The decisive battle line drawn between Reformed-Calvinism1 and Wesleyan-Arminianism pertains to the notion of predestination, more specifically referred to as unconditional election. Did God choose all individuals who were to be saved from the beginning or not? The debate frequently hinges on understanding the passages of predestination, most notably, Romans 8:29-30, Romans 9, and Ephesians 1:3-14. More particularly, based upon Romans 8:29-30, Wesleyan and Calvinist perspectives seek to determine whether God predestines people based upon a forseen faith? John Calvin thinks it absurd that foreknowledge determines his eternal decrees.2 By contrast, John Wesley argues that God knows ahead of time all who will believe, and thus God predestines them to be free from sin.3
However, the nature of this debate makes a few fundamental definitional assumptions about foreknowledge and predestination: 1) Foreknowledge pertains to knowledge of future events, 2) Predestination is about individuals, and 3) Predestination is about one’s future destination of judgment. Put more succinctly, the debate on predestination entails the interaction between God’s decrees and individual persons beliefs and actions against the backdrop of time. These highly metaphysical readings seem to bump up against Paul’s arguments, however.
Firstly, God’s knowing of people for Paul does not specifically entail a knowledge of their actions, choices, etc. Rather, it is a relational knowledge. In Galatians 4:8, Paul clarifies the knowledge that believers have about God as really being about God’s knowing of them. In context, the knowledge being spoken of is relational, as just prior in v. 6, Paul attributes to the Spirit the people’s calling God as their faith. Thus, God’s knowing is more the knowledge of people in relation, rather than people as actors/agents. This has its echoes in the knowledge metaphor being used to describe the relations between husband and wife in the Old Testament.4
Thus, this relational knowledge serves as the background for God’s foreknowing, as in Romans 11:2. In discussing how God moves on to include the Gentiles in the face of the disobedience of Israel, Paul makes the adamant appeal that God does not reject the foreknown people. Such language is relational as its heart, indicating a type of affinity that God has for the nation of Israel where God can never let go of Israel despite their sins because of their covenantal relationship to one another; this echoes the vision of the prophets such as Hosea, whom Paul does quote from, where God’s judgment for Israel’s sins is ultimately stymied by his covenantal love for Israel. As such, “foreknowledge” pertains to God’s specific relationship to Israel. It is not a statement about a set of individual persons who are chosen to have their sins forgiven and avoid the coming judgment; the people God foreknows come under judgment, although never with a judgment that leads to the entire rejection of the nation. However, why does Paul refer to this as fore-knowledge? It is language that is well-suited to explain God’s relationship to Israel as a specially chosen people against the backdrop that God is including the Gentiles; Israel is the nation who had a special relationship to God prior to inclusion of the rest of the nations.
So, when coming upon Romans 8:29-30, the nature of Paul’s logic becomes a bit clearer. God has a people who he has a special relationship with; it is God’s covenantal relationship to Israel that stands in the background for Paul. However, this relationship entailed a specific purpose; Israel as the foreknown people were ultimately selected so as to resemble the image of Christ. As opposed to predestination being about individual people who find their way into heaven, for Paul predestination takes on a Christ-o-centric purpose of being set forth on a path to be called in baptism, vindicated because one trusts in God, and glorified after suffering, just as happened with Christ.
It is here we may note that predestination also serves the purpose of putting the election of Israel in relation to the Gentiles; God selected Israel’s conformity to Christ before he acted to bring forth the nations as fellow inheritors. Both the Greek terms for foreknowledge (προγινωσκω) and predestination (προοριζω) are prefixed by προ–, which echoes a statement in Paul’s thesis from Romans 1:16: “to the Jew first (πρῶτον), and also to the Greek.” Foreknowing and predestination are about God’s relationship with Israel temporally prior to extending the same benefits of this relationship to the world; thus it is not an ontological statement about the determination of the salvation of individual people by some eternal decree from God but is an interpretation of God’s action in the course of history through Israel prior to the universal reconciliation.
