In the last post blogging through the book, Grace for All, we saw David Clines present to us the big picture of how one might understand predestination in the Old Testament. In this post I. Howard Marshall gives us a view of “predestinarian thought” in the New.
Marshall is a NT scholar and Professor Emeritus at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He has authored numerous commentaries and works of theology including the 2005 ECPA Gold Medallion winner New Testament Theology.
Marshall reminds us of the challenge that everyone who reads Scripture and studies theology has regardless of the views one holds.
it is one thing to state what Scripture says; it is another to understand it and to bring it into relation with the rest of what Scripture says.
In debates over soteriology, often a verse like Ephesians 1:4-5 is presented as a proof text for unconditional election because it states that we are chosen and predestined.
For he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world …
predestining us to adoption as his sons through Christ
But understanding what Paul meant to communicate when he chose those words and how they should be interpreted in light of the rest of Ephesians and other passages is indeed a difficult task.
Taking a different approach than Clines, this essay starts off with Marshall exploring the various Greek words that are involved with the idea of predestination. These words, we are reminded, existed before Paul used them to describe God’s activity and that they had rather straightforward definitions.
“Pre-destination” in English, as in Greek, refers to an act or decision prior to a later action; one decides beforehand what one is later going to do.
Marshall then explores the ways this concept of pre-planning can be applied to people and then to God. He also delves into the problems with Divine determinism (aka meticulous sovereignty), which many Calvinists use to describe how God relates to the world He created. These problems include explaining the existence of evil, the difficulty of genuinely offering salvation to all, and a contradiction in God’s expressed will (wants all to be saved) and His secret will (withholds grace required to be saved).
What analogy can we use to describe a world in which Divine determinism is true?
In the song Limelight, Geddy Lee of Rush exclaims:
All the world’s indeed a stage
And we are merely players
Performers and portrayers
Is that right? Marshall illustrates this using an author writing a play. The relationship that exists between the author and his characters would be the same one that God would have with those He created in a system where everything that occurs is based on prior decrees.
A dramatist may indeed say that he has come to love his characters, but it is obvious that this is a special use of the term “love.” It does not include the possibility of the characters loving the dramatist, and, even if the dramatist makes them say “I love my creator” in the drama, this is not mutual live in the real sense. … What the Calvinist approach does is to reduce all this language of interpersonal relationships to the expression of the decretive will of God
If making plans, purposing, and acting to carry them out are essential attributes of persons, as Marshall rightly claims, then what are we to make of the characters in a play or movie?
There is not question of the “character” saying “I am free what to say”; this is an unreal question. She simply says what is in the script.
Turning back to Marshall’s challenge. It is easy to state what Scripture says. But how do we interpret it without “denying the validity of the other type of language used to describe God” in the Scriptures? How do we interpret it without our theological presuppositions?
Marshall concludes, taking a larger view of things, by presenting a series of limits that one should have when evaluating predestination based on the numerous ways God and His relationship with people are described in Scripture.There are times when God acts to put His plan into effect but that does not require us to conclude that “everything that happens” is what God decreed or that people are not given the freedom to oppose God’s plans.
Predestinarian language roots salvation in past eternity, “before the creation of the world.” This leads to the temptation to think of God acting in terms of a blueprint prepared in eternity past. But this is to misinterpret the language and leads to illogical consequences.
The Bible has the picture of a God deciding fresh measures in history and interacting with the wills of people alongside the picture of a God planning things in eternity past, and both pictures are equally valid.