In the previous post in this series we traced how Paul probably chose agapē as a relatively ‘unknown’ word that he could fill with meaning – a specific kind of meaning, shaped by the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of God’s Messiah in whom the extraordinary love of God has been revealed.
But how ‘new’ is the apostle’s theology of love? It does not spring from ‘nowhere’. Paul is a Jew, schooled in the Scriptures.
Within the OT, there are three major strands of love that run through the story of Israel.
1) The elective and saving love of Yahweh for his chosen people
This is the first and greatest theme. Everything else depends on, and flows from, God’s initiatory, patient and immeasurable love.
2) The responsive love of Israel to God’s prior redemptive action.
3) Inter-communal love: the love God’s people are to have for one another
When we come to Paul, these same three strands are all present (continuity). But they are reshaped in light of Jesus (discontinuity).
Just how much discontinuity there is between Paul and the OT takes us right into Old and New Perspectives on Paul, and more recent apocalyptic Paul debates. All we need to say here is that Paul’s understanding of love is comprehensively ‘reworked’ in light of the radical impact of Jesus. The result is still a recognisably Jewish theology of love, but one that is now Christologically shaped.
Strand 1) ELECTION
We can see this ‘reworking’ of love in Paul’s new understanding of election. It now includes all in Christ – both Jews and Gentiles. That’s quite a reworking right there.
In 2 Thessalonians 2:13 believers are chosen by God for salvation, are loved by the Lord (Jesus) and sanctified through the Spirit (a very Trinitarian verse)
13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth.
In Romans the ‘called’ or ‘chosen’ are also loved (Rom. 1:7; 8:28).
7 To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people
28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Paul frequently uses the adjective agapētos in an elective sense of being ‘chosen’. In Romans 11:28-29 it is the Gentiles who are elected and loved
28 As far as the gospel is concerned, they are enemies for your sake; but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, 29 for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.
In Ephesians 1:4-5 believers are chosen and predestined to adoption in love through Christ
4 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will
So often discussion about election get caught up in the perceived ‘unfairness’ of God choosing some and not others. But for Paul the focus is very much on election as an act of love – that reaches its fulfilment in the grace of God in Christ.
In the next post we’ll consider how Paul’s understanding of election is profoundly reimagined in light of the love of God demonstrated at the cross.