The view that election in the Bible is corporate in nature is one of the least discussed and considered positions when this topic comes up for discussion. William Klein, one of my seminary professors, wrote the seminal book on this topic in The New Chosen People. In order to understand this view of election two terms must be inextricably linked in your mind: corporate and vocational. Any discussion that purports to refute this view without this pair of terms front and center should be dismissed out of hand due to its ill formed argument.
Election as Corporate and Vocational
1 Peter 2:9 provides a starting point from which to work: “But you are a chosen people , a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (NIV) The challenge to the predominant belief that election is about a number of the fallen being unconditionally or conditionally chosen for salvation begins with the reading of plurality found in this body of scripture. Rather than election as individuals, election is seen as a people group. Thus, when Peter writes that ‘you are a chosen people’ (cf. NASB – race, KJV – race, RSV – race: race confers community better than the NIV choice of ‘people’) he is speaking corporately and he assigns their God given mission in saying ‘that you may declare the praises of him’. Election then,is about a people and their God-given task. God’s objective in a corporate election is found in the calling given to this people: not the salvation of a few but the gathering of the nations into an eschatological fellowship. The election of the community is a component of God’s comprehensive will to save humankind.
The Corporate view developed out of theological struggles with what Calvin himself calls a dreadful decree (Institutes 3.23.7) in which God who on one hand exclaims His love for the whole of the world while simultaneously electing some to salvation and choosing others for destruction. Barth (himself one of the greatest Calvinist theologians) diverged from his mentor as he considered the Augustinian double predestination that the theological framework demands and found it unacceptable saying that makes God out to be two-faced saying ‘that it makes it sound as if God were saying to humanity, not “yes” but “yes” and “no”‘ (Church Dogmatics)
Theologians Paul Jewett and William Klein, among others, point out that when the topic of election is raised in the Bible, it is consistent in referring to the elect as a class, not individuals. The plural language puts election into corporate terms, Klein saying “The biblical data present an impressive case that election is not God’s choice of a restricted number of individuals whom he wills to save but the description of that corporate body which, in Christ, He is saving.” (New Chosen People) This notion is most clearly portrayed in the election of Israel as a people through which the world will be blessed. The Church continues in this tradition as those elected in Christ to carry on the blessing of the world. This election is not for privilege however, but for vocation. God calls a people to himself in order to change history. The corporate entity elected by God would be His covenant partners in the salvation of the whole human race. The called community has the potential to be an advance representation of eschatological future, attractive and welcoming those still outside the community (1 Cor 7:29).
This view of election is little discussed in the shadow of the ongoing Calvinism-Arminianism tussles but it presents a substantial enough body of texts and logic to prevent it from being dismissed out of hand. Though it can sometimes veer into the areas of Open theism and Unviversalism, it is representative as a whole of the loving character of God presenting Him not as capricious and arbitrary but as desirous of the salvation of all of His children and His willingness to use the Church to to fulfill this desire.