Good question…Did God arbitrarily decide who to save and who to condemn?

 


October 22, 2002


 

 

Over the years I have received several messages/communications like this one:

 

"I am one who for many years lived or at least tried to live as Christ would have.  Now, I find myself questioning the 'wisdom' of His existence and therefore, of everything that is His character.  How I wonder, does one get to such a point? (This is not my question.)

 

"Herewith a simple question that has undermined what foundation I thought I had.  Why am I battling with a God who would arbitrarily decide whom He will save and whom He will condemn?  For that is exactly what happens.  I must confess that I am tired of 'biblical cliches', such as "God is God and He will do and has the right to do as He pleases".  Or, "Who are we to question god". Or, " . . .well, ad infinitum".

 

"Lastly, thank for your site and tho I be undermined, I certainly hope it will be the foundation others need.

 

 

This person is facing a very legitimate morale challenge, for the specter of an Infinite God deciding the eternal destiny of sensitive, conscious souls randomly (i.e., the meaning of 'arbitrary') should produce not just lack of faith or "devaluations" of His character, but sheer terror. A deity who/which operated whimsically (assuming the whimsy was not always in a positive direction, of course--that might could be tolerated I suppose) would be worse than living in a world without the predictability of natural law, without the reliability of social interaction, or without the correspondence of epistemic faculties to reality.

 

But, to my knowledge, none of the major Christian traditions actually espouse this position, so you might be facing a pseudo-problem, and pseudo-problems have a way of shredding the soul quite painfully…

 

Let me show you what I mean by this…

 

Given the dictionary definition of 'arbitrary'--"based on or derived from uninformed opinion or random choice"--how many branches of Christianity historically have affirmed that position?

 

 

First, let's get some basic stats on the various Christian traditions.

 

From http://www.adherents.com/adh_branches.html#Christianity, we get these groups:

 

Rank

Branch

Number of Adherents

1.

Catholic

1,030,000,000

2.

Orthodox/Eastern Christian

240,000,000

3.

African indigenous sects (AICs)

110,000,000

4.

Pentecostal

105,000,000

5.

Reformed/Presbyterian/Congregational/United

75,000,000

6.

Anglican

73,000,000

7.

Baptist

70,000,000

8.

Methodist

70,000,000

9.

Lutheran

64,000,000

 

 

 

Now, how many of these groups believe that God randomly (and actively) selected individuals for salvation or condemnation, before time 'began'?

 

[Quick note on terminology below: the alleged 'election to condemnation' is known as reprobation.]

 

 

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First, the Catholic Church.

 

To begin with, they explicitly reject reprobation and even refer to the "Calvinist" heresy about this (more on Calvinism later):

 

"Heretical Predestinationism in its various forms (the Southern Gallic priest Lucidus in the 5th century ; the monk Gottschalk in the 9th century, according to reports of his opponents, which, however, find no confirmation in his recently re-discovered writings; Wycliffe, Huss, and especially Calvin), teaches a positive predetermination to sin, and an unconditional Predestination to the eternal punishment of hell, that is, without consideration of future demerits. This was rejected as false doctrine by the Particular Synods of Orange (D 200), Quiercy and Valence (D 316 322) and by the Council of Trent (D 827). Unconditioned positive Reprobation leads to a denial of the universality of the Divine Desire for salvation, and of the Redemption, and contradicts the justice and Holiness of God as well as the freedom of man." (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan:1955, p.245)

 

and it is de Fide (required to be believed) that

 

"God, by an Eternal Resolve of His Will, predestines certain men, on account of their foreseen sins, to eternal rejections. (De fide)." (Ott, p.245)

 

They clearly reject a 'random reprobation' position, explicitly linking any eternity-past decision of God to "foreseen sins". This is, of course, not arbitrary at all.

 

On the matter of election to glory, however, the Catholic Church is less uniform. They can assert that 'positive predestination' is NOT restrictive at all  (Council of Trent, Sixth Session, "Canons concerning Justification", 17):

 

"If anyone shall say that the grace of justification is shared by those only who are predestined to life, but that all others who are called are called indeed but receive not grace, as if they are by divine power predestined to evil--anathema sit (basically, they are condemned/cursed  by the Church).

 

But, the great theologian Ludwig Ott can point out that the Catholic church can allow positions both of 'conditional election' (e.g., Molinists) and 'unconditional election' (e.g., Augustinians, Scotists, Thomists).

 

[But note however, that this meaning of 'unconditional' does not actually mean 'random' per se--it only means 'not on the condition of foreseen merit from good works' (ante praevisa merita). All it actually does is exclude a certain type of condition from being a cause, reason, or sufficient influence on God's decision. So Ott: "whether…with or without consideration of the merits of the man".]

