We have seen there is biblical support for both predestination and free will. So which is it? And how can we know? At this point in the conversation, I’ve seen four different responses offered as the best way forward. I don’t think any of them are right. After outlining these four paths, I’ll offer a fifth way that I think is more helpful in resolving this conflict.
The Four Common Responses
Dismiss the Calvinist Texts
Arminians, seeking to defend their point of view, sometimes unfairly dismiss the verses that seem to support the Calvinist view. After citing the passages in support of their view, they go on to show how the Calvinists are incorrect in their interpretation of the other passages.
Of course, we should always be going back to the Scriptures and digging deeper, seeking to better understand what the texts teach. But sometimes this devolves from exegesis (getting the meaning out of the text) to eisegesis (putting our meaning into the text). In other words, already being convinced of the Arminian perspective, much work is done to figure out how to “explain away” the verses seemingly in conflict with the already-adopted point of view.
Sometimes this goes one step forward and devolves into Straw Man arguments against Calvinist interpretations of the passages. The end result is often more heat than light is generated, and the Arminian becomes more entrenched in his position. I do not believe this is a fruitful way forward.
Dismiss the Arminian Texts
Lest we be too hard on Arminians, Calvinists are often guilty of the same approach. In an attempt to defend Calvinism, the passages that seem to prove unconditional election or related doctrines are proffered, and passages which seem to say the opposite are dismissed.
Again, it is right to wrestle with these texts, seeking to determine authorial intent (what God intended us to understand when he inspired the writers to pen these words). Yet Calvinists are equally susceptible to eisegesis when attempting to do exegesis. Part of our fallen nature is that we all are tempted to “read into” texts what we want them to say. And for the person already committed to the Calvinist understanding of our salvation, this results in much effort to “explain away” passages seeming to favor Arminianism.
And like their Arminian brothers and sisters, at this point the Calvinist can easily slip into the Straw Man Fallacy as well, positing Arminian interpretations or arguments in weak forms that are easy to tear down, further entrenching the Calvinist in her position. I believe this is an equally unfruitful way forward.
Decide for Pragmatic or Sociological Reasons
Some, whether Calvinists or Arminians, come to a point of giving up on adjudicating between the competing passages on Scripture, and choose to adopt one view or the other for pragmatic reasons.
I was guilty of this early in my faith journey. Not long after coming to faith in high school, I began to wrestle with this issue. The more I studied, the more confused I became. However, many believers I respected seemed to come down on one side of this issue. So over time I found myself more and more committed to that position (which is not the position I now hold). In retrospect, I had given up on trying to answer this question from the text, and defaulted to a position for sociological reasons. It was easier to simply agree with the people I knew and respected.
I believe this is a common experience of those growing up in a church committed to either Arminianism or Calvinism. If all of the more mature and learned believers in your church hold to a certain view, it is very hard to question it. As Proverbs 18:17 puts it, “The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.” (New Revised Standard Version)
This may also occur as one applies to a Christian college or seminary. Perhaps the nearby school takes a certain position on this matter, and requires all students to sign a statement of faith agreeing with this point of view in order to be admitted. In these cases, some—especially younger believers who have not thought much about this issue—may be tempted to adopt one view or the other on the pragmatic grounds of getting accepted at the school of their choice. Of course, once there the position is reinforced in lectures and readings, resulting in the person being further entrenched in the school’s point of view.
Though I’m sure we are all guilty of adopting a view on this and other issues for pragmatic reasons, that doesn’t mean it is the right way to proceed. This third way is as unprofitable as the previous two in solving this dilemma.
Punt To Mystery
The fourth path often trod is throwing one’s hands up and saying, “They are both true, but it’s a mystery how this can be?!” Often this is within the context of “God’s ways are above our ways” and so we cannot hope to understand the intricacies of God’s mind, will, and workings. This is the approach taken in the very popular book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God by J.I. Packer.
Sometimes those taking this approach go as far as saying God’s logic is not the same as our logic, so what is a contradiction for us is not a contradiction for Him. I think this final move in very problematic—see here (“Bad Argument #2”) for a discussion of why logic is logic, whether it be in God’s mind or ours.
Aside from that extreme, I appealing to mystery is an improvement on the other three approaches. It is better than deciding for pragmatic reasons, for it continues to seek an answer in the pages of Scripture. And it is better than the first two, in that it doesn’t seek to “explain away” the passages either seeming to affirm Calvinism or Arminianism. For these reasons, I appreciate this approach.
However, I believe this fourth way forward is inadequate as well, for it is premature. If, after a complete study, we still find ourselves with this dilemma, then I am all for invoking mystery and giving up on a solution to the problem. But we must first be sure we have considered all the relevant evidence. And at this point I don’t think we have. In my fifth response, I’ll outline the additional relevant evidence that I have never seen engaged. So I think invoking mystery, when taken at this point in the study, is not helpful. In fact, it actually stifles further inquiry and the possibility of finding a solution.
In fact, the result of all four responses tend to stifle further study of the issue in an attempt to solve the dilemma. Minds are made up, heels are dug in, and true conversations cease.
In the following weeks, I want to suggest a fifth way forward in answering the “Predestination or Free Will” question. It helped me as I wrestled with this question. I hope you will find it helpful as well.
Until then, grace and peace.