Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Reflections on Predestination and Free Will

The following was originally published, in a different form, a few years ago in the Fuller student newsletter, the SEMI.

My wife’s parents are committed Christians, and would certainly describe themselves as "Evangelical," but they do not see themselves as belonging to a single denomination.  This is borne out by the fact that their three children, all fully grown, each themselves attends a church from a different denomination: one is Catholic, one has been attending a Mennonite congregation, and another (my wife) is Episcopalian (incidentally, she's being ordained as a Deacon on Saturday!).  When my wife and I first started dating, her parents had recently joined a church that identified itself (broadly) within the Presbyterian tradition.  Upon learning that I was a Presbyterian, my future in-laws immediately wanted to ask me about an issue that seemed to loom large in their new church: predestination.  To this day, the topic still comes up frequently.

I struggle with my response to such questions.  It’s not so much that I don’t have an opinion on predestination, but that despite growing up as a Presbyterian, this isn’t an issue that I care about enough to argue about.  There’s no question but that predestination has often been a contentious issue.   At Fuller, we’re bound to have people with strongly held differing opinions on it. I don’t have any desire to add fuel to the argumentative fire, but in the interests of greater understanding, perhaps I can explain how at least I, as one person from a specific tradition, view the issue.

Few people dispute that the word προοριζω appears a number of times in the New Testament text, and although the word is translated in various ways, I don’t see that anyone disputes the basic meaning of the word as “predestination.”  But while we can safely say “it’s in the Bible,” there obviously remains a considerable amount of room for discussion on what is meant by the concept of predestination in regards to God’s plan for us. Who is predestined?  What are we “predestined” for?  Is this a reference to the heavenly destiny of Christians, or just about becoming Christian itself? Does it say more about who God is than about what God is doing?  And, of course, the biggie: What is the place of human free will?  Are we puppets, and free will is only an illusion?

My in-laws are particularly interested in that free will question.  Despite being exposed to several different denominations over the years, they’d never been given reason to seriously question the idea that human beings have free will until joining the “predestination” church.  Real-life observation certainly seems to support the idea of free will. When asked about this question, I’m often reminded of the teachings of Jonathan Edwards, who argued along the lines that human beings have free will to do whatever they want, but apart from God’s grace, will never have the inclination to choose God.  This, at least, allows for the obvious reality that people choose to do “ungodly” things all the time, and does not make us “puppets.”

Unfortunately, this answer doesn’t really address the problem that, if God does “predestine” people to become Christians, God is also responsible for the fact that many people do not accept Christ (therefore, many would argue, God is responsible for sending such people to hell).  Of course, the problem of whether or not all people get to heaven is, itself, a topic of great debate among many Christians, and that's an issue that deserves a discussion all its own.  At the very least, Christians who do believe that God predestines only some people need to admit that this is an issue that makes God look bad, and stock Reformed explanations such as “all people are sinners, so God shouldn’t let anyone into heaven at all, and the fact that God does choose some is a sign of God’s grace” really don’t do much to make God look any less bad.

I said at the beginning of this article that this isn’t an issue I care all that much about.  That’s only partly true.  The fact is, this issue has been deeply engrained in my sense of call.  When I arrived at Fuller, I was already in the middle of the ordination process.  As Presbyterians seeking ordination know only too well, part of the process involves passing several ordination examinations.  I’ve passed all of my examinations except for one: theological competence.  After the fifth (and so far, final) time I took the exam, I was told that, while I could be seen to be “thinking theologically” in the Reformed tradition, I did not go deep enough into specific theologians and specific theologies to warrant a passing grade.  Although there were many factors, I suspect that one was that I could not, in good conscience, advocate a strict Calvinist theory of predestination that does not accept the possibility that human free will plays into the reception of God grace.

As an ecumenical Christian, I prefer to focus on the fundamentals that Christians agree on, rather than on specific theologies (such as predestination) that are the source of so much division between Christians.  I can only guess as to what the implications of this stance may be for my potential ordination within my own tradition, but as one who feels that God calls people of all kinds of Christian belief to live in unity, I can only respond as Martin Luther did, when bucking the trend of his tradition: “Here I stand, I can do no other.” In the midst of it all, I have faith that God will somehow get me to where God wants me to be.

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