Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Predestination and Freedom

The biblical concept of predestination has, in the hands of Calvinistic theology, been twisted into a superstition that has distorted the image of the biblical God into the picture of a capricious and pernicious deity who programmed each of his human creatures, before the creation of the world, to either believe and obey him or disbelieve and disobey him, and to experience the respective consequences of his choice forever. Accordingly, while people may seem to make their own choices regarding whether or not to believe in the biblical God and behave accordingly, they are actually unconsciously acting out a script that was written for them before they were ever born.

While many Christians reject Calvinistic theology in this extreme form, most seem to have been nonetheless influenced by it to view God as, more or less, a cosmic control freak. Which is to say that God does not smile on the desire of humans to be free to choose and to experience the natural consequences of their free choices. Or, perhaps more precisely, God allows humans to delude themselves into thinking they are free to make choices, only to make clear to them at the end of the line that human freedom is a demonically inspired fiction.

The chief error of Calvinistic theology is its concept of the sovereignty of God. In this view, God is sovereign in that whatever occurs does so because God has decided that it should occur. Whatever happens is, ipso facto, the will of God. (As in, “There’s a reason for everything that happens.”) It could have happened in no other way because if it did, God would not be

In truth, however, events and circumstances may transpire in countless ways without lessening or altering the sovereignty of God in the least.

Calvinistic theology allows no room for the possibility that the freedom of God’s human
creatures is central to God’s sovereign will. That the wise exercise of their freedom may, indeed, be the sense in which human beings reflect the divine image in which they were created. It was, after all, the apostle Paul (whose letters include a number of references to predestination) who wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). If these words are to be taken seriously, they must at least call into question the notion that God’s sovereignty is synonymous with absolute control over all that God has created.

Understanding the biblical idea of the sovereignty of God, and therefore of predestination, requires a somewhat more nuanced understanding of the will of God than fundamentalism and evangelicalism generally allow. The Old Testament (OT) and New Testament (NT) writers shared a prophetic perspective on human events. Which is to say that the will of God was, for them, indistinguishable from the word of God, through which had been revealed to them God’s purpose for creation. From this revelatory perspective, God is indeed sovereign over all that occurs in the world he created, and this means that all that occurs is, in some sense, the will of God. Having said this, however, the will of God must be understood in terms of two broad
categories, which may be termed God’s purposive will and God’s permissive will.

God’s Purposive Will
From a biblical perspective, God’s purposive will consists of what God originally purposed for his creation, and thereafter, revealed in what God promised to his people. The Bible is the prophetic history of the revelation of the word of God, which is synonymous with God's
purposive will.

God’s promise, which began the progressive revelation of God’s purpose for creation, was first made to Abraham: that God would give Abraham a son, through whom God would make of Abraham a great nation, through which God would bless all nations. This promise was
progressively fulfilled through the birth of the son God promised to Abraham, Isaac; through Isaac (and his son Jacob, whose name God changed to “Israel”) descended the twelve tribes of Israel which, under Moses’ leadership, became the nation of Israel, which became the great nation promised to Abraham under King David; one of David’s descendents—the coming Anointed One (Hebrew, Meshiach, or “Messiah”; Greek, Christos, or “Christ”: biblically, the human being whom God anointed, or chose, to rule God’s kingdom)—God promised to place on the throne of Israel in order to fulfill God’s ultimate purpose of blessing all the nations of the earth.

This is the biblical story about the fulfillment of God’s original purpose for creation through the progressive fulfillment of his promise. In that the purpose of God for creation is the content of the word of God, the progressive fulfillment of God’s promise is also the progressive revelation of God’s word. (Biblically speaking, then, the word of God is not the Bible itself but the biblical message, the word of promise and fulfillment that God revealed to and through his biblical
messengers, whose message is woven into the biblical story. Accordingly, the Bible is the messenger, and “the word of God” is its message; for the NT writers, “the word of God” is synonymous with “the gospel” [1 Pet. 1:23-25], the mesage proclaimed first by Jesus and subsequently to all nations by Jesus’ apostles.)

In that the Bible claims to be the story of the revelation of God’s purpose for all nations of the earth through the fulfillment of God’s promises, if this claim is true, the Bible is the source of information regarding God’s purposive will for his people.

Calvinistic theology notwithstanding, God’s people are not, in biblical terms, a fixed set of
individuals who, throughout human history, constitute his people through no choice of their own. Instead, the people of God are a community of faith, consisting of whoever throughout human history has heard God’s word of promise, revealing God’s purpose for humanity, and have chosen to believe it.

