Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 038. Election

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Greater Men and Women of the Bible by James Hastings: 038. Election

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1. Under the simple statement, “The Lord said unto Abraham, Get thee out of thy country,” there are probably hidden years of questioning and meditation. God's revelation of Himself to Abraham did not, in all probability, take the determinate form of articulate command without having passed through many preliminary stages of surmise and doubt and mental conflict. But, once assured that God is calling him, Abraham responds quickly and resolutely. The revelation has come to a mind in which it will not be lost. As one of the few theologians who have paid attention to the method of revelation has said: “A Divine revelation does not dispense with a certain character and certain qualities of mind in the person who is the instrument of it. A man who throws off the chains of authority and association must be a man of extraordinary independence and strength of mind, although he does so in obedience to a Divine revelation; because no miracle, no sign or wonder which accompanies a revelation can by its simple stroke force human nature from the innate hold of custom and the adhesion to and fear of established opinion; can enable it to confront the frowns of men, and take up truth opposed to general prejudice, except there is in the man himself, who is the recipient of the revelation, a certain strength of mind and independence which concurs with the Divine intention.”

Everywhere we find beings and things more loftily endowed than others of the same kind. This is markedly evident in the religious sphere. And there is at first a jarring wonder at the apparent inequality of the Divine arrangements; until we understand that the superior endowment of the few is intended to enable them the better to help and bless the rest. “I will bless thee, and thou shalt be a blessing.” A great thinker feels that his end is approaching; he has made grand discoveries, but he has not as yet given them to the world. He selects one of his most promising pupils, and carefully indoctrinates him with his system; he is very severe on any inaccuracies and mistakes; he is very careful to give line on line. Why does he take all this care? For the sake of the young man? Not exclusively for the pupil's benefit; but that he may be able to give to the world those thoughts which his dying master has confided to his care. The young disciple is blessed that he may pass the blessings on to others. Is not this a glimpse into the intention of God, in selecting Abraham, and in him the whole family of Israel? It was not so much with a view to their personal salvation, though that was included, as that they might pass on the holy teachings and oracles with which they were entrusted. It would have been worse than useless to have given such jewels directly to mankind. As well put a gorgeous banquet before a hungry babe. To say the least, there was no language ready in which to enshrine the sacred thoughts of God. The genius of truth required that the minds of men should be prepared to apprehend its sacred lessons. It was needful that definitions and methods of expression should be first well learnt by the people, who, when they had learnt them, might become the teachers of mankind.1 [Note: F. B. Meyer.]

2. Kuenen, who questions the historical existence of the patriarchs, explicitly rejects the idea of a Divine election to which their faith was a response. “Is,” he asks, “the belief in Israel's selection still tenable in our days? That the first Christians-who knew but a small portion of the inhabited world and could hope that within a comparatively short time the true religion would have reached that world's uttermost bounds-should have acquiesced in this view is most natural. But we? Is this belief in harmony with the experience which we have now accumulated for centuries together, and with our present knowledge of lands and nations? We do not hesitate to reply in the negative.” Now the Old Testament, it need scarcely be said, assumes precisely the contrary state of things to be the fact. The principle of election is obviously conceived to be a primary element in the Divine method, and accordingly the whole story of Genesis describes the response made to God's action by successive individuals-men in whom had been awakened a certain susceptibility to the Divine self-revelation. There were “holy prophets”-that is, men of spiritual genius-“since the world began.” The religion which was to embrace mankind could find an entrance only through some solitary soul, quick to apprehend and to welcome the promises of God. This is tantamount to saying that the progress of the race in religion, as in other things, has depended upon individuals; and even if it could be shown that the name of Abraham is merely a mythical abstraction, or a tribal personification, it would yet be reasonable and indeed necessary to assume that at a certain point in history an individual man appeared, capable of so entering into communion with God as to be the true father of the faithful.

The only adequate explanation of the rise and growth of Hebrew religion is the supposition that God actually made known His will to some individual human spirit, and manifested Himself to him singly and alone. Abraham's history, says Dean Church, “is marked as a history of a man, a soul by itself in relation to Almighty God; not as one of a company, a favoured brotherhood, or chosen body, but in all his doings single and alone, alone with the Alone, one with One, with his Maker as he was born and as he dies, alone; the individual soul, standing all by itself, in the presence of its Author and Sustainer, called by Him and answering to His call, choosing, acting, obeying, from the last depths and secrets of its being.”1 [Note: R. L. Ottley, Aspects of the Old Testament, 118.]

3. Let us also consider the marvellous combination of Divine initiative and human freedom in this call, which set apart a family, in which starts, at first with imperceptible steps, the journey of humanity on the path of free salvation. From the first moment of their intercourse God does nothing without man, and man can do nothing without God. If God had not called Abraham, the Elohistic cult of the children of Terah would have shared the common fate and would have been swallowed up in the polytheism of universal idolatry. It is therefore really by a miraculous intervention of the Creator that religion was restored to man. And the selection of Abraham was purely an act of grace. On the other hand, if the free experience of humanity under the guidance of Providence had not led man to recover by his own efforts the idea of God, to wish for God, and to build the altar of God, the Creator could not without infringing human liberty, destroying His own work and contradicting Himself, have called Abraham and said to him: “Here am I, I will be thy God.” “I will be thy God,” He said, as He offered Himself as a guide across the unknown lands where He invited Abraham to journey.

How did it come to pass that Abraham achieved such unique greatness? He was elect of God-partly, no doubt, because of the wonderful depth and power of his own faith; a faith which indeed had its vicissitudes of weakness and strength, but which, though now and then it yielded, bore through a long life a constant and severe strain, became stronger as he grew older, and met sublimely the supreme test of all when he was required to sacrifice his son. But the power of his own faith is not the only explanation. There was that in him which made it certain that he would “command his children and his household after him” “that they might keep the way of the Lord to do justice and judgment.”1 [Note: R. W. Dale.]

In an autobiographical Note, written more than half a century after the event of taking Orders-which he justly describes as a turning-point in his life-Cardinal Manning recounts the motives which induced him in the year 1832 to resign his post in the Colonial Office and become a clergyman in the Church of England:-

“At this time I came to know a Harry Blunt of Chelsea, and found him not only earnest but highly intelligent. He had been, I think, twelfth or fourteenth wrangler. All this made a new thought spring up in me-not to be a clergyman in the sense of my old destiny, but to give up the world and to live for God, and for souls. This grew on me daily. I had been long praying much, and going habitually to churches. It was a turning-point in my life. I wrote and asked Harry Blunt to come and see me at the Colonial Office. He did so: and, after a long weighing of the case, I resolved to resign, and to give myself to the service of God, and of souls. My doubt was whether God had called me; and I had a great fear of going uncalled. It was as purely a call from God as all that He has given me since. It was a call ad veritatem et ad seipsum. As such I tested it, and followed it.”1 [Note: E. S. Purcell, Life of Cardinal Manning, i. 93.]