Our starting context
I don’t think a Christian’s belief regarding free will and/or predestination has any direct bearing on the really vital aspects of the faith.
My personal background is Arminian, but I love and respect a great number of Christians who call themselves Calvinistic or Reformed.
And there are plenty of Christians who hold to Arminianism / Catholic / Orthodox beliefs concerning free will that I think have completely gone off the rails on issues that are terribly more important.
That being said, what to make of the positions themselves?
The go-to source for Protestants when talking about anything in Christianity is scripture.
Which brings us to a problem I touched on in the previous few posts: the typical Protestant approach to scripture to begin with.
The problem is that scriptural interpretation is done (subconsciously) according to the philosophy of the Enlightenment: the final arbiter for me determining what scripture means is, well, me.
Even if I reference certain scholars and theologians, it is me choosing which scholars and theologians I agree with.
That’s a big problem because I am biased. Because I have preferences. Because I have agendas that I’m often not even aware of. Most importantly, because that’s not how scripture was ever intended to be read or understood.
Scripture is a book of several writings compiled by the Church, for the Church, to be read and understood by the Church, for the Church. That’s just the fact of what it is, why there’s a Bible to begin with.
We need each other (with the empowering and guidance of the Holy Spirit) to understand what the heck is going on. We need our collective wisdom, the collective wisdom of the saints through the centuries as they’ve been guided by the Spirit.
Because when I sit down with scripture by myself, even with the intent in mind to let the Holy Spirit guide me in my understanding, I am still nonetheless often guided by something else rather than the Spirit – be it my desires or my limited perspective.
The more proper approach
On the surface, scripture seems to present compelling cases for supporting predestination and free will. There are lots of sections referring to saints being predestined for such and such, and lots of verses calling for human response to God.
So depending on what one wants to believe, a good case can be made for either, which is why we’re going to need the Church and not just our personal readings and modern attempts at scholarship.
I want to highlight one principle culled from scripture; one important lesson from Church history; and a general psychological / spiritual observation regarding a lot of good Christians before approaching how to understand scripture in this instance.
Principle from scripture
True doctrines can be misinterpreted, misapplied, and misunderstood, but they are still nonetheless true.
In Paul’s epistles, we see him address potential misunderstandings and rebuke actual misunderstandings of his teachings.
At the end of Romans 5 Paul writes: “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
So is what Paul said here true? Yes, of course. But isn’t one logical thought that could follow something equivalent to: well, if grace is a good thing, and we want more of it, then we ought to sin more to get more grace? Yes! Completely logical.
But Paul anticipates this and doesn’t end his statement there: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Paul shows here that it’s possible to view the truth in a way that makes its application damaging.
The first letter to the Corinthian church is as a whole a rebuke for various abuses the church has committed in wrongly applying Paul’s teachings. We’ll look at just one section as an example, 1 Corinthians 6.
At the end of the chapter, Paul is presumably quoting members of the church interpreting his teachings on Christian freedom (as applied to their sexual practices): “ ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’ The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!”
In this instance, people are actively taking something that is true and misapplying it in damaging ways.
Let’s not let the horrible ways in which the truth can be manipulated preclude our acceptance of it.
Lesson from Church history
There is an incredibly important period in Church history that concerns scriptural interpretation. That period is the era of the Arian Controversy, beginning roughly around 300 A.D.
The Arian Controversy resulted in the first great Council of the Christian Church, Nicaea, in 325 A.D.
The controversy that Arius started questioned the nature of God. The teaching was potent because it made legitimate arguments about who God is based on scripture. Arius taught that only God the Father was actually divine, which was contrary to the then-dominant (and currently orthodox) view that the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equally divine.
Here is the summary of Arius’ argument as quoted from Wikipedia:
Arius maintained that the Son of God was a Creature, made from nothing; and that he was God’s First Production, before all ages. And he argued that everything else was created through the Son. Thus, said Arius, only the Son was directly created and begotten of God; furthermore, there was a time that He had no existence…”were He in the truest sense a son, He must have come after the Father, therefore the time obviously was when He was not, and hence He was a finite being.” Arius appealed to Scripture, quoting verses such as John 14:28: “the Father is greater than I”. And also Colossians 1:15: “the firstborn of all creation.” Thus, Arius insisted that the Father’s Divinity was greater than the Son’s, and that the Son was under God the Father, and not co-equal or co-eternal with Him.
Not only is there a legitimate scriptural interpretation here, but these ideas appealed to the prevalent Platonic philosophy in popular culture (quote also from Wikipedia):
According to Platonism, the One or “first cause” radiated immaterial and material entities in a hierarchical, categorized way…the Christian God could have been given a Platonic veneer: the Father as the “first cause,” the Son or Logos as the primary emanation from the One, and the Spirit as a further emanation of the Logos. Arianism held that the Son of God was a being created by the First Person and could not be considered divine, an attractive option incorporating both classical Greek thought and the historical event of the person of Jesus.