 

The reason the Catholic Church can hold both opinions within it, however, is that neither position can be demonstrated to be clearly superior:

 

"Both attempts at explanation [conditional, unconditional election to glory] are ecclesiastically permissible. The scriptural proofs are not decisive for either side…Citations from the Fathers or from the scholastics are not cogent, as the question arose in post-Tridentine Theology only. While the pre-Augustinian tradition is in favour of the Molinistic explanation, St. Augustine, at least in his later writings, is more in favour of the Thomistic explanation. The Thomist view emphasizes God's universal causality while the other view stresses the universality of the Divine salvific will, mans freedom and his cooperation in his salvation. The difficulties remaining on both sides prove that Predestination even for reason enlightened by faith, is an unfathomable mystery AOM. XI, 33 et seq.).." (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Tan:1955,p.243f)

 

 

But, statistically speaking, since the largest Order within the Catholic Church is the Jesuit order (who are the main proponents of Molinism, in its various flavors), we would have to argue that the majority of the Catholic church holds to 'conditional election', and we would have to say that the position of some of the rest, although perhaps espousing 'unconditional election', have only specified that it is 'unconditional with respect to merit, in all forms'.

 

 

…………………………………………………………………….

Second, the Orthodox/Eastern Church.

 

 This group clearly rejects both unconditional election and unconditional reprobation. One statement of this reads as follows:

 

"The erroneousness of the reformers' teaching is obvious. It perverts the truly Christian understanding of God's justice and mercy, of man's worth and purpose as a free and rational being. God appears here not as a loving, merciful Father, "Who will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (I Timothy 2:4), but as a cruel, unjust despot, who saves some without any merit and dooms others without fault to perdition.

 

"The Orthodox Church also recognizes predestination, but does not consider it unconditional, that is, independent of men's free will and based on a groundless decision of the divine will. According to Orthodox teaching, God, as omniscient, knows, foresees the moral state of men and, on the basis of this foresight, preordains, predetermines for them a certain fate.

 

"But He does not preordain for anyone a definite moral state; He does not preordain either a virtuous or a sinful life and does not at all inhibit our freedom. Therefore, even the Apostle Paul, whom the reformers cite, very closely connects the teaching on predestination with the teaching on God's foresight. In the Epistle to the Romans, he explains this thought in detail, and, incidentally, says concerning predestination: "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son? Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified" (Romans 8:29-30). In this way, God predestinates to glory not according to His groundless arbitrariness, as the reformers think, but according to His foreknowledge of a man's merits accomplished through his free will." [Protopriest V. Potapov, "Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy - Protestantism (3):The Teaching on Predestination and the Veneration of the Saints", The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, Washington, D.C., found at http://www.stjohndc.org/homilies/9710a.htm]

 

[Other statements to this effect can be found at: http://www.orthodoxinfo.com/inquirers/inq_predest.htm]

 

So, here is another quarter-of-a-billion people, claiming to represent a historic Christian tradition, who do NOT hold a belief in 'arbitrary election'.

 

…………………………………………………………………….

Third, the African Indigenous Churches (AIC's).

 

The theology of this variegated group is difficult to assess. Most of these groups seem to have derived from Baptist (e.g., kimbanguist) and Methodist/Anglican missions. South Africa saw the most 'Reformed' presence (via the Dutch), but I cannot find any indications of 'decretal theology' in any of the easily accessible public literature.

 

These AIC's are often characterized as having varying levels of 'syncretism'-- a mixture of their 'missionary birth background' and the traditional, indigenous belief systems. There are probably uniquely innovative elements in there somewhere, but I suspect they are not likely going to be in the areas of predestination and election (but I could be wrong).

 

So, to the extent they reflect the theologies of the founding missions (largely Anglican, Methodist, Baptist), they will presumably reflect the same conclusions we reach about non-African versions of those mission-sending traditions. And, to the extent they do NOT reflect that background, we will assume they reflect elements from the indigenous, traditional religions.

 

What this entrails, then, for our study here, is that we need to take a quick glance at traditional, indigenous African beliefs--as to what extent they may reflect their own views on 'arbitrary election'.

 

As far as I can tell, the data indicates that they have a similar view of 'fate' held by many traditional religions. For example, Tokunboh Adeyemo can describe something loosely as 'predestinarian':

 

"In their anthropology the Yoruba discern that a human is composed of ara ("physical body"), emi ("breath" or "spirit"), and ori ("soul" or "life principle"). They seem to be predestinarian in their theology of ori. For instance, they say: A kunle yan, ohun ladaiye ba ("whatever destiny chosen kneeling down [i.e., when the individual takes leave of the Creator] is what one meets in this world"). An ill-fated person is called olori buruku ("a person with a bad head"). Luck is called ori re ("head of goodness"). From these ideas of good and bad "head" has come the belief that it is possible to cleanse one's luck and change one's ill fate by ritually washing one's head. Metaphorically, they employ the physical head to refer to what they call ori inu ("inner head")." [WR:GG:137]

 

Now, if one can change their chosen destiny by washing their head, surely this cannot really be called an 'immutable decree of predestination' can it? [There is also the question--from the above quote--of who actually does the 'choosing of the fate' kneeling down--the Creator or the Creatures?]

 

The traditional elements also lack the hard distinction between 'good' and 'bad' final states. In fact, the fact that ancestors and all departed spirits are NOT 'gone' but are still very, very active agents within the community, certainly suggests that 'predestination to heaven or hell' has little relevance in the traditional religious base. [They sometimes also have reincarnation motifs, but these do not seem to be connected with judgment.]

 

So, I think all we can do here is rely on our conclusions relative to non-African 'traditional denominations' to gauge to what extent they might be reflective of AIC's. But, just to point out, it doesn't look very likely we are going to find much 'decretal theology' here…

 

 

…………………………………………………………………….

