When reading the Bible, I would rather take everything at face value. But this is the immature, lazy way out. Reading Scripture literally requires no adult-level thinking. Instead, for me this means reading and studying the Bible with a “special filter” that I have constructed after years of trying to make sense of the biblical text.
When I approach passages of scripture that deal with the issues of predestination or free will, I read them through the filter of perspective (click here to read what Calvin wrote about his own filter). Perspective implies seeing the same thing differently when standing in two different locations. When I stand outside a baseball stadium, what do I see? Then, what do I see when I stand on home plate? The same building looks different to me depending on where I am standing.
And so it is with issues of predestination and free will. Think of two signs posted on each side of the same door. On the outside, the sign reads, “Whosoever will … Come on In!!!” This is the Arminian perspective. But on the inside the other sign reads, “Predestined from the foundation of the world.” This is the Calvinist perspective.
On the outside lives all humanity while the Kingdom of God resides inside — on the other side of the door. We all see the great invitation (Isaiah 55:1-2 and 2 Peter 3:9) on the outside of the door, but once we accept God’s offer and walk through the doorway, we look back and realize how every detail of our lives worked together to bring us through that doorway. We become overwhelmed by all these “coincidences” and exclaim how God arranged all of this (John 15:16). How else can these “coincidences” be explained?
Perhaps the clearest example of using perspective as a filter occurs when I read the following incident that happens just before the Israelites cross the Red Sea:
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites to turn back and encamp near Pi Hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea. They are to encamp by the sea, directly opposite Baal Zephon. Pharaoh will think, ‘The Israelites are wandering around the land in confusion, hemmed in by the desert.’ And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will pursue them. But I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD.” So the Israelites did this.
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them. The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly. The Egyptians—all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, horsemen and troops—pursued the Israelites and overtook them as they camped by the sea near Pi Hahiroth, opposite Baal Zephon (Exodus 14:1-9 NIV).
Because I employ my perspective filter when studying this text, I am able to entertain two “opposing” interpretations – one Arminian and one Calvinistic. The Arminian perspective understands Pharaoh’s actions as decisions of his own choosing:
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, Pharaoh and his officials changed their minds about them and said, “What have we done? We have let the Israelites go and have lost their services!” So he had his chariot made ready and took his army with him. He took six hundred of the best chariots, along with all the other chariots of Egypt, with officers over all of them (Exodus 14:5-7 NIV).
While the Calvinist perspective clearly reveals God’s involvement in all of this:
The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites, who were marching out boldly (Exodus 14:8 NIV).
If I approach Exodus 14:1-9 with only the Arminian perspective, then I filter out how God really did harden the heart of Pharaoh (verse 8). However, if I approach this text with only the Calvinist perspective, then I filter out how Pharaoh really did choose to pursue the Hebrews when they left Egypt under the leadership of Moses (verses 5-7). It really was his choice!
Some biblical commentaries avoid this theological tension by explaining the Hebrew words translated “harden” and their use throughout the Exodus plagues narratives (see Exodus 4:21; 7:3, 13 & 22; 8:15, 19 & 32; 9:7, 12, 34-35; 10:20 & 27; 11:10; and 14:1-9). However, most commentary writers gloss over issues of predestination and free will when discussing Exodus 14:1-9 (click here for a discussion of commentaries consulted). By allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture, they start with God hardening Pharaoh’s heart (the Calvinist perspective) and then filter out how Pharaoh chose his own course of action (the Arminian perspective). How is this different from describing a baseball stadium without ever standing on home plate? Why describe a baseball stadium only from the outside (the Arminian perspective)? Or describe it only from home plate (the Calvinist perspective)? Don’t both perspectives provide the most complete picture?
This kind of “either/or” mentality results in a theological paradox or an impasse. Note this concluding “dead end” statement from a biblical commentary on Exodus 14:1-9!
Did Pharaoh have no choice in his action, since “God hardened his heart”? If that was the case, how could he be punished for what he could not control? We can more easily understand the phrase “Pharaoh hardened his heart” — he refused to release the Israelites; that was a willful decision. But how do we reconcile all those different expressions? The only satisfactory answer, I think, is in the biblical paradox of the sovereignty of God set against the freedom of man (Dunnam, page 81).
Too often, theologians produce distorted results when they approached Scripture with this “either/or” mentality. Calvin taught double-predestination, that some people are predestined to salvation and eternal life while the rest of humanity is predestined to hell and eternal death (click here to read from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion). To Calvin, free will is an illusion (click here to read Calvin’s understanding of free will). This is where Calvinists miss it and their theological system becomes distorted.
But Calvinists are not alone with their distorted results. Arminians have taught that growing in Christ requires a lot of effort, often employing spiritual exercises or spiritual disciplines such as:
- Bible study,
- Scripture memorization,
- more prayer,
- church attendance with personal involvement in worship and hearing the Word of God as preached in a sermon,
- evangelism – introducing to Christ relatives, friends, neighbors, co-workers and others in one’s sphere of influence,
- stewardship of one’s resources,
- still more prayer,
- fellowship with other believers,
- accountability of one’s inner life,
- helping the poor and fighting injustice,
- service to the church and world,
- visiting the sick or those in prison,
- and more!
For much of my life I believed prayerlessness resulted in powerlessness. When I prayed for people to be healed, nothing seemed to happen. And I would tell myself, “If I just spent more time in God’s presence and grow in Christlikeness, then my prayers would be answered.” After all, James wrote,
“The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:16-17 NIV).
Even though Paul wrote about healing as one of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit, (1 Corinthians 12:9 & 11 NIV), I positioned myself to “receive” that gift – as though I were playing a video game and accumulating more “prayer pellets” would grant me access to the next level of spiritual power. And so I needed to do more if healing would ever come from my prayers. This is where Arminians miss it and their theological system becomes distorted.
Reading the Bible with a filter of perspective enables me to understand the reality of two “opposite” truths that do no harm to each other – instead, providing the complete picture. I understand how Judas Iscariot might betray Jesus after feeling constant frustration with his ministry, eventually allowing Satan to enter his heart. Yet God foreknew all of this without manipulating Mr. Iscariot’s time line. Approaching the betrayal of Jesus by Judas with an “either/or” filter leads to a theological dead end. My filter of perspective employs a “both/and” mentality so that, yes, Judas chose to betray Jesus. Yes, it was his decision; he owned that action. And yes, God predestined Judas to betray Jesus.
Although theological literature does not describe issues of free will and predestination in terms of perspective, I am not the first person to try (click here for example).
Obviously, this topic requires much more development – many more blogs. Complex issues contain loose ends. For a list of these “complex issues” please see my blog, “Predestination and Free Will” (posted August 18, 2015) or just click the “Predestination vs. Free Will” button at the top of this page. In my next few blogs, I hope…
- to show when a verse of Scripture (or a teaching from the pulpit, or a popular book about the Christian life) comes to us from a Calvinist perspective, or from an Arminian perspective,
- to write more about moving from “either/or” thinking to “both/and” thinking, and
- to discuss some other “filters” that I use to make sense of the Bible.