I was fairly well-shocked while studying a passage often cited by Calvinists to learn that it may be a matter of preference driving their divine determinism. Calvinists see determinism everywhere in the Bible. Certainly it seems to be true for Acts 13:48, according to F. F. Bruce, one of the preeminent Bible scholars and historians in modern history (he also happens to be a staunch Calvinist).
Bruce agrees with the “standard” translation for Acts 13:48, which reads, “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” Further study reveals it reads that way only if you want it to. The Greek grammar allows such a translation, although the context mitigates against it.
English has similar ambiguities (in much greater supply), but context clarifies the meaning. “Bad” in English slang is the opposite of “bad” in proper English, which never confused me as long as I get some context – unless I want to make it confusing.
Divine determinism engenders confusion, which is admitted by those holding the belief.
The Big Confusion
This sounds like a boring exercise in grammar without first understanding how rampant the preference is for determinism over true freedom of choice. It permeates all religions, from ancient to modern. Why would a Christian prefer to align beliefs with the likes of Greek paganism, which believed the Fates predetermined all outcomes?
Preference clearly underlies determinism. The belief extends beyond religion and into secular philosophies like atheism, which believes we are biological machines, in essence, preprogrammed by evolution. Behaviorism is another well-known, secular belief in determinism. The same preference is operative in the Christian Calvinist camp, it appears.
Divine determinism sees God predetermining all events and activities on earth, which is supposed to be a good thing in the case of Acts 13:48, where it seems God is appointing (i.e., predetermining) people to eternal life. But divine determinism also predetermines the vilest activities in history, as John Piper infamously wrote after the 9/11 World Trade Center attack. Nobody can read the Bible and still say, “God did not cause the calamity,” Piper wrote, because God caused it.
Piper is a Calvinist with a big following, squarely framing 9/11 within divine determinism: “God governs all events in the universe,” he said, but “without sinning, and without removing responsibility from man, and with compassionate outcomes…” (See Piper’s blog at Desiring God for more.)
Calvinists like Piper create horrific confusion by embracing glaring conflicts between what “God governs” and the “responsibility from man.” For 9/11, both parties caused it, which Piper calls “mysterious indeed!” He sounds delighted that God predetermined the 9/11 attacks, yet renounces “the calamity” – this is confusion.
The supporting material cited by Piper & Co. really only prove God’s foreknowledge of events, not the divine origins. Foreknowledge does not cause an event. Meteorologists predict the weather with great accuracy, but imagine the confusion if people blamed meteorologists for the events they predicted – yet this confusion is why many people are bitter towards the God of the Bible.
The confusion between foreknowledge and cause must be torpedoed for two very compelling reasons:
- The Problem of Evil – Why would a friend of God prefer to think God is directly responsible for our evil choices? Why would God’s children make common cause with bellicose atheists like Dawkins or Bart Erhman who delight in smearing God’s reputation?
- Irrationality – Divine determinism puts the Bible in the irrational position of affirming our choices are both 100% our responsibility and 100% predetermined by God. To call this “mysterious indeed” (as Piper does) cannot hide the glaring contradiction – David Hume spotted it centuries ago, when Calvinism was gaining popularity, calling it “the Problem of Evil”. (Hume’s popular argument rested entirely on a Calvinistic view of God and omitted the possibility of free will.)
Really both of these issues share an irrational view of God: a good God directly responsible for all evil is really not that good, and a God who predetermines all choices while He blames others for those choices is deeply confused (or deliberately confusing).
If the biblical text absolutely compelled us to take ownership of such horrid irrationality, it would be difficult to agree with Paul that “we persuade men” (2 Cor. 5:11), unless we avoid the questions of evil and free will (a difficult task). But does the Bible compel us to skip reasonable persuasion in the face of horrific events like the 9/11 attacks?
The Text In Question
Back to Acts 13:48, the text under study. It is a doozy, prima fascia:
“When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.”