Fourth, Pentecostal groups.

 

 

Pentecostal groups and Charismatic groups (as opposed to charismatic members of traditional groups) have their initial background in Wesleyan (and specifically, Holiness) theology--which is "mostly" Arminian (and therefore 'conditional election' types).

 

For example, the Assemblies of God official position is quite clear:

 

"Jacob (in Rom 9) was chosen before having done good or ill,  but God's choice was on the basis of what he foreknew that Jacob would do…God determined beforehand the conditions on which he would show mercy. And on the basis of His foreknowledge believers are chosen in Christ…"

 

(Found at www.ag.org/top/beliefs/position_papers/4178_security.pdf )

 

Others hold to the 'corporate election' understanding:

 

"Election consequently is to be held in close correlation with faith. it is not because we are elected that we are able to believe (Calvinism) nor are we elected on the basis of foreseen faith (Arminianism) but that we are elected as believers. God 'chose us in him'--in Jesus Christ--'before the foundation of the world.'" [J. Rodman Williams, Renewal Theology: Systematic Theology from a Charismatic Perspective, (Three Volumes in One), Zondervan: 1996, Vol 2, page 19; italics his, bold mine)

 

 

There are a growing number of Reformed Charismatics, but they are still a very small minority within the charismatic bodies.

 

So, here too we have a group that doesn't hold to arbitrary election.

 

 

…………………………………………………………………….

Fifth, the Reformed/Presbyterian groups.

 

In spite of all the "Reformed bashing" in some of the above statements (and more below…sigh), we may be in for a surprise here…

 

The Reformed churches (with various degrees of bleed-over into conservative Presbyterian and Congregational groups) are traditionally associated with the phrase "unconditional election" (the "U" in "TULIP", of course). [I am excluding from this discussion the significant group of Barthians and post-Barthians, holding to a 'corporate election' (in Christ), but the reader should be aware that this "Reformed" classification is certainly not a monolithic, unified group.]

 

Berkhof (Systematic Theology, 1941,p115) gives a clear statement of election's unconditional nature:

 

"It is unconditional. Election does not in any way depend on the foreseen faith or good works of man, as the Arminians teach, but exclusively on the sovereign good pleasure of God, who is also the originator of faith and good works…Since all men are sinners and have forfeited the blessings of God, there is no basis for such a distinction in them; and since even the faith and good works of the believers are the fruit of the grace of God, even these, as foreseen by God, could not furnish such a basis."

 

Or Heppe [Reformed Dogmatics--Set out and Illustrated from the Sources, Baker:1950, p. 166]:

 

"Thus is no way may the ground of election be sought in anything that is outside of God: not in the will of man, not in the use of the means of grace, not in the foreseen faith of the twice-born, not in his persistence in faith, not in the diligence in sanctification, nor yet in the merit of Christ, but solely in the good pleasure of God."

 

 

Now, most people seem to stop reading here, discouraged, and interpret this as something very, very close to 'arbitrary'. But 'arbitrary' means 'without cause' or 'random', remember, and the old Reformed divines explicitly repudiate this. Look carefully at their word choices:

 

"Particular election is thus and so far not absolute, as though it were arbitrary: it rather has its moral ground (inconceivable of course to man) in God's essentiality. Cf. Walaus 385: "Although no cause outside God can be given on man's side, as we warned you earlier, why this man rather than that is elect or reprobate, as Isaac rather than Ishmael, Jacob than Esau, since in themselves they were both equals and equally unworthy of election: still we must not think that on His side God had no reasons or causes for doing- - since the divine will always conspires with His wisdom and does nothing without reason or rashly; although these reasons and causes have not been revealed to us, and accordingly they neither ought to nor can be probed by us apart from His will.-And it is this also which the chief doctors of the Reformed Church are often repelling from themselves, when they are reproached with setting up here some absolute will of God. Firstly they say it is not absolute, because it includes means by which the appointed end is achieved ; next because God also does not lack just reasons for having acted thus or thus, although these are hidden from us. Thus CALVINUS says (De occults Dei proved. P-1013 statim in initio) : " Although for me God's will is the supreme cause, yet I everywhere teach, that where in His counsels and works no cause is apparent, it is yet hidden with Him, so that He has decreed nothing save justly and wisely. Therefore the triflings of the Scholastics on absolute power I not only repudiate but also detest, because they separate His righteousness from His rule." So too speaks BEZA in Colleq. Mompelg. p.162 : " This will or this decree of His we never sever from righteousness and true right reason, and as always most orderly, although we believe it to be inscrutable even for the very angels ; and accordingly we admire and adore it and refuse to recognise any other absolute will in God". (Heppe, p165f)

 

 

This is important enough to dwell on, for as the quote noted, the "chief Doctors of the Reformed Church are often repelling from themselves…reproaches" for false positions which they do not hold.

 

Observations on the quote, then:

 

1.        They explicitly reject the 'arbitrary' word.

2.        It is grounded in God's morality (i.e., goodness, fairness, empathy, integrity, non-duplicity, non-favoritism, desire to expand goodness, etc.)

3.        God has "causes and reasons" for His choices, though these are "internal" to God (i.e., not derived from the creature).

