As a freshman at BYU and a new Ancient Studies Club member I had the opportunity to hear one of the best lectures on predestination in Paul. I’d grown up being taught that I should read “foreordain” for every “predestinate” in the NT. (this isn’t necessarily wrong but we’ll get to that later) But here was an LDS scholar arguing for real, genuine predestination in Paul and boy was he convincing.
I’ve since had this doctrine explained to me in greater detail and I’m a devout Predestinationist. And I believe that all LDS people are too, they just don’t know it yet.
The heart of understanding the concept lies in differentiating between Western thinking (ours) and Eastern thinking (Paul and everyone else in the NT and OT for that matter). Paul was the apostle to the Greeks but he wasn’t himself a native Greek. He probably spoke Greek as his first language (though this is debated) and he was certainly a Hellenized Jew. He was also an extremely strict Pharisee by his own reckoning and herein lies what is probably the key to the matter.
If Paul is a hard-core, fully trained Pharisee then he has been trained to think like the people who will shortly after come to be called the Rabbis. He has been trained to interpret scriptures like them and for all the radical breaks Paul makes with Judaism, this training strongly tempers his thinking.
Now there are many differences, I’m sure, between Easterners and Westerners but one is of particular interest and will form the thread from which my argument will hang. But before I get to that let me quickly and badly stereotype for you what a Westerner and Easterner are. A Westerner is a European, a Greek, a Roman, etc. An Easterner is a Jew, a Samaritan, an Asian (think province in this case, not continent although to some degree that works too), a Persian, and so on.
In our case, Westerners are Greeks and Romans from whom we take our social cues historically. Westerners and logical, reasoning, mathematical, fiercely individual, and extremely competitive. Easterners are intuitive, mystical, allegorical, tribal (from their heritage, especially the Jews), and community oriented. These are broad and expansive (and thus poor and extremely fallible) characterizations, but bear with me.
As Westerners (and the majority of Christians have been Westerners since the second or third century) we tend to think in very individualistic terms. This is not to say that we are always self-centered, egotistical jerks (although you could look at it that way), it is that we tend to think about all people in individualistic terms. All people are individuals. They are personally responsible for themselves. They all have their own agency. Every man must work out his own salvation before God with fear and trembling. All of these ideas are very individualistic.
The Eastern way of thinking is quite different. Community comes first, especially for the Jews. As a people they are special, chosen. They are Abraham’s, Isaac’s, and Jacob’s posterity. They belong to tribes (mostly Judah by Jesus day), have a very communal conception of family, and so on. A good example of this is the way that Israel’s and Judah’s captivities are described. The whole nation was taken captive according to the record, yet history teaches us that many peasants and farmers were left behind. A majority remained percentage wise, yet the ten tribes of Israel are lost entirely.
This can be seen in the case of the Samaritans. They were the (un)lucky folk who got left behind in the destruction of Israel and who later bred with outsiders planted in their land. The Jews forever afterward considered them polluted people and shunned them. There were people left behind in that captivity but the whole nation is spoken of as being carried away. This community minded thinking is crucial to understanding Paul.
Now lets take a look at the word “predestine.” In Greek the word is pro-oridzo and it is absolutely fascinating. Literally it means to set a boundary beforehand. Our word horizon comes from this root because the horizon is the boundary of what we can see. Oridzo means generally to decide, determine, appoint, designate. All people do this and so does God. Add the pro to the beginning and it means to do it beforehand, specifically, to do it before the foundation of the world.
The problem begins when we look this word up in Greek. Sure, the first meanings are to predestinate, decide or set apart from the beginning or before hand. But it also can be properly translated as foreordain, to set apart from the beginning or before hand. We would say these are two different ideas in LDS culture. They are identical to the Greeks. Now to unravel.
In the church we have heavily nuanced the concept of foreordination. This seems to me to be a reaction to the ultra-conservative Protestant view of individual predestination where every person’s fate is predetermined by God to salvation or damnation. This false doctrine (an inappropriate application of a true doctrine) was countered in LDS circles by a true but somewhat poor response. We responded to the personal, individual aspect of personal salvation and pre-mortal callings from God by explaining that God foreordained without any determinism that certain individuals should have certain blessings, have certain powers, and do certain things. All of these things are meant to happen but hinge upon every person’s agency to choose to receive/do them. Instead we could (maybe should) have responded by preaching the true teaching of absolute, deterministic predestination.
If we apply that Eastern thinking to deterministic predestination then we get a very interesting picture. Instead of predestining individuals, we predestinate groups. Only for Paul, there is only one group truly predestined to salvation with God and Jesus in their kingdom: the Church! Now it should be said that I’m no expert on Paul’s view of the Jews but he knows that Israel will be brought to salvation eventually but I would argue that he still thinks that they must accept Jesus when that happens as the Messiah.
Mormons believe that the Church is predestined to salvation, we just don’t usually think of it in these terms. But we believe that before the world was physically created that there was a plan set forth in which all of the terms for how things would go were set forth (predestined) with a special focus (I assume) on salvation. Now labeling the purposes of life is tricky but this much is clear, we were meant to be able to return to live with God after it was all over and done with. In order for this to occur each person must be saved or redeemed from the fallen and cursed state that they would enter while here. At that council it was determined that Jesus would perform the Atonement and that any individual who did X, Y, and Z would receive access to this atonement and be saved, with X, Y, and Z being faith in Christ, repentance, receiving the ordinances, and enduring in the covenants until the end.
You all believe this. I know you do. You must because you are all members of the Church. You believe that by following the above steps that you will receive salvation. The decision that the people who followed those steps adequately would be saved was made before the earth was made. We call it the Plan of Salvation. The only difference with Paul is he says that whoever does X, Y, and Z is the Church. If you don’t get saved then you didn’t do X, Y, and Z and thus you aren’t a part of the Church. Pretty simple. You can’t be a part of the Church, not really, and not be saved because if you were really doing everything expected of those in the Church you would be saved because there are no exceptions. God is no respecter of persons.
The best proof for me that Latter-day Saints believe this doctrine is the true doctrine of hope. I think that this has been discussed recently around here, at least in passing, but I’ll elucidate. In Ether 12:4 we read:
4 Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God.
I had a hard time understanding this verse for a very long time including most of my mission. The focus is on hope which acts as an anchor to men’s souls. I used to think that it was faith that was the anchor. I was wrong. Real hope isn’t wishful thinking but an assured yet unseen future. That future is the coming of the Messiah, the redemption of the righteous, the destruction of the wicked, and the glory of the received kingdom of God. The truth of these coming events anchors us, gives us a reason for being good and keeping the commandments (i.e. the rest of the verse). We have a hope that the righteous (those who do X, Y, and Z) will receive salvation. We also have a hope that the wicked (those who don’t) will receive damnation. It’s hope because we know this and we are determined to act accordingly. The hope that we have is that these realities-waiting-to-happen are predetermined. They are irrevocably decreed. Thus we can absolutely trust in them; they truly are an anchor to our souls, some of the only things we can utterly depend on.
Paul most clearly teaches this doctrine in Romans 8:29-9:33 and Ephesians 1. I’d advise reading them in light of our discussion if you have not already. Especially Romans 9:9-23 (I’d also read around it too) because the problems this particular passage raises to our new view of this doctrine will be the subject of part two in this post. I’m going to bed now and I’ll be fishing for most of the next two days. I’ll try my best to keep on top of any comments here and get onto that much anticipated vessels of wrath conclusion. (this is a very fun topic but it really is just a set up for the next one)