Jennifer: You would have thought I had said I was pregnant by the way my parents reacted. But no, all I said was that they weren't in control of their own salvation. That night my thoroughly Presbyterian youth leader had introduced his charges to the splendors of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Though at first I was outraged by my leader's arguments, I was eventually convinced after he pointed out verses from Romans, like 9:18: "Therefore God has mercy upon whom he wants to have mercy, and hardens whom he wants to harden." As far as I could tell, the leader had the Bible on his side. And that's what I argued with my frustrated father well into the night (my mom had to leave the table).Of course, many Baptists believe that God has revealed otherwise, as I unmistakably learned during my four years at Baylor University, where the word predestination met with either a chuckle of contempt or a look of surprise from students. They were pretty confident of having the Bible on their side, too. Much like Erasmus, I decided that assertions about doubtful matters are better left unresolved.Sarah: I, on the other hand, was never plagued by rumors of simple-minded predestinarianism. I was a Lutheran, after all, and Lutherans never talk about what is so obviously a Calvinist affliction. There was plenty about grace alone, plenty about faith alone, plenty about Christ alone—but these notions never got translated into that particular and much-abhorred term. If you asked me who was in control of the universe, I would have said God the Father Almighty. If you asked who had won my salvation, I would have said Jesus Christ. If you asked who had given faith to me, I would have said the Holy Spirit.But if you then asked me if I believed in predestination, I would have shaken my head vigorously and dismissed it as some theologian's arrogant presumption about who's going to the hot spot.Some might say it was coincidence that landed our two minds next to one another in the seminary dorm last fall. It was interesting to meet Jennifer, and it was interesting to find out where she was from, but more interesting still was learning what theological tent she dwelt in. I was puzzled by Jennifer when she said, "I'm a Presbyterian, and I consider myself a Calvinist, but I'm not too sure about the whole predestination thing." How could one claim to be a Calvinist at all with such half-hearted feelings about the Number-One Doctrine? For her part, Jennifer wondered if I was a typical Lutheran, incapable of discussing theology except over steins of beer.
Jennifer and Sarah: Mild suspicion set in, and since each of us was so certain we had figured the other out, we simply set aside theological discussion until the spring semester. Finally we were brought together by the legacy of the Bishop of Hippo in our Augustine class; furthermore, the debates provoked by our Luther class forced us into even more serious (and often heated) discussion.Little did we know that in two short months' time, the dense treatises of these two long-dead men would so easily infiltrate the intellectual smokescreens we had used to hide ourselves from the threat of predestination. When the change came, it was so effortless.One afternoon at the end of February, we sat in our dorm munching on Whoppers Robin Eggs and negotiating the salvation of the human race. The light was soft. We started out at point A, wondering how anyone manages to be saved, and just talked ourselves to point B, at which point we discovered that we were predestinarians. We were completely surprised to realize that we believed it. We were also immensely pleased with our academic prowess in making such a theological leap, though it was not without its downside, as our friends began to view us as traitors to the human race. Though we hardly realized it at the time, it was a transforming moment, a conversion experience, if you will. Blaming God for everything has been such a joy that we decided the least we could do to express our gratitude was to tell the world how we got here.The first thing to realize about predestination is that most people have a gut-level reaction to the word that has little to do with the theology behind it. They suppose, for instance, that God creates fragile humans for the sole purpose of consigning them to hell. No amount of vice or virtue will change our final destination, so the doctrine is pastorally disastrous and morally depressing.Or, for those who like the ring of grace and God's sovereignty in predestination, it is tamed to mean that Jesus foreknew who would accept his free gift and who would not, and that's how the matter is settled. But this, as Augustine would be the first to point out, is really free will under another guise. Yet others will affirm predestination against double predestination, with the idea that God chooses people for heaven but not for hell. This, however, begs the question of what happens to those who are not chosen for heaven. Where else are they going to go? Once you get past the haze of hell, many hurdles—no, walls—block