In so doing, believers have chosen to identify themselves with God’s purpose for his creation. And by so doing, they have chosen to become members of the community of faith, which God foreknew and, therefore, predestined for salvation. That is to say, God did not know beforehand which specific individuals would become members of the community of faith. Instead, God “foreknew” and, therefore, “predestined” that this community would be “called” by the hearing of the gospel, and “justified” through believing the gospel, and “glorified” as the eventual
outcome of their ongoing faith in the gospel (Rom. 8:29-30). Whoever, then, hears and believes (and continues believing) the gospel has freely chosen to identify herself or himself with the predestined community of faith.

This is analogous to the scheduling of a public mode of transportation—a bus, for example—to arrive at a destination. If all goes according to schedule, the bus—and therefore all who travel therein—will arrive at its destination. Whether or not any specific individual arrives at that destination with the bus depends on his or her having purchased a ticket, boarded, and stayed on board until the bus reaches its destination. Individuals are free to choose to travel or not, but the bus (barring unforeseen developments) will arrive at its destination—is predestined to arrive—regardless of whether they arrive with it or not. The difference between public
transportation and God’s purpose, of course, is that God’s faithfulness makes the fulfillment of his purpose inevitable (which is the biblical meaning of predestination) whereas buses are subject to the contingencies and exigencies of time and chance. The point is that a collective body—a category of people known as believers—is predestined, not the specific individuals who choose to believe and, therefore, enter that collective body.

According to the prophetic understanding of God’s sovereignty, whatever God purposes—God’s purpose being synonymous with God’s sovereign will—God foreknows (i.e., knows beforehand) and, therefore, predestines (or foreordains, i.e., ordains beforehand) to occur. God’s purpose is subsequently worked out in human history in terms of what God has promised to his people. Biblical foreknowledge and predestination are simply words of encouragement to God’s people signifying the assurance that God will be faithful to his promise. That the fulfillment of God’s promise is a foregone conclusion, as good as done, only a matter of time. And, therefore, that those who believe God’s promise are assured of enjoying its fulfillment.

God’s faithfulness to his promise is, in fact, the biblical definition of God’s righteousness: “You are the LORD [Hebrew, YHWH, the name of Israel’s God, rendered “LORD,” with all capitals, in English versions of the Bible out of respect for Jewish reticence about speaking, or writing, the name of God], the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the
covenant to give to his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous
(Neh. 9:7-8; see also Rom. 3:1-5; 1 John 1:9; and a large number of other OT and NT texts that equate God’s righteousness with God’s faithfulness).

Once again, that God has predestined this community of faith to live in his presence (that is, in the kingdom of God) forever does not mean that God has predestined the specific individuals who would be members of the community of faith. It is the spiritual community as a whole, that category of people known as believers in “the word”—not the specific individuals who choose, through faith in “the word,” to enter the spiritual community—that is foreknown and
predestined to enter the everlasting kingdom of God at the end of the age.

Biblical predestination, then, rather than discouraging believers with uncertainty as to whether their shortcomings or tribulations may mean that God has not predestined them for salvation, encourages believers that, regardless of their shortcomings or the trials they face, their
membership in the spiritual community of faith means that their entrance into the kingdom of God at the end of the age is assured.

The compatibility of biblical predestination and human freedom is expressed in Jesus’ saying, “Many are called, but few are chosen” (Matt. 22:14). All who hear the word of God—defined in NT terms as “the gospel” proclaimed by the historical Jesus and, after his death and
resurrection, by his apostles—“are called” into the predestined community of faith. Nevertheless, “few are chosen” in that few choose to believe the gospel (to put on “the wedding garment” of Matt. 22:11), and so, to join the predestined—which is to say, the “chosen”—community. One chooses, then, to be one of the “chosen.” In that God has “chosen”—that is, purposed and promised, foreknown and foreordained—the community of faith to enjoy life in the kingdom of God forever, God has, in effect, already “chosen” all who, of their own volition, choose to believe: collectively, their chosen-ness was purposed and promised, foreknown and foreordained from the beginning; individually, they choose to be part of the chosen community when they hear and believe the NT gospel.

God did this choosing of those who choose to believe when, in the beginning, he chose to send his Anointed One into the world he would create and eventually redeem. In choosing to send his Anointed, God chose all who would believe “the word” of and about his Anointed: “He was
foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for your sake, who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Pet. 1:20-21). Accordingly, God “chose us [i.e., believers] in him [i.e., God’s Anointed] before the foundation of the world . . . In love, he predestined us [i.e., believers] for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will . . .” (Eph. 1:4-5). By choosing to send his Anointed to be the source and object of faith, in effect, God chose all who would, as a matter of their own choosing, believe in his Anointed.

All of which is to say that the proclamation, crucifixion, resurrection, exaltation, and parousia (Greek for presence, coming: coming-to-be-present at the end of the age) of God’s Anointed was God’s purpose from the beginning of his creation, and therefore, all who believe the NT
proclamation of and about Jesus are, by doing so, predestined by God to be raised from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God.

