(This is the 4th and final post in a series on 13:48. To start at the beginning of this series click here)
I concluded the last post by suggesting we understand Acts 13:48b in the following manner:
“…as many as were appointed [according to the foreknowledge of God] to eternal life believed.”
When Luke noted that those who believed had already been appointed to eternal life, the Calvinist imagines that this appointment was done without the consideration of how men would respond to the gospel. By ignoring that salvation is conditioned on a person’s response to the gospel they remain consistent with their belief in divine determinism, but they stray far from the plain teaching of scripture (Mark 16:15, John 3:18).
It seems reasonable to conclude that God is the one doing the appointing in this verse, though some non-Calvinists would argue that the Greek grammar in this verse could imply that the individuals are “appointing” themselves in the sense of “inclining” or “disposing” themselves to eternal life. But in the 2nd post on this topic I showed my reasons for rejecting that argument. In short, I tried to demonstrate that the other four times Luke used the Greek word tasso he never used it in that way.
Not only do I believe God is the one that is appointing these people to eternal life, I believe he appointed them from the foundation of the world. God’s eternal plan was to adopt believers as his children (Eph. 1:4-5, Rom. 8:28-29). The word “believers” in the last sentence must not be overlooked. God did not predestine certain unbelievers to become believers, but he predestined those who would believe to become his children (John 1:12). But what those in the Reformed camp usually want to point out is that in the verse we are considering, the appointment to eternal life clearly came before the people believed. That is not strange in light of the biblical teaching of God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of all future human actions and decisions.
Many non-Calvinist brethren shy away from saying that the verse speaks of “predestination” for various reasons. They are right to say that the Greek word tasso used in this sentence is not used elsewhere in the Bible to refer to the doctrine of election (with regards to salvation). But since it is here connected with the phrase “to eternal life,” it is hard to imagine Luke has anything else in mind. And they are also correct when they point out that tasso is not correctly translated “pre-appointed” or “pre-ordained,” but simply “appointed” or “ordained.” But the context seems to imply that eternal predestination is in Luke’s mind.
Wherever the Bible discusses the Gentiles coming into the kingdom, the doctrines of election and predestination are not far away (i.e. Romans 9 & Ephesians 1-3). The Jews of the first century A.D. assumed that only Jews or converts to Judaism could be members of God’s people. The gospel overturned this assumption by proclaiming that God’s eternal purpose was to create a holy people out of believing Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-3:6). Whenever Gentiles came into the kingdom it was necessary for the biblical writers to make it clear that they were not crashing the kingdom party or entering the kingdom as God’s plan B. The acceptance of believing Jews and believing Gentiles into God’s chosen people was predestined; by looking at the two verses leading up to Acts 13:48 we see that this Jewish/Gentile controversy is certainly in Luke’s mind. For this reason I believe we can safely conclude that the “appointing” of Acts 13:48 took place “from the foundations of the world” (Eph. 1:4, Rom. 8:29).
As I pointed out in my last post, many of my Calvinist brethren could rightfully accuse me of reading the biblical concept of divine foreknowledge into the text. But if reading any theological concepts into this verse disqualifies my interpretation, the Reformed interpretation is doubly condemned. By reading God’s foreknowledge of free human choices into the verse I am able to avoid invalidating the clear statements of genuine human responsibility elsewhere in the immediate context, namely verse 26, while still giving God’s sovereignty over salvation its rightful place. But by reading unilateral determinism into the passage, they have invalidated the plain sense of human responsibility given in verse 26.
But unconditional election is not the only concept that Reformed theology brings to the text. Irresistible grace and monergistic regeneration is pressed into the verse as well. Though we don’t read of any of these doctrines in the verse, the devout Calvinist reads them all into it. So if I am guilty of misinterpretation because I inform my reading of this verse with the biblical concept of divine foreknowledge of free human choices, what does that say of my Reformed brethren who inform their reading of this verse with the concepts of unconditional election, irresistible grace and monergistic regeneration?! We must acknowledge that everyone reads something into this verse. But the less baggage we can bring to the text the better.
My interpretation of Acts 13:48 will be unanimously rejected by my Reformed brothers and sisters, for obvious reasons. But as many of you know, this blog is not written primarily for a Calvinist audience. And they will not be the only ones to disagree with my conclusions. Open Theists (of which I was one for several years) will also take issue with my interpretation. Many conservative Arminians will also disagree with some of my conclusions. For this reason I will anticipate and address a few of their objections in rest of this post.
Objection #1 – Divine Foreknowledge
Open Theists, along with Calvinists, deny that God has exhaustive foreknowledge of all genuinely free human decisions. The Calvinist disagrees with the “genuinely free human decisions” part of that sentence, while maintaining a belief in exhaustive divine foreknowledge. Many might argue that they do believe in genuine human freedom, but only after redefining the everyday meaning of human freedom. The Open Theist denies the “exhaustive foreknowledge” part of the above statement, while faithfully defending human freedom of choice, and therefore Man’s responsibility.