contemporary thought from pondering too deeply the doctrine of predestination. But as it turns out, these walls are eminently deconstructible. By tearing down three of these walls, we hope to build up a mighty fortress of predestination in which sinners can take refuge.The first wall, built of straw, is the doctrine's supposed determinism—a higher principle or being absolutely enacts the future.The concern is that in accepting predestination, we make puppets out of people. Consider the love of a married couple: Is this love just God playing Ken and Barbie with them? To think that the most precious things on this earth are merely the robotic machinations of a control-freak God is heinous. But even more heinous to some is the thought that God wants evil in the world for his ultimate purposes and that we are just pawns in the game. People want to protect God. It is easier to accept a world spun out of control, with evil abounding, than a world ordered by God where evil has a chosen place.At this point, it is useful to distinguish between the absolute power and the ordered power of God.According to the absolute power of God, every action could be determined, down to the fly landing on your nose in the middle of the night. If God wills the fly to land on you, he just wills it and it's done. God, the only being with a truly free will, has the power to do anything he wants; only in God are will and power equal. Humans cannot bring about whatever they will, so their power is limited, and thus so is their free will.Limited free will, though, does not equal determinism. It means functioning within the ordered power of God. Ordered power is the framework within which creatures operate; it is only within this framework that they can know anything at all about God. Precisely because God is not interested in determinism but in choosing a people for himself, he operates through this ordered framework by which measly human beings can relate to him and love him, still at his own initiative.The dome of ordered power has lots of room for free will, if you still want to call it that.Luther writes of free will, "If we do not want to drop this term altogether—which would really be the safest and most Christian thing to do—we may still in good faith teach people to use it to credit man with 'free will' in respect not of what is above him but of what is below him" (The Bondage of the Will).Luther goes on to explain that people are free to use their possessions as they please, make and break relationships as they please, even eat dessert as they please, all the while acknowledging that it is within God's prerogative to overrule these things if he so desires.On the other hand, Luther continues, "With regard to God, and in all that bears on salvation or damnation, [man] has no 'free will' but is a captive, prisoner, and bondslave, either to the will of God or to the will of Satan."Predestination is not interested in the clockwork routine of everyday life but in how God is in control of the things above us.
A mule with a mind
The next wall, a wall of sticks, is non-predestinarians' horror at the thought that we are, as Luther would say, only mules with minds. Surely, they reason, it is more meaningful and fulfilling for God if his creatures willingly turn to him in love than if we are mere mules, as Luther would say, to be ridden by God or the devil and injected with love or hate accordingly. Predestination seems to render incomprehensible the love shown at the Incarnation and Crucifixion if our fate was fixed beforehand.Yet it is part and parcel of human sin that we want to usurp God's right to be the Creator of everything, including love, and to stand in some neutral position in respect to God. Let us explain.God is love, the Bible so forcefully tells us. All love has its source in him and cannot exist independently of him. So no standard of love exists outside God, because that would wrongly place love over and above God. God's love is not self-centered or megalomaniacal, it is important to note, because God is Trinity. Godly love is always communal, interactive, dynamic love. God enjoys and accepts the love that comes from his creatures even though he himself grants it to them, precisely because his love is intrinsically communal, bearing the Trinitarian imprint. Given that all love has its source in God, if love is in us, then we are not neutral.This lack of neutrality offends free will. The human creature demands the right to make his own decisions. He follows in the footsteps of father Adam, who wanted to claim neutrality for himself (against the good decision of God to withhold the fruit) by gaining knowledge of good and evil. Adam thought this knowledge would allow him to make decisions as if he were God—without the input of God.But that step toward neutrality was actually the first step away from God. Neutrality toward God's love and command turned out not to be neutrality at all, but sin, death, and the devil. Adam tried to use the free will granted him by his own good createdness in order to control a thing above him—the