Monday, October 15, 2012

Predestination and foreordination

By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death (WCF 3.3).

Does Calvinism teach “double predestination”? The answer depends in part on whether we’re posing a semantic question or a conceptual question. And even the semantics are variable.

i) “Predestination” and “foreordination” can be used synonymously. On that definition, Calvinism teaches double predestination.

ii) However, the Westminster Confession uses one term for election and a different term for reprobation. According to Warfield, the reason for this linguistic distinction is that, in 17C usage, “predestination” was a synonym for “election.” Therefore, the Westminster Divines chose a different term for the clause describing reprobation. Yet Warfield says the two terms can also be used interchangeably.

Cf. The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 2:4-5; 4:125.

iii) At the same time, it doesn’t seem as though “predestination” was a technical term for “election,” because the Confession goes on to specify the objects of “predestination” (“until everlasting life”), as it also specifies the objects of “foreordination” (“to everlasting death”).

So “predestination” and “foreordination” aren’t technical terms for “election” and “reprobation” respectively, otherwise it would be unnecessary to clarify their scope by the additional referents. It’s the meaning of the sentence, not the meaning of one verb or another, that distinguishes them.

In principle, the Confession could just as well say “some men and angels are chosen beforehand to enjoy everlasting life while others are chosen beforehand to endure everlasting death–or something along those lines.

Or we could say “some are predetermined to everlasting life while others are predetermined to everlasting death.

In other words, we could use the same verb for both. What distinguishes the two propositions is not the bare choice of the verb, but the stated referents.

Of course, we do have technical terms for both concepts: “election” and “reprobation.”

iv) It’s also important to avoid the word=concept fallacy. There’s a difference between a semantic distinction and a conceptual distinction. The meaning or dictionary of “predestination,” “foreordination,” “election,” and “reprobation” won’t suffice to explain what they have in common or what differentiates one from another.

For instance, Reformed theologians frequently say election and reprobation are “asymmetrical” in some respects. They are said to have different grounds or different modes of execution. Those are not nuances you can pack into a single word. Rather, that requires a detailed explanation. That can also involve us in different theories of causation and/or determinism. 


  1. It occurs to me thinking about this that the distinction is inextricably linked to Christian epistemology. We know that all people are born separated from God by their sin and thus in a state of reprobation. The elect demonstrate the regeneration of the Holy spirit by responding to the gospel with faith and are no longer reprobate.

    It's helpful for us to see this temporal movement over and against the backdrop of our eternal state so that we can understand God’s grace. The problem is that it’s too easy for many to conflate the temporal with the eternal when it is best to understand the distinction. In this case, God’s sovereignty is eternal. Our status as elect or not is likewise eternal. However, the way this works out so that we can see it is temporal. Some people persist in reprobation. Some people come to faith and persist in it. These are demonstrated in a pattern of profession and behavior. 1 John is a primer on Christian epistemology: “This is how you know you have eternal life…” is a common construct. The answer he gives is that we love God and follow his commandments. Obviously we know that we aren’t saved by these things, but the outworking of our faith is revelatory.

    Therefore, as profession and behavior are epistemic, they are indicative of our eternal status. So where Arminians misunderstand Calvinists on this, they think we hold our eternal status in opposition to its temporal outworking thinking that we believe that some people who have faith can’t be saved because they aren’t elect. What we really believe is that the temporal is analogous to the eternal such that all creation is fit to be eternally separated from God, but he has chosen some to be reconciled to himself: “different grounds or different modes of execution” as you say. The elect know saving grace precisely because the reprobate don't receive it and the reprobrate have no excuse because they see how it affects the elect and yet they remain unfaithful.

  2. So what differentiates the concept of “predestination” from the concept of “foreordination”?

    1. There's no conceptual distinction, although there's sometimes a semantic distinction. That was the point of the post.

  3. "It’s also important to avoid the word=concept fallacy. There’s a difference between a semantic distinction and a conceptual distinction."

    If you were to explain the Word-Concept fallacy to a new Christian or even an unbeliever, how would you explain it simply without recourse to the more advanced terminology that you used in your example above?