In this installment, we continue our investigation of some problematic passages that are often used to support deterministic theology.
You do not believe because you are not my sheep
Another passage often used to support the doctrine of predestination is that of the good shepherd and his sheep found in John 10, where Jesus uses an imagery that his audience would have easily understood. He teaches that, as a good shepherd, he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. This seems to imply that there was then a select group of people who had an intimate relationship with Jesus. In fact, Jesus says that he knows this people as intimately as he knows the Father (10:15). Jesus also says that there is another set of sheep that belonged to a different fold which he intends to bring in as well (10:16). The Pharisees later asked him to speak plainly on his identity as the promised Messiah. Jesus replied thus: “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (10: 25-27). Read deterministically, one would take Jesus as saying that the reason some people will not believe for salvation is because God did not make them his sheep. That is, God rejects the non-sheep (or goats). This is an incorrect reading of the text.
This continues our exploration of some difficult passages often read in deterministic ways. This one is particularly difficult partly because the entire context where our verse appears was originally written as a 202-word sentence.
8. God Predestines in conformity with his plan
One of the signature attributes of deterministic theology manifests in soteriology. Determinism claims that God already decided who gets saved and who gets eternally damned. Ephesians 1:11 is a famous verse often used: “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”.
This piece continues our series investigating some problematic passages often read through deterministic lenses.
7. God turns the king’s heart in whatever ways that God wants
Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.” This uses gardening imagery. In ancient Israel (and many lands around the world today), rivers served irrigation purposes. Because they are small water bodies, rivers’ flow paths can be altered depending on the irrigation needs of the farmers. Similarly, this proverb proclaims that God can turn kings’ hearts. The issue here should be obvious. If God directs or controls the heart (and the will) of a king however God wants, the king does not have a will free in the libertarian sense. Although this passage does not go as far, the implication is tempting: if the highest humans in the land do not have free will, could not it be that all humans really do not have wills that are free? There seems to be a case for the determinist position here.
We have been looking at passages often read deterministically. In this last episode, we considered the story of Adam and Eve and some moments in Joesph’s life. Here, we continue with two examples.
3. Forgive them for they know not what they are doing
In Luke 23:34, we read Jesus saying: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Jesus made this comment just after he was nailed to the cross. Some determinists tag this famous saying of Jesus to that of Joseph that we just considered. The implication is that God uses people as pawns in fulfilment of his determined purposes. How accurate is this reading? Could Jesus have meant that these trained Roman soldiers, familiar with the art and science of crucifixion, did not know that nails and hammers to the flesh caused pain or that many victims of crucifixion would die? This cannot be. If the soldiers were really pawns in the grand scheme of things, what sense is there in asking for their forgiveness? As mentioned briefly earlier, one problem with determinism is that it dissolves morality as we know it. If God caused Jesus to be crucified, as opposed to allowing it to happen, then God is squarely to be blamed for it, not the soldiers.
Armed with an alternative to a fatalistic reading of Scripture, let us now apply it to some biblical passages that determinists often cite to support their theological doctrine and system. Minimally, my goal is to show that these passages do not commit us to determinism. Most times, determinism contradicts the points of the passages.
1. Did God know that Adam and Eve would fail? Why did he put the tree there then?
The biggest problem with theistic determinism is that it undermines morality as we know it. It appears to dissolve all grounds for holding anyone responsible for an action, good or bad. For example, let us suppose that God knows that Ade will assault the president tomorrow. Well, when tomorrow comes, Ade cannot avoid assaulting the president. Why so? Well, if Ade could avoid assaulting the president, it would mean that God did not know correctly, putting his omniscience in question; this is not a logical possibility.
In Chosen But Free, Norman Geisler writes: “A God who is before all things, beyond all things, creates all things, upholds all things, knows all things, and can do all things is also in control of all things. This complete control of all things is called the sovereignty of God” (14–15). “Divine sovereignty” is thus a convenient summary of all the attributes of God. This is unproblematic until one probes further: what exactly does God’s “complete control of all things” mean? Is this analogous to a cosmic chessboard, with God as the only real player and where God uses other beings as mere pawns? What would be the goal of the game? This àgbàya view of God and divine sovereignty is what I deny.
In common talks, we may say something like “God can do anything” often because the being we have in mind has superlative qualities. This statement needs to be properly qualified for it to be always true. For instance, we may want to add that he can only do what is logically possible. We would not ask if God can make himself non-existent, for example. In our conception of God, we also believe that he knows all things, including the very next word I will type before I type it. Indeed, he knew me before I was born. The relevant issue that we will pursue in this essay is the problem that arises when we ask, “Could I have not been born given that God knew me (including my being born) before my mother conceived me?” Expressed differently, did my parents have a real role to play in my birth process? The Christian answer one gets for those questions above varies depending on who one asks. In fact, much denominationalism exists in the church precisely because of how people have answered those questions. In European Church history, the debates have continued to rage unabated for centuries. Thankfully, for my purposes, that history will have minimal effects because my focus is not Europe but Africa. Hence, I shall refrain from using registers often associated with this discourse so that no-one may charge me with any misrepresentation.
There is a common understanding of a crucial passage of the Bible in John 10 that many—perhaps, the majority—of Christians grossly misunderstand. It is the kind of error that results when we do not pay attention to textual as well as cultural contexts. To properly situate the passage, we need to address some fundamentals that may be lost on us today.