knowledge of good and evil—seeking "neutral" knowledge rather than knowledge of God.But knowledge is never neutral. The devil wasn't kidding when he said we would be like God, knowing good and evil; the catch was that we didn't have the power to resist evil once we came to know it. Now we are so bound by evil that we cannot even begin to have anything like neutral knowledge of it—we're right in the middle of it, and we can't neutrally choose our way out. How prideful for the human being to think he can step away from his sins for a minute and make a good choice about God! As the evangelist John says in 8:34, "Everyone who sins is a slave to sin." Embarrassingly enough, we are captives to our own lust for neutrality, which in fact kills neutrality utterly. The only way out is by the rescue of Christ's atoning death. If the Crucifixion is only about restoring God's lost honor and our lost neutrality, then there is an apparent disagreement between Father and Son about the problem of the human race. Instead of a dramatic act of saving love, the Crucifixion is nothing more than a violent transaction within the Godhead.We are so bound to sin and the devil that the only way we can survive the violence of their death is through baptism. Baptism is the Holy Spirit binding us to Jesus instead of to sin. Jesus plunges with us into death in order to pull us back out again, sin-free and devil-free. Before baptism we are dead to righteousness. After baptism, we are dead to sin. But nothing that is dead can take action for itself. Our corpses moldering in the grave have life breathed into them by the Holy Spirit. Life in the Spirit is just not neutral.Most of the argument here would be affirmed by people who opt for free will. They will say that God is the prime actor; he is the one who grants us faith and grace in order that we can come to him.And they are right. The only problem is that what they are describing is not free will. To refer again to The Bondage of the Will:
You describe the power of free will as small, and wholly ineffective apart from the grace of God. Agreed? Now then, I ask you: if God's grace is wanting, if it is taken away from that small power, what can it do? It is ineffective, you say, and can do nothing good. … Hence it follows that free will without God's grace is not free will at all. … What is ineffective power but (in plain language) no power?
The cumulative effect of predestination thus far is to put all the emphasis on God's grace and initiative. We are not denying human involvement. But we are denying human neutrality and human ability to effect the things of salvation.
The point is God
Now we come to the third wall, a brick wall: If God has already made up his mind, why does he demand we go out and make disciples of all nations? Why go to church? Why lead a Christian life? What's the point? The point is God.Salvation is not an end in itself. That's one of the reasons we are skeptical about free will. Salvation all too often becomes an idol that gets all of our attention simply because it's all about us.The Shorter Catechism of the Westminster Standards reminds us that "man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." Sin keeps us from seeing the face of God, but salvation takes that barrier away, and grace prepares us to see the holy countenance. Predestination tells us what the end of our existence is before our existence even begins.This means that our lives are not just a little window in eternity in which we get one shot at claiming the prize of salvation for ourselves. That would make the stuff of life meaningless and distracting. If we are confident in the promises of the gospel, we don't have to be panicky about eternity. Instead, we can enjoy grace in all the ways it comes to us.God's salvation is not an abstract concept. It happens to moms and dads and brothers and sisters and firefighters and tax collectors and nurses and, yes, even to pastors.It is manifested through a little baby born in a manger, in a little town in Judea. In the baby Jesus, God brought together the things from above and the things from below. For this reason, the Incarnation is fundamentally important. It is not just the Crucifixion by itself but the Crucifixion of the God-Man that procures our salvation.God's absoluteness is too much for us, so he shows himself to us through ordered power. The order of creation is created to order our salvation. Grace is not a mist that randomly diffuses through the air, hitting some people and missing others; predestination may be mysterious, but it is not arbitrary.Predestination explains why we come together in church. The church as the body of Christ is the intersection of things above us and below us.We drive ourselves there on Sunday mornings, sing the hymns the pastor picks, tithe or not according to our inclination. But, through these ordinary activities below us, the goods of salvation come to us from above as God desires.We don't go to church to get saved—we go because we are saved. We are all in the same big ark together, comforting each other with the