The word “predestination” is enough to send shivers down many Christians of my own Wesleyan-Arminian heritage. Hearing the word conveys images of an angry God arbitrarily damning people to hell for entirely arbitrary reasons while letting others get a free pass. While this is certainly a stereotype of Calvinist theology, certainly the word “predestination” carries a lot of baggage as a result.
The primary response by my theological tradition has been to offer an alternative ordo salutis to the Reformed tradition that adds some condition of faith to the decision of predestination, such as appealing to God’s foreknowledge in Romans 8:29 to explain predestination. The problem with this response is that it treats the Bible, particularly the Gospels and Paul’s Letters as a how-to guide of salvation. This is not to mention the problem of treating salvation as something close to a regularized, assembly line process where there is a specific order that occurs each time. Put quite simply, the authors of the New Testament are not concerned about developed an extended metaphysics of salvation; rather their concern is phenomenological, only occasionally foraying into what we might term metaphysics, and even then, the main metaphysics pertains to the action and power of God. While one can trace a certain chronological pattern of Christian phenomenological experience throughout the letters of Paul, it is a mistake to try to trace out a correspond metaphysical chronology of salvation.
However, another option comes from Karl Barth. Barth reinterprets the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. He suggests that the election of God occurs in one person, Jesus Christ,1 with whom we may then be joined together. There is a substantial problem with this from a Biblical perspective, however. While Christ is called elect in some passages such as Luke 9:35, nowhere is a direct analogy drawn between Christ’s election and the election that other people are a part of. Furthermore, this would assume that election is used in equivalent senses when it comes to both Christ and other people. The idea of choice implicitly entails the purpose for which one is chosen, and so the election of Christ and the election of other people may be for two distinct goals or purposes; there is no necessary semantic equivalence between the language of election. So while Barth’s idea is certainly creative, would explain some concept such as being “elect in Christ” in Ephesians 1:4, and would undercut some of the problems with Calvinist predestination, it’s creativity is it’s downfall; it just doesn’t match the way the New Testament speaks about Christ and other people.
However, while Barth’s doctrine of election goes too far in order to make sense of the Biblical narrative, there is something important undergirding the concept: election, and thus also predestination, is deeply connected to the person of Jesus Christ. It is commonly assumed that what people are predestined to is eternal life and destruction; John Calvin writes: “To many this seems a perplexing subject, because they deem it most incongruous that of the great body of mankind some should be predestinated to salvation, and others to destruction.” 2 The goal of predestination for Calvinism is one’s final state of existence. However, for Paul in Romans 8:29, predestination isn’t about eternal life, but rather to be like Christ in some capacity.
Furthermore, the language of predestination isn’t employed in a universalist fashion for all people. Rather, Paul’s subject is about the people who are “foreknown.” Romans 11:1 shows this to be the language used to refer to Abraham and his descendants, and thus foreknowledge that is about the people of Israel.3 It is Abraham’s descendants who are predestined to be conformed to Christ. This makes sense of Romans 8:29-30 coming after a long discussion on Torah in Romans 7:1-8:8. Paul is concerned about connecting Israel’s story to the story of Christ.