4.        His 'will conspires with His wisdom'.

5.        He 'does NOTHING without reason'.

6.        He 'does NOTHING rashly'.

7.        He has simply not revealed these reasons and causes to us--although they are certainly there.

8.        Since they haven’t been revealed, we cannot 'probe' them (trying to figure them out).

9.        It is 'unconditional--from the outside', but not 'absolute' (i.e., without causes and reasons).

10.     God does not 'lack just reasons' for His actions.

11.     These 'just reasons' are hidden from us.

12.     Even though we cannot see a cause, it is nevertheless there in "His counsels and works".

13.     NONE of His decrees were done "save justly and wisely".

14.     His power (in the decrees) cannot be separated from His righteousness (the moral, personal ground!)--as the Scholastics allegedly do (smile).

15.     God's will or decree is never 'severed' from righteousness (which, by the way, includes compassion--cf. Prov 12.10).

16.     God's will or decree is never 'severed' from 'true right reason'.

17.     These reasons may indeed be even inscrutable (i.e., present, but not understandable) to angels. [So, why bother with trying to explain them to us…?]

 

In fact, Polan can tie this sovereign 'good pleasure of his will' to love: "…good pleasure of God founded on His gratuitous love towards us…" (Heppe, p.166)

 

This is very, very far from a cold, detached, arbitrary election of individuals…In the Reformed system--according to their classic documents--this decree of God in eternity past is characterized by reason, wisdom, justice, righteousness, non-rashness, and 'gratuitous love towards us'…

 

What this means for our study is this: the Reformed doctrine of 'unconditional election' is NOT even close to being the same as 'unCAUSED election' or 'ARBITRARY election' . It affirms only that the causes/reasons are not grounded in the deeds of humans in time. There ARE reasons and causes, and these are wise, just, righteous--and unrevealed.

 

Now here are two payloads from this:

 

1.        Just because God has not revealed His reasons, gives us absolutely no evidence/warrant to conjecture (and then decide!) that He has none (i.e., that the decisions were arbitrary)!

2.        Just because God has not revealed His reasons, gives us absolutely no evidence/warrant to conjecture (and then decide!) that He his reasons are ignoble (i.e., that His decisions are morally inferior to what we would have done(!), or are less compassionate than what we would do, or that He is cruel in a way that we would hope never to be)!

 

 

This is the crux of the 'morale' problem here--we do NOT have any data about His reasons upon which to evaluate the situation, so how can we 'trust Him' that His decisions are 'as good as' we dare presume ours would be' (chuckle…"I speak as a fool--but you compelled me"…smile)…

 

In other words, in the absence of relevant data, we have NO reason whatsoever to 'assume the worse', and therefore have NO legitimate grounds for doubting the goodness of His heart. But even beyond this, we can actually draw from other data and perhaps 'retro-terpolate' into that situation (with corresponding loss of certainly, of course--all "*terpolations" have this epistemic 'dilution factor' associated with them)

 

For me, this is real simple…when I try to 'fathom the unfathomable' counsels of God, I look at two concrete, clearly-revealed, low-ambiguity places for 'trend data' about God's 'counsels': (1) The cross and (2) the 'historically elect' in the early church.

 

(1)     When I look toward the Cross, at the vivid and concrete expression of beyond-the-bounds Love of God, "when I survey the wondrous Cross on which the Prince of Glory died", when I consider the 'meekness and gentleness of Christ', I find my heart trusting the goodness of His counsels, and the kindness and grace of His 'undisclosed reasons', and the tender wisdom of a Father's heart…

 

Luther makes the same point, but comes at it differently:

 

"When a man begins to discuss predestination, the temptation is like an inextinguishable fire; the more he disputes, the more he despairs. Our Lord God is opposed to this disputation and accordingly he has provided against it baptism, the Word, the sacraments, and various signs. In these we should trust and say: " I am baptized, I believe in Jesus Christ; what does it concern me, whether or not I am predestined? " He has given us ground to stand on, that is, Jesus Christ, and through him we may climb to heaven. He is the one way and the gate to the Father. But when we begin in the devil's name to build first on the roof above, scorning the ground, then we fall! . . . I forget all that Christ and God are, when I get to thinking about this matter, and come to believe that God is a villain. We ought to remain by the Word, in which God is revealed to us and salvation offered, if we believe it. Moreover in trying to understand predestination, we forget God, we cease to praise and begin to blaspheme. In Christ, however, are hid all treasures; without him none may be had. Therefore we should give no place whatever to this argument concerning predestination." [ Conversations with Luther, pp. 135, cited in A Compend of Luther's Theology, Hugh Kerr (ed), Westminster:1966, p.36]

 

It is in what God has revealed that we can see His heart, and thus have confidence that whatever God "decided on in eternity past", it is no doubt greater, kinder, more compassionate, wiser, more gracious, more giving, more amazing, more awesome, more love-inspiring, more hope-validating, more righteous, more other-centric than we could possibly image, being ourselves agents of pettiness, caprice, treachery, apathy, cold-heartedness, duplicity, and self-centeredness…perhaps we 'project' ourselves back onto God--it wouldn’t be the first time we accused Him of our own crimes and pettiness…[ah, but I have moved on to the "T" in the TULIP and that's not my purpose here…smile]

