Exploring the Theological Divide: Predestination, Freewill, Calvinism, Armenianism, and Paul’s Doctrine on Election
A common question that people ask is “Why are there so many different denominations in Christianity?” The common answer is that there are theological differences between denominations. I want to explore one of those major differences in today’s post, looking at Calvinism and Armenianism through Romans 9-11. First, let me summarize Romans 9-11.
Romans 9 starts with Paul’s anguish over the situation with the Israelites. Remember, Saul was a Pharisee, a Jew of all Jews, who knew the scripture well, and took pride in being part of the chosen nation. But Saul became Paul and accepted Jesus as his savior, the Messiah who fulfilled Israelite prophecy. Despite this, many of Paul’s own people, the Israelites didn’t believe in Jesus and crucified him.
That is why Paul goes on to explain the reason behind why Israelites couldn’t hold onto the status as the chosen people. He explains that it was not because God’s word has failed – God’s promise was never a genetic lineage of Abraham, but for “children of promise”. In other words, just because you have a genetic lineage, doesn’t make you a chosen person, the choosing is spiritual by nature. Paul explains that this decision is God’s prerogative alone. Paul uses scripture from Jacob/Esau, Hosea, and Isaiah to back this up. Romans 9:30-32 ends with Paul stating that Gentiles became chosen by faith, while Israelites failed because they chose law and faith by works.
Romans 10 is Paul crying out for the Israelites, desiring for them to be saved. Paul doubles down in explaining how the Israelites pursued their own righteousness and not righteousness by faith that Jesus Christ taught. That righteousness allows all people, including Gentiles to be saved. Paul, being the great theologian, even quotes Moses to explain his theological rationale in Romans 10.
Romans 11 introduces a very important concept in the “Remnants of Israel”. Paul is saying that God didn’t reject all Israelites and that some Israelites really had true faith (Paul himself is an example of a remnant). Even throughout Israelite history, the concept of “remnant” existed – the prophets were often remnants, when many Israelites turned away from God.
The reason Paul says this is to give hope, in that there is a chance for everyone to be saved. Paul uses this whole example of olive branches, how Israelites are like broken off natural branches, and gentiles are like wild branches grafted back on to the main root. Paul gives hope saying that those natural branches that were broken off can be grafted back on again. He even says that perhaps the Gentiles were saved, so the Israelites could be envious and come back to God.
And so this whole history that Paul tells of Israelites, Gentiles, salvation in Jesus Christ ends up to be a fascinating explication about the complicated dynamic of God, His sovereignty, and the faith of Israelites/Gentiles. Paul is explaining the mysterious, deep way in which God works.
Romans 11:33-36 ends this explication with Paul’s Doxology, which becomes much clearer to the reader when putting it into the context of Romans 9-11 as a whole. Paul is explaining something deeply about the nature of God, how God works, and His process. All of this has deep theological significance when it comes to our salvation when you really think about it
That is why 400 years ago, during the Protestant Reformation, a great theologian named John Calvin came out. Calvin published a bunch of writing, became a popular theologian, and created his whole system theology. He even spent the last part of his life trying to create a theocratic society in Geneva. Calvin’s followers took his teaching steps further and created Calvinism.
Much of Calvinism is rooted in Calvin’s commentary on Romans 9:16, 22, in which Calvin wrote, “Paul teaches us, that the ruin of the wicked is not only foreseen by the Lord, but also ordained by his counsel and his will… that not only the destruction of the wicked is foreknown, but that the wicked themselves have been created for this very end—that they may perish.”
Essentially, Calvinism states that salvation is double predestination – God destines ahead of time who is saved and who is damned. If you were to just look at God’s sovereignty in Romans 9, this comes out pretty clearly when it says God is the ultimate judge deciding who He chooses. It’s not by some genetic birth right.
The counter-point to John Calvin was Jacobus Arminius and his followers who created Armenianism. Armenianism focuses a lot more on an individual’s decision choosing faith in God, as opposed to God’s providence from above. Armenians would look at Romans 9-11 and focus on Paul’s explanation that Gentiles came to faith in Jesus Christ and were saved. They would point out how Paul says Israelites still have a chance to be grafted back to branch, to be saved.
Denominations formed over this concept and split over the details of these concepts. Does God predestine our salvation or is salvation by a choice of faith? When you think about it, there are good and bad aspects about each viewpoint.
If you look at things from a predestination standpoint, what comes out prominently is God’s providence, our reliance on God, and His grace that guided our salvation. If you look at things from a faith/choice perspective, then our personal faith, love, and relationship with God is prominent, along with the responsibility we have for mission and evangelism. On the other hand, if everything is predestined, what role does our faith have, what responsibility do we have? And if everything is our decision, then what impact does God’s guidance have in our lives of faith?
While denominations began to split over viewpoints on salvation, overall viewpoints differed as well. If people view their salvation as predestined, they begin to view everything lives as predestined. If people view their salvation as faith/choice, they begin to view everything as freewill.
