Thursday, May 24, 2012

I ♥ Predestination (Three: A Date With Destiny)

"I went down to the potter’s house, and saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from clay was marred in his hands; so he formed it into another pot...then the Lord said: 'Family of are in my hands like the clay in the potter's hands. There may come a time when I will speak about a nation or a kingdom that I will pull up by its roots or that I will pull down to destroy it. But if the people of that nation stop doing evil, I will change my mind and not carry out my plans to bring disaster to them. There may come another time when I will speak about a nation that I will build up and plant. But if I see it doing evil by not obeying me, I will change my mind and not carry out my plans to do good for them.'" — Jeremiah 18:3-10
"Luke, you can destroy the Emperor. He has forseen this.
It is your destiny..." —Darth Vader

If you grew up like me—evangelical, Bible-believing—you never heard anybody cite the passage above when discussing Romans 9. And you can see why not: it portrays a flexible potter, dealing with wet clay that is either willing or unwilling. Potters and clay were very familiar to 1st Century Jews...surely this descriptive story from Jeremiah would've colored the way they thought about Paul's 9th chapter to the Romans.

The relationship between potter and clay is dynamic. Everything is moving. And God is telling us that when he plans for something in the human realm, the way we humans react affects whether he carries out his original scheme. On top of that, he's also making sure we know how to react to obtain the best result—for ourselves

Romans 9 isn't at all about Predestination. Paul is talking about the new deal between God and mankind after Jesus split history in two. He's talking about the way salvation is now being made available, and to whom (ie: everybody). And even in chapter 8, where the word Predestination does appear, it's in the context of "those who"...another to-be-named-later group.

The vast preponderance of scripture leans toward individual humans having the freedom to choose their own ultimate fate. There are a few passages that seem to counter that theme...which, to my mind, would lead a reasonable person to seek alternative explanations for the minority passages. Calvin threw out the wrong stuff.

Here's what God has put out there for each of us: a destiny. A destination. He has not pre-programmed us into pre-cast, pre-hardened canals that will deposit us into either heaven or hell. No, he's got us on a spinning wheel and we are each of us pliable, dynamic moral agents who may or may not cooperate with his shaping hand.

Every day I need to remember that a destiny has been prepared for me to fulfill, and there is a destination ("I go to prepare a place for you...") to which I should aspire. And he is right behind me: "Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, 'This is the way; walk in it.'” — Isaiah 30:21

I call that a risky, bracing, beautiful adventure. I ♥ Predestination.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I ♥ Predestination (Two: Prepared In Advance)

The first debate I had about Romans chapter 9 took place when I was still in high school in 1974. I just couldn't swallow the notion that God pre-determined the ultimate outcome of my life before the universe was built. It struck me as very un-Jesus-like. I actually found it a monstrous belief which makes God the author of evil. No amount of mental gymnastics has convinced me I'm not free to choose-me-this-day-whom-I-will-serve. 
It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, 
but you're gonna have to serve somebody.
— 2 Dylan 1:1

So what is Romans 9 about? Mainly God's exclusive covenant with the Jews: specifically the way so many of them had misinterpreted God's promises, and how God has the right to show mercy to Jews and Gentiles. Note that the word "Predestination" doesn't appear in the chapter (though "election" is used to describe Isaac being chosen as the one of Abraham's sons through whom the Messiah would be born). Interestingly, the chapter's opening statement drops a bombshell on the Jews, which we Gentile readers oughta consider: to wit, not all of God's Chosen People will make it to their hoped-for destination.

This is a problem for those who think God is stage-managing his creation toward a completely manufactured outcome. I mean, since many "chosen" Jews will miss the inheritance, then wouldn't Gentiles be subject to the same risk? Calvin said God pre-determined certain individuals as elect. But how'd that whole chosen thing work out for the Jews? 

In Romans 9 Paul is defending God against Jews crying foul for letting unwashed Gentiles into the party—and especially for telling Jews they can no longer stand on their tradition and lineage as a ticket to heaven. Misunderstanding God's promises can ruin your whole day.

