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Predestination

The fact that other Christians automatically associate the term, predestination, with Presbyterian theology can surprise otherwise faithful members of “the frozen chosen.” Somewhere along the line, most of us have learned to take the offensive sting out of the idea. Don McKim, a wonderful theologian, practically gushes with his enthusiasm for “the joy of predestination” (Presbyterian Questions, 9). Predestination blurs into the ideas of grace, the unmerited love of God, and the comforting thought that there is nothing we can do to lose our salvation.

But what about the flip-side? These doctrines are joyful if we are part of the elect, but has God decided before the advent of time that some humans will be born only to die and spend eternity in hell? Is there nothing they can do about it?

This last idea is perhaps most disturbing, especially for Americans. Literary critic, Harold Bloom, cited a Gallup poll that claimed nine out of every ten Americans believe that God loves them (The American Religion, 16–17). There has never been a civilization in the history of humankind so utterly convinced of God’s love.

Despite our cultural understandings, the truth of the matter is that, other than John Chrysostom and John Wesley, every major theologian of the first eighteen-hundred years or so of Christian history has believed in predestination. This is due to the readily evident fact that the idea is very biblical. Read, for example, the eighth chapter of Romans or the opening verses in Ephesians. In the Greek New Testament, the word for predestination literally means “to see beforehand.” Spanning thousands of years of Christian thought, many have assumed that God knows what is going to happen before it happens. God is omniscience or all-knowing.

Are you with me so far?

I do not to claim, however, that the Bible resolves this mystery. It should be said that the Bible is well, perhaps even contradictory about the subjectDid God harden Pharaoh’s heart or was his stubbornness the result of human pride (compare Exod 14:8–10 with 1 Sam 6:6)? Why does God commission the prophet Isaiah to “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed” (Isa 6:10)? Does God not want some to repent? Well, put that verse in conversation with the idea that God is patient and desires salvation for all (2 Peter 3:9). Many evangelical Christians are fond of quoting Paul’s claim that everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord will be saved (Ro 10:9–10). But then the same Paul in the same letter turns around and asks, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the objects of wrath that are made for destruction (Ro 9:22)?”

I raise these questions, not to provide a stumbling block to anyone’s faith, but rather to disabuse us of the notion that things are clear-cut and simple. Thomas Merton once said that trying to resolve the problem of God was like trying to see your own eyes.

This quote speaks to the impossibility of our task; yet I find the implication to journey inward to be helpful. So what do you think? What is your gut reaction about predestination? What have you heard and what have you learned?

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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