This recounting of Israel’s own special relationship to God sets up Paul’s wonderful panegyric on behalf of God’s faithfulness, which then sets up the question of Romans 9-11: how is God faithfulness demonstrated amongst much of Israel’s disobedience and the hardening that has come upon them? The trajectory of Paul’s answer in those chapters is that God’s hardening of Israel that lead to the rejection of Jesus then leads to the inclusion of the Gentiles. However, Paul does not see Israel’s future as permanent enemies to the gospel but envisions a future, universal restoration that includes all of Israel. It is here that Paul’s notion of predestination makes sense: Israel’s purpose that was conveyed to them by Torah ultimately points to Christ as their telos5; however, this ordained task was not fulfilled by them. Torah’s was incapable of overcoming sin6, and thereby what was Israel’s righteous purpose and mission was then presented to the Gentiles7. God set forth Israel’s purpose which was failed by their rejection of Christ and therefore because of that the wider world was included into Christ’s redemption. However, this is not for Israel’s ultimate rejection, but they are instruments in this global reconciliation, to which they will be restored to. God’s predestination of Israel’s purpose is thus a) the mechanism by which God brings the world into reconciliation by the failure to abide by it and b) yet will be ultimately fulfilled for Israel upon the entirety of God’s purposes for the Gentiles occurring.
Therefore, for Paul, predestination is not a boundary marker by which some are determined to heaven and others are irreparably barred and left to go to hell. Rather, Paul envisions predestination as God’s original purpose for Israel to be conformed to Christ, but because of Israel’s national rejection of Christ, the whole world becomes included and not just Israel by themselves. Therefore predestination can be said to bring about Christ being the first born of a large family from all nations in a rather surprising way. Thus, it is Israel’s predestination that is the historical starting point of God’s saving work in Christ. Predestination is an explanation of Israel’s peculiar relationship to God, their mixed story of worship and disobedience, and ultimately their role in God’s universal reconciliation. This is consistent with Ephesians 1:3-14 where the “we” is spoken of predestined, whereas the “you” is not spoken of predestined; nevertheless both the “we” and the “you” are redeemed and have an inheritance. As becomes more obvious in Ephesians the “we” is Israel and the “you” are the Gentiles,8 highlighting more so the historical nature of predestination, rather than a metaphysical designation of an eternal decree. To be sure, Paul thinks this choice of Israel happened before the creation of the world, but it is interesting that προοριζω/predestination is not used to refer to the election in Christ before God’s act of creation, but rather is used in reference to the filial notion of adoption in v. 5 and with the corresponding inheritance in v. 11, suggesting predestination is about God’s setting forth of Israel’s purpose but not as the boundary marker for inclusion.
In short, if this reading is correct, the very debate around predestination, and the corresponding concept of foreknowledge, between those of Calvinist and Arminian soteriologies are getting the terms mixed up in the first place. Foreknowledge and predestination is the story of God’s relationship to Israel and His setting forth their purpose, retroactively understood by Paul through the lens of God’s inclusion of the Gentiles. It entails the point where God started his redemptive work in Christ, and not to set out the boundary markers of where the redemption of Christ is limited to. While this may seem to affirm the Wesleyan argument against Unconditional Election, and it does to a degree by shifting predestination away from individual salvation and to national purpose, the standard Wesleyan interpretation a) is also guilty of over-individualizing, b) thinking all this language is ultimately about who gets to heaven, c) fails to really grasp the nature of the relationship that God has with Israel, and d) reading a notion of free choice into predestiantion through an antecedent foreknowledge that undercuts Paul’s argument about the partial hardening of Israel in Romans 9-11, which presents a thorn in the side of interpretation for Wesleyan-Arminia
- It is important to note that Calvinism as represented in TULIP does not represent all of Reformed theology
- Institutes of Religion, 3.21.5.
- On Predestination
- Genesis 4:1 in the LXX uses the Greek term γινωσκω, just as in Galatians 4:8. For more information about the basis of this type of knowledge, read Dru Johnson’s Biblical Knowing.
- Romans 10:4
- Romans 7
- Romans 9:30-31
- Ephesians 2:11-22