Clearly the passage states a problematic scenario:
- a) God appointed some Gentiles to eternal life.
- b) Consequently, those Gentiles believed.
But F. F. Bruce notes the verse contains a somewhat rare ambiguity in the original Greek, where the alternate reads:
“When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as were disposed to eternal life believed.” (Emphasis mine.)
The second translation puts the choice exclusively into the hands of those making the choice, without God involved in a “predestinarian” way (as Bruce calls it). This translation makes beautiful sense: those with open hearts welcomed the opportunity to believe. But the first translation supports the irrational conclusions mentioned above.
Surprisingly, Bruce opts for the “predestinarian” translation. Is he compelled? Not at all. Rather, he says, “there is no good reason for weakening the predestinarian note here,” because “there is papyrus evidence for the use of this verb” which renders the first translation. Yet it seems to me that if the Greek syntax supports the second translation, as Bruce admits, we really do have “good reason for weakening the predestinarian note here,” especially since Bruce cites Greek scholarship supporting the “weakening.” It means that Bruce prefers the “predestinarian note.”
Even more surprising, the New American Standard Bible (NASB) does not provide the alternate translation in a footnote, which it usually does in such cases. The alternate translation is clearly available, as the highly-regarded Expositor’s Greek Testament points out:
There is no countenance here for the absolutum decretum of the Calvinists, since verse 46 already showed the Jews acted through their own choice…Some take the word as if middle, not passive: “as many as had set themselves unto eternal life,” and in support of this…
The Expositor’s then cites a half-dozen more Greek scholars (additional to those named by F. F. Bruce) who prefer the second, non-Calvinist translation. The point made about the preceding v.46 is a Calvinist-killer, because it clearly states free will is operating here, not divine determinism: “since you…judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life,” it says they took the message to those with open hearts in v.48.
Why is free will abundantly clear in v.46 but smothered two verses later in translation?
My question is simple: does not such a weight of scholarly and textual support deserve at least a footnote in the NASB mentioning the non-Calvinist translation? Apparently not, and the only reason for the omission is the Calvinist bias of the Lockman Foundation sponsoring the NASB. (A similar translation alternative is entirely missing from the NASB notes on 1 Peter 2:8, which they translate, “to this doom they were also appointed,” not mentioning the fact that it can be translated, “to this they appointed themselves.”)
Here is where skeptics (especially postmodernists) jump on the bandwagon: “You can make the Bible say whatever you want it to say.” But this is a wild claim made only in pop culture, in bars and offhand comments, but not among Greek scholars, whether Calvinist or not. It is a fallacious leap in logic: since ambiguities exist, therefore everything is ambiguous. Such wild conclusions are often found in racial bigotry, where they are easily spotted and renounced – but for the Bible, the bigotry is not only tolerated, it is nearly axiomatic in pop culture.
Yet it must be acknowledged that ambiguities do occur in translating the Bible, although reading the context greatly limits the ambiguity. Such is the case in Acts 13:48 if verse 46 is also considered – the divine determinism rendered in verse 48 contradicts the free will evident in verse 46.
The Fathoms of God
It reminds me of a terrible encounter I had with the authorities in high school as a naïve lad: if they want to get you, they’ll find a way. The same is true with the Bible, which gives us plenty of information about God, His nature and activities in history – there is enough supporting material to paint God a certain way, even if evasive maneuvers are required.
Still, I cannot fathom why anyone prefers an irrational view of God – even if it is decorated in “marvelous mystery” language. Quite frankly, I don’t want to fathom it. There is enough marvelous mystery in the fathoms of God to be adored without stooping to irrationality.
- F.F. Bruce, “The Book of Acts”, New International Commentary on the New Testament.
- The Expositor’s Greek Testament, edited by the Rev. R. J. Knowling, D.D., Kings College, London.
- Problem of Evil, David Hume at Wikipedia.
- Proclamation in Acts
- The Gospel of Peace