I respect both the Calvinist and Open Theist views on foreknowledge. Both argue that there is no rational explanation for how God could know future events that he did not plan to cause. For the Calvinist this means that God is the first cause of all human actions and that he knows every event of human history because he unilaterally determined it to take place. Human beings willingly do what God has planned, but then again, they could not possibly choose anything other than what God determined would happen; their willingness was also predestined. This is called soft determinism or compatibilism. The Open Theist goes the other direction. Instead of limiting human freedom, they conclude that God has created the world in such as to willingly put limitations on his knowledge of the future. They believe he knows everything that can possibly be known; but they maintain that human decisions that are both free and future cannot be known beforehand with absolute certainty, even by God.
The purpose of this post is not to show in detail why both of these positions are in error, but simply to point out that they are. The argument that there is no rational explanation of how God could foreknow the future free choices of free creatures is false. The rational explanation is: He is God! We don’t need to fully understand how God could create the universe out of nothing; nor do we need to fully comprehend how God can know the future doesn’t yet exist. We simply believe that many things that are above our ability to understand are within the realm of God’s ability. We accept the word of God by faith
The Bible everywhere implies that men are free to choose. As the early Church fathers often argued, if man is not free to choose the good and reject the evil then he cannot be held accountable for choosing evil or commended for choosing the good. The Bible also assumes God’s foreknowledge of free human choices. Not only what they might do, but also what they actually will do. Again, the earliest Church fathers regularly used God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of free human choices in their arguments against Gnosticism (an early Christian heresy) and Paganism. This fact makes both views (Calvinist and Open Theist) views on the relationship between divine foreknowledge and human freedom unorthodox.
I hope my readers will accept my apologies for touching so briefly on this complicated subject, and asserting my position more than proving it. The fact that the earliest Ante-Nicene Fathers (and possibly all of them) unanimously taught that God exhaustively foreknows both the possible and actual choices of genuinely free human beings and angels, settles the matter for me. Of course those defending my position of divine foreknowledge and human freedom (which is that of the early Church), or the positions of Open Theism and Calvinism can find passages of Scripture that seemingly support their case. But since time, space and my ability are all limited I will simply appeal to orthodoxy.
Objection #2 – Corporate Election
Those that hold exclusively to corporate election, whether they are conservative Arminians or Open Theists, will also find issue with my interpretation. The New Testament teaches the doctrine of divine election in light of the Old Testament model of God’s corporate election of Israel. For this reason we find passages in the New Testament that speak of God’s election of the Church of Jesus Christ as God’s holy and predestined people. Ephesians chapter one is the best example of this. The corporate nature of the passage talks about God’s plan for creating a holy people made up of believing Jews and Gentiles, especially when read in the context of chapters two and three. Those of us that believe in corporate election do not deny that individuals are the beneficiaries of that corporate election. But we do believe that individuals only benefit from the election of the Church through their connection to it, and that connection comes through personal and abiding faith in Christ.
But some of us that hold to corporate election have gone so far as to say that every verse related to election must have only this corporate aspect of election in mind. This error is most noticeable among Open Theists whose theological commitment to limited divine foreknowledge urges them to such an interpretation of various passages. When it comes to Acts 13:48, the phrase “as many as,” is their primary stumbling block. The passage is clearly talking about the appointing of certain individuals in the midst of the crowd that day.
But also among conservative Arminians, who believe in God’s exhaustive foreknowledge, many refuse to accept that there are any verses that emphasize individual election based on foreknowledge of human response to the Gospel. I do not know all the reasons for this. One reason of course is the fact that they believe that this is the proper interpretation of the Bible. But I believe this causes unnecessary difficulties of certain passages of Scripture, Acts 13:48 being one great example.
Every conservative Arminian believes in God’s exhaustive foreknowledge of free human choices. This means that every conservative Arminian believes that God knows exactly how each person in all of human history will respond to the gospel of Christ. For this reason it should not be surprising for any person who holds to divine foreknowledge (in the Arminian sense) to imagine that the biblical writers sometimes wrote with this concept in mind. We should not stumble when we see this concept appealed to in verses like Acts 13:48 and Romans 8:28-30. There is no reason to come up with cleverly thought out interpretations appealing to obscure rules in Greek grammar. Acts 13:48 has individual divine election in mind. Luke’s usage of the word tasso and the phrase “as many as” make this clear and it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to deny. For those of us that call ourselves Arminians, there is no need for this. Classical Arminianism believes in individual election.
