity expressed in the Gospel, and especially, the letters of John, which are worth noting briefly:

  • The overwhelming primacy of the person of Christ. In Paul’s writings, the Christological emphasis is usually put forward in connection with: (a) the message of the Gospel, (b) the believer’s union with Christ, and/or (c) the ecclesiastical aspect of the Community of believers as the “body of Christ”, etc. In the First letter of John, on the other hand, following along the lines of the great discourses of Jesus in the Gospel, Christian identity tends to be aligned more directly with the person of the Son (Christ) himself. Ultimately, this extends to what may be properly called orthodoxy—i.e. correct belief about Christ; on this, cf. below.
  • Love in the Gospel and letters of John takes on a somewhat different sense; while continuing the tradition of the “love command/principle”, it is given a centrality to the identity of believers that is really not found anywhere else in the New Testament (Paul’s great chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians being the closest). In 1 John, the presence of love in the believer is virtually synonymous with the presence of Christ, and indicates that the believer is “out of (i.e. from) God” and has been born from Him. Cf. 1 Jn 2:5, 10, 15; 3:1, 10-18, 23; 4:7-12, 16-21; 5:1-3; 2 Jn 5-6.
  • Compared with Paul’s use of baptism symbolism, in the Gospel of John there is a different kind of imagery used to described the believers union with Christ and participation in his death, etc. It is found in the drinking/eating and water/bread symbolism in the great discourses of Jesus—Jn 4:7-24, 34; 6:22-59; 7:37-38f. If baptism is implied in the water imagery of 3:5ff, it has a different sense than in Paul. Jn 19:23 and 1 Jn 5:6-8 have water (and blood) connected more closely with the death of Christ.

One unique feature of the Gospel and letters of John is the way it establishes a correct belief about Jesus—who he is, where he came from, etc—as essential to the Christian identity. This is indicated in the discourses of Jesus in the Gospel (3:18; 8:23-24; 14:10-11; 17:3, 20-21; cf. also 20:28, 31), and takes on greater significance in the letters, where incorrect belief regarding Christ marks those who have separated from the Community and also the “spirit of antichrist”—cf. 1 Jn 2:18-25; 4:1-6; 5:1-5, 6-12ff; 2 Jn 7ff. For more on the Johannine writings, cf. the supplemental article in this series.

Revelation and Christian Tradition

One other topic which needs to be addressed here is the early Christian understanding of revelation in terms of tradition—that is, of (apostolic) teaching and instruction, going back to the words of Jesus, which has been preserved and transmitted to believers. Paul frequently refers to his own apostolic authority as a minister who proclaims the Gospel (as revelation) and gives instruction for the congregations under his charge. At several points, he ties his own commission and ministry to specific revelations he received from Jesus (Gal 1:12, 16; 2:2, etc; cf. also Eph 3:1-6ff). By the time of the Pastoral letters (whether or not one regards these as authentically Pauline), as also in the letters of Jude and 2 Peter, in particular, there had developed a strong sense of a collected body of Gospel witness and (apostolic) teaching which was being threatening by false and aberrant Christian ‘leaders’, and which had to be safeguarded by the faithful minister. Jude summarizes this as “the trust [i.e. faith] given along at one (time) [i.e. once] to the holy ones” (v. 3); it was to be “fought/struggled over”, i.e. the minister should contend and fight to preserve it. The clear context of 2 Pet 1:16-21 is that this tradition (lit. that which is given along, passed down) goes back to the apostles, the eye-witnesses of Jesus, including Peter himself. It is no coincidence that the Transfiguration scene is mentioned, as it is a powerful example of divine revelation—God manifesting his presence and glory in the person of Jesus.

