One of my defects of personality (the list is long) is that, when an idea seems too dominant, I tend to take on some position that opposes the dominant idea and to do what serious thinking I do as someone out to subvert the biggest ideological dog in the fight. So when I spend time around conservatives I tend to articulate left-wing ideas, and when liberals seem to steam-roll the world, I become a relatively vocal conservative. I suppose the week-to-week shape of my life reveals a certain set of relatively stable convictions–I keep working for a paycheck and paying taxes to the federal government, after all–but when it comes to verbal and written contests, I tend to move around.
I note all of that because, when I read passages like Ephesians 1, I can imagine myself emphasizing different things in different crowds. Among the Calvinists, who love the prooridas and prooristhentes in verse five because there’s no corresponding Greek term in the New Testament that one could translate as “free will,” I tend to point out the fact that Ephesians is full to busting with exhortations and imperatives, sentences ringing with a sense of urgency, indicators that what lies before the faithful might just have some real and not illusory importance. And among the liberals, who tend to diminish the particularity of Church in the scheme of God’s reign, I take no small joy in pointing to all of the places where Paul names the faithful, those who have believed, as particular vehicles for God’s grace to go about in the world.
And then, after I’ve amused myself at all the ways that this text can trouble other people, I can dwell on that central notion that still troubles me, that whatever I’ve received as God’s gift of divine revelation or as disciplined reflection on that revelation I’ve received precisely as an inheritance. Whenever I set forth to challenge “conventional wisdom” by careful exegesis of the Bible I know full well that I do so only because I’ve received the Bible from the hands of precisely the folks I’m challenging. And whenever I set forth to pose questions to the Bible that my own background hasn’t posed loudly or clearly enough, I know that I do so only because I’m part of a tradition of question-framing that no single person would ever have the chops to invent.
And so I return to the text of Paul, week after week and encounter after encounter, always knowing that I’m inheriting the dogma handed down from old times as well as the tools for calling dogma into question. I know that God did indeed choose “us,” even as I dispute what that pronoun means theologically. That doesn’t end the conversation by any means, but I do well to remember where the conversation begins.
May our election bear fruits of good works for the glory of God.