102 Chosen But Free

Norman Geisler, President of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina, has published some 60 books and hundreds of articles, making him one of today’s most prolific evangelical theologians. His recently published Chosen But Free: A Balanced View of Divine Election (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, c. 1999) which provides a suitably Baptist, “moderate Calvinist” response, mediating between “extreme” Calvinism and “extreme” Arminianism, to one of the most difficult of all questions– predestination. He seeks to defend the paradoxical truth that “on the outside of the door of heaven it reads, ‘Whosoever will may enter,’ while on the inside is written, ‘I have chosen you'” (p. 38). He’s persuaded there’s “no irresolvable conflict between an event being predetermined by an all-knowing God and it also being freely chosen by us” (p. 42). To illustrate his position, he suggests we consider watching a videotape of a football game we could not see. While we watch, it’s clear that every detail of the game is pre-determined–that what will be will be! And yet, while the game was actually being played every move was freely made. As St Augustine said, God sees all the plays from an eternal vantage point, but we freely choose our moves in life’s game. So he taught that “‘no one sins because God foreknew that he would sin.'” Indeed “‘No man sins unless it is his choice to sin; and his choice not to sin, that, too, God foresaw'” (p. 45). God absolutely knows what we will freely do!

In answer to the fundamental question, “Who Is In Charge?” Geisler insists God is! He’s Sovereign, Lord of all He’s made. Accordingly, God sovereignly controls everything, even our salvation. For “in him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Yet that great truth must be equipoised with another: human responsibility. All God’s creatures were, initially, good. “One of the things God gave His good creatures was a good power called free will” (p. 22). It’s truly good to be free! Such freedom entails the option to choose either good or evil. As C.S. Lewis declared, in The Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that selfchoice there could be no Hell” (p. 48). Thus “the origin of evil is in the misuse of freedom” (p. 22). Solomon saw it clearly: “God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes” (Eccl. 7:29).

All too many of our “schemes” have led us far from God! Yet our Fall from Grace did not totally erase the image of God in which we were made, which is seriously scarred but not shattered. Fallen folks are still free, free especially to accept or reject God’s will. We’re not free to determine our being, which was designed by God and now deformed by sin. But we are free to choose our behavior, how we live within the constraints around us. To enable this, to rejoin what was disunited, God instituted a salvation plan, determined to save “all who receive His grace” and reject those who reject it.

Geisler thus examines, and urges readers to avoid, the “extreme Calvinism” shaped by Theodore Beza and solidified by the Synod of Dort in 1619. Giving careful attention to crucial biblical texts, he considers the “Five Points” of this tradition: total depravity; unconditional election; limited atonement; irresistible grace; perseverance of saints. He rejects all but the last one. Basically, he insists that “God wills the salvation of all persons conditionally–conditioned on their repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Hence, God’s will in this sense can be resisted by an unrepentant heart” (p. 94). Rightly defined, “Election is unconditional from the standpoint of the Giver (God), but it is conditional from the standpoint of the receiver” (p. 94). Extreme Calvinism’s primary failure is its assumption that an all-loving Lord would override human freedom., and it easily degenerates into serious perversions such as antinomianism.

On the other hand, “extreme Arminianianism,” though rooted in the Remonstrance (1610) of James Arminius, easily errs in a Pelagian direction, assigning too much power to man’s free will. Such is evident, Geisler says, in the recent work of “neotheists” such as Clark Pinnock and “process theologians” such as John Cobb. Such thinking, Geisler says, tends to compromise the Sovereignty of God and unwisely limit His attributes, leading to a man-centered system quite unlike the one proposed in Scripture. Extreme Arminianism easily undermines biblical authority and the message of salvation through grace.

Standing between the extremes, Geisler defends a “moderate Calvinism” which could, it seems to me (except for his defense of eternal security), as easily be called “moderate Arminianism.” An all-powerful God cannot do the impossible, which is to force free creatures to love Him! Having succinctly made his case, Geisler adds many helpful appendices. One documents the near consensus of great Church Fathers, for 1500 years, concerning the freedom of the will. We find that “virtually all of the great thinkers up to the Reformation affirmed that human beings possess the power of contrary free choice, even in a fallen state” (p. 145). Extreme Calvinism stands outside the mainstream of Orthodox Christianity! He further investigates the predestinarianism of Jonathan Edwards, the Synod of Dort’s position, and the question of monergism versus synergism. All-in-all this is a fine treatise–balanced, informative, readable–a fine reference for those struggling with these issues.

Illustrating what Geisler labels “extreme Arminianism” is John Sanders’ The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, c. 1998). Sanders is part of a corps of theologians espousing the “openness of God” position considered “heretical” by staunchly Reformed thinkers. In his opinion, however, he represents the most balanced biblical position and supports the overwhelming consensus of the Christian tradition, “relational theism.” Only a personal, “risk-taking” God could lovingly create persons free to respond to His gracious invitation to live in love with Him. If God sovereignly orchestrates everything that happens, He is manipulative rather than loving, treating man as an “it” rather than a “Thou.” If He stipulates rights and obligations, He is a distant Lawgiver, offering a contractual, not a covenental relationship, which fails to encourage personal intimacy. But if he seeks a loving bond of mutuality, granting true dignity to man, He must run the risk of rejection, of broken promises, fractured bonds.