And so, biblical predestination turns out to be entirely consistent with the freedom of God’s human creatures to choose their eschatological (from Greek, eschatos: last-in-time) destiny. It is this eschatological destiny itself that is foreknown and predestined for all who choose it by hearing and believing the NT gospel.

Calvinistic Proof Texts
But what about those NT texts that seem to assert the opposite, that God’s will is inimical and unalterably opposed to human freedom? That God wills and does what he will do entirely apart from human choice?

Among the most notorious of these texts is Romans 9:13: “As it is written, ‘Joseph I loved, but Esau I hated’” (quoted from Malachi 1:2-3).

In this text, the Calvinistic interpretation notwithstanding, God is not expressing a negative attitude he had toward Esau before Esau was born, nor was God expressing a predetermination to damn Esau’s soul or to save Jacob's. Rather, the writer used a Hebrew idiom to describe God's choosing of Jacob rather than Esau to be in the line of promise from Abraham, the Patriarch, to Jesus, the Messiah ("Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated").

According to the same Hebrew idiom, Jesus warned his hearers: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Rather than that Jesus’ disciples must feel a literal contempt for money, Jesus’ words mean that they must choose to “serve God” rather than money.

Likewise, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Rather than that his disciples must feel animosity toward their families—which would contradict all that Jesus instructed his disciples about their relationships with others—Jesus employed the same Hebrew idiom to say that his disciples must choose to follow him even though their families might be offended or disappointed by their doing so.

An understanding of the biblical writers’ metaphorical use of love and hatred makes clear, then, that God did not, before either were born, literally hate and, therefore, condemn Esau while loving and, therefore, saving Jacob. Their standing before God was not Paul’s subject and, therefore, was not at issue. Paul’s subject was, in this case, God’s sovereign right to choose according to his own purpose. That God chose Jacob over Esau not to be saved or damned but to be in the Abrahamic-Messianic line of promise that would eventually fulfill God's purpose, before either had had a chance to do good or evil, is evidence for Paul’s argument (made throughout Romans 9) that God does not choose based on works of law.

Paul’s point is not that God’s choices are arbitrary. God’s choice of Jacob over Esau may seem arbitrary—after all, God had to choose someone to be in the physical line from Abraham to Jesus. Nevertheless, Paul’s argument is that God’s choice of those who believe the Messianic gospel for a righteousness of faith over those who rely on their obedience to the Mosaic law for a righteousness of works is based on the very purpose for which God chose Jacob over Esau: “. . . in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call . . .” (Rom. 9:11). When it comes to salvation and destruction, God has always exercised his sovereign will not capriciously but consistently with his righteousness, to choose believers in his Abrahamic promise, whether Jews or Gentiles. Whether Esau, or Jacob for that matter, died in the hope of salvation depended on their faith in God’s promise to their grandfather Abraham, not on which of them God chose to be in the physical line of promise from Abraham to Jesus.Therefore, the case of Jacob and Esau is not an example of God's having predestined anyone to be saved or lost.

Equally subject to Calvinistic distortion has been Romans 9:17-18:“For the Scripture says to Pharoah, ‘For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (from Exodus 9:16).

God predestined Pharaoh's role in the exodus of Israel from Egypt according to his original purpose and Abrahamic promise to make of Abraham a great nation, through which God would ultimately bless all nations (Gen. 12:1-3; 18:18). God fulfilled his purpose and promise through Pharaoh by delivering the Israelites from Egypt and, thereby, making of Abraham a great nation through which God's "name might be proclaimed in all the earth."

Further, God hardened Pharaoh's heart not by means of a direct action but by means of "the word of God" that Moses spoke to Pharaoh, commanding Pharaoh to free his Israelite slaves. Pharaoh’s pride in his own sovereignty would not allow him to submit to the sovereignty of God expressed in "the word" spoken by Moses. That the ruler of the Egyptian empire would resist a Hebrew’s claim that the Hebrew “god” commanded that Pharaoh release a sizable portion of the slave labor that facilitated the maintenance of his kingdom is hardly surprising.

Most importantly, God did not harden Pharaoh’s heart for the purpose of damning his soul but, instead, “that my name be proclaimed in all the earth” (Rom. 9:17). Which is to say, so that all nations might hear about the Hebrew God and eventually be prepared for the coming of his Anointed to fulfill God’s Abrahamic promise to bless all nations.

Again, therefore, God's hardening of Pharaoh was for the purpose of fulfilling his original
purpose and Abrahamic promise, which would reach its ultimate fulfillment in the proclamation, crucifixion, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus. Neither of Paul's examples (Jacob and Esau nor Pharaoh) are intended to illustrate that God predestines all that occurs. Nor that God
predestines individuals to be saved or lost. Individuals are free to choose whether or not to believe and are responsible for their own choices.