We see this in play in reading Romans 4. In talking about the nature of Abraham’s faith, Paul defines the content of Abraham’s faith as pertaining to God “who gives life to the dead.”4 Christ was raised from the dead, but Paul would say Abraham’s trust in God for descendants given his advanced age is essentially trust in God’s resurrection power. The content of Abraham’s faith is understood as it relates to what happens in Christ’s resurrection. Then, Paul continues to expound upon Abraham’s faith as one where he will be the father of many nations.5. Similarly, Jesus, a descendant of Abraham by human lineage, is the firstborn of a larger family in Romans 8:29. If we join these observations together, it is that Paul’s understanding of Abraham was from the very beginning echoing faith in the power of God in Christ and pointing towards the fulfillment of the promises in Christ. As Wesley Hill puts it, “Paul identifies the God of Abraham by means of what he knows of that God through the Christ-event.” 6 In this light, Paul is meaning this in Romans 8:29: God has predestined Abraham and his lineage to be formed into the pattern of Christ. Instead of a statement of individual soteriology, Romans 8:29 is a statement about salvation history. The story of Israel was Christ-shaped from the beginning before even the descendants of Abraham were called into existence.7
This explains the reference to Christ as “firstborn.” In terms of human history, Jesus is clearly not the firstborn. However, as Colossians 1:15 suggests, the concept of Christ as the firstborn may come from a Wisdom Christology based upon Proverbs 8:22-31. Thus, in order for Abraham and his descendants to be conformed to Christ with Christ as the firstborn, then this would entail a) the divine plan for Christ to be born as a descendant of Abraham in the future and b) the pre-existence of Christ that would make him before all other descendants of Abraham. In other words, for Paul, predestination was God’s predetermined plan in history to point Israel’s story to the coming of God’s Christ into the world, thereby opening up the invitation to the whole world to be descendants of Abraham and thus making Abraham a father of a large family of many nations. Christ as the firstborn is His pre-existence life who comes to define the direction of Israel.
If correct, this brings up a few potential observations:
1) The relationship between Israel’s narrative in the OT Scriptures and Christ is that of an unseen trajectory. As a consequence, one does not strictly speaking see Christ in the OT texts, but sees how the OT narrative points towards Christ, both in His pre-existent influence and the shape of His incarnated life. So, the OT is not sufficient on its own grounds to say “Jesus is how God must have had to work.” but the life, death, resurrection, and Lordship of Christ is coherent with the OT historical narrative.
2) Paul’s style of exegesis of Israel’s narrative is forward-looking. Abraham wasn’t merely expressing a faith in future progeny, but given his age and looming mortality, it was pointing towards the power of God in the face of death in Christ. Paul was no stranger to the standard hermeneutical practices of his time that focused on the interpretations of the words of the Torah. He could on occasions engage in that form of exegesis. However, he found Israel’s story was only to be made full, coherent sense of as it pointed forward to Christ.
3) For Paul, the pre-existent Christ is actively involved in the direction of Israel’s story. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 suggests Paul interpreted Israel’s history and life, but not necessarily the letter of the Torah, as being formed by Christ. This is because Christ is involved in the whole of creation, including Israel’s story, as God’s instrumental agent of creation as in 1 Corinthians 8:6.
4) As a consequence of these views on the OT and Christ, Paul does not read the OT as the epistemic grounds of faith, but it is a witness to that faith. One believes Jesus is Lord because God raised Jesus from the dead, and it is to this nature of God’s power that the OT points to. Another way to say it is that the OT provides a plausibility structure to make sense of Jesus’ resurrection and Lordship, but it is the resurrection and not the OT that is the criteria of faith.
5) Abraham’s descendants and recipients of God’s promises are predestined in the sense that their life is brought into conformity to Christ, whether prior to or after Christ’s incarnation. As such, predestination is not an act of selecting who is one what side of the boundary marker that divides believers from unbelievers but rather God’s purposeful plans to direct those who He knows as Abraham’s descendants by faith to be formed to the pattern of Christ. In other words, predestination isn’t about who has a continued existence into eternity but about the enacted purpose to transform human anthropology through Christ, who puts an end to the powers of sin an death in human anthropology/flesh that limits existence.
- Barth, Karl, Geoffrey William Bromiley, and Thomas F. Torrance. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of God, Part 2. Vol. 2. (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 1.
- Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2011), Kindle Edition.
- Paul does argue in Romans 9 and 11 that Gentiles are grafted into Israel, so it doesn’t exclude the rest of the world.
- Romans 4:17.
- Romans 4:18
- Hill, Wesley. Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters. (Grand Rapid, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2015), 61.
- Compare Romans 4:17 and 8:30