Thursday, May 7, 2009

Predestination: Part I in a VI Part Series

One of the High School students from my youth group recently posted a note on Facebook concerning predestination and it has generated abundant conversation amongst the students on her friend list. This has inspired me to begin a blog series on the subject.
The reason predestination keeps on coming up in our youth group discussions is this: if you believe, preach, and, teach grace you're going to eventually have to deal with predestination no matter what the outcome.
Think about it, if you believe that we are saved by grace alone (Eph 2:5) don't the following questions begin to arise:
    "Why does God work in one way but not in another?"
    "Why does he work in some people's lives but no in the lives of others?"
    "He must have his reasons!"
This is where we are forced to deal with predestination (Zahl 96).
In his book, 2000 years of Amazing Grace, my old professor Paul Zahl writes:
"Predestination is the ultimate hot potato in the history of Christian theology. Nothing is able to divide a church—to divide friends and neighbors in faith from one another—like the concept of predestination… Whole churches and sects have been founded according to what a particular teacher or minister had to say about predestination" (94).
In one of his other books, Grace in Practice, Zahl also said that even the mere mention of this subject at a social function was enough to give him, "all the elbow room in the world" (95).
This being said, for reasons that I will discuss later in the series, I believe that predestination is something that any Christian who believes in salvation by grace alone has to grapple with at some point in his/her life. I personally began to grapple with this subject in my early 20s when I really started diving into the Bible. Dealing with passages particularly from the gospel of John and the epistles of Paul really prompted me to beg the question. Here are some examples:
John 1:12-13
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (There is an antinomy at work here, but will get to that later)
John 6:44
44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.

Romans 9:15-23 15 For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." 16 So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. 17 For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "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." 18 So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. 19 You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" 20 But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" 21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…
Romans 11:5-8
5 So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. 6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. 7 What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, 8 as it is written, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day."

There are many others passages from Paul's epistles not to mention the rest of the New Testament and the Old that seem to support the idea of predestination, but to sight the all right now would be too much. Even from the small sampling of Scriptures above, the sovereignty of God is something that demands we look at this doctrine.
This being the case I would like to spend my next six posts doing a series on predestination with the goal of generating some. As you probably can tell by reading any other blogs I've done I'm coming from a reformed and mainly Lutheran slant when it comes to theology and my understanding of predestination is no exception. I've read the other views and I feel that Luther adequately described predestination without going too far. Because of my initial bias, I hope to receive some input from other backgrounds such as Catholic, Methodist, Baptists, etc… with views that are different than mine.
To do all of this these next six post are going to explore predestination through the eyes of five different theologians. In the first three posts we're going to looking at the biggies: Saint Augustine, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. The two following posts will be focusing on contemporary scholars Rod Whitacre and Paul F.M. Zahl's understandings of predestination and its implications. Lastly, the final post shall just be my own personal thoughts on the subject.
By way of avoiding confusion, the basic definition of predestination that we're working with here (and it is by no means the only right one) is pretty much this (this is the beginning of Augustine's view): "If grace is a gift, God must be free to offer it, or not to offer it, on the basis of any external consideration. If it is offered on the basis of any such consideration, it is no longer a gift—it is a reward for a specific action or attitude" (McGrath 466). For Augustine and the reformers grace only remains gracious if it is nothing more and nothing less than a gift (466). Thus, this obviously spurns the question, why do some receive the gift and some don't. This is the question that theologians have been wrestling with for 2000 years and it is this that I want to discuss over the next several weeks.
I want to finish this post with note of warning from John Calvin concerning investigation into this multifaceted subject. He writes that when we inquire into predestination we are:
Penetrating the sacred precincts of divine wisdom. If anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit. For it is not right for man unrestrainedly to search out things that the Lord has willed to be hid in himself, and to unfold from eternity itself the sublimest wisdom, which he would have us revere but not understand that through this also he should fill us with wonder. He has set forth by his Word the secretes of his will that he has decided to reveal to us. These he decided to reveal in so far as he foresaw that they would concern us and benefit us.
In short, we must approach this mystery in awe and wonder staying close at all times to the revealed word of God in Scripture and the interpretations that have been handed down to us by the Church.
I hope this series blesses you or at least gets you thinking a bit.
Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. 2

McGrath, Alister. Christian Theology: an Introduction
Zahl, Paul. Christianity Primer: 2000 Years of Amazing Grace & Grace in Practice



Jay Miklovic said...

you know full well you are going to receive some methodist feedback and it is going to be some hard hitting - ornery monkey business!

How did your inspection go?

Kent said...

Have you seen all the materials posted at I thought you might be interested:

Jay Miklovic said...

Brother Shawn... I have been dying to read part 2 of 6.

It would be interesting to take a few of our kids and stage some formal theological debate this summer, predestination would be a great topic. I do not know if my kids would be interested in that or not, but it may be a worthwhile way to get them studying scripture in depth to prepare.

Shawn said...

Neat thought Jay... Maybe maybe...

John Zahl said...

Shawn, this whole series is excellent! Thanks for the helpful overview. -JAZ+