The Council at Nicaea was called to put an end to the debate one way or another. As the story goes, Arius and his supporters were winning the majority until a deacon named Athanasius reminded those gathered why they held to the beliefs about God’s nature that would soon be formalized as the Trinity: because it’s what the first disciples taught.
You and I can twist scripture to mean any number of different things. The question should never be: “What do I or scholars think scripture means?” but rather, “What did the disciples believe scripture taught?”
Because it was the disciples who knew Jesus face-to-face; the disciples who were directly commissioned by Jesus to lay the foundations of the Church; and the disciples (and apostles) who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to write what would comprise the New Testament.
It was the decision of the Council at Nicaea to maintain the Faith of the Fathers, and it should be our decision, as well. This isn’t discounting that the Holy Spirit takes precedent over people and leads where He will, but it’s recognizing Him as He DID lead in the past among those who are the Pillars of the Church. The Holy Spirit is not going to contradict Himself.
General observation of psychology of many Christians
Where your heart leads, your brain will follow.
This is true of us all. Thus if we are to ever hope to be drawn to truth, we need to work on getting our hearts healed.
I have plenty of my own issues that cause me to be overly-sensitive, prone to anger, and slow to patience, so I’m not trying to come across as holier than thou. But there seems to be a common thread among a lot of the Reformers of the 16th and 17th Centuries and subsequently among many of those who are drawn to their teachings to this day.
Roman Catholics today admit there was some bad theology within the Church during Martin Luther’s time that indeed called for reformation.
But when considering the depth of Luther’s reaction in light of what little we can surmise about Luther himself, we are led to the same place that Calvin’s subsequent doctrine of total depravity leads us: an emphasis on how horrible we are.
I.e., low self-esteem and/or self-hatred.
Luther seemingly struggled with self-hatred, which made his reactions to the overly-emphasized works righteousness of Medieval Catholicism that much more visceral. When one has intense negative feelings about the self, then the idea of anything involving the response of the self becomes anathema.
There is beautiful truth within the Reformed tradition reflecting God’s sovereignty, power, grace, mercy and love, but those truths are not only found within the Reformed mode of thinking, nor is it only within the Reformed Tradition that Christians admit sin is a massive problem.
But it is seemingly only within Reformed circles that you see such a strong emphasis on how terrible humans are.
Apart from the psychological ramifications this has, the testimony of Tradition and its understanding of scripture is that God’s heart toward humanity emphasizes its goodness. As Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.”
God calls us to admit our sin and repent from it, but then to positively view who we are in Christ. We are more than conquerors; we can do all things through Christ. We balance this with proper humility but must remember that we are glorified in Christ first and foremost.
What God wants for humanity
Let’s put this all together. The truth is that from the beginning of the Church there has been a strong emphasis on the vital importance people have in making choices.
Any kind of doctrine approaching what is represented in Calvin’s understanding of predestination isn’t seen until St. Augustine, nearly 400 years after the time of Christ and 100 years after Nicaea. On top of that, it is not resoundingly acknowledged that what Augustine wrote regarding predestination means what many Reformed scholars think it means.
Calvinistic predestination thus represents a departure from the teaching of the Church. If Jesus, the disciples, and the Church for at least 400 – 500 years never had even rudimentary teachings that resemble what Calvin taught 1,500 years later (and more importantly, had teachings that run counter to what Calvin taught 1,500 years later), then as followers of Christ we are not to countenance it.
In contrast, what the Church teaches through scripture and tradition is that God is in the process of training us to be like Him.
The entire point of being created in His image; becoming vessels of God Himself by receiving the Holy Spirit; being delegated Christ’s authority on earth by Christ Himself; and being dubbed the brothers and sisters of Christ, who is the firstborn among many, is that we are being molded into creatures like God.
We are intended to become intimately entwined with the Trinity itself, not of the same literal divine essence as God, but as like as possible, exhibiting the same characteristics as God.
Hopefully it goes without saying that one of God’s primary attributes is His will. If we are to become more like God; to act as His stewards of creation; to exercise His authority, our ability to choose is just indispensable. It’s imperative within God’s design for who we are to become.
If you, seemingly like Luther and many other Reformers, struggle with this concept, it is possible that it’s an area of your life that needs more healing. There’s no shame in this because we all need healing in different parts of our hearts – none of us are immune.
Your heart – you – are good. Tainted by sin, yes, but nonetheless good. Especially so if Christ is redeeming you. It is Christ in us who is the hope of glory, not ourselves. Fear not.
He is with us.