Lenten Readings: Day 26

Predestination and the Power of Love

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Today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary echoes down twenty cenuries and has been deeply influential.

Rom 8.28–39
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

In verse 28 Paul is not saying that Christians will not suffer, but rather that in the long run God will vindicate them. This is the polar opposite of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” which is a rather scary perversion of the actual good news of Jesus Christ. The Prosperity Gospel is an off-shoot of certain more shallow type of Pentecostalism that so believes in the power of prayer that it becomes a kind of contract they have with God – we’ll believe, and tithe and sing your glory, and you, God, will bless us with material things. It focuses on a few Bible verses and hopes no one actually reads the Scriptures. It is remarkably congenial to self-righteous capitalists. As the verses that follow below demonstrate, in this world the followers of Christ can expect all kinds of persecution and suffering.

The next few verses in the passage above have been deeply influential in the theology of Augustine and Calvin, for they seem to require a doctrine of predestination. The passage from the Wikipedia article shows the variety of contemporary views:

Biblical scholars have interpreted this passage in several ways. Many say this only has to do with service, those he chose of service and is not about salvation. Catholic biblical commentator Brendan Byrne wrote that the predestination mentioned in this passage should be interpreted as applied to the Christian community corporately rather than individuals.[6] Another Catholic commentator, Joseph Fitzmyer, wrote that this passage teaches that God has predestined the salvation of all humans.[7] Douglas Moo, a Protestant biblical interpreter, reads the passage as teaching that God has predestined a certain set of people to salvation.[8] Similarly, N. T. Wright’s interpretation is that in this passage Paul teaches that God will save those whom he has chosen, but Wright also emphasizes that Paul does not intend to suggest that God has eliminated human free will or responsibility. Instead, Wright asserts that God’s will works through that of humans to accomplish salvation.[9]

Augustine in his theological battles with Pelagius argued that God always took the initiative in salvation, and that in the divine foreknowledge knew who would respond to it; in that sense he thus pre-destined people to everlasting life. However, he also argued strongly for human free will, essentially arguing that if we are saved it is due to God, but if we are damned it’s all our own fault. This seems to be paradoxical, because we are free to earn damnation while not free to will our own salvation. Nevertheless, it undercut Pelagius, who wanted to suggest that we played a part in reconciliation with God. Jean Calvin, the French reformer par excellence read Augustine as arguing that God wills some to salvation and some to damnation, and this became the classic Calvinist doctrine of double predestination.

My own thought is that Paul was far away from this kind of thinking, and again had a series of insights that are both true and incoherent. Yes, God is in charge of the world, and yes, we have free will. Yes, God has predestined us (probably corporately, not as individuals) to glory, but Paul feels bound to proclaim the good news to as many people as possible so that “by all means he might save some.”

The fundamental problem is that we are anthropomorphizing God. We assume that God has a mind like us, and so is capable of knowledge of the future, and can will things to happen. We assume we can understand a “God’s Eye Perspective” on these matters when we cannot. Determinism only works if one assumes that there is an objective world out there that is comprehensible to the human mind; while we can certainly know a lot about the world, far more than we were evolved to know, there are limits. My own belief is that free will/determinism is a philosophical puzzle that is undecidable by human reason, a use of ordinary language turned into abstract principles. What Paul is doing here is making a rhetorical point; the strength of his remarks depend on how they resonate with the Spirit-led life of the believer, not on reason.

Paul then continues,

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God the Father is on our side, and Jesus Christ is on our side. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. This, I think, is what Paul experienced in his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles – the sense of the love of God in Christ pouring through him. He put it more strongly in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

4 Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

8 Love never ends. . . Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

This description of love is not that of a married couple, or of a single individual – it is the love of God that first knows the human and to which is responded by the human with love.

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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