Untangling “Predestination” — Part 1

for Marie

(For the stimulus to write this paper, I wish to acknowledge discussions with my daughter Marie, who was drawn into the perennial issue by a theology course in the fall semester of 2008 at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan.)

The Greek word translated “predestination” (prohorizo) in many English versions of the New Testament is built on the root word, horizo, from which the English word ‘horizon’ comes, i.e., the distant “termination” point of sight. Hence the common translation, “determine.” A. E. Knoch renders it “specify” or “designate” in the Concordant Literal New Testament (CLNT). I will begin my analysis with the eight occurrences of horizo in the New Testament. After that I will treat the six N.T. uses of prohorizo. All theologically relevant passages containing these two words are in red type. However, the remaining passages containing these words are still linguistically relevant since they display common usages from daily life that throw light on its normal range of meaning. I have highlighted in variously colored typefaces other recurring elements of the relevant contexts that throw further light on interpretation. For convenient reference, I will use these bold and color features throughout. I quote the CLNT version, but with some of my own alterations of vocabulary and grammar. (For example: rendering the Greek ‘middle voice’ by adding forms of the English helping verb ‘get’—a generally unrecognized yet common way of forming the English equivalent of the ‘middle voice’. This serves quite well in translating the New Testament, and, though occasionally awkward, is usually illuminating.).


Luke 22:22

“…22the Son of Mankind is indeed going, just as it has been specified. However, woe to that person through whom he is getting surrendered!”

Notice the term that Matthew and Mark use in their parallel passages:

Matthew 26:24

24The Son of Mankind is indeed going away just as it is written concerning him, yet woe to that person through whom the Son of Mankind is getting surrendered! Ideal were it for him if that person were not born!”

Mark 14:21

“…21the Son of Mankind is indeed going away just as it is written concerning him, yet woe to that person through whom the Son of Mankind is getting surrendered! Ideal were it for him if that person were not born!”

This comparison suggests that Luke has in mind what was specified in writing, i.e., in Old Testament Scripture. The event prophesied (in blue) refers, of course, to his departure by crucifixion. Yet that’s only part of the complete scope of what was pre-specified in Scripture. Now let’s look at Luke’s other usages of the word in the book of Acts. (In each case, if the text indicates, I have underlined both the thing or person specified or designated as well as the agent responsible.)

Acts 2:23 (Peter speaking on the Day of Pentecost)

22This One, given up in the specific plan and foreknowledge [proginosko—‘pre-knowledge’] of God, you, gibbeting by the hand of the lawless, assassinate, whom God raises, loosing the pangs of death, forasmuch as it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

This message of Peter’s emphasizes the evils of Christ’s surrender, gibbeting, and assassination—mainly as poignant backdrop for an honest and credible resurrection.

Acts 10:40-43 (Peter speaking in the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion)

40This One God raises the third day, and gives him to become disclosed, 41not to the entire people, but to witnesses who have been selected before [proteneo—‘pre-selected’] by God, to us who ate and drank together with him after his rising from among the dead. 42And he charges us to herald to the people and to get certified that this One is he who has gotten specified by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. 43To this One are all the prophets [prophetespreasserters’] testifying: Everyone who is believing in him is to obtain the pardon of sins through his name.”

Here the “horizon” of what was “pre-horizoned” stretches out before us to embrace the Son’s Judgeship (in which the adopted sons also participate, according to 2 Corinthians 6)!

Acts 11:29-30

29Now just as any of the disciples thrived, each of them designate something to send to the brethren dwelling in Judea, for dispensing, which they do also, 30dispensing to the elders through the hand of Barnabas and Saul.”

Acts 17:26-27 (Paul speaking to Greeks in the Areopagus on Mars Hill)

26Besides, He makes out of one every nation of mankind, to be dwelling on all the surface of the earth, specifying the setting of the seasons and the bounds of their dwelling, 27for them to be seeking God, if, consequently, they may surely grope for Him and may be finding Him, though to be sure, not far from each one of us is He inherent…”

Acts 17:30-31 (Paul continues)

30Indeed, then, condoning the times of ignorance, God is now charging mankind that all everywhere are to repent, 31forasmuch as He assigns a day in which He is about to be judging the inhabited earth in righteousness by the Man whom He specifies, tendering faith to all, raising him from among the dead