 

(2)     If I take the pattern of the early church 'demographics' as a 'consequence' or 'reflection' of some allegedly timeless decree, I find something like this pattern:

 

"For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised, God has chosen, the things that are not, that He might nullify the things that are, 29 that no man should boast before God. 30 But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31 that, just as it is written, “Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor 1.26ff)

 

"At that time Jesus answered and said, “I praise Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst hide these things from the wise and intelligent and didst reveal them to babes. (Matt 11.25)

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. (Matt 5.5)

 

"Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? (Jas 2.5)

 

In the ancient world, only the rich elite could hope to have a future 'with' God, or to achieve immortality--the poor, the despised, the exploited were simply without hope…salvation cost money and required 'status', if it was offered at all…That God's heart prioritized around these souls somehow, encourages me to trust His heart in matters I cannot 'fathom'…there is a revealed goodness there, a graciousness, a sensitivity that --if it is reflective of some 'unconditional election'--reveals a supremely benevolent and loving 'decision process'…

 

[There is, btw, for this tradition an  ordo problem here…did He choose the rich in faith to be poor in this world, or vice versa--according to this verse?…"exercise is left to the reader"…smile.]

 

 

And, at a practical level, I beta-test this every week it seems! There are countless things that  seem to 'intrude arbitrarily' into my life, with no clue from God as to what His 'inscrutable reasons' might be--but often, eventually, and with great surprise, delight, and comfort (and even growth sometimes…smile), I learn what those hidden reasons were…and I have an audit-trail of God's trustworthiness in non-disclosure situations…I have evidential, "statistical", and experiential grounds to 'give Him the benefit of the doubt' next time…Those that follow Christ (at least those that follow closely, trying to keep up, and  'not at a distance'…smile) know this experience all too well, and only need be reminded to apply this to 'bigger things' too…

 

If I have grounds to trust His heart--from the Cross, from the historical outworking of 'election', and from my personal analogical experience--and if the only 'reason' I suspect 'foul play in eternity past' is that I don’t know what went on back then(!), then it is my decision to call election "arbitrary" which is the real 'arbitrary' here! In other words, if I have no reason to call God's pre-time planning 'arbitrary', doesn't that make MY accusation blatantly 'arbitrary'? Do I not end up 'projecting' onto God what I myself am guilty of?

 

Summing up here, in spite of the "accidental slander" often thrown at them, in the Reformed system, (1) not only is this 'unconditional election' NOT arbitrary, and (2) not only is this decision said to be 'wise, righteous, just, loving, reasoned, caused' by the Reformed divines, but (3) the pattern of realization in history reveals a trustworthy and tender  heart…the 'election of the lesser', I call it…He chose Jacob the younger (the lesser) over Esau the older (the one to whom it was 'due'…)…He chose the hurting, the despised, the helpless, over those who looked down on them…And He chose even me

 

So, so far, we haven’t come up with a truly 'arbitrary' position yet…

 

 

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Sixth, the Anglican Church.

 

Historically, the Anglican Church (and the Episcopal) has proven to be able to absorb a very wide spectrum of beliefs, from very conservative Calvinists, to very fluid Arminians, to very 'conciliatory' liberals. Their foundational document is the Thirty-Nine Articles, in which the longest article is on Predestination, but it is less important today than it was at the Reformation.

 

"XVII. Of Predestination and Election. Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God, be called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only- begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity. "

 

 

One famous expositor of this (W. H. Griffith Thomas) explicates this in fashion that clearly avoids the arbitrary label, and probably avoids the unconditional label, since he seems to be referring to a 'class election' (instead of an individual one). From W.H. Griffith Thomas, The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-nine Articles. Baker:1977:

 

"The Calvinistic view is an attempt to fit everything into a logical system, but the problem remains, why, if God can regenerate every sinner, He does not do it? One thing may be regarded as certain, that there is nothing arbitrary in the Divine action. We may not be able to understand the reasons, but notwithstanding this we may be sure that they are based upon wisdom, truth, and love. The three references to the Divine will are significant in this connection: first, we have 'the good pleasure of His will' which, however, does not imply anything arbitrary (Eph. i. 5); then comes 'the mystery of His will,' a fact of which we are perfectly aware (Eph. i. 9); but last of all we read of 'the counsel of His own will' (Eph. i. i i), and we are sure that God does nothing without due consideration, and, as it were, taking counsel with Himself. The Calvinistic view is doubtless open to the serious objection that it tends to make God's righteousness conflict with His love, by asserting the Divine sovereignty in too unqualified a way. But, as it has been pointed out, there is no need of this conflict if we recall the fact that election in Scripture is intended, not for exclusion, but for wider blessing to others. God's choice of Abraham and other similar men in Old Testament times was for the purpose of making them spiritual blessings to others, and when this is realised in connection both with Israel and Christ we see that election does not mean exclusion, but inclusion as the means of worldwide blessing." [p.248f; notice this election is primarily an election to service, and blessings to others.]