promises of predestination despite the pouring rain. We haven't made it to Mount Ararat yet. Even while we're waiting for the sign of the rainbow, we lose our balance and stumble; sometimes we feel like we're about to be thrown overboard by our sins. But the ark is the only place where we can learn how to struggle against them. The stormy seas are a reality from which we cannot be spared, but all the while we know that inside the ark we are ultimately safe.In the ark that is the church, we are kept safe by, among other things, the sacraments. Baptism, for example, binds us to the body of Christ so that we are inseparable from it; the church is called the body of Christ for this reason. We are all bound to Christ and therefore to each other. If we have the will of Christ, we will learn to fight against sin along with Christ.That's why the sacraments are so important: they are how God works out his predestination in people. God chose his elect beforehand, but church and sacraments are how he makes his choice a reality.The same goes for proclamation. The preacher is actually out there gathering God's people for him, indiscriminately throwing the seed everywhere. The preacher has no way of judging which is the best soil. It is not the preacher's job to know but only to plant.What about people outside the church, then? What happens to the virtuous pagans and the unchurched heathen? Will pagans' virtue go unnoticed by God? Are heathens at fault for never hearing the gospel? Must Christians assume their damnation because they are not part of the church?Again, we refer back to the absolute and ordered power of God. Neither power is contingent upon the human reaction because, as we said before, all humans are in bondage to sin. It is within God's absolute power to save anyone and everyone, but we just don't know how God works absolutely.What we do know is this: God has an ordered scheme for salvation that Christians recognize. As Christians, we look at our faith and realize that it came from God. That's the whole point of our doctrine of predestination.But precisely because we know only God's ordered power, and not God's absolute power, we have to take a humble attitude toward our knowledge about predestination. It doesn't tell us anything about the salvation of people outside the church; only God needs to know that. Meanwhile, we are exhorted to go to all nations to tell them that Christ offers salvation on the basis of his death for their sins. It's as simple as that.With all the obscuring walls knocked away, we can see the grandeur of predestination for what it really is: God has saved us in spite of ourselves because he loves us more than we love our sin.God's predestining judgments are far more merciful than the judgments of human pride. If we really stuck to our human principles of justice, we would send everyone to hell—because everyone deserves it, and human beings know precious little about mercy.Don't forget: It is within God's right and absolute power to send us all to hell, too, because in our bondage we have chosen hell for ourselves over God. But that's not what we focus on. Ironically, for all the affection we feel toward the doctrine of predestination, once we've made our case for it we really don't need to talk about it much.Predestination is how the divine attributes—omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and eternity—move from absoluteness to orderedness so that we can know God. The real focal point for us is not all these things, beyond our creaturely capacity for understanding, but the Cross of Christ, where the wedding of God and man takes place. Predestination assures us that the Crucifixion was God's way of choosing us forever and ever. Amen.
"This stuff just happens"
When we found ourselves turned into predestinarians that lovely February afternoon, neither of us thought it would be anything more than an academic reorientation of our doctrinal commitments. Like all good doctrine, however, it wasn't content to stay a mere mental construct but took root in our souls and shaped them for the better. We didn't even know it was happening. Spring came, the flowering trees turned pink, and one day we suddenly wanted to tell each other about all the gifts of the Spirit that had been showered upon us since midterm break.We both recognized that something different about our outlook on the world had been quietly and mysteriously altering our attitudes. The most astounding thing was that when we compared notes to see when all these things started to happen, our common point of departure was that afternoon in our dorm when the heavens broke open and predestination descended like a dove. Ironic as it sounds, accepting predestination into our lives was the most freeing thing that had ever happened to us spiritually. We were free to be creatures again! We no longer had the burden of trying to be the Creator. Once we stopped trying to interfere with the things above us, we had the energy and motivation to concentrate on the things below us, which is our proper task anyway.Jennifer: I shed my