This will not be a comprehensive view for or against the Reformed or Calvinist doctrine of predestination. There are a ton of writings and postings on this topic out there.
It is just a summary of an interesting position I came across from The People’s New Testament Commentary by M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock.
Let this be a launching point for possible reflection or further discussion. I don’t think any position for or against predestination or election can fully encompass everything that is in God’s mind because He (by definition) is above and beyond all our creeds, confessions, theologies, or philosophical musings we will ever come up with.
In the first order of things come definitions.
In the book, The Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin, edited by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne, Calvin states that:
Eternal election. By which God has predestined some to salvation and others to destruction.
We will never be convinced as we ought, that our salvation flows from God’s free mercy, until we understand eternal election. God’s grace is illustrated by the fact that he does not give away salvation indiscriminately, but gives to some what he denies to others. Ignorance of this great truth detracts from God’s glory and prevents true humility.
[Paul’s] exact words are, ‘So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it is no longer by works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace’ (Rom. 11:5-6).
Paul clearly states that it is only when salvation is attributed to undeserved election that we can know God saves whom he wills of his own good pleasure. He is under obligation to no one.
… Scripture clearly proves that God, by his eternal and unchanging will, determined once and for all those whom he would one day admit to salvation and those whom he would consign to destruction. His decision about the elect is based on this free mercy with no reference to human deserving. Equally, those whom he dooms to destruction are shut off from eternal life by his perfect, but incomprehensible, judgment… The unbelievers are cut off from the knowledge of his name and the sanctification of his Spirit, a preview of their coming judgment. I shall not bother to refute some of the stupid ideas men have raised to overthrow predestination, but deal only with genuine queries.” (pp. 213-214, 216)
(I love his last sentence by the way.)
Furthermore, to clarify the position of predestination/election even further, R.C. Sproul, one of the preeminent defenders of Reformed theology today states in his book Chosen by God: Know God’s perfect plan for His glory and His children (1986):
“What predestination means, in its most elementary form, is that our final destination, heaven or hell, is decided by God not only before we get there, but before we are even born. It teaches that our ultimate destiny is in the hands of God. Another way of saying it is this: From all eternity, before we ever live, God decided to save some members of the human race and to let go the rest of the human race perish. God made a choice – he chose some individuals to be saved unto everlasting blessedness in heaven and others he chose to pass over, to allow them to follow the consequences of their sins into eternal torment in hell.” (p. 22)
One major biblical text theologians and pastors use to defend a biblical “proof” of predestination is
“For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” – Romans 8:29-30
Theologians call this the ordo salutis, Latin for “order of salvation”.
I’m not going to exhaustively point out every nuanced definition of predestination and election by every Reformed systematic theologian, like Wayne Grudem or Berkhof, but it’s all pretty much similar more or less.
So to summarize succinctly: If you’re chosen by God, then great, you’re in; if not, then tough shit. (Though I doubt many pastors would put it in those specific terms.)
So that is the world of theologians who try to piece together the thoughts and revelations within the Bible into a cohesive whole to see how God acts within the world or universe to the best of our knowledge.
Then there are other groups of Christian scholars who take a different view of things and may interpret things a bit differently as they too look into the Bible, but consider more closely the historical, cultural, and linguistic contexts in which the Scripture was written in.
In The People’s New Testament Commentary by Boring and Craddock, when commenting on the book of Romans, the authors insert an excursus on predestination in light of Romans 8:29-30.
“Since language about foreknowledge, election, and predestination is particularly bothersome to many modern readers of the Bible, the following general considerations for interpreting such language are presented to help place biblical statements in their broader biblical and theological context:
- Foreknowledge, election, and predestination are not minor or marginal themes in the Bible, but come to expression in many biblical texts emphasizing God’s sovereignty.
- What predestination does NOT mean: It does not mean that God is to be blamed for the decision of those who do not believe, or that everything that happens ‘had to’ happen, as though our lives and all history were simply the playing of a tape made in advance.
- Biblical language of predestination often applies to groups and categories, not to each individual within those categories. The language about ‘Jacob’ and ‘Esau’ has to do not just with the individuals, but with the nations designated by these names (i.e., Israel and Edom). God is pictured as the one who controls the destinies of nations and groups, not the one who predetermines who will belong to those nations and groups. Thus in Rom. 8:28-30, God predestines that those ‘in Christ’ will finally be conformed to the image of his Son, and is not portrayed as deciding in advance which individuals will be ‘in Christ.’ As in Rom. 9 – 11, what is at stake is God the Creator as Lord of history, not the God who makes separate lists in advance of ‘those accepted’ and ‘those rejected.’
- What God knows and does in the eternal world is expressed in chronological before-and-after terms of our world, but God’s act can never be adequately described in this-worldly chronological categories. In Rom. 8:29-30, the past/present/future dimensions of salvation (see 5:2) are all collapsed into past tense statements, so that even the believers’ future glory is already spoken of as though it were in the past. Using the past tense for the ‘not yet’ is a way of affirming strong faith – it is ‘as good as done’ (see the Magnificant, Luke 1:47-55)
- The language of predestination thus expresses the difference between the human temporal perspective and the divine eternal world. At the moment of decision and action, I know that I am free and responsible to decide and act; in retrospect, I thank God for calling me to the decision and allowing me to make it. At the moment of enlistment, I make my own decision and consider myself a volunteer; in retrospect, I know I am a draftee. Thus in the Gospel of John people come to Jesus in a variety of ways, making their own decision to believe and become Jesus’ disciples (John 1:35-51). Yet already in 1:45 the ‘we have found’ is preceded by the ‘Jesus found’ of 1:43, and Jesus later declares to his disciples at the Last Supper that they did not choose him, but he chose them (15:16; see 6:70). Augustine prayed, “We could not seek thee, if thou hadst not already found us.”
