Here’s a hot topic for ya.
Has God determined everything that has and will come to pass (predestination) or do people have the ability to make genuinely free choices that are not determined by God (free will)?
You might consider this to be irrelevant, but it is at least a big deal for many atheists, because they find it impossible to call a God who makes everything happen, including things like the holocaust, truly good. For many, that’s the only “Christian God” they’ve ever heard of, so they reject the idea. And If that’s all I knew I would do the same. So if people are hindered from having a relationship with Jesus because of a false doctrine, methinks that’s kind of a big deal.
The reason for disagreement between people is that there seem to be bible passages that imply both ideas. For example, “Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined…” (Romans 8:29) is used to support predestination, and “…Choose today whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15) is used to support free will (emphasis in both verses mine).
It’s a good idea to look at the history of ideas claimed to be grounded in the bible in order to examine their legitimacy. If we see early church fathers writing positively about some idea, that should increase its credibility since many of them spoke the language the bible was originally written in, knew the authors personally and the circumstances of the recipients of letters, understood cultural factors naturally without having to study them like we do, etc. On the other hand, if there is no mention of an idea until hundreds of years after Jesus, that doesn’t automatically disqualify the idea, but it is a good reason to be suspicious.
Such is the case with predestination.
The idea only first emerged around 400 A.D. with Augustine and only became popular in the 17th century with the theologian John Calvin (the common notion of predestination is fairly synonymous with what is popularly called “Calvinism,” and I use the terms interchangably). On the contrary, all the early church fathers consistently upheld the freedom of human choice. That was their interpretation of the bible as a whole, including all the passages that people use to support predestination.
So we at least have grounds to suspect that Calvinism is merely a man-made doctrine.
Looking at the Greek of bible passages that are cited to support a doctrine is also a good idea. Thanks to the internet, to some degree everybody can do this themselves for free at websites like blueletterbible.org and biblestudytools.com.
The solution to this particular issue of seemingly contradictory bible passages turns out to be simple. It has to do with the English word “you.” This word can be used to refer to both individuals and more than one person. I can tell a friend “I love you” and I can also address all the readers of this post by saying “you are awesome!” In Greek, on the other hand, there is always a distinction between the “singular you” and the “plural you.” Potentially, we could do this in English too – just say “you” for individuals and “you all” for more than one person. Unfortunately, most popular translations of the bible consistently use “you” for both tenses of the Greek.
Every verse in the bible speaking of predestination doesn’t refer to individuals but to the Church. The idea of individuals being predestined does not exist in the bible. God has not determined every move you will make. Such ideas only became popular when Christianity began to become individualistic.
Incidentally, Augustine didn’t know Greek and even said he hated it. He only read the Latin translations of the bible, which had plenty of their own errors. He also came to believe in Jesus later in life, and his theology was heavily influenced by the pagan philosophy he was priorly steeped in for many years. It’s not surprising that he would veer from the consensus of the early church fathers and create his own new doctrine.
When I first heard this in college I thought, “well what if it’s not you all, collectively as a group, but each one of you all, individually. I asked one of my professors about this and he responded that the expressesion of such a concept in Greek using that word was nonexistent. In other words, when it says “you all” in the Greek, it always means “you all, collectively as a group.” There are other Greek words that would allow one to say things like “each one of you,” but the biblical authors never used them in reference to predestination.
Interestingly, you won’t find the doctrines of Calvinism in other parts of the world. The fact that it is predominantly a phenomenon of English speaking countries (especially North America) is telling. Its ideas are rooted neither in the bible nor in the history of the early Church but rather in speculations based on mistranslations.
So be at peace. Whom the son sets free is free indeed. You are free.
Note: I avoided using scholarly terminology in this post for better readability (or rather used scholarly terminology but incorrectly, i.e. the way most people use the terms in conversation). Wikipedia has a pretty nice article giving an overview of all the different nuances in the term “predestination,” its history, etc. You can check it out here.