For centuries, the concept of predestination has been the catalyst for much theological debate. Primarily, there are two biblically based points around which the controversy revolves: the sovereignty of God, and the free choice of human beings. On the one hand, the Bible unequivocally proclaims that God is the incontestable, sovereign Lord of the Universe (see Isaiah 40:21-23). On the other hand, it just as strongly presents the concept of humankind’s freedom (cf. Joshua 24:15; Isaiah 7:16; Matthew 11:28; 23:37; Revelation 22:17).
These two doctrinal strands form the theological Gordian knot of predestination that has attracted, and continues to attract, the curiosity of Bible students. While these two cords prove to be intertwined into a complex knot, simply cutting it in Alexandrian fashion is unacceptable, since each theological thread forming the configuration is fastened to strong, biblical clasps.
Valiant attempts to unravel the knot have been made by theologians through the centuries, resulting in various predestinarian theories. The three classical interpretations of biblical predestination, which span the theological spectrum, are: double predestination, universalism, and Pelagianism.
Double predestination. Double predestination holds that God decreed from eternity, and for the manifestation of His glory, that some people and angels are predestined to everlasting life, while others are foreordained to eternal damnation. From this perspective, predestination is “double” in that it is both positive and negative; God predetermines the eternal destinies of both the righteous and the unrighteous. This solution, however, isolates and focuses on the theological thread of God’s sovereignty, while ignoring (or not fully grasping) the cord of humankind’s freedom. Nor does it take into full consideration the gracious character of the God revealed in the Bible Who desires the salvation of every human being (cf. Ephesians 1:3-11 and 2 Peter 3:9).
Universalism. Unlike double predestination, which acknowledges the eternal demise of certain people, universalism argues that God, consistent with, and prompted by, His absolute benevolence, has chosen all to receive salvation and has rejected none. As with double predestination, this approach similarly emphasizes the sovereignty of God and does not fully wrestle with the biblical concept of human free choice. The Bible is clear that God desires a reciprocal relationship between Him and humankind, which introduces the element of a volitional human response to God’s invitation to fellowship. Unlike double predestination, universalism emphasizes God’s love over His sense of justice. Yet, while the Bible declares God’s desire for the salvation of all humanity, it also proclaims with equal weight and clarity that not all shall be saved eternally (cf., Matthew 7:13-14, 25:31-46, and 2 Thessalonians 1:6-12).
Pelagianism. Named after the fourth-century British monk, Pelagius, who developed this predestinarian theory, Pelagianism embraces fully and optimistically the volitional capabilities of human beings (see Schaff, 1910, 3:790-794). There are two expressions of this theory: the extreme or “pure” form, and the moderate or “semi” position (Guthrie, 1993, pp. 126-131). On the one hand, extreme pelagianism holds that God has given humankind laws and commandments. When we exercise our elective freedom and choose to obey those rules perfectly, God saves us. Though it recognizes humanity’s freedom to choose, this redemptive theory ultimately makes one’s salvation contingent on his or her good works. On the other hand, semi-Pelagianism acknowledges that salvation is by grace, but suggests that humans must exercise their volitional freedom to accept this divine gift.
These classical predestinarian theories demonstrate the centuries-long struggle with this biblical concept. While it is helpful to consider what has been said about this doctrine, the Scriptures—not the flawed theories of uninspired people—must have the final word. In this connection, there are several biblical truths that must be held in tension, and not ignored, if we are to come to some understanding of predestination. First, we must take into consideration the totality of biblical information regarding the character of God. Emphasizing certain preferred divine qualities over attributes that are not as personally palatable results in a distorted portrait of God that inevitably influences one’s theological position. For any predestinarian theory to be biblically viable, it must include the facts that God’s righteousness and justice are equally as real and absolute as His love, mercy, and grace (see Exodus 34:6-7).
Second, the nature of human beings as revealed in the Bible must also be a part of the predestinarian equation. Despite the fact that our sin-filled world has exerted such a deleterious influence on human beings so that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), the Bible holds us accountable for our sinful actions (Romans 1:18-20). This fact, coupled with the universal call of Christ to “come” to Him (cf. Matthew 11:28-30; Revelation 22:17), indicates the biblical position of humans’ freedom to choose. Hence, though it is an admittedly difficult task, any predestinarian theory must balance delicately the concepts of God’s sovereignty and humankind’s freedom of choice. Any approach that tends to exalt one of these features above the other will result in a scripturally skewed position.
Guthrie, Shirley (1993), Christian Doctrine (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox).
Schaff, Philip (1910), History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).