 

"In conclusion, we must, as Dr. Orr says, dismiss entirely all thought of arbitrariness and keep the Divine purpose in the closest possible connection with the history by means of which it is realized." (p.250)

 

"It [predestination] is associated with God's foreknowledge (Rom viii.28; 1 Pet. 1.2.). Foreknowledge is something between foresight and foreordination, knowledge with favor." (p.251)

 

"So we may say: (a) God elects to save; (b) God elects to save in one way (in Christ); (c) God elects to save one class (believers)." (p.251)

 

"The one thing to remember is that there is no favoritism with God and no injustice, nor is there any interference with the freedom of man or the universality of the offer of the Gospel to human faith." (p.252)

 

"A careful consideration of these passages seems to show that, while God made a selection of men to form His church, yet the members of this collective body are not the only ones who are in some sense saved." (p.256; note: election is partial, for service)

 

 

But even this statement is probably a little too 'Calvinistic' for Anglicanism in general:

 

"Like Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism is, historically, a liturgical religious tradition, meaning that great emphasis is placed on observing a formal devotional regimen--the celebration of saints' days and other holy days, the performance of elaborate, dramatic ceremonies, the conduct of worship by reciting set prayers--all accompanied by sublime organ music and choral singing and led by priests wearing vestments. And, like Roman Catholics, Anglicans have always favored elegantly constructed churches with ornately decorated interiors. The purpose of all this outward show is to instill those attending worship with a sense of awe and piety. Finally, like Roman Catholics, most (if not all) Anglicans reject Calvinism, with its emphasis on predestination and conversion, and the evangelical ethos often associated with that theology. Anglicans instead stress the capacity of humankind, enlightened by reason, to earn salvation by leading upright, moral lives. " [Christine Leigh Heyrman, Department of History, University of Delaware, "The Church of England in Early America".]

 

 

So, although will undoubtedly be some 'Calvinists' in Anglicanism, they will be an minority. And, as we saw immediately above, the Calvinist view doesn't end up actually espousing an 'arbitrary election' view after all.

 

 

…………………………………………………………………….

Seventh, the Baptist Churches

 

The Baptist churches have had a variable history with Calvinism, as professor Fisher Humphreys noted, but currently are minimally Calvinistic:

 

"There is a resurgent interest in Calvinism among Baptists and some other evangelicals today, Humphreys reported. He cited John McArthur, John Piper, R.C. Sproul and James Packer as "very thoughtful" authors advocating Calvinism today. He also cited Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., as a prominent Southern Baptist advocate of Calvinism.

"Southern Baptist Calvinists today assert that they are returning to the faith of the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention, he explained. He acknowledged truth in that claim, but added that Baptists initially were not Calvinists.

"The earliest Baptists, who came to their theological convictions in Amsterdam after fleeing religious oppression in England, were in fact "anti-Calvinists," Humphreys said. They were living amid a significant debate within the larger church about the teachings of John Calvin, he said, and "were fully aware of what the issues were."

"There were no Calvinists in Baptist life for at least the first 25 years of the movement, he said. Then, somewhere around 1633, some Calvinists joined the Baptist movement and created a second stream of thought. For more than 200 years after that, some Baptists were Calvinists and some were not, he said.

"It is true, however, that when the SBC was formed in 1845, "most or all those present were Calvinists or modified Calvinists," Humphreys said.

 

"Both Calvinistic and non-Calvinistic streams continued to run through Southern Baptist life, however, and for most the last 100 years, few Southern Baptists have been Calvinists, he said."

 

(Found at http://www.baptiststandard.com/2002/7_1/pages/cbf_calvinism.html)

 

As recently as 1970, Calvinism was a very small minority, as this except from the introduction to Elect in the Son [NT:EITS] indicates:

 

"Let it be remembered that, less than a hundred years ago, all five cardinal points of Calvin's system of theology generally prevailed among Baptists, as theological textbooks of the times will confirm. Today, only one point remains to any appreciable extent among Baptists, inevitable perseverance, and there is growing evidence that Baptists are increasingly questioning this last vestige of the central core of Calvin's system of theology. Our only legitimate concern in all of this is, What saith the Scripture?" , from the introduction by Dr. William Adams of the Southern Baptist Seminary, in 1970.

 

The book Dr. Adams was recommending was a book on election by a fellow SBC'er. This book made a clear break with individualistic, particularistic, and unconditional election models. Consider a few quotes:

 

·         "The Election comprehends no man unconditionally" ([NT:EITS, p.108)

 

·         "The paradox is to be resolved, not by repudiating one or the other of the affirmations, but by recognizing that the election is corporate rather than particular, that it comprehends all men potentially, that God wills to have all men to be saved and none to perish or to fail to come to repentance, and that His gracious gift of saving faith is available to all men who will accept it. Let us observe at this point that, though saving faith is a gift of God, it does not follow that God must be arbitrary in the bestowal of the gift. The fact that He is not arbitrary becomes clear from an objective analysis of Romans 9-11. " ([NT:EITS,p.114f)

 

·         "Many have failed to recognize that Paul's consideration in Rom. 9:6-29 is the question of the circumstance of Israel, rather than the personal salvation of individual men, and that his argument serves only to affirm that God, as a sovereign Creator, is free to order all things as He pleases and to bestow or deny favors as He chooses without becoming answerable to men--a truth which Paul earnestly desired to establish in the minds of Jewish Christians who were profoundly disturbed over the question of the circumstance of Israel and in danger of denying the wisdom and righteousness of God. Paul asserts only the inherent freedom of God, as a sovereign Creator, to act without becoming accountable to His creatures. But this must not be construed to mean that God is not governed by moral principles inherent in His own holy character and that He is at liberty to be arbitrary or capricious. God is governed in His actions, not by the judgment of His creatures, but by the moral integrity of His own Person. Those who have assumed that Rom. 9:6-29 affirms that God is merely arbitrary in His dealings with men, including the unconditional choice of some to salvation and the arbitrary consignment of others to perdition, have misconstrued the passage. They have also ignored much that follows in Rom. 9-11 and the consistent testimony of the Holy Scriptures, including categorical assertions that God wills to have all men to be saved and does not will that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. ([NT:EITS, p.118f)

 

 

…………………………………………………………………….