To build his case Sanders first examines biblical data, concerned to learn how God has revealed Himself, not how we think He should act in accord with our philosophical presuppositions. Carefully read, the Bible consistently portrays “election” as “corporate” rather than individual. God’s plan, predestined from the beginning, was to establish a world with certain principles and parameters within which human beings are free to accept or reject His plan. In the Early Church, this position prevailed, as is evident in the works of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen and the Cappadocians. God certainly “foreknows” things, but He does not mechanistically “predetermine” them. The great break with this tradition came with the “latter Augustine,” who propounded a novel view of “predestination,” applying it to individuals’ salvation. Yet even he, discussing God’s foreknowledge and human freedom, tried to balance them, arguing that God’s knowing things does not thereby determine them. Rather, He “simply sees what is going to happen” (p. 148).

Reformers such as Luther and Calvin, however, took Augustine’s somewhat tentative predestinarian proposals and hardened them into dogma. Luther taught that man is so depraved that he would not choose God’s good way, so God must choose for him. Then, since God knows Himself perfectly, by knowing His own will He knows all that will result thereby. There is, Luther admitted, an apparently “universal salvific will” in Scripture, but it is placed therein to ease our minds. In fact, there is a “hidden will” of God, beyond our capacity to grasp, which determines everything purely in accord with His pleasure. More systematically, Calvin insisted that God controls everything, and “‘Nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him'” (p. 155). In our day, R.C. Sproul supports this position, saying “‘If there is one single molecule in this universe running around loose, totally free of God’s sovereignty, then we have no guarantee that a single promise of God will ever be fulfilled. . . . Maybe that one molecule will the thing that prevents Christ from returning'” (p. 234).

Dissenting from this position, James Arminius returned to the pre-Augustinian stance: “God’s foreknowledge of what will happen is conditioned by what the creatures freely decide to do, not on God’s immutable will” (p. 157). John Wesley joined Arminius and insisted that a loving God wills that men and women freely respond to His grace. The Wesleyan-Arminian understanding of election is the same as that of Eastern Orthodoxy, which holds, Bishop Kallistos Ware says: “The grace of God invites all but compels none. In the words of John Chrysostom: ‘God never draws anyone to Himself by force and violence. He wishes all men to be saved, but forces no one.’ ‘It is for God to grant His grace,’ said Saint Cyril of Jerusalem (died 386); ‘your task is to accept that grace and to guard it'” (p. 164).

This tradition portrays God as One Who loves enough to take risks. “The Christian faith requires a faithful God, not a risk-free God,” Sanders says, in what we may take as the thesis of this book (p. 186). He preordained, in creation, a playing field and the rules of the game. But He has not predetermined the players’ moves. Desiring to create us in order to establish loving relationships with us, He restricted His power, granting us the freedom to accept or reject Him. Just as God cannot cease to exist, turn into something other than Himself, do evil, or violate His character, we assume He can only do what is logically possible to do. Having granted man his freedom, He cannot simultaneously take away that freedom and allow him to be free!

Insofar as God seems to have restrained His power in making us as free moral agents, so too, Sanders argues, He has restricted His “omniscience” to “knowing all there is to know,” knowing what “is coextensive with reality” (p. 194). He argues that this position, “presentism,” enables one to both affirm God’s omniscience and deny His exhaustive foreknowledge. “Though God’s knowledge is coextensive with reality in that God knows all that can be known, the future actions of free creatures are not yet reality, and so there is nothing to be known. This does not affect the divine perfection because, as Norris Clarke comments, ‘it cannot be an imperfection not to know what is not in itself knowable–i.e., the future, the not yet real, at least in its free or not yet determined aspects'” (pp. 198-199).

Rather than the “specific” sovereignty taught by Reformed thinkers, Sanders favors a “general” sovereignty which “maintains that God has sovereignly established a type of world in which God sets up general structures or an overall framework for meaning and allows the creatures significant input into exactly how things will turn out. God desires a relationship of love with his creation and so elects to grant it the freedom to enter into a give-and-take relationship with himself. Since God macromanages the overall project (while remaining free to micromanage some things), God takes risks in governing the world” (p. 213).

