Acts 13:42-52 (English Standard Version)
42 As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. 43 And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God. 44 The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. 46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. 51 But they shook the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
For a long time I considered Acts 13:48 as the best Calvinist proof-text in the Bible. Actually I still think it should be the first verse every Calvinist quotes in a debate. As I have searched the internet for various interpretations on this verse I have come to realize that I am not the only non-Calvinist that has been puzzled by this verse. And I must admit that most of the non-Calvinist interpretations I have found are less than convincing. Often times the explanations jump into deep discussions about the Greek grammar related to the word translated “appointed” in the ESV. As far as I know these explanations might be correct, but as one who is ignorant of Greek, I would have to take their word for it. But what makes me uncomfortable is that I would have to take their word for it while ignoring every reputable Bible translation on the market. Maybe I am too much of a conformist (I have never been accused of that!) for my own good, but I can’t comfortably ignore all Bible translations for an independent translation that favors my theological perspective. So, the interpretation that I will present in the next few blog posts will work with any translation that I know of.
Before we get into what the verse is saying, let’s look at why I, and many others, find it so fit for a Calvinist interpretation. It is three aspects of the verse that make it favorable to a Calvinist perspective and seemingly at odds with Arminianism.
1. The phrase “as many as” gives the clear implication that this is speaking about particular individuals in the midst of a group of individuals. For those who want to find the biblical concept of corporate election in this verse, this creates a great obstacle.
2. The Greek word usually translated as “appointed” or “ordained” in most English Bible versions seems to lend credence to the deterministic perspective of Calvinism. The thought is, if God decided it, then men have no genuine role to play in the outworking of what God determined would take place.
3. The phrase “were appointed to eternal life believed” seems to imply that the appointing to eternal life is the cause of them believing, since the “appointing” obviously came before the “believing.” For those familiar with Arminianism you will recognize quickly that this is at odds with the Arminian idea of conditional election. For Arminians, faith is the condition of election and salvation. It is because of one’s faith that one is included in God’s elect people and “appointed to eternal life.”
Some might feel that there are many verses that seem to have these three points in common with Acts 13:48 and I agree. Verses in John 6, Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 share one or both of the two aspects I have pointed out above. But the big difference with those verses and this one is that those have a very full context. The greater the context surrounding a particular verse the more information we have about the intended meaning of the author. The passages in Romans, Ephesians, and even John are very theological in nature. And so we have a lot of surrounding context to clarify the theological point they are making. But the 13th chapter of Acts is primarily a historical narrative with some theological comments thrown in. This is not to say that the book of Acts is not theological and Luke is not a theologian, it is and he is. But the theological purpose of Acts is seen through the big picture of its historical narrative. The theological point of Acts 13:48 at first glance doesn’t seem to have much theological context to clarify what Luke is trying to convey. For me, this situation makes it an ideal verse to use in defense of Calvinism. A robust context is always the enemy of Calvinism, and isolated verses are always its stronghold.
Besides the fact that the passage seems to lack clear theological context, the interpretation of the verse in question depends much on the word translated “appointed” in the English Standard Version. I know just enough about biblical Greek to know that I don’t know anything. And since I speak three different languages, all from different language families, I am aware of the subtleties of languages in general. So I am well aware that when facing such passages I am extremely handicapped. Actually I believe most people are, but recognizing our weaknesses is the first step in overcoming them.
What is the Verse Missing?
This series of posts is not written for Calvinists. As always all my brethren are welcome to comment their thoughts on my posts. But I have not written these thoughts to convince Calvinists of my view. In fact I am very certain that they will find it unconvincing since I will read into the verse nearly as much as the Reformed interpretation does. Instead it has been written to help my non-Calvinist brothers and sisters see that the verse is not a clear-cut Calvinist verse as those in the Reformed camp would have us believe. My limited knowledge of Greek and my necessary dependence on the translations of others makes me uncomfortable and not a little agnostic about my conclusions. But the issues I will discuss in the process of working through my interpretation are enough to encourage me that I am on the right track.
Let’s look at a few things that are not taught in Acts 13:48:
1. This verse does not tell us the criteria or method by which God “appointed” particular individuals to eternal life. Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 each spell out clearly the reason one is chosen and another is not (i.e. faith), but in this verse it simply says certain ones were “ordained.” The verse assumes election but doesn’t give the reasons for election. Of course this makes sense, since Luke is merely giving a theological comment about a historical event, as opposed to trying to teach about the subject of divine election.
2. Though my Calvinist brethren will probably fight this one tooth and nail, it must be acknowledged that this verse does not say that the God’s ordaining of certain individuals to eternal life is the cause of their faith. It is true that the appointment to eternal life and the faith of the individuals are related, but this verse does not say that either one causes the other. “As many as were appointed to eternal life” identifies and describes which individuals “believed.” It doesn’t say that their faith led to being appointed or that being appointed led to their faith. This is read into the text.
Consider this sentence, “As many as had been born with red hair believed.” When such a statement is made, no one would assume that having red hair was the cause their faith. It just means that the persons in question have two things in common, red hair and faith. It does not spell out the relationship between the two qualities. So though Luke is making it clear that the ones that believe are the same ones that were appointed to eternal life, he goes no further. He does not tell us that one is the cause and the other the result. This is read into the text because of prior theological commitments, namely the Calvinistic doctrine of Unconditional Election.
3. Unconditional Election is not the only doctrine that is assumed in this passage by those in the Reformed camp. This passage is also often quoted as a proof-text for the doctrines of Monergistic Regeneration and Irresistible Grace. Calvinism teaches that no man can believe until they have been spiritually reborn. And that once they are reborn they cannot remain in unbelief but are irresistibly drawn to faith. This rebirth is believed to take place without any cooperation or participation of the soul being “resurrected spiritually.” So anytime one believes the gospel in Scripture, Calvinism assumes that the person has already been regenerated. And it is assumed the individual was completely passive in receiving this new birth. Whatever Scriptural evidence one might point to in order to defend these two closely related doctrines, it is hoped that we can all admit that this verse does not teach it. For a person to assume that they are implied because scripture teaches them elsewhere is one thing, to assert that they are spelled out in Acts 13:48 is quite another.
To Be Continued…