An (Extremely Small) Examination of “Predestination” in Ephesians

May not like this. That is, if you’re already firmly committed to a position.

The word “predestined” is one of the stickiest theological terms today. Say it, and one gathers kindling for people to start a fire. So I’m well aware of what I’ve started. But I truly would not write about this if I didn’t feel something illuminating and, ironically for this topic, peace-giving existed in the passage. So: Ephesians 1:3-14.

A little context first? The word “predestined” or variants of it happen four times. Twice here, once in Romans, and once in Acts. I don’t know about you, but that low usage doesn’t suggest “stake your whole spiritual life on the concept.”  Seriously. This is a point I think is worth making from the beginning: any of us who choose to put more weight on this term than it can hold are going to be frustrated when it breaks under that weight. If we did a word cloud of even just Pauline texts, this would reside shoved in a corner, in six-point font, on the cork board. But how many of us point to it and think or act as if everything in the Christian life is based on this concept? So, just to get that out of the way, “predestination” is not the entirety nor foundation of the gospel. Or is it?

See, rightly defined, the term means to “decide to do something beforehand.” God decided beforehand to save the world in Christ. Without that decision, no salvation is enacted. None. So perhaps there is some due heaviness in our attention to the term, just only as the beginning of a process that we are now embraced in. It is not the action of salvation, it is not the continuation of salvation, it is not the life or finality of salvation. So maybe not the entirety, and not the foundation, who is God himself. However, it is the beginning of what we now enjoy, and as such deserves to be mentioned.

Another misconception I noticed while searching the passage is that “predestined” does not necessarily refer to people uniformly (as Calvinists may so often imply or believe), or a plan uniformly (as Arminians so often imply or believe). It can refer to both, and not necessarily what we expect from both, either. 

Take our lexical definition above, in italics. Now take verse 4: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” Did God choose “us”? Yes, but who is “us”? Because that is unclear (it could be “us [who are] in him” or “us, in [his choice of] him”), it’s hard to say that’s the full intent of the sentence. If it were, the sentence would end, “For he chose us.” So what was “decided beforehand”? Is there a verb? Yes, there is:  to be holy and blameless. So we have an affirmation of an ultimate end (which is explicit), as well as people (which is ambiguous, at best). There’s no reason to err on the side of selection of individuals from that sentence alone, yet. And I believe Paul’s focus for the choice of people actually develops later in the passage. But there is plenty of reason to see God’s overall choice as Christ being the agent for holy and blameless people. 

Now, there are two other verses that do develop the choice of people, but as we shall see the chosen people may not be who readers expect, and there is still a purpose. Ironically, it is focusing on that purpose which reveals who might be the subject of God’s decision.

11 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, 12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory.”

In verse 11, we have the word “chosen,” but it can also be interpreted “made heirs.” Hmm. So the choice is a purpose, again. Even if we take that as an explicitly choosing people, which is highly warranted even if we do translate the word “made heirs” (because those made heirs had to be chosen for such an action anyway), who is chosen?

“We.”

OK…who is “we”? Looking further, the text says “who were the first to put our hope in Christ.” Uh-oh. The first? And the first who did something, not people who did nothing and were chosen anyway? So the chosen are not individuals throughout salvation history? They are people particular to a time and place? The first to hope in Christ were either the people who listened in the gospels when Jesus was walking through Israel/Samaria, or the apostles themselves, or both. Either way, those people are not even Gentiles in the church at the time of Paul’s writing. Those people are referred to as “you” who “were included” as a separate group at a later time! That makes the typical modern predestination arguments (either one, actually) pretty hard sells, at least from this text. 

Now wait a minute. Is there even a precedent for this choosing of particular people, where God puts a choice for one person or first group of people? … time ticking … time ticking … Biblical scholars at least may readily realize that there is, in fact, a precedent for that kind of choice. The first is that of Abraham. He was one person. His descendants were chosen, yes, but not as though they were individuals separate from Abraham. He was a “first choice,” one chosen to pass on God’s blessing to those who followed. The choice was irreparable for Abraham, because he was the beginning, chosen for the blessing of others to come later. Then there was the choice of Israel in comparison to the rest of the world. Was that a choice of every individual? Only in so much as an individual was from Jacob. Again, one person is chosen as a first indication of a later blessing to others. All the prophets were chosen individually, but again for the purpose of blessing others (I actually do believe God’s correction is a blessing). And of course we know that Mary was chosen, as an individual at the beginning of an unfolding action for the purpose of blessing others. 

In absolutely all of these cases, there is an irreparable choice of only one individual, at the beginning of a process, for the purpose of spreading blessing to others who may receive or reject that blessing. This is not the irreparable choice of all individuals as individuals. But this is choosing some people for a certain irrefutable purpose within which all others may be included. 

In the next post, I’ll try to discuss what I think are the implications of this understanding of “predestination.” It’s definitely a weighty subject matter, after all. 

+MSH

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