One of the “risks” God took stands revealed in the “libertarian freedom” man enjoys. Such freedom, Donald Bloesch says, means that “‘an agent is free with respect to a given action at a given time if at that time it is within the agent’s power to perform the action and also in the agent’s power to refrain from the action'” (p. 221). Having sinned, man freely deformed God’s design. God responded with a plan of salvation, conditioned by man’s response to it. As in a dance, God takes the lead, but as His partners we must freely move with the music. So “God ‘previsions’ human faith and responds by electing them to salvation. God’s election (in part) is based on what humans decide to do” (p. 244). Their decision, however, is made possible by enabling, or prevenient, grace. We retain, despite Adam’s fall, a certain “formal” freedom, though as sinners we lack the “material” freedom necessary to respond rightly without divine assistance. Prevenient grace enables us, but does not force us to say “yes” to God. “Enabling grace is a necessary, though not sufficient, condition for our redemption” (p. 245).

Sanders’ work demonstrates exhaustive research; ample, informative footnotes and an extensive bibliography illustrate the depth of his scholarship. At times he belabors his points, pursues too many minor themes, and thereby wearies the reader. But the book is a fine examination of providence, in all its biblical, theological, and philosophical aspects, and it clearly helps Wesleyan-Arminians understand the vitality and viability of their position.

In his preface to God’s Strategy in Human History (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, c. 1973), by R.T. Forster and V.P. Marston, the noted Evangelical scholar and self-described “impenitent Augustinian and Calvinist” F.F. Bruce wrote: “A Study of the following pages will impress on the reader that the initiative in saving grace rests with God; that the election of believers is ‘in Christ’; and that election implies not that some are elected and the others consigned to perdition, but that some are elected so that others through them may receive the divine blessing” (p. viii).

Forster and Marston assess foreknowledge and predestination within the context of the cosmic “conflict” between good and evil, the “text” of the human story illustrated by Job, where we discern the great truth that “in everything God works for good with those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose” (Ro 8:28, RSV). Here “The idea is not one of ‘things’ somehow working impersonally together, or even of God somehow working them together. The idea is of God co-working with those who love him, as Athanasius said : ‘to all who choose the good, God works with them for good'” (p. 14). Still more, the Bible makes clear that such choices are, in fact, free choices, human decisions responsibly made for which we are accountable.

Countering the influential Reformed position, so dominant in many Evangelical circles, the authors point out that the widely-used phrase, “The Sovereignty of God,” encapsulating its powerful presupposition, simply does not appear in the Authorized Version of Scripture! Clearly God is Lord of lords and King of kings, and some modern versions occasionally refer to God’s “sovereignty,” but the portrait of God in the Bible does not resemble a totally-controlling dictator, a dexterous puppeteer of all that happens. To present their case, Forster and Marston engage in meticulous exegetical studies of crucial passages (especially Romans 9-11) and words (chosen, election, foreknowledge, predestination). They also explain, clearly and with extensive documentation, the issues underlying biblical passages–e.g. the views espoused by rabbis in first century Judaism–which make clear the true meaning of the texts.

Inevitably, when Scripture deals with predestination, we find persons chosen to carry out God’s plan for mankind. Abraham was chosen for a specific task, not Lot or Melchizedek, though all three were right with God. Ishmael, Abraham’s son, was not rejected by God simply because He chose Isaac through whom to bless the world with His saving plan. Jacob was favored over Esau, not as an individual elected to salvation, but as the chosen ambassador of God. In all these instances, cited by St Paul in Romans, the point is that God chose to work through certain persons or nations to accomplish his divine design. Gentiles, like Ruth, as well as Jews, knew God, for the “Old Testament says that whoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved–which includes Gentiles as well as Jews” (p. 90). God elects persons like Abraham, or the nation of Israel, or the 12 apostles, or the Church, to do His work in the world. “Election is an office, a responsibility, a privilege. It is never an irresistible selection for final blessing” (p. 121). Such divine choices were “not a reward for merit, but part of a God-determined strategy” (p. 60).

Central to that strategy, of course, was the Incarnation and Work of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. The Father chose to save the world through His Son, to win the final victory over evil. Consequently, “We are chosen in Christ. This does not mean that we were chosen to be put into Christ. It does not mean that God chose to make us repent but left others unrepentant! It means that as we repented and were born again into the body of Christ, we partake of his chosenness. He is chosen, and we are chosen in him” (p. 97). Predestination, it follows, has nothing to do with determining who becomes a Christian but with his eternal destiny once he embraces the Christ.

This position, Forster and Marston show, was espoused by the Early Church. They provide a helpful appendix containing persuasive, representative quotations which show that their views parallel those of theologians closest to the New Testament world. Thinkers such as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Origen stressed God’s foreknowledge in no way implied predestination. “The doctrine of ‘free-will’ seems to have been universally accepted in the early church. Not a single church figure in the first 300 years rejected it and most of them stated it clearly in works still extant” (p. 244). Heretics, indeed, denied it, but the orthodox tradition (Augustine excepted) insisted that free-will was graciously given and is sustained by God. Given Augustine’s importance, the authors devote many pages to explaining and refuting his turn to predestinarian thought.

God’s Strategy in Human History is more of a reference work than a monograph, a series of essays and exegetical excurses rather than a theological treatise. But is has great worth in taking critical biblical passages and fully explaining how they should be understood.

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