Interestingly, this same aspect of revelation—the words of Jesus and the Divine Truth manifest therein—passed on to the apostles, etc., was an important element of Gnosticism in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Many of the (apparently) Gnostic writings, such as those preserved in the texts from Nag Hammadi, are couched as pseudepigraphic “Gospels”—that is, as teaching by Jesus, usually set after the resurrection, given to select disciples. The Gnostic texts frequently suggest that this teaching reflects special revelation to which other Christians are not privy. Clearly, it was a way to ensure that the distinctively Gnostic approach to the Gospel and interpretation of the Christian message, had apostolic authority, being connected to the eye-witnesses of Jesus, just as we see in Lk 1:2; 2 Pet 1:16ff. Other (proto-)orthodox Gospels and writings use the same (literary) method of pseudepigraphy and pseudonymity. Many critical scholars would claim that at least several of the New Testament writings (e.g., the Pastoral letters, Ephesians, 2 Peter) are also pseudonymous; the weight and quality of the evidence for these claims varies, and, in any event, remain controversial in more traditional-conservative circles. Admittedly, the emphasis on tradition is strongest in the later writings (those likely written after 60 A.D.)—the Pastorals, 2 Peter, Jude, the Lukan prologue, etc. Two verbs tend to be used to express the idea of revelation passed down from the apostles, from the first generation(s) of believers down to the next:

  • paradi/dwmi (paradídœmi, “give along”), with the derived noun para/dosi$ (parádosis). More commonly used in reference to the betrayal of Jesus (in the sense “give/hand over”), it also carries the figurative meaning of passing along teaching, instruction, etc. from parents to children, and from one generation to the next, including within a religious setting (cf. Mk 7:13; Acts 6:14). A specialized sense of this latter meaning was used in early Christianity—for use of the verb, cf. Luke 1:2; Acts 16:4; 1 Cor 11:2, 23; 15:3; Rom 6:17; 2 Pet 2:21; Jude 3; for the noun, 2 Thess 2:15; 3:6, and note the negative sense in Col 2:8. It continues to be used in early Christian writings (cf. 1 Clement 7:2; Diognetus 11:6; Irenaeus 3.3.3).
  • parati/qhmi (paratíth¢mi, “set/put along[side]”), with the derived noun paraqh/kh (parath¢¡k¢), used in the concrete sense of placing an object (food, etc) before someone, often in the sense of providing help or assistance; figuratively, it can used with the meaning of entrusting something (or someone) into the care of another. A specialized sense of this latter meaning developed in early Christianity. These are the words used in the Pastoral letters—1 Tim 1:18; 6:20; 2 Tim 1:12, 14; 2:2; they do not occur in the undisputed letters of Paul, certainly not in this sense (cf. 1 Cor 10:27). Cf. the separate note on 1 Tim 6:20-21.

By the later part of the 2nd century, Gnostic groups and teachings had become widespread and influential enough that Irenaeus felt the need to write his five-volume work Against Heresies, to defend his (proto-Orthodox) position as representing the true Apostolic Tradition. The interpretation and application of Scripture was employed more regularly to demonstrate this, since both “sides” could lay claim to the Apostolic heritage. However, many Gnostics proved to be quite adept and incisive as commentators of Scripture (cf. Ptolemy’s letter to Flora, preserved by Epiphanius). Since various passages in the New Testament could, conceivably, be interpreted various ways, and plausibly so, depending upon one’s expectations and presuppositions, it was difficult, at times, to rely on the Scripture itself to provide decisive proof. Origin’s massive (and unfinished) commentary on the Gospel of John was begun, in large part, as a response to the Gnostic Heracleon’s own commentary (the earliest such NT commentary known to us). The main problem, of course, was that Gnostics worked from a religious/theological worldview which was markedly different, in certain respects, from that of the proto-Orthodox; as a result, they were bound to see the same passage of Scripture in a somewhat different light.

Note of the Day – October 17

By | Note of the Day | No Comments

This note is supplemental to the concluding article on “Paul’s View of the Law in Galatians”; it deals with Gal 6:16, and, in particular, with the unusual expression “the Israel of God”.

