About that controversial word “predestination”

In my sermon on Sunday, I didn’t say anything about predestination, a word that shows up in Romans 8:29-30. These verses are a Calvinist proof-text. I’m not a Calvinist, as everyone knows (John Wesley was no fan of Calvinism). And I’m not going to resolve the issue of the meaning of the word in this post. (Next week’s sermon over Romans 9 might afford me an opportunity to say something about it from the pulpit.)

Here are a few quick thoughts: Whatever Paul means by this word, he means as a word of assurance. He certainly isn’t telling the Roman Christians that some of them are saved and some of them are damned, and there isn’t anything they can do about it! Since he’s been laying out the means by which all humanity now becomes part of God’s covenant people, he likely intends to reassure Gentile Christians, especially, that their adoption into God’s family was a part of God’s plan all along.

After all, as we know from Paul’s argument so far, God didn’t send the Torah to his covenant people only to  find—to God’s surprise—that Israel failed to live up to it. The sending of God’s Son didn’t represent a change of plan. Rather, God intended to use the Torah to highlight sin and, through the cross, gather it up in one place in order that Israel’s Messiah (and humanity’s representative) could destroy its power once and for all.

And because of what God accomplished through the cross (whose victory was made manifest in the resurrection), everyone on earth now has the opportunity to share in God’s victory and become a part of God’s family.

Wow! That’s a hasty and inadequate summary of Romans so far, but you get the point. Whatever Paul is talking about, it shouldn’t be read through the lens of 16th-century Protestant theology, no matter how much Paul’s words here made their contribution to it; it should be read in the context of Paul’s argument about the Messiah and God’s covenant with Israel.

I vote that we make Bishop Wright an honorary Methodist. We're children of the Anglican tradition, you know?

Regardless, the most troubling aspect of predestination to most Methodists is the idea that God forces God’s will on some people—as if being “elected” by God were all God’s choice and humanity has no say in the matter. How does this leave room for personal responsibility? I like (surprise, surprise) N.T. Wright’s words on the subject:

Is Paul after all a determinist, believing in a blind plan that determines everything, so that human freedom, responsibility, obedience, and love itself are after all a sham? ¶ One can easily imagine Paul’s own reaction… “Certainly not!”… What we have here, rather, is an expression, as in 1:1, of God’s action in setting people apart for a particular purpose, a purpose in which their cooperation, their loving response to love, their obedient response to the personal call, is itself all-important.1

This is not to deny, Wright says, the “mystery of grace, the free initiative of God, and the clear divine sovereignty that is after all the major theme of this entire passage.” But it does deny the “two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional understanding of how God’s actions and human actions relate to each other, that sees something done by God as something not done by humans, and vice versa” [emphasis mine].

Does this sound familiar? The deterministic view of conservative Calvinism represents the same two-dimensional thinking that characterizes contemporary discussions of evolution and the origin of the cosmos. As I’ve written about on plenty of occasions, people on both sides of the science-faith divide seem to agree with one another that either evolutionary processes explain how we got here or God explains how we got here, but not both. This is a false dichotomy: it’s not either/or; it’s both/and.

Just as God’s action in Creation doesn’t compete with the physical laws of  the universe, so God’s will doesn’t compete with human will. As Wright says,

God’s actions and human actions are not, as it were, on the same plane… Woe betide theology if discussion of grace take their coloring from the mechanistic or technological age where all actions are conceived as though performed by a set of machines. God’s foreknowledge and foreordination, setting people apart in advance for particular purposes, are not equal and opposite to human desires, longings, self-questionings, obedience, and above all love. You do not take away from one by adding to the other.2

Thank you again, Tom.

1. N.T. Wright in “Romans,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. X, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 603.

2. Ibid.

5 thoughts on “About that controversial word “predestination””

  1. I hate preaching parts of Romans for this very reason. Glad you could clear it up here and that you dont shy away from hard topics.

    1. Thanks, Shannon. But notice I’m dealing with this in a blog entry! I worry about boring my congregation with stuff that interests me and nobody else! I try to tell my parishioners that if they want to go deeper, look at my blog.

  2. Good insight Brent and I struggle myself with this word and what it means. I really wrestle with the “omniscience” of God when it comes to this theology of predestination and “elect”……Is this really a freedom of choice and if so, is this really something God doesn’t know…….then if we have the choice, apart from God’s knowledge (foreknowledge) then, does this negate the theology of God’s omniscience.

    1. I hear you, Jay. If God foreknows, do we really make choices at all—or are we just acting according to an unalterable script? There’s a reasonably orthodox strand of contemporary theology that argues that God voluntarily places a limit on his foreknowledge—a self-imposed limit—so as not to determine the future in an all-or-nothing way. I’m sympathetic, but I don’t buy it. I think that’s unnecessarily speculative.

      Instead, I like the way my systematic theology prof explained it. I raised a similar question in class in regard to intercessory prayer: Why does prayer for others make a difference if God already ‘knows’ everything that’s going to happen anyway? From God’s perspective, isn’t it all ‘laid out in front of him’?

      My prof—this brilliant young German Lutheran pastor—said: “By all means, God has foreknowledge, which means that from God’s perspective, it’s as if all human history were laid out before God. But what God ‘sees’ when he looks at history is shaped in part by our prayers, petitions, and actions.”

      And then my head exploded…

      But you get my point. It’s both/and, not either/or.

      1. Interesting thought…..not at all what I learned in my systematic theology class. We learned God’s views are perfect, thus His view of the world is all history (even the view we know as the future). We learned it more as a “desire’ of God’s heart for all men but God also knows man’s heart and it’s natural condition. With this knowledge, He is not at all surprised by any of our decisions.

        To me, that was always a weak explanation as it left out answers to far too many questions. At the end of the day, I know that I can talk about “predestination” but have yet to come up with a school of thought that I can hold to.

        I always placed this argument in the “millennial” and tribulation theology argument. My argument in class was always, “if we know Jesus, we are going to heaven, right?” And the answer was always yes…..so then my argument was always, who cares then if it is pre trib or post trib, we are still going and either would glorify God!

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