A few days before the US election last year, new figures showed a rise in the number of jobs, though simultaneously the number registered as unemployed also rose because more people had signed on to seek work. Barack Obama greeted this as a sign that the economy was recovering, while Mitt Romney took it as proof that the economy was stagnant. While we expect politicians to mess around with statistics, are we guilty of the same when it comes to interpreting the Bible?
The issue of predestination is a case in point. Some Christians believe God decides who will be saved, while others believe we can freely choose to follow him. Both stances can be validated in scripture. The first group (Calvinists) emphasise biblical words such as ‘predestined’, ‘chosen’ and ‘elect’ to support their outlook; those with the opposing view emphasise ‘repent’, ‘follow’ and ‘believe’. These two competing systems of theology now divide the Church.
John Calvin, an influential theologian in the 16th century, developed a self-consistent Bible-based theology based on the assumption that God is totally in charge. This means that when someone chooses to follow God, they are in fact doing what God had already planned for them. Later, another theologian, Jacobus Arminius, responded with an equally self-consistent and Bible-based theology based on the assumption that God allows people to have real freedom of choice. Today this theology is often called ‘Wesleyan’ after John Wesley who refined it in the 18th century.
Although they contradict each other, both theologies are biblical, though they understand some Bible words differently. Take, for example, the New Testament word that we translate as ‘predestination’ (Greek pro-orizoo) which means ‘a prior plan’. Calvinists regard this as God’s inescapable prior plan of salvation for some and condemnation for others, while Wesleyans regard it as God’s good prior plan for everyone, which we can accept or reject.
‘Election’ and ‘calling’ are similarly regarded as God’s selection of individuals by Calvinists, but Wesleyans say that God elects (ie invites) and calls everyone ? though only some accept the call.
Do we feel free or do we feel controlled?
When the word ‘sovereignty’ is used ? that is, God’s kingly ability to do whatever he wishes ? there is a very subtle distinction. Wesleyans say that whatever God wants to happen will happen, whereas Calvinists say that whatever happens is what God wants. For Wesleyans it is therefore possible for God to give humans some freedom of choice, but for Calvinists this is impossible.
Key Bible verses can also be understood in both ways. Wesleyans quote proof verses such as ‘God our Saviour…desires all people to be saved and…Christ Jesus…gave himself as a ransom for all’ (1 Timothy 2:3-6). Calvinists can avoid the conclusion that God’s will is thwarted when someone rejects him by interpreting ‘all people’ as ‘all kinds of people’. Calvinists quote verses such as ‘those whom he foreknew he also predestined’ (Romans 8:29-30) and ‘he predestined us for adoption… according to the purpose of his will’ (Ephesians 1:5). In reply, Wesleyans point out that ‘foreknow’ implies that God knows beforehand, rather than decides beforehand. They also say that since Roman adoption normally involved a young adult who had to agree to be adopted, Paul’s picture implies human choice ? that God wants to adopt everyone, but only some respond and agree to become his children.
Supporting both sides In the Gospels, Jesus appears to support both sides. He says that ‘many are called, but few are chosen’ (Matthew 22:14), but accompanies this with a parable that turned this saying on its head: the chosen few whom the King invited to his banquet declined to attend, so he called many others who did come. We get a similarly double-sided message in the parables of the lost in Luke 15: the prodigal decided by himself to return, but the stray sheep is sought and carried back. Jesus’ teaching is clearly neither Calvinist nor Wesleyan ? he portrays the truths of both understandings: God seeks and brings us back, and also we decide to return.
This balance is displayed especially in John 6:37 where it appears that the first clause supports Calvinism and the second clause supports Wesleyanism: ‘All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.’ However, as with other such verses, both sides have a reasonable explanation to affirm their own view. Some Calvinists say the first clause is God’s viewpoint, and the second is a human viewpoint. Other Calvinists say that the order is important: first God chooses who will come to Jesus, and then Jesus accepts those who come. Wesleyans counter that if the order is important, the process must start with human choice because Jesus began this section in verse 35, saying ‘whoever comes to me…’. They also point out that God has given all people to Jesus (Ephesians 1:22), so they will all come (‘appear’) before Jesus at judgement, and Jesus won’t reject anyone who chooses to come to (‘accept’) him before that. (This distinction is clearer in the Greek, which uses two different verbs).
Free or controlled?
Perhaps we can cut through the arguments by applying common sense. Do we feel free or do we feel controlled? Again, the answer is not clear-cut. Sometimes we feel like a puppet manipulated by circumstances, as if God and the universe are pushing us around. At other times we feel as if we have at least some freedom ? like any toddler who refuses to go to bed or share a toy, we can choose to do or not do things. Wesleyans may feel that this bolsters their position, but again, this isn’t decisive because extreme Calvinists say that God makes us feel free, and moderate Calvinists say that we use real freedom to choose what God planned.
Personally I lean towards the Wesleyan position because this describes God as I know him. I could accept that a just God would punish us all without offering to save us, but I can’t accept that a just God would decide to rescue some and not others who were equally sinful and equally earnest about repenting.
You might well quote Paul’s words to me: ‘Who are you to answer back to God? The created thing cannot say to the creator, “Why did you make me like this?”’ (Romans 9:20). However, even Pharoah, whose heart God made hard, had hardened it himself first (see Exodus 9:34-35). That is, Pharaoh decided to be obstructive, and God helped him stick to that decision because it worked well for God’s plan for the nations.
Agreeing to disagree
In the end, I respect both systems of theology, except for the extremes. Extreme Calvinists may not bother to communicate the gospel because they believe that those whom God has chosen will come to him, whatever we do. Extreme Wesleyans may also neglect spreading the gospel because they think that neither sin nor the devil can interfere with human freedom to believe in God. When any theology discourages us from sharing God’s love with others, it has gone wrong.
Political parties flounder when they have divisions, and the gospel can be similarly damaged by theological divisions. Wesley had an acrimonious and public dispute with fellow evangelist George Whitefield who championed a Calvinist interpretation. However, Wesley’s funeral oration for Whitefield contains the first recorded use of what is now a commonplace phrase that I’d love to hear Christians say to each other more often: ‘We may agree to disagree.’