When I was listening to John Barclay talk about Paul’s notion that Abraham received grace without regard to his worth, I vaguely remembered something I had read in another book by Jon Levenson.
I found it. Levenson has been talking about various rabbinical interpretations of the near sacrifice of Isaac by his father, Abraham. He says:
The larger theological point is that the trials of the righteous serve to demonstrate not God’s injustice, as many think to be the case, but quite the opposite, the fairness of his choices. For those choices are not mere whims, evidence of the arbitrariness of providence, and the proof is that those chosen, like Abraham, for exaltation, are able to pass the brutal tests to which God subjects them and thus to vindicate the grace God has shown to them. The trials that appear to be their humiliation are, in fact, the means of their exaltation, proof positive that their special destiny is based on other than caprice. The trials of the righteous mediate that contradiction between God’s grace and his justice. They also make sense of the combination of humiliations and exaltations in the lives of the chosen (The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son, p.139).
This jibes with Barclay’s observation that many of the rabbis were reluctant to ascribe a gift to God without there being a reason for it. They were afraid of making God seem arbitrary. Paul did not seem to be so afraid of this and affirmed grace as based on the will of God without regard to human worth.
Still it is hard to put aside the logic that if God chooses Abraham or Paul without regard to worth, then God also rejects others without regard to worth (double predestination).
One of the values of Judaism is that Jewish people have thought about this longer than Christians have. We can’t figure out why God acts graciously in one case and seems not to do so in another case. But surely, Einstein was right when he denied that God plays dice with the universe.
It is a very complex and difficult subject.
Another modern Jewish theologian deals with the fear that election is unfair and capricious. The late Michael Wychogrod, in his The Body of Faith, argued that God’s love is always directed toward actual, existing individuals. He contrasts this with the humanist claim to love humanity or the Marxist claim to love the working class. He says that these kinds of love fall under Martin Buber’s category of the I-It relationship. History shows that you can say that you love humanity or the working class and yet do harm to concrete individuals in those categories.
Only love for the concrete individual can rise to an I-Thou kind of love. So to complain that Israel as the chosen people is offensive to God’s love for the human race, may misunderstand the way God loves. God choosing a special people through Abraham or Jacob, a special priesthood through Levi, or a line of kings through David begins with God calling one actual, existing person. Descendants may turn out to fit the original call, or not.
Wyschogrod said that God’s sovereignty means that he always could have done something different. God always could have made a different choice. Contingency follows from God’s freedom. Jewish theology has not always come to terms with this. (He calls out Christian theology also for implying that God could only save the world through the incarnation and sacrifice of Christ).
God could have chosen another people than Israel. But he didn’t.
The favors of God elicit praise because praise is an act totally focused on God. When we have praised God for his favor, we still have not justified God election of Israel. We have done something more important. We have expressed our gratitude that God has visited us in the election of Israel. (This is my summary of a Wyschogrod’s discussion of “Love and Election” on pages 58-65 of The Body of Faith).
It seems to me that Paul’s approach to the gift of God is more in line with praise than logic and speculation.
This post has been a bit of a detour. I still want to deal with Levenson’s The Love of God in relation to Barclay’s Paul and the Gift.