Objection #3 – Practical Implications
Calvinists will approve of my interpretation in some ways because of what they think it logically implies, namely that if those individuals were “appointed to eternal life” by God himself then there is no way they can fall away. And my non-Calvinist brothers and sisters will frustratingly say, “Great, now look what you have done!” Whether one says that God appointed these particular individuals in Acts 13:48 to eternal life by unilateral divine determinism or in accordance with divine foreknowledge of their response to the gospel, either way it seems one must conclude that they all ended up in heaven. I could argue convincingly that making “eternal life” synonymous with “going to heaven” is a misunderstanding of biblical salvation, but I will accept this simplistic reading for argument’s sake. The point is, if God appointed these particular individuals to eternal life in eternity past, by whatever means, it seems an inescapable conclusion that they will indeed experience eternal life (heaven). If he appointed by determinism then he will not fail. If he appointed them in accordance with his foreknowledge then he could not possibly have been mistaken about their endurance in faith until the end.
Another practical implication of my interpretation must be equally embarrassing for the Calvinist interpretation. And as far as I can see they have no way of escaping this embarrassment by reading the verse as they do. If “as many as were appointed to eternal life” in the crowd that day, came to faith on that day, then we must assume that no other people in the crowd were appointed to eternal life. This must mean that none in the crowd that day, a crowd that was made up of “almost the whole city,” later came to faith in Christ (Acts 13:44). It is not hard to imagine that Luke was speaking in hyperbole about the size of the crowd, but either way, it seems strange that those who did believe had no reason to hope that their unbelieving friends and relatives would eventually come to faith. However you look at it, something just doesn’t feel right about the whole thing.
Up until now, we have been looking at what Luke said Acts 13:48, but now we need to switch gears and ask how he was using the statement he made. Was he teaching us about the doctrine of election or was he referring to the doctrine of election for the purpose of his narrative? Only if we know the answer to this do we know how we should allow this verse to inform our overall theology.
One way to find the subtle answer we are looking for is by asking how Luke knew that those individuals had been appointed to eternal life. Most people when they read the verse assume that somehow Luke knew that the particular individuals that believed that day had been predestined to life. But we must ask how he knew there were no false converts among them. We must ask how he knew God’s eternal plan for these particular individuals, especially in light of the fact that he probably never met all the people that were there that day. Remember, Luke was not yet travelling with Paul, so this was a second-hand account of the events of that wonderful day. How did Luke have such theologically charged information about those that believed?
If we assume he knew those individuals were appointed to eternal life by direct divine revelation, then we must assume that Acts 13:48b is a statement of absolute certainty. By reading it this way, which I assume is the sense in which it is read by most Calvinists, then those individuals certainly went to heaven, and no others in the crowd that day ever came to faith. We also must conclude that it was impossible that there were any false converts among those who believed that day. The ones that believed, each and every one, were sincere believers who were justified that day and certainly continued in persevering faith until the end of their lives. If he was informed by divine revelation then we must accept Acts 13:48b in the most absolute and concrete sense possible.
But if we look at the passage as a practical narrative and say that he knew they had been appointed by observing their response to the gospel, then Acts 13:48 is a statement of illustration. We use this kind of knowing when we say “I know my friend is saved.” He knew that many believed, but he didn’t know with divine certainty that they all truly had saving faith, or that they would each persevere in faith. He allowed his theology to inform his observation. According to his theology believers were “appointed to eternal life” from the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-5). The reason he noted that these individuals had been “appointed to eternal life” was not to introduce the doctrine of election, or to say with absolute certainty that these particular individuals would go to heaven, but to illustrate for his readers the historical significance of the historical narrative he was relating. He wasn’t speaking by some esoteric knowledge that these particular individuals had been specifically appointed by God for salvation in eternity past. He interpreted the scene he was relating from a theological perspective. He did this in order to emphasize that the Gentiles entrance into the kingdom had been predestined by God. Luke was referencing a well established theological perspective (Paul had already established the election of believing Gentiles in Ephesians and Romans) in order to put the narrative in its proper historical context.
By looking at the verse in this way we see that though the theology in Acts 13:48 is accurate, it is pushing Luke’s point too far to imagine that he thought only those individuals in the crowd had been appointed to life and no one else present that day could ever come to faith. Nor is it reasonable to assume that he was certain that those individuals would surely endure until the end and be saved. He simply was not thinking in such absolute terms. But it is reasonable to assume that he saw this event as the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise that salvation would extend to the “ends of the earth” (Acts 13:47).
Many reject my interpretation because they read Luke’s statement in Acts 13:48 in a way he never meant it to be read. He wasn’t writing it to give us divine knowledge about particular individuals neither he nor we have ever met. Yes he believes that those who come to saving faith and persevere in it were “appointed for eternal life” from the foundation of the world. But his reason for including that theological statement in the narrative of the Gentile Pentecost is to point out the significance of the events of that day. He wants all his readers to know that this moment in history was not an accident of history. God had always planned to save believing Gentiles through the gospel. By inserting a reference to the doctrine of eternal election into the scene he clarifies for his readers that this is a significant turning point in the outworking of God’s plan. To imagine that Luke is trying to teach the doctrine of divine election is to call him a bad teacher since his point lacks clarity or context. But to say that he is using well known theology to tell a story is to call him an excellent story teller and theological historian.