You notice might notice that pastors will even preach sermons differently based on their overall perspective. Some focus on God’s providence/guidance and others focus on the responsibility of faith, love, and discipleship.
People even live their lives differently based on their viewpoint. They process their relationship with God differently. Does God absolutely predestine our lives or is it up to our own decisions? When you really things about it, depending on your theological viewpoint, the whole framework of how you view your life is drastically changed. It’s a huge thing that we sometimes don’t realize.
How about me, what do I think? I think there are important aspects of both predestination and freewill/choice perspectives.
My last post explored the question of why is there suffering if God is all-powerful and all-loving. In that post, I explained that God is more than just a 2-dimensional all-powerful, all-loving God. God is also all-knowing and eternal. Therefore, the all-knowing and eternal God already sees the end of that suffering and God is in fact already there at the end of that suffering.
I mention that because I feel the same way about the predestination and freewill viewpoints. Both viewpoints are just looking at God from a 1 dimensional viewpoint. On one hand, the predestination viewpoint focuses on the all-powerful God. On the other hand, the freewill viewpoint focuses on the all-loving God who gives us freewill.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is this dynamic between predestination and choice that we can’t necessarily see when we’re looking at things with our own 1 or 2-dimensional eyes. As Isaiah 55:8-9 says, God’s ways are so much higher than our ways, it’s beyond us.
I did my undergraduate degree in sciences and specialized in Applied Mathematics. One of the subjects I liked was Linear Algebra, which focuses on mathematical theory in dimensions. Physics also explores this area of looking at the universe in multiple dimensions.
One thing I found interesting about this topic of what humans can see. Our eyes see 2-dimensionally, but with depth perception, we can perceive 1 dimension higher in 3-dimensions. But there is no way for humans to see 4-dimensions.
I mention all this to say that in the field of Math and Physics, there are geniuses racking their brains over the calculations, perceptions, and representations of higher level dimensions. When you think about it, how often do we limit our perceptions of God based only on what I can see. We see what’s in front us and our lives and we try to interpret God according to our own thoughts.
When in reality, the Bible teaches us that God’s ways are so much higher. I think that is exactly what Paul is explaining here. Just like genius mathematicians have a hard time explaining multiple dimensions, maybe we just can’t explain God with our limited conceptions.
One of those limiting conceptions is time. We live in time and God is eternal, so how can our limited conception of time understand what God is in eternally in all of time? This concept of time was explored even as far back as Thomas Aquinas.
More recently, C.S. Lewis said the following:
But suppose God is outside and above the Time-line. In that case, what we call “tomorrow” is visible to Him in just the same way as what we call “today.” All the days are “Now” for Him. He does not remember you doing things yesterday, He simply sees you doing them: because, though you have lost yesterday, He has not. He does not “foresee” you doing things tomorrow, He simply sees you doing them: because, though tomorrow is not yet there for you, it is for Him. You never supposed that your actions at this moment were any less free because God knows what you are doing. Well, He knows your tomorrow’s actions in just the same way—because He is already in tomorrow and can simply watch you. In a sense, He does not know your action till you have done it: but then the moment at which you have done it is already “Now” for Him.
I love that quote and I don’t know if that actually fully explain it. I think God is much more complicated than that, and we will never be able to understand God until we are in heaven. But C.S. Lewis has a very good point when you really think about it.
If you just remove the concept of time, both Calvinism and Armenianism can co-exist. Let’s take one of point they differ as an example. Calvinism says believing in Jesus predetermined, so we can’t resist conversion. Armenianism says we can resist and reject conversion because of freewill
Both viewpoint are speaking about control of the timeline. Does God have absolute control over the timeline of how all the events in your life led you to be compelled in faith? Or when you make the choice of faith, does the timeline shift according to what you decide? If you take away the concept of time for God, then whether it’s predestined or freewill, it doesn’t matter. You start to look at the other 5-points and they are asking the same question – who controls timeline? If you look at it from a different lens, it’s amazing
What the Bible teaches us is that God lives in all of time, He eternal and He is eternity. God is the all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal God that is completely beyond us. Does he give us freewill? Yes. Does God have absolute providence? Yes. It’s the mystery of how God works that we cannot begin to comprehend
This is exactly what Paul is saying in Romans 11:36 – everything is from Him, through Him, and to Him. God is so profound and above us, that we cannot begin to even fathom Him. To say that we can understand how God works is an endless game that we will never comprehend.
Instead, all viewpoints have value that we can take important life lessons in faith. There is something great about looking back and seeing the absoluteness of God’s providence in our lives and all of history. There is also something great about looking forward to the mystery of our lives, how God gives us freewill, and that we can look forward to eternal life in Jesus Christ.
We can rely on both the providence of God in our lives and take responsibility for our faith in doing His will and living for God. Paul gives us a great perspective for living the life of faith in Romans 9-11.