Eight, the Methodists.

 

Methodism today is perhaps even broader in its theological range than Anglicanism, but it was launched from a more-or-less Arminian perspective with John Wesley:

 

"Wesley's theological position led him to a lifelong battle against the Calvinists within the Church of England. His first tract against Whitefield (1739) insisted on the doctrine of universal atonement and the denunciation of predestinarian doctrines as "blasphemy." For the next fifty years he waged war with those who taught that predestination was an essential article of faith, while the other side persisted in attacking his supposed "Arminianism." The real target of Wesley's wrath was antinomianism, which he supposed to be a natural consequence of the doctrine of predestination. His clearest rejection of the predestinarian position was probably an essay published in 1752. Later in life he accepted the badge "Arminian"-much as the Holy Club at Oxford had defiantly accepted the label "Methodists-" and named his house organ The Arminian Magazine (1778ff.). But he became an "Arminian" chiefly inasmuch as he did not construe himself to be a Calvinist; Arminius apparently had no influence on him in his formative years …" [Profiles in Belief, Arthur Carl Piepkorn, HarperRow:1978, vol II, p. 556]

 

 

There would be few Calvinists in this group, and even the earlier, more conservative Wesleyans were vigorously anti-predestination. [For example, the work by Dr. James Porter (19th century)].

 

 

…………………………………………………………………….

Ninth, the Lutherans.

 

The Lutherans are obviously solidly in the 'Reformation ethos', but traditional/historic Lutheranism is fairly clear that it is NOT into 'unconditional election'. Consider two statements, one from a late nineteenth-century compendium, and one from a mid-20th century theologian:

 

First, from Heinrich Schmid, Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Augsburg:1899):

 

"From this special benevolence of God, which is based upon the universal benevolence of God, and proceeds from it, there comes forth the purpose of God, which is called predestination or election; the purpose, namely, to save through the merits of Christ the definite number of those whose right treatment of the offered grace God had foreseen. HOLL. (604): 'Predestination is the eternal decree of God to bestow eternal salvation upon all of whom God foresaw that they would finally believe in Christ.'

 

"In virtue of the universal benevolence, salvation is provided for and offered to all, but the purpose of redemption is accomplished not with all, but only in the case of a definite number of men; the reason of this, however, lies in the special benevolence, in virtue of which only those really are to be saved who truly accept by faith the offered salvation, and persevere in this faith. But God, by His foreknowledge, eternally foresees who these will be, and this foreknowledge is the ground upon which the purpose of God, embracing only a definite number of men, is eternal.

 

"The decree of God is still further defined as (1), not absolute, but ordinate (determined by a certain order of means) and relative (1 Cor. 1 : 21),  i. e., there is no arbitrariness on the part of God, if He include a number of persons among the elect, and exclude others, for His purpose depends upon the observance of the order to which salvation is bound ('The apostle does not say that God absolutely wills to save all, in whatsoever manner they may conduct themselves, but that God wills that all may be saved, that is, by certain means.' QUEN.), and He has respect, therefore, in forming His purpose, to man's conduct towards this appointed order of salvation. But this decree is also (2), not conditional, but categorical and simple, i.e., God does not allow it to be still doubtful, in time, whether He will bestow salvation upon this or that man, as though His purpose were only to save this or that man, if or after he may have laid hold upon the merit of Christ; but, by virtue of His foreknowledge, He recognizes in advance those who will lay hold upon the merit of Christ, and only to these does His purpose refer, and thus it is simple and categorical. " (p.272f; italics his, bold mine; this is therefore BOTH foreknowledge-based and 'corporate')

 

Then, from Francis Pieper [Christian Dogmatics, Concordia:1953, volume II]:

 

"God did not -- this bears constant repetition -- blindly reach into the mass of mankind with His almighty hand and with His bare omnipotence seize a number of men as His elect, but He seized  His elect, as is immediately added , "through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth, so that in this choosing was included the work of the Holy Ghost, approaching the chosen with the Gospel and through the Gospel engendering faith in them. In other words: Like the merit of Christ, so also the sanctification of the Spirit and bestowal of faith are part and parcel of the eternal act of choosing and do not merely, as the Calvinists teach, enter into the execution of the decree of election. Hence we have the right conception of our eternal election only if we ever and firmly bear in mind how it actually occurred in eternity, namely, not without regard to the means or absolutely, but in such a way as to provide for the preaching of the Gospel and the operation of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel for the generation of faith" (p.476: Note, this approach actually brings the eternal decree into time. It makes the historic call part of the act of choosing, and not an effect of some timeless act--contra Calvinism].

