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Free Will or Predestination? | Romans 8:29-30

Science fact has tended to come from science fiction.

In 1968, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a “foolscap-sized Newspad,” something sounds suspiciously like our modern iPad or other tablet computers. Aldous Huxley came up with the idea of mood-enhancing pills for his novel Brave New World in 1931, something certain writers feel might have led to the idea that ‘healthy’ means medicated.[1] Not to mention that William Gibson and David Foster Wallace described versions of the World Wide Web and streaming television services in Necromancer and Infinite Jest respectively.[2] For that matter, our smartphones bear an uncanny resemblance to Star Trek’s all in one communication device, the tricorder.

One of the most insistent ideas from science fiction is the idea of artificial intelligence. Whether you are talking about the homicidal computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Sonny from Asimov’s I, Robot, the concept of being able to create a thinking machine that can act and react to the world around it has been part of the science fiction trope and vision. And we are venturing closer to that with systems like IBM’s Watson, Apple’s Siri, and Amazon’s Alexa.

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All these things – robots, apps, and the like – rely on a complex system of programming using predictive technology and search engines that are all preprogrammed. They follow a pattern of responses that can be boiled down to something called an ‘if-then’ statement. What that means is that the program will have to decide and if certain things exist, it chooses that way if not, it chooses another. None of them is capable of what we would call independent or creative thought outside its own programming.

All that leads me to the subject of discussion and the question I was asked: Can you talk about free will versus predestination?

Views of predestination

Usually, when people want to talk about predestination, they want to talk about what it means regarding salvation – who goes to heaven and who doesn’t. The most prominently talked about idea regarding predestination – the one believed by Augustine, John Calvin, and many of those who follow them – says that God intends some people to go to heaven and others to hell and there is nothing that anyone can choose to do about it. It is a sort of fatalistic view of life that says God is so in control of everything that we have literally no choice in anything; we are little more than automatons, a sort of artificial intelligence like we talked about earlier but with higher programming. Augustine, in his work On the Predestination of Saints, even went so far as to defend the position and God’s divine justice in sending stillborn babies to hell even though they had no personal sin, simply because God knows the infants would have sinned in the future, a form of Hyper-Calvinism.[3] Augustine eventually refined his thought but not far from the ideas of God’s sovereignty that led him to think this way and theologians like Zwingli and Calvin came behind him and took up his mantle.[4] Though this extreme view has been modified through the centuries with varying degrees of severity and nuance, there are many who till believe it today.

Another way of looking at predestination is to see it as a window to God, which was Martin Luther’s way. The window for Luther was cross, where the gracious will of God was bound freely to humanity through the cross – the great event and symbol of the human helpless and divine intervention.[5] For Luther, our response to the cross is an acknowledgment of complete unworthiness and dependence on God’s grace, which is where predestination comes in as an expression of the grace of God to save some though all are unworthy.[6]

One last view before we get to the Wesleyan view is something called Open Theism. Open Theism says even though he knows all things, God does not know what we will do in the future. Though he is all powerful, He has chosen to invite us to share in the creative process with Him in governing and developing His creation, and because of this allow us the freedom to choose against His hopes for us. God desires that each of us choose a loving and dynamic personal relationship with Him, and He has left it to us to choose whether we will engage in that relationship with him.[7] This is a more recent idea, having only been around for a few decades now, but its proponents argue it from both a biblical and a philosophical basis.

Wesley’s and the UMC On Predestination

I think the easiest way to speak on predestination in the Wesleyan sense is to let those who said it say it.