- In the Bible the language of predestination is not an alternative to ‘free will.’ Alongside predestination statements affirming God’s sovereignty are ‘free will’ statements affirming human responsibility. Thus in the same context of the Gospel of John salvation is attributed both to (new) ‘birth’ (over which we have no control and do not get to choose) and ‘belief’ (our own free decision) (John 3:3-5, 16, 36). This is biblical language. For example, in 2 Sam. 7:1-17, God promises to David and his descendents that they will always rule over God’s people. The promise is unconditional, entirely a matter of God’s own sovereign grace and faithfulness; David’s descendents are ‘predestined’ by God to rule. It is explicitly said that if the Davidic king sins, he will be chastened and disciplined, but the throne will not be taken away from him; Davidic rule will last forever, for the promise is unconditional (vv. 14 – 16). This unconditional promise is repeatedly reaffirmed: 1 Kgs. 11:36; 15:4; 2 Kgs. 8:16-19; 2 Chr. 21:7. But the editors of the historical books of the Old Testament have included a series of narratives in which the same promise is made to David’s house, with one exception: it is entirely dependent upon the obedience of the Davidic kings to God’s covenant demands. This conditional version of the promise to David is found in 1 Kgs. 2:14; 6:12; 8:25; 9:4; 11:38. Here too divine sovereignty and human responsibility are both absolutely affirmed, without any effort to harmonize them. Analogous to the truly human/truly divine Christological statements, the juxtaposition of divine sovereignty/human responsibility is not 50/50 or 60/40, but 100/100. God is absolutely sovereign, and we are absolutely responsible. In the Bible, statements of God’s predestination are affirmed only in conjunction with statements of human responsibility, without any effort to superficially harmonize them.
- Predestination statements express the sovereignty and initiative of God, and function as the believers’ grateful expression of praise to God for salvation, as the alternative to either taking credit for one’s own salvation or making salvation a cooperative enterprise between God and humans.
- The language of predestination is confessional language, not objectifying analytical language. Though such language points to something real in the transcendent world, the reality it attempts to describe cannot be reduced to objectifying language. It is the language of confession and praise, not discursive language that fits into a logical system from which further inferences can be drawn.
- The language of predestination is thus never in the Bible a denial or excuse for human inaction or irresponsibility. It is at the furthest pole from resignation, cynicism, or fatalism. Such language is a joyful call to action, assured that finally all things are in the hands of a loving and faithful Creator.
- The Bible’s language of predestination is the language of worship, the language of grateful praise given by insiders in response to God’s gracious choice, not the analytical language of outsiders explaining why God did not choose others.”
(pp. 489 – 490)
I believe that the core of Boring and Craddock’s position is found in points 7, 8, and 10.
Many pastors and theologians treat the book of Romans as a systematic theology text; but Paul’s intent was never to create or write a work systematic theology – that’s simply an anachronism.
Paul had a more pastoral concern for the church of Rome who were facing persecution when he wrote this epistle. In chapter 8, he focuses upon and gives thanks that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1) and thanks God for his giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit that makes all this possible. And he goes on throughout this section distinguishing those who have the Spirit and those who don’t. Furthermore, the Spirit will help us in our weaknesses and in our prayers. And he assures the persecuted Roman church that despite all the struggles they are facing currently, God will work for their good and for all those who love him. And he praises God for calling them and choosing them. And he ends this section (that is, chapter 8- there were no “chapter” divisions in the original text until it was put in many centuries later) by giving a rousing adoration and thanks to God to uplift their spirits when Paul states that absolutely nothing can separate them from God. How does he know this? Just look at how God held nothing back from them – God the Father willingly gave up his only precious son for them and then raised him from the dead. What more could you ask for to prove how much God loves you, even in these tough times you are experiencing? Nothing – no supernatural power or entity, not even death itself- can separate you from God’s love for you in Christ Jesus.
This is the context of praise and encouragement into which Paul mentions predestination. He isn’t concerned with who’s “in” or “out” of heaven or God’s salvation. Paul’s not concerned about whether or not God chose or elected people for salvation from eternity past. He’s already talking to those that are “in” God’s salvation. It’s an internal memo for believers – not for outsiders.
It is as if Paul is saying in 8:29-30, “Thank and praise God that he knows you intimately and has called you for his greater purpose. He has a destiny in store for you – that he wants you to be more and more like the image of his Son, i.e. make you more and more Christ-like.”
I think the Message translation of these verses encapsulates the heart of what Paul is saying to them here:
“He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. God knew what he was doing from the very beginning. He decided from the outset to shape the lives of those who love him along the same lines as the life of his Son. The Son stands first in the line of humanity he restored. We see the original and intended shape of our lives there in him. After God made that decision of what his children should be like, he followed it up by calling people by name. After he called them by name, he set them on a solid basis with himself. And then, after getting them established, he stayed with them to the end, gloriously completing what he had begun.”
I think that if you asked Paul what his thoughts were about the Reformed doctrine of predestination and if that was his intent when writing Romans 8, he’d probably respond with a “Huh? What? I don’t quite understand what you’re talking about.”
When you read it in this context as Paul had originally intended and why he writes in this way, and not in the context that Paul was writing a systematic theology about predestination or an ordo salutis here, it makes a whole lot more sense.
Perhaps after reading this you will thank God for electing you.