The day the tulip died, part 9

Rob Bell said two things that ended my journey with Calvinism. The first can be found here. The second (again, I’m paraphrasing from memory) was this:

You want to believe in predestination? That’s fine. Just remember that in the Bible, God doesn’t predestine people primarily for their own benefit. People are predestined so they can be a blessing to others.

Calvinists and non-Calvinists have a tendency to talk past each other when debating predestination. The Calvinist asks, “Why don’t you believe in predestination when it’s so clearly taught in the Bible?” And to be fair, some of our answers come across as evasive.

So here it is:

I believe in predestination. I believe God has predestined specific individuals. For example, he predestined Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, Paul, etc.

Exactly when God predestined them and whether they could have resisted, I don’t know. (Moses certainly tried.) I’m not seeking to build a comprehensive theological system, because comprehensive theological systems tend to collapse under their own weight.

But take another look at the individuals mentioned above. They all have at least two things in common. First, each played a remarkable role in the redemptive drama.

In linguistics, there’s a fallacy known as illegitimate totality transfer. It’s when you take one possible meaning of a word and read it into every occurrence without regard for context. (For example, “green” can be an idiom for money. But that doesn’t mean “green” always means money.)

We run a similar risk when we read the accounts of people like Abraham and Moses. We see they were chosen by God in some way, so we assume everyone who comes to know God was predestined in exactly the same way. But on what basis?

Second, each was predestined for a specific purpose. And that purpose always has to do with someone else. Usually, lots of someone elses.

Abraham was predestined to be the father of a great nation, through whom God would bless “all peoples on earth” (Genesis 12).

Moses was predestined to deliver an entire nation from slavery and lead them into a covenant with Yahweh (Exodus 3).

David was predestined to be first in an unbroken line of Jewish kings — culminating in Jesus the Messiah, king of the world (1 Samuel 16; 2 Samuel 7).

Mary was predestined to be the mother of God incarnate (Luke 1).

Paul was predestined to bring the good news to Gentiles all over the Roman Empire (Acts 9; 1 Corinthians 1).

Every one of them was predestined for the benefit of others. When we come across individual predestination in the Bible, it’s never an end unto itself; it’s a means to a much bigger end. God’s saving plan might start with the predestination of one person, but it never stops there.

For Calvinism, predestination consists of membership in an exclusive club: the “elect.” Which, assuming I see myself as a member of that club, puts the emphasis on me and how I benefit from being one of the lucky few.

In this respect, the Calvinist view of predestination veers dangerously close to that of the Jewish religious authorities who opposed Jesus and John the Baptist.

The Pharisees saw themselves as the elect, part of an exclusive “bless-me” club. Both John and Jesus called them on it.

John warned them not to hide behind their genetic link to Abraham, because God could find children for himself elsewhere, if he pleased (Luke 3). Jesus rebuked them for shutting the door of God’s kingdom in other people’s faces (Matthew 23).

The Pharisees had forgotten their true purpose as a chosen people: to be a light to the Gentiles — to the supposedly non-chosen ones.

By viewing predestination as both the means and the end, Calvinism risks making the same mistake. But there is another way. It starts by taking seriously statements like God “wants all people to be saved.” It accepts that God is very much involved in the redemptive drama unfolding all around us — sometimes even orchestrating events to very specific ends. But his chief goal is to be reconciled to as many people as possible, not a select few for whom he’s rigged the outcome in advance.

This is what I realized when I heard Rob Bell speak in passing about predestination. And that was the day the tulip died.

9 thoughts on “The day the tulip died, part 9

  1. I think that there is also another subtle trick played with the word “predestination.” Calvinism has appropriated this word for so long that that most people do not think to question their theological definition. Attempting to prove Calvinism from Calvinist-specific definitions is merely a display of circular logic. The English meaning of the word is more primitive.

    As a simple example, a first-born son of a monarch is predestined to become king, but it does not mean that he will become king. He could die before his time or even choose to abdicate the throne. Yet this is the primary function of the first born son – he is “predestined” to become king.

    A factory might produce bullets that are predestined to be shot from a gun, but that does not mean that every bullet will fulfill its destiny. Some might never leave their boxes, others might be dropped and never recovered, and others might misfire. But when we consider the bullet, could it have been built with any other purpose in mind? Is it not “predestined” to be fired?

    Determining the destiny before is not a guarantee that the thing will fulfill that destiny.