For John Wesley:

The theology of John Wesley, however, follows more closely a different strand of theology in the Western and the Orthodox (Eastern) tradition that understands salvation is both something God does and in which we cooperate, though not as equals by any means. Only God can initiate salvation. But only by our ongoing, living relationship with God through faith can God’s saving intention be fully realized in our lives.[8]

This was said about Jacobus Arminius, who heavily influenced Wesley,

Arminius, like Calvin and all of classical Christianity, affirmed that there is nothing humans can do to initiate salvation. Only God can do this, and God does so unconditionally, and for all, not just a limited number of the pre-selected. Christ’s saving activity in his life, death and resurrection was thus potentially effective for all. Only faith, which is an exercise of our will, under the influence of divine grace, is required of us. Such faith and responsiveness to God grace, revealed in our works, but not caused by them, keeps us “in grace.”[9]

The United Methodist Church official position is,

Once saved, always saved? No. We’re not Calvinists. We don’t believe God has orchestrated the world and the universe to make that the necessary outcome for some limited number of the pre-selected. And we’re not reducing salvation to a propositional transaction, as some forms of American Protestant proclamation has done, so that once we believe and say certain things, no matter what else happens, we “have” salvation and can never “lose” it…Perhaps the better phrase, though one Wesley himself did not use, would be one that starts where Calvin starts-not with us (as once saved, always saved often seems to do), but with God. “God is out to save us, one and all.” Though we have no faith we can articulate, God is out to save us, one and all. Though our faith may grow dim and our works disorderly, God is out to save us, one and all. Though we may lose our way and do terrible things to others, God is out to save us, one and all. And though for some God’s efforts to save may still leave them in spiritual death and Hell, God is out to save us, one and all.[10]

And finally, Wesley himself wrote in his sermon, On Predestination,

Indeed, if man were not free, he could not be accountable either for his thoughts, word, or actions. If he were not free, he would not be capable either of reward or punishment; he would be incapable either of virtue or vice, of being either morally good or bad. If he had no more freedom than the sun, the moon, or the stars, he would be no more accountable than them. On supposition that he had no more freedom than them, the stones of the earth would be as capable of reward, and as liable to punishment, as man: One would be as accountable as the other. Yea, and it would be as absurd to ascribe either virtue or vice to him as to ascribe it to the stock of a tree.[11]

Predestination: A Pastoral Interpretation

As someone who came to Methodism as much for Wesley’s theological understanding as anything else, I believe in the Wesleyan/Arminian approach to predestination, leaning on the free will of man to choose to engage in the relationship we have with God, a relationship that God saw before it became a reality to us.  That said, a part of me sees this discussion as a red herring for one reason: this like many other issues tend to detract from the greatest issues in our Christian walk. Those issues are love God, love neighbor, and make disciples. If we are destined whether we like it not, we should love God, love neighbor, and make disciples. If we have some limited free will in the entire enterprise, we should love God, love neighbor, and make disciples. If we are completely and totally free to do whatever we want whenever we want and God can’t do a thing about it, we should still love God, love neighbor, and make disciples.

If we are going to follow Jesus’ Way, if we are going to be the church, if we are going to live into lives of fruitfulness and abundance, we should love God, love neighbor, and make disciples. Predestination is an interesting subject and one worth understanding as much as we are able, but when the theological nitpicking is over, we called to love God, love neighbor, and make disciples.


References

Achtemeier, Paul J. Romans: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Augustine. The Complete Works of Saint Augustine. Edited by Philip Schaff. Translated by Marcus Dods. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, LLC, 2013.

Collins, Kenneth J. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2007.

Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. Downers Grove, Il: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Wesley, John. The Sermons of John Wesley: The Complete Collection of 141 Sermons. Edited by Michael R. Martin. Sarnac Lake, NY: Cedar Eden Books, 2014.


[1] https://electricliterature.com/8-pieces-of-modern-technology-that-science-fiction-predicted-or-invented-dd79dd1a9997

[2] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/the-5-impressive-ways-david-foster-wallaces-infinite-jest-predic/

[3] (Augustine 2013, Kindle Loc. 171111-171129)

[4] (Olson 1999, p.403, 410)

[5] (Olson 1999, p.383)

[6] ibid

[7] https://www.iep.utm.edu/o-theism/

[8] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/do-united-methodists-believe-once-saved-always-saved

[9] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/do-united-methodists-believe-once-saved-always-saved

[10] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/do-united-methodists-believe-once-saved-always-saved

[11] (Wesley 2014, Kindle Loc. 14664)

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