The difficulty Paul faced with his Jewish readers (his Roman letter having been written to a mixed community of believing and unbelieving Jews along with Gentile believers who had joined themselves to the Jewish community of Rome) was to persuade them that their election by God was not for the purpose of their own salvation and the destruction of the rest of the world, as (not Moses and the prophets but) their religious tradition had taught them. Rather, God’s election of Israel was for the purpose of their becoming “a light for the nations” (Isa. 49:6; see also Isa. 60:1-3), that is, for the purpose of the salvation of the rest of the world, to fulfill God’s Abrahamic promise to bless all nations. And that as they, through faith in the gospel, accepted the purpose of their election, they would enjoy the salvation that God intended for all nations, including Israel.

And so, God "has mercy on whomever he wills," which is to say, God wills to have mercy on those who claim a righteousness of faith rather than of works, and "he hardens whomever he wills," which is to say that God wills to harden those who reject his word of promise, whether he be an Egyptian Pharaoh or a Pharisaic Jew who claims a righteousness of works.

Because of the failure to distinguish between God’s election of specific individuals, like Jacob and Pharaoh, to be in the physical line of promise from Abraham to Jesus in order to fulfill his purpose, on one hand, and God’s election of whomever believes the gospel to be saved as the fulfillment of his purpose, on the other, Calvinism perverts and distorts the biblical knowledge of God.

Calvinism represents the failure to understand that God's sovereign will is that human beings be free to choose to believe "the word" or not, free to love their Creator or not, free to accept or reject the hope of salvation. All that occurs is God's will in the sense that God's sovereign will both purposes and permits. God's purposive will was expressed in his promise to give Abraham a son, through whom God would make of Abraham a great nation, through which God would bless all nations. God predestined this to occur and guaranteed its ultimate fulfillment in his Anointed because of his love for his human creation.

The significance of the biblical writings is that they preserve the progressive revelation of God’s purposive will.

God’s Permissive Will
All else that has occurred, does occur and will occur in human history is a matter of God's
permissive will. Which is to say that it is God’s will to permit human beings to exercise their freedom to reject his purpose and disbelieve his promise if they so choose.

World events or personal circumstances reveal not God’s purposive will but God’s permissive will: “Again I saw that under the sun . . . time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl. 9:11).

This does not mean that God is not sovereign but that God’s sovereign will for the present age is to permit events to run their natural course, leaving human circumstances to “time and chance.” As Jesus said of his heavenly Father, “he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Good fortune or misfortune are as likely to fall on believers as on unbelievers (to which the OT story of Job certainly attests). On the dark side of the coin, God permits both natural disasters and human atrocities.

Accordingly, “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19), who is the lord of “all the kingdoms of the world” (Matt. 4:8), “the god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4) and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2). Which is to say that God permits Satan to be the administrator of the world of the present age—which makes Satan the face of God’s wrath—until day of
judgment, which Jesus called “the end of the age” (Matt. 13:39, 40, 49). God counters the evil one by means of the revelation of his purposive will for all nations in "the word," in the hope of persuading human beings away from the evils of both hatred and indifference and toward the goodness of love and servanthood. (This often seems insufficient in the face of injustice, but the only alternative God has to persuasion by means of "the word" is coercion by means of direct intervention, which could only be effected by God at the cost of human freedom.)

That the Creator of all things would permit evil, and all of its attendant human suffering, to occur is the problem of theodicy, which posits an either-or proposition: Either God is good but not all-powerful, or God is all-powerful but not good; God cannot be both good and all-powerful because in that case God could and would not allow evil to have its way in the world.

The reply of Calvinism is that God is both good and all-powerful but that human depravity makes it impossible for fallen humanity to accept that God has the right to do as he will here and damn whomever he will hereafter. The creature has no right to question the will of the Creator. Instead, the creature must accept that the will of God is a mystery that will only be understood in the hereafter (if one happens, through no choice of her or his own, to be one of the chosen few who makes it to the hereafter).

The biblical answer is that God permits evil because his sovereign will includes his desire for the exercise of human freedom, even when the consequences of human freedom are destructive. The freedom to do good must also include the freedom to do evil, just as the freedom to love
must also include the freedom to hate. Enough intelligent creatures joining together, however unwittingly, for evil and hateful purposes creates tidal waves of human suffering that engulf the earth.

Nevertheless, how else can God's human creatures grow into maturity except through the exercise of freedom?

Finally, God’s permissive will is the framework within which God’s purposive will—revealed in “the gospel" proclaimed by Jesus and his apostles—moves toward the day of judgment (“the end of the age”) and the kingdom of God (“the age to come”). That what God purposes for creation is sure to prevail over all that God permits in the meantime is the meaning of biblical