I want to discuss the concept of predestination in Arminian theology. I am interested in the question, what is predestination? I have always found it sort of puzzling and I think I can now say why I find it puzzling. In order to get clear about what Arminian theology says about predestination, I will quote from Roger Olson’s book, Arminian Theology – Myths and Realities (IVP, 2006). I really like the way Olson writes and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in an Arminian perspective.
Below are the relevant sections from Olson that form the foundation of this post.
*** Olson; selections from pp. 34-37 ***
Because God is love (Jn 3:16; 1 Jn 4:8) and does not want anyone to perish but all to come to repentance (1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9), the atoning death of Christ is universal; some of its benefits are automatically extended to all (e.g., release from the condemnation of Adam’s sin) and all of its benefits are for everyone who accepts them (e.g., forgiveness of actual sins and imputation of righteousness).
The atonement is universal. This does not mean that all mankind will be unconditionally saved, but that the sacrificial offering of Christ so far satisfied the claims of the divine law as to make salvation a possibility for all. Redemption is therefore universal or general in the provisional sense, but special or conditional in its application to the individual. [Citation of Wiley]
Only those will be saved, however, who are predestined by God to eternal salvation. They are the elect. Who is included in the elect? All who God foresees will accept his offer of salvation through Christ by not resisting the grace that extends to them through the cross and the gospel. Thus, predestination is conditional rather than unconditional; God’s electing foreknowledge is caused by the faith of the elect.
In opposition to this [Calvinist scheme] Arminianism holds that predestination is the gracious purpose of God to save mankind from utter ruin. It is not an arbitrary, indiscriminate act of God intended to secure the salvation of so many and no more. It includes provisionally, all men in its scope, and is conditioned solely on faith in Jesus Christ. [Wiley reference]
The Holy Spirit works on the hearts and minds of all people to some extent, gives them some awareness of God’s expectations and provision, and calls them to repentance and faith. Thus, “God’s Word is in some sense universally uttered, even when not recorded in a written language.” “Those who hear the proclamation and accept the call are known in the Scriptures as the elect.”[Wiley reference] The reprobate are those who resist the call of God.
Classical Arminianism teaches that predestination is simply God’s determination (decree) to save through Christ all who freely respond to God’s offer of free grace by repenting of sin and believing (trusting) in Christ. It includes God’s foreknowledge of who will so respond. It does not include a selection of certain people to salvation, let alone to damnation. Many Arminians make a distinction between election and predestination. Election is corporate—God’s determination of Christ to be the Savior of that group of people who repent and believe (Eph 1); predestination is individual—God’s foreknowledge of those who will repent and believe (Rom 8:29).
*** END ***
From the above selections, we can see that the concept of predestination in Arminian theology
- is God’s gracious purpose to save all of mankind…conditioned on faith in Christ,
- is God’s determination (decree) to save through Christ all who freely respond,
- includes everyone provisionally, and
- includes God’s foreknowledge of who will respond.
On this view, God predestines to save everyone, at least provisionally. Why provisionally? This qualification arises twice in the above selection and so I judge that it would be a mistake to overlook this point. To say something is provisional is to say that something is so temporarily. Arminians are not universalists; at some point there is a final judgment. Thus I think what Olson (and Wiley) intend when they say that God’s predestination is provisional is that it is not true for every person and at every time that God has the purpose to save each person. Note, though, that if this is why predestination is provisional, then it is also provisionally so with respect to the people who end up being saved. The people who are saved are not in continual need of being saved; if you wish to say this is so of regenerate persons before death, I doubt this is will be affirmed with respect to persons after the final judgment but who are in heaven (or on the new earth).
Predestination is not epiphenomenal on this view. That is, God’s predestination to provisionally save everyone is not like a proclamation in eternity past (speaking loosely) that God is going to save everyone without causal significance upon the world. God’s predestination includes (or something like entails) that God acts in the world to change persons. And so, Olson writes, “The Holy Spirit works on the hearts and minds of all people to some extent….”
All of this seems like a coherent position to me. But then notice that Olson also writes, “Only those will be saved, however, who are predestined by God to eternal salvation.” That is a syntactically jarring sentence. If it means, “Only those who are predestined by God to eternal salvation will be saved,” then of course that’s true if anyone is saved because God predestines everyone to be saved, at least provisionally. Yet I do not think that can be what Olson has in mind, for in the paragraph that sentence appears he talks about how God’s electing foreknowledge is conditional by the acts of a subset of all persons; and furthermore, God’s predestination is conditional.
So now to my puzzlement. It seems to me that Arminians (represented by Olson here) speak of two different concepts of predestination with one word: there is the sense in which everyone falls under the scope of being predestined and there is the sense in which only those who God foreknew would freely choose to accept Christ that fall under its scope. If there were only one concept being employed here – such as the one that is conditioned upon faith in Christ – then it wouldn’t include all men under its scope, not even provisionally, because the persons who never enact faith in Christ never satisfy the condition for that sort of predestination. So the Arminian has to say there are two distinct concepts of predestination in their theology. This is not an objection to their view.
What explains why this distinction has been confused? Perhaps because on neither concept of predestination is God’s predestining a decisive selecting of some individuals but not others. On the universal scope view, God’s provisional predestining of everyone is something like a necessary consequence of God’s nature being love. On the particular scope view, God’s predestining is caused by the free agency of human persons; so who is predestined on this second view is not a result of God’s choice to select some, but a result of other persons selecting themselves into that category.
Whether this distinction is a plausible distinction worthy of acceptance is not something I wish to take up in this post.