Galatians 6:16

“And, as (many) as walk in line by this (measuring) rod, peace upon them, and also mercy upon the Yisrael of God”

I discussed the first clause in the aforementioned article (above); the “(measuring) rod [i.e. rule]” (kanw/n) being the statement in verse 15 (on this, see the previous day’s note), though Paul doubtless would have applied it as well to the teaching and line of argument in the letter as a whole. The second half of the verse is a benediction offered by Paul, one which is similar to the “blessing of peace” (Birkat ha-Shalom) of the Shemoneh Esreh (“Eighteen Benedictions”) in Jewish tradition: “…and mercy upon us and upon all Israel, your people” (cf.  Betz, Galatians, p. 321-22)—the two-fold reference “us… and Israel” indicates an extension from the local congregation to all Israelites and Jews. Paul’s juxtaposition is similar, though slightly different:

“upon them (i.e. those who walk by this rule)…and upon the Israel of God

The main difficulty interpreting Paul’s statement is to identify just what he means by the unusual expression “the Israel of God” (o(  )Israh\l tou= qeou=). There are three possibilities, that it refers to: (a) Israel (Jews/Judaism) in the normal ethnic-religious sense, (b) Jewish believers, or (c) believers in general. The first of these is to be excluded for two reasons: (1) it would seem to contradict the entire thrust and message of the letter, and (2) the qualifying term “of God” strongly suggests that believers specifically are intended (cf. below). This leaves the last two possibilities, either: (i) Jewish believers in particular, or (ii) all believers (Jew and Gentile alike). Many commentators today, influenced by a scholarly (and modern pluralistic) emphasis on the Judaism of Paul, assume that he means the former (i); on the other hand, the overall context of Galatians, strongly suggests the latter (ii). However, it may be possible to combine aspects of both interpretations and thereby achieve a more accurate sense of Paul’s thought. A comparative analysis of similar phrases and expressions, in Galatians as well as other of Paul’s letters, I believe, points in this direction. There are two points of comparison:

  1. Expressions involving “Israel”
  2. Expressions involving “of God”

1. “Israel” ( )Israh/l). In several instances, Paul refers to “Israel” in the traditional ethnic-religious sense to refer to himself (or others) as an Israelite (2 Cor 11:22; Phil 3:5). Otherwise, there are several significant passages (apart from Gal 6:16):

  • Romans 9-11—Paul refers to Israel 14 times in these chapters, which provide perhaps his most detailed and extensive discussion of the relationship between Jews and Gentiles (from an eschatological viewpoint); these chapters will be examined in more detail during the study of Paul’s View of the Law in Romans. As I will be discussing there, the key verse to an understanding of Paul’s thought is Rom 9:6: “for the ones out of Israel [e)c  )Israh/l], these are not all Israel”—in other words, not all of those belonging to Israel (in the normal ethnic-religious sense) are the true Israel. According to Paul’s teaching in Romans (and elsewhere), some Israelites fell away and have not believed (i.e. have not trusted in Christ), while Gentiles who believed in Christ have become part of (the true) Israel. Paul’s difficult, challenging eschatological statement “all Israel will be saved” (Rom 11:26) will be discussed (along with the modern “Two Covenants” approach to Rom 9-11) in a later note.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:18—Here Paul uses the expression “Israel according to the flesh” (o(  )Israh\l kata\ sa/rka), which can be understood two ways: (a) in an ordinary ethnic-religious sense, (b) or “according to the flesh” (kata\ sa/rka) in contrast with “according to the Spirit” (kata\ pneu=ma). His frequent use of kata\ sa/rka in this specialized, latter sense, indicates that he may intend this here as well. The overall thrust of his illustration in 1 Cor 10:1-18ff matches the message of Rom 9:6: that many Israelites have fallen away, in spite of being born into the covenant and participating the religious and spiritual blessings provided them by God—i.e. they are not part of the ‘true Israel’.
  • 2 Corinthians 3:7ff—Paul uses a similar manner of illustration in 2 Cor 3:7-18, but applied directly to the (written) Law of Moses. Israelites (Jews) possess the Torah, being taught/instructed by it and hearing it proclaimed constantly, and yet many of them are veiled from the truth of it (in Christ).
  • Romans 2:28-29—Paul distinguishes between one who is a Jew (i.e. Israelite) outwardly (from birth, circumcision and observing the Torah), with one who is a Jew inwardly (by the Spirit), i.e. believers in Christ. This would clearly indicate that there is a true Israel “according to the Spirit” as compared with Israel “according to the flesh”—cf. Galatians 4:21-31 (esp. v. 29).