inclination to categorize people on the street, fearing what a stranger's motivations might be. Instead I started to see in every individual the person that Christ had died for.As a result, I became concretely interested in serving others, while before it had always seemed a necessary but burdensome obligation. Mission work became appealing for the first time in my life. Subconsciously I had viewed other people as a means to accomplishing good works. It was never as obvious as works-righteousness, because I knew I couldn't be saved by works. But I had lived the Christian life in service of my own ideas about being a Christian. That got old fast, and when the change came, I was more than happy to let it go.Sarah: I had suffered from my own mistaken notions about the Christian life. I once tried to master prayer for reasons that are almost too embarrassing to repeat. My Christian colleagues, I noticed, had much busier and more active prayer lives than I did.My response was not gratitude for the gift the Spirit had given them but jealousy that I didn't have it. So I undertook a heavy load of daily prayers in order to bring myself up to snuff, so I would be a better Christian.It hardly needs saying that my plan didn't work well. Within a month I burned out, and the very thought of prayer nauseated me. It wasn't until I gave up trying to control the Spirit—whether about my salvation or my spiritual gifts—that suddenly I began to desire prayer.It was joyful, pleasant, exciting, excruciating, and gut-wrenching all in one, and soon I found it difficult to do without, even though I had been managing (or so I thought) for such a long time without it. For the first time in my life, I even wanted to pray out loud with other people, something that had never been a part of my piety before.Jennifer and Sarah: Our gratitude overwhelms us, and that is the real motivation behind our actions. We aren't particularly trying to obey the law; this stuff just happens, wells up out of us like a spring. That's how we figured out that fear of moral laxity isn't a legitimate objection to the teaching of predestination. We don't get it all right—not by a long shot—but the idea of being indifferent to God's demands is simply unthinkable.Our intellectual adjustment to predestination has completely transfigured everything in our lives. We can't get through Communion without crying. We have been reconciled to people we held grudges against. We are more willing to laugh at our foibles, and we admit to our sins more easily. We have rediscovered the treasure of private confession and absolution among Christians.Even in the midst of our sorrows and screwups, we aren't going to get thrown out of the ark. We have discovered our paradoxically bound freedom, and for us as creatures, it is the only real freedom.
Jennifer L. Bayneand Sarah E. Hinlicky are M.Div. students at Princeton Theological Seminary. This is part of an occasional series on doctrinal renewal, sponsored by a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc.
Read a brief overview of predestination and free will and a synopsis of Calvinism from the soc.religion.christian newsgroup archives at the appropriately named server geneva.rutgers.edu.Read about salvation and predestination directly from Calvin's Institutes.The Modern History Sourcebook offers " John Calvin: On Predestination."Read an article about how Calvin's views about predestination shaped his thinking on missions and evangelism. Catholic views of predestination are also available online.Read some of Luther's writings about predestination, or link to the abridged text of Luther's Bondage of the Will.For teachers interested in finding ways to engage class discussion about how predestination effected early American Puritans, the National Humanities Center has lesson and discussion ideas.Christianity Today's sister publications have touched on these topics: Christian History recently ran " Fighting Words" and Books&Culture Reviewed Sproul's Book on free will in " Robots with Choice?"Previous Christianity Today articles about predestination and free will include:Don't Hate Me Because I'm Arminian | My Reformed friends sometimes treat me like the enemy, but actually we need each other. (September 6, 1999) Why Calvin Was a Calvinist | Rediscovering the Geneva Reformer in his long-lost catechism. (June 15, 1998) Sproul on the Will | This influential Calvinist's account of the free-will problem would have profited from a stronger reading of Calvin. (March 2, 1998) Why We Still Need Luther | Four hundred fifty years after his death, Martin Luther can still inspire and guide us. (Oct. 28, 1996)Sarah E. Hinlicky discussed gender protocol in the workplace in a Christianity Today online discussion in November 1999, and reviewed Chloe Breyer's The Close for the current issue of Books & Culture. She is also a former editorial assistant for First Things, where she wrote " Talking to Generation X," " Don't Write About Race." She has also written on Mary for Regeneration Quarterly.
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