Saturday, April 5, 2014

Drawn by God to Jesus

Another favorite passage of mine is the "bread from heaven" discourse in John 6.22-59, though I think oftentimes it is very badly misunderstood.

Some persons take Jesus here to be affirming a kind of predestinarian particularism: God has chosen some persons to be saved, rejected others, and no one could possibly be saved apart from this sovereign choice of God. Moreover, a person may only believe in Christ -- such is the sorry state of mankind -- if drawn and in some way that faith is realized in her by God.

I don't see the text in this way at all. Rather I understand it, and all of the gospel of John, a bit differently.

Jesus tells the crowd that he is the bread come down from heaven, which gives eternal life. The people naturally object and wonder about this, given that they take themselves to know his earthly origins: Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can we now say, 'I have come down from heaven'? (6.42). But then Jesus answers them:

Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, 'And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me (vv. 43-5).

It is certainly true that Jesus' language may immediately suggest the kind of predestinarianism I referenced earlier. But I think in fact a closer reading of the text will not allow for it.

There is a critical problem for the predestinarian reading. Jesus here affirms that no one could approach him unless chosen and drawn to him by the Father. The fact that the majority of his listeners abandon him after the discourse (v. 66) would lead us, on this view, to draw the conclusion that they had not been chosen by God for salvation. But Jesus is evidently interested in their believing and being saved, since he commands them to believe in him (vv. 26-9). More than that, there are affirmations of the universal scope of God's salvific work to be accomplished through Christ: Jesus will give his body for the life of the world (v. 51). The predestinarian reading puts a god behind the back of Jesus, so to speak, insofar as now Jesus' discernible intentions and motives are not necessarily God the Father's. Jesus may desire the life of the world, he may desire the repentance and salvation of his listeners, but God the Father has chosen differently. This puts a conflict of interests in the trinitarian relations and compromises what Jesus says when he affirms: Whoever sees me, sees him who sent me (12.45). So the predestinarian reading is to be rejected.

I take it that the gospel of John regularly affirms the freedom of the human will independently of God's will, and the exercise of that freedom is an essential component of salvation. Thus Jesus regularly calls out to groups of people to be saved and to believe in him who do not believe in him (e.g., 12.35-40). Short of positing hidden motives and actions on the part of the divinity, short of pitting Jesus and God the Father against each other, the only other option is to affirm that Jesus has no proximate control over whether they will believe. He insists that they do, he pleads that they do, but they must make such a choice on their own.

This is not to say that God has no work to play in bringing forth belief. Evidently he does, since Jesus says that no one can come to him unless drawn by the Father. But I understand this "drawing" on the model of testimony and attestation -- in other words, God draws through the miracles and works that Jesus does, and they form the basis of Jesus' call to believe in him (10.37-8). In fact Jesus makes appeal to his works precisely in calling forth faith from his persistent enemies, the Judean authorites; this suggests that it is God the Father's will as much as Jesus' will that these "reprobates" believe in him and be saved, since the works are the Father's testimony to Jesus.

Moreover Jesus affirms the possibility that a person hear God's voice and make the right choice: Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me (6.45); Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not of God (8.47). If a person lives listening to God's word, God's whisper, she will come to see God in Jesus.

Thus when Jesus says that no one can come to him unless drawn or enabled by the Father, I understand that drawing or enabling as referring to the works performed by the Father's power. The people are sinful and do not hear God's voice; they don't recognize the Son of God when he appears to them. For this reason, then, because God's will is the salvation of all, he performs numerous works and miracles so as to inspire belief. Yet there is the crucial element of a person's independent agency, over which neither Jesus nor the Father has proximate deterministic control. This agency means that the sinful person may see the signs and respond in a totally unfavorable manner (e.g., ascribing the miracles to the devil).