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    • Good point.

      The presenters in this video give another good example that I think illustrates how Calvinism has appropriated the word “predestination.”

      That is, if you were giving a presentation, and you made some PowerPoint slides for it, you could say that you “predestined” that everyone who comes to your presentation would see those slides. Someone who attended your presentation could walk out saying, “I was predestined to see those PowerPoint slides tonight.” That doesn’t mean that you predestined certain individuals to see those slides. Rather, you predestined that anyone who showed up would see those slides.

      Which I think is a decent analogy for how the Bible speaks of predestination.

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  2. While I understand, too bad Rob has soured your view of Calvinism, as well as other Christians who project what I believe to be misguided views. I think the best way to learn about Calvinism is to read John Calvin. Tulips are beautiful but aren’t very fragrant. I sure hope that if someone observes my faith that they can see beyond the tulip to the fragrance of Christ in me.

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    • Hey Catherine –
      I see a big difference between Calvinism in general and neo-Reformed Calvinism. I don’t personally subscribe to either, but one (Calvinism in general) is purely a difference of opinion. I’ve read a little of John Calvin and have a lot of respect for the tradition he birthed.

      A lot of what I’ve written is more a response to neo-Reformed Calvinism than Calvinism in general. That is to say, the Calvinism of Piper, Driscoll, the Gospel Coalition, etc. I find they tend to be more extreme in their theology and less charitable toward non-Calvinist believers (and even some moderate Calvinists). This brand of Calvinism seems to be more common among Reformed Baptist traditions, for whatever reason.

      I have a great deal more respect for the kind of moderate Calvinism that you see in most CRC and RCA churches (as well as many Presbyterian churches). I think this branch of the Reformed tradition has much to offer, and I’ve personally learned a lot from it. (I pretty much owe my whole concept of a Christian worldview to the Reformed tradition.)

      And last…I can say without a doubt that anyone who looks at your life would see “the fragrance of Christ.”

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  3. Pingback: The day the tulip died, part 8 « Ben Irwin

  4. Pingback: Calvinism leans on this fallacy | Public Work

  5. I found your blog strictly from your great critics concerning evangelical support of Israel, but found this series of posts simply by wanting to know more about the guy who had such a great point of view. Though Calvinist, (I prefer the term Reformed), I’m glad I read these, because I am always trying to be sure that I have the most accurate and Biblical world-view. What I found interesting, however, is your critic included a lot of issues that I had growing up as an Armenian (unsure of salvation, feelings of superiority, suspicious of people who weren’t in my denomination) and a lot of your conclusions that you came to about faith, God’s love, and the narrative nature of the Bible I didn’t come to understand until I embraced Calvinism. Needless to say, this was a very interesting read indeed. I will rightly say, however, that while my experience in the Reformed world seems to be a more inclusive and generally healthier one than the existentially stressed culture you seem to have experienced, I know at least two people personally that definitely fall into the kind of neo-Reformed culture you describe, and it bothers me to no end. I get confused how they can say the same things as I do on an intellectual level, but we have two completely different “heart” reactions. I have always chalked this up to total depravity and God’s sanctification playing out differently in our lives. I’m very glad you have found a place where your faith can grow, even if you came out with a poor view of Calvinism in the end. Like another commenter said, tulips aren’t very fragrant, and I think Calvin would agree.

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  6. Thank you….I read these 9 parts with interest; was born (aged 34) in a church which taught the narrative rather than the theology, and showed the sources of some of the different theologies. You will always find people who are harsh or arrogant…..or gracious and humble…..in whatever theology they may ascribe to (if that’s the right word). And if being “chosen” means we are to be a light to the world, then arrogance and clique-iness smother that light. Love, as you describe it, reflects God’s glory; by loving others with the love God gave us we give glory to God; and this kind of love points to God’s holiness……how can He be holy (truly different, apart) if He did not embody that love that transcends all human love? We can never know who will love God when they hear from Him…..so we speak and do and walk with all, never knowing their hearts til we see them in the new creation – or not. Every blessing!

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  7. Hi Ben . My name is Brian Graham, contacting you from Northern Ireland, United Kingdom. I wish to share my own inability to really and emotionally embrace Calvinism ….as well as comment on some of your valid thoughts. I do not use Facebook or Twitter, just email. How then can I contact you ? Please come back to me via email

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