A Theology of Divine Election

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Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his work Engagement with God, discusses the many facets and ways in which God engages and relates to the world, and also the ways in which man relates to and reflects God. In it, he outlines a rather full-orbed theology of divine election. Election is really the theology of the entire book: how and why God chooses mankind.

Balthasar begins his first chapter by defining the doctrine of election in terms of free love, which is unmerited or deserved. He says this:

All ancient peoples have their gods. The God of Israel, however, is distinguished from all other gods by the fact that he brings into being a people to worship him by his own free sovereign act of choosing — whether we look at the first manifestation of this choice of a people — when God called Abraham — or at his choosing his people when he led them out of Egypt at the hand of Moses (who himself had first to be called by God), thus making something like a nation out of a miserable collection of uncultured and demoralized slaves; before all this, in each case there is a free act of the divine initiative that can neither be foreseen, demanded, nor deduced. (p 13)

God’s choice of Israel can neither be foreseen, demanded, nor deduced; there is no reason for it. God chooses and creates a people solely from an free act to love. Balthasar will later go on to define election as “not primarily a manifestation of power but a revelation of love” (p 15). The content of election is not God’s bare sovereign power to choose — though choosing is involved — but rather his free sovereign love.*

The point here is that election is God’s free love. It is not based on anything lovely or meritorious in the one loved, but is solely based on God’s choice. For Balthasar, this is where any and all engagement of man with God starts. Man does not engage God, rather he is engaged by God.

But what is the purpose of this electing love of God? What is God’s goal in giving this free love? Balthasar explains:

As we saw, the reason for God’s choosing man lies in His love, free and groundless. [This free love] promotes as response the free, reciprocal love of the chosen, because free love can only be answered with love given freely. Therefore the love of God requires of those whom he chooses a free return of love.

This must always be borne in mind when considering the “commandments” and “laws” of the Old Testament. After all, in the final analysis the tone of these is “may” rather than “must”… [Israel’s] loyalty to the covenant is effected wholly and entirely by the loving kindness and grace of God that goes before. (p 20-21)

God’s free love, in other words, is meant to promote a free response of love from the one loved. The commandments are not properly about doing what one “must”, but what one may in loving response to God. Because we have been loved unconditionally, we are in turn urged to love unconditionally in response. God elects freely to produce free lovers in response.

Later on in this work, Balthasar will also stress that election by God not only causes free obedience and love back to God, but also promotes free love to fellow man. In fact, this is how God continues to engage the world today: God freely loves man in Christ, that man in Christ may freely love their fellow man. Properly speaking, we are freely loved by God so that God’s free love can continue through us for the life of the world.

Balthasar says this:

The church…is Christ’s fellow servant in his task of liberating the world. She shares with God in his work of sharing himself in Christ with the world. Hence the act of sharing must be at the very center of the church’s life and being. She can only be herself insofar as she accepts the fact that she is the mean of God’s sharing and imparting himself… (p 33-34)

So then, what is the purpose of election? God freely loves us, in order that we may freely and without coercion love and obey him, and spread his love to the world.

*Because the content of election is love, Balthasar, in contrast to theories of individual election, prefers to see election as a corporate reality. He points out rightly that in the Old Covenant, God entered into covenant with Israel as a nation as a whole. He will later argue that in the New Covenant, God’s elects the entire world through Christ. Christ as the elect one unites himself to mankind, dies and rises. In his resurrection, mankind as a unit, as a whole, is in principles raised and united to God. “In Christ men find a common destiny; in him they constitute a new and universal Israel whose common bond is the Son’s destiny that is decisive for every man” (p 30). In any case, Balthasar doesn’t harp on either theory, but rather focuses on what election is and why God engages in this way.

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