2. “of God” (tou= qeou=). Paul’s use of this qualifying term indicates a very definite connotation, one associated specifically with believers (in Christ). To begin with, he is certainly drawing upon traditional Old Testament and Jewish language, with phrases such as “fear of God”, “glory of God”, “judgment/wrath of God”, “kingdom of God”, et al, in a manner shared by Judaism and early Christianity. But at times, certain idioms seem to be applied within a specific Christian (Gospel) context, to indicate that which is true, or truly comes from God. A few important examples may be noted:

  • “the justice/righteousness of God” (dikaiosu/nh tou= qeou=), especially as contrasted with the justice/righteousness that come through observing the Law (i.e. “works of the Law”)—Romans 3:5, 21-22; 2 Cor 5:21
  • “promise(s) of God” (e)paggeli/a tou= qeou=), esp. as fulfilled truly in Christ (and in the Holy Spirit) unto believers—Rom 4:20; 2 Cor 1:20; Gal 3:16-22ff;
  • “knowledge of God” (gnw=si$ qeou=) and “wisdom of God” (sofi/a tou= qeou=), esp. contrasted with false/human knowledge and wisdom—Rom 11:33; 1 Cor 1:17-24, 30; 2:6ff; 15:34; 2 Cor 10:5; Col 1:10; Eph 3:10.
  • “assembly [i.e. the people called out] of God” (h( e)kklhsi/a tou= qeou=), which likely has the specific nuance of the “true congregation”, i.e. of believers in Christ—cf. especially Gal 1:13; 1 Cor 10:32; 11:22; 15:9 (note the references to Paul’s persecution of believers).
  • “temple/shrine of God” (o( nao/$ [tou=] qeou=)—Paul uses this expression in 1 Cor 3:16-17; 2 Cor 6:16 (cf. also 1 Cor 6:19 and Eph 2:21), referring to believers themselves as the (true) temple (properly, shrine/sanctuary) of God, as opposed to the earthly Temple (which Paul otherwise rarely mentions, 1 Cor 9:13; 2 Thess 2:4).
  • “the Law of God” (o( no/mo$ tou= qeou=)—this expression occurs in Romans 7:22, 25 and 1 Cor 9:21; in Romans, Paul seems to use it broadly in the sense of the “will of God”, and as contrasted both with the Law of Moses, and, more particularly, to the “Law of sin”. In 1 Cor 9:21, Paul defines it specifically as being “in the Law of Christ” (e&nnomo$ Xristrou=).
  • “the commands of God” (e)ntolw=n qeou=)—I discussed this expression (1 Cor 7:19) in the previous note; the examples above, and the comparative context in Paul’s letters, suggest that he means this in the sense of the true commands (reflecting the Law or will “of God”), more or less synonymous with the Law/command of Christ (Gal 6:2; 1 Cor 9:21).

All of this strongly indicates that “the Israel of God” refers to the true Israel, and thus to (all) true believers in Christ. However, it is possible that the apparent distinction between them (those following the ‘rule’ of Gal 6:15) and the Israel of God, may be Paul’s way of moving from the Gentile (Galatian) believers to include the Jewish believers as well. If so, then this could represent a simpler, summary statement of what he expounds in far greater detail in Romans 9-11.