The usage in Acts 2, in light of Luke 22, clarifies that Scripture is where the plan was specified in writing. The Acts 17 passages are from Paul’s famous speech on Mars Hill in Athens where, because his audience comprised educated Greeks, he never quotes the Hebrew Scriptures at all, but only Greek philosophers (notably, Epimenides of Crete, Cleanthes the Stoic and Aratus of Cilicia) to make his points. This probably explains why he does not outright declare Jesus as “the Man” to Whom “all the prophets are testifying,” as Peter does in his speech in the house of Cornelius in Acts 10, above, because Jewish prophets would carry no weight with these sophisticated Greeks. (Cornelius, though a Roman, was said to be “devout and fearing God with his entire household, doing many alms to the people and beseeching God continually…” Acts 10:2. Therefore he would obviously be familiar with and respectful toward the Jewish Scriptures.) Notice how this message of Paul’s in Acts 17 reinforces Peter’s message in Acts 10 about Christ being specified by virtue of his being raised from among the dead to be judging the earth.

Romans 1:1-5

1Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, a called apostle, severed for the proclamation of God 2(which He promises before [proepangello—pre-promises’] through His prophets [prophetes—pre-asserters’] in the holy Scriptures), 3concerning His Son (Who comes from [ek] the seed of David according to the flesh, 4Who is designated Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by [ek] resurrection of the dead), Jesus Christ, our Lord, 5through whom we obtained graciousness…”

There is a lot going on here. Notice the “pre” words, whose primary references go no farther back than the Old Testament. Notice also the interesting use of “ek” to distinguish the respective means by which he was born “according to the flesh” and “according to the Spirit”. The resurrection was the Spirit’s means of “birthing” Jesus as Son of God! Thus Paul forges a link between Christ’s being “designated Son of God” and his “resurrection”. Here we get “the rest of the Story” that unfolded under the thrust of God’s pre-designated plan. In fact, all three relevant passages in Acts include this element of Jesus’ “raising” or “resurrection” (unrelated Greek synonyms). Then in Peter’s speech he is designatedJudge.” As we have already observed, this nicely parallels Paul’s statement in Acts 17 that “the Man” was assigned a “judging” role, i.e., to be a Judge. These observations imply that the designation foretold in ancient prophecy testified to future events that would somehow pinpoint the identity or role of the designated person. This function also holds for Acts 2, although since this is an extended speech the assigned titles are delayed until verse 36, which says:

Acts 2:36 (Peter speaking)

36Let all the house of Israel know certainly, then, that God makes him Lord as well as Christ [Messiah]this Jesus whom you crucify!

The role of the Lord as Judge is mentioned in other Scriptures, too, so here we have an illuminating convergence of testimony. Even the titles Paul uses in Romans 1:4 may possibly be intended for inclusion in this designation. It will be helpful to recall these titles later in order to more satisfactorily re-interpret ‘predestination’.

Hebrews 4:7

“…7He is again specifying a certain day, ‘Today’—saying in David [in Psalm 95:7-8] after so much time, just as has been declared before:

‘Today, if ever His voice you should be hearing,

You should not be hardening your hearts’.” [that is, against the evidence/testimony of the voice]

Notice again that the specification was stated in a written Scripture from the Old Testament that could be referred to by later generations. Moreover, “a certain day” refers, as is common biblical shorthand, to a day of Judgment, as in Acts 17:31. This throws linguistic light on the usage of our word in the more elaborative passages, where it refers diversely to either: 1) the planned and foreknown events surrounding the Cross and Resurrection or 2) the Person who underwent this Satanic human abuse and divine vindication. Nothing else or more is either stated or further implied by these Scriptures in connection with horizo. But more particularly with reference to the notion of “predestination,” neither this passage nor Acts 11:29-30 and Acts 17:26-27, which contain the other two common uses of horizo, will easily allow for its translation as “destine.” Yet we should have been able to expect a comfortable fit if “prohorizo” really does mean “predestine.” Thus these common usages lend valuable linguistic testimony against the translation (and, as we shall see, even against the very idea of) ‘predestination’.

With the above as background, we may now turn to the term of pivotal interest for the alleged “doctrine of predestination.”


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Filed under Calvinism, predestination, The Atonement

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