[This discussion follows on from the previous blog article: ‘Predestination: what does it mean?’, a brief word study outlining the New Testament’s teaching about predestination].
It is a great shame that the doctrine of predestination has come to be seen as a controversial and difficult to understand theological topic. When properly understood it is both simple and beautiful, revealing God’s love for humanity and His glorious purposes in creation. Sadly much of this beautiful truth has been buried under centuries of controversy and erroneous tradition.
What’s the problem?
Divergent interpretations of predestination present starkly different views when it comes to the nature and character of God, the way He relates to human beings, His purposes, and His activity in human history.
It’s hard not to caricature a point of view when summarising, but the two positions sketched below give some idea of the difference it can make.
Augustinian Calvinist/reformed position
Because of the great influence of Augustine on reformation theologians and subsequent church history, this is often seen as the “traditional” view. However, critics would say it is not traditional enough, pointing to the widespread and dramatic theological changes that Augustine ushered in during the 4th/5th centuries.
In short, a consistent Augustinian-Calvinist position holds that God knew and pre-determined with certainty every event (small or large) that would happen in the whole of human history. Free choice is therefore an illusion, as every choice we make has been pre-determined and inevitable since the foundation of the world. Every event is orchestrated and controlled by God, whether good or evil. God also, therefore, decided before creation which individuals would respond to Him and which would reject Him, thus determining who would receive eternal life and who would be condemned to hell. In this view, nothing happens that is not the will of God.
It is easy to see why proponents of this view wrestle to reconcile a God of love with the ‘problem of evil’–a problem which only exists as such if you think that God is willing and controlling all the evil. It is also easy to see why people who face radical evil and suffering in their lives struggle with the concept that it is the fore-ordained will of God, and that God is in control of every aspect of it.
A lost doctrine?
I remember the impact it had on me when I first heard Roger Forster (co-author of ‘God’s Strategy in Human History’) preach on the subject of predestination and the ‘beautiful thought’ of God. Ephesians 1:5 speaks of the ‘kind intention’, ‘purpose’, ‘good pleasure’, or ‘pleasure and will’ of God (according to the various English versions). The Greek word translated is eudokia, made up of two smaller Greek ideas: eu (good, well, excellent, beautiful) and dokia (from dokeo: to think, consider, recognise), hence Roger’s rendering: ‘beautiful thought’.
The hypothetical story of God’s beautiful thought that is used to illustrate predestination then runs like this: before creation, Father, Son and Holy Spirit exist in perfect loving union. At a particular point in time, God has the biggest thought He could possibly have: “let us make man in our own image”. Not as some other kind of weird or wonderful creature, nor some angelic being, but man made in the image of God. Developing character takes time, so becoming like God in character must take plenty of time–you cannot snap your fingers and produce Christ-like character overnight. It would also require freedom, choice and the ability to love.
Thus human beings are made with the ability and potential to love like God, and to be conformed to the image of His Son–this is their pre-destiny (Rom 8:29). The possibility comes with great risk (as love always does), a risk that would ultimately cost the pain and sacrifice of the cross. Yet the possibility of human beings made in the image of God–with the potential for real love and Christ-like character–was worth both the risk and the price to be paid. Love longs to give, create and share–despite the risks.
Could human beings reject this purpose? Yes (Genesis 2-3; Luke 7:30). Were the risks, human weaknesses, and all these possibilities foreknown by God? Yes (Romans 8:26-30). Does this mean that every choice and every failure was foreordained and controlled by God? The scripture says nothing of the sort.
Why does it matter?
The way we think about God affects the way we live, the way we treat others, and the kind of people that we become. As Christians, it affects the way we pray, the way we worship, the choices we make, and the way we counsel others. We reflect that which we worship (2 Corinthians 3:18). The biblical teaching of predestination is something to be revelled in, to enjoy–something that should make us rejoice and wonder at the glorious purpose and high calling that God has given to humanity, as well as the love and grace that He has lavished on us despite our failings. It is not something to confuse and perplex us, to make us doubt the integrity of God’s love and character, or to write off as a paradox or unknowable mystery.
To consider the evidence behind these issues in the depth they really deserve, see Forster and Marston ‘God’s Strategy in Human History’ Volumes 1 and 2, available in the shop.