The key to understanding Predestination lies in the distinction between groups and individuals. Every Bible passage dealing with Predestination—all two them—speaks of groups of people. Never once in scripture is a Christian believer named as having been Predestined or Elected. Paul was chosen for the vocation of an Apostle, but there's nothing saying God pre-selected Paul before he was born (even Jacob, Esau and John The Baptist are said to have been chosen after conception). Nor did Paul say he had no choice in the matter of his conversion, or in regards to carrying out the task God assigned him. In fact three days after being blinded, he was still trying to figure things out when Ananias came to pray for him. 

If you believe in pre-selection, indulge me in a thought experiment: imagine that Predestination refers not to God pre-determining the fate of individuals, but his pre-configuring of an ideal team. The players aren't yet born, but God knows exactly what type of players he wants. In fact, he even goes so far as to create good works for them to do  (Ephesians 2:10). So good plays were literally prepared in advance for God's team to carry out. 

Paul got on a roll talking to the believers in Ephesus about Predestination. But notice how often in the first fourteen verses he uses the words "we", "us", "our" and the plural of "you" (ie: you-Ephesian-believers). He starts to crescendo in verses 11 and 12, literally laying out the whole Team Concept, saying "In [Christ] we have obtained an inheritance, having been  predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory." So that's your "elect"...the ones who hope in Christ. And it's an open group too—whosoever will, may come.

This player-to-be-named idea kinda messes with the "U" of TULIP. Fine with me. Calvin's Unconditional Election flies in the face of a Bible that is all about conditional, propositional choices: if you “...believe in the Lord Jesus, you will be saved, you and your household.” From Genesis ("If you do well, will you not be accepted?") to Revelation ("He who overcomes shall not be hurt by the second death.”) the onus is on individuals to choose, to act, to obey, to persevere, to overcome, to stand fast and on and on.

In the third and last installment, we'll take a more personal look at why Predestination should be part of our thinking every day.

Coming Soon:
I ♥ Predestination (Three: A Date With Destiny)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I ♥ Predestination (One: It's Not What You Think)

Among Christianity's handful of mind-bending doctrinal issues, it's hard to top Predestination as The Terminator of theological debates. I recently heard an entire sermon about it, prompting me to examine the subject in this space.
"The Saved and The Damned"
Rouen Cathedral, France
All the fuss about Predestination comes about from its plain conflict with other doctrines. As posited by Augustine and interpreted by Calvin, Predestination subverts two key Christian beliefs: first that Jesus died for the sins of everybody, and second that everybody is free to receive Christ's saving grace. Seeking primarily to preserve what has come to be called God's "sovereignty," Calvin asserted that Jesus died for only some people (the "L" in TULIP stands for Limited Atonement). He also concluded that, since God's will must be done, grace is therefore irresistible (the letter "I"). Thus demolishing any notion of free will by contending that God forces his grace upon those he has pre-selected. On the upside, Calvin's five-point plan confirms the once-saved-always-saved creed, cherished by many believers. But I digress.

The word Predestination appears in exactly two passages in the Bible, both written by the Apostle Paul—once in a letter to the believers in Rome, the other to the Ephesians. He does not define it or explain it (though he does quote some OT scriptures that shed a little light on the subject...more on this in Part Three).

Of course the discussion can't avoid related concepts like foreknowledge and the elect and the chosen. The sermon I heard rejected Calvinism, but ended up endorsing the most demoralizing and extreme TULIP position, that of Double Predestination. DP has God not only pre-selecting which individuals would be saved, but intentionally creating others for the purpose of tormenting them in endless agony. That is to say, God not only knew in advance that Sister Buggins' wayward son would refuse to repent, but God actually pre-decided for Joe—pre-fabricating his refusal, and weaving it into his DNA—then creating Joe anyway, destined for the slow-roaster.

Turn in your hymnals to "I've Got The Joy, Joy, Joy". 

If Predestination means pre-selection, then Sister Buggins gave birth to a spawn of Satan. Yikes. Lots of modern believers reject Calvinism, but for some reason when it comes to Predestination they allow Augustinian/Calvinist definitions to stand. Thus pre-destination continues to be widely assumed to mean pre-determination of which individuals will enter earthly life on the "saved" track and which are born on the "damned" track.

So having set the stage, let me say there is a Biblical, common-sense—and beautiful—case for non-Calvinist Predestination. One in which Jesus does die for the sins of all, and one which does not subvert free will.

Next time: 
I ♥ Predestination (Two: Prepared In Advance)