 

"This is the point so emphatically stressed by the Formula of Concord. Its chief concern is to ensure this correct understanding of election. First, it establishes that "the eternal election of God's children to eternal salvation" is not identical with "the eternal foreknowledge of God" (Trigl. 1063, Sol. Decl., XI, 3-8). Then it sets forth the truth at length (Trigl. 1065, ibid., 9-24), that the election to eternal life is not "to be considered in God's secret, inscrutable counsel in such a bare [nude] manner as though it comprised nothing further, or as though nothing more belonged to it, and nothing more were to be considered in it than that God foresaw [praeviderit] who and how many were to be saved, who and how many were to be damned, or that He only held a sort of military muster [militarem quendam delectum], thus: 'This one shall be saved, that one shall be damned; this one shall remain steadfast [in faith to the end], that one shall not remain steadfast."' But the correct manner of thinking and speaking of eternal election, the Confession continues, is "that the entire doctrine concerning the purpose, counsel, will, and ordination of God pertaining to our redemption, call, justification, and salvation should be taken together [simul mente complectamur]." (p.477; note again, the linkage between history and eternity, and the explicit rejection of 'bare election']

 

 

In fact, in the running theological gun-battles between the Lutherans and Calvinists (reflected in Pieper's implicit digs at them, above), this foreknowledge position was ridiculed by the Reformed:

 

"Is there no fixed and defined number of the elect except as regards the divine prescience and omniscience? Hardly anything more absurd could be thought of or more unworthy of God. These fellows (namely the Lutherans) fashion God as seated in a watch-tower and encountering with His eyes this bottom-most world and seeing what men are doing or likely to be doing, not ordering or disposing things future or present.'" [Wendelin, cited in Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics--Set out and Illustrated from the Sources, Baker:1950, p.172. Note that this use of "perfect-being" theological method assumes the local, middle-ages, castle-dwelling feudal lord, running around ordering his people about, to be the model of the "perfect being"…smile]

 

So, although we do get a little 'election' here, it's certainly  not even 'unconditional', much less 'arbitrary'.

 

…………………………………………………

 

Okay, that's the Big Nine 'groups'--the next groups on the list are small (sub-15M) compared to these Nine, so we've covered the vast majority of "Christendom".

 

And what did we come up with?

 

  1. The vast majority of these communions were actually against (and not just 'neutral') 'unconditional election'.

  2. Some didn't believe in 'election' at all and others didn't believe in 'unconditional election'.

  3. Some allowed unconditional election, because they didn't believe the scriptural arguments were decisive one way or another.

  4. The one group that did accept a position of 'unconditional election' (i.e., some Reformed groups, Primitive Baptists, and "Calvinists" within other communions (e.g., Reformed Charismatics, Reformed Anglicans, etc) explicitly repudiates the position that the 'unconditional' meant 'arbitrary', and affirmed it to be "very considered, very caused, and very grounded in God's morality".

 

Now, I have no doubt that there is probably, somewhere, some philosophical-theologian who DOES affirm that the "ground of pre-temporal election" IS irrational (but probably not the Scholastics…smile), but this can hardly be said to represent either the biblical position or the teachings of ANY of the those communions who trace their descent back to New Testament teachings.

 

Accordingly, I think it is safe to say that there are no theological "pressures" upon you to believe that "God arbitrarily choose some to be saved and others to be damned". Even the strongest 'pro-election' advocates (i.e. Calvinists/Augustinian/Reformed types) still affirm that God's choice was a rational, righteous, wise, love-based, and moral one--but that the reasons were simply not disclosed to us.

 

And I further argue, friend, that, given the lack of data upon which to 'conduct an investigation' of God's decisions process (smile), we have either two choices:

 

  1. Avoid thinking about it abstractly, and look/focus instead on its 'face inside history' (a la Luther) and the explicit statements about God's global intentions ("not desiring that any should perish…"); or

  2. Retro-terpolate to it (but only a little--our epistemic base is pretty thin there), on the basis of clearly-revealed data about God's good and trustworthy heart (i.e., the Cross; the inclusion of the have not's and were not's in that group who will end up being heirs of the whole New Universe with our Lord Jesus (!); and personal experiential patterns of 'no-disclosure, trust Him anyway, later-disclosure, vindication of His decision').

 

 

I think, though, that your frustration with the "answers" you received earlier (mostly in the form of "'Shut Up', he explained."…chuckle) was probably a reasonable response…Appeals to authority, when the very moral character of the authority is what the agony is all about--don’t help much…But perhaps this look at what the traditional Christian understanding of election IS NOT will help you some…and maybe seeing the VAST DIFFERENCE between "no reasons" and "unknown reasons" will allow you to draw upon a wider base of Christian experience, concrete and less-ambiguous information, and above all, upon the supreme manifestation of the loving, other-centered, heart of God, in the life of His Son on the Cross, in formulating/refining your appreciation for the goodness and kindness of our God…

 

I hope this helps, friend…I know how corrosive and even catastrophic that 'God is arbitrary' belief can be--I wrestled with it many, many times myself in earlier years…

 

Glenn Miller

October 22, 2002

 

 


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