Thursday, 1 May 2008

Is Predestination Doomed?

Ben Witherington III has a thought-provoking challenge to predestination on the basis of his reading of Matt 18:18: “I tell you whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." His point is that it is the earthly initiative which receives subsequent ratification in heaven. “The Greek here is straight forward [sic], and the contrast between the present and future tenses have clear enough implications.”

My observation is that the implication of the Greek tenses is nowhere near as straightforward as Witherington suggests. The tense of the verbs “will be bound” and “will be loosed” is not simple future (which Greek is quite capable of), but a more complex “periphrastic” construction involving a future + perfect passive participle. The only other instance in the NT of this construction, apart from the parallel Matt 16:19, is Heb 2:13 (where the verb is peitho, which regularly uses a perfect form in the sense of “be confident” and no simple future perfect passive tense form exists). Arguably, the employment of this rare construction in the two Matthew passages is intended to avoid the implication of sequentiality. If there is one thing we learn from the debates about tense and aspect in the last couple of decades, it should be not to base a doctrine on our understanding of tense, so I’m not going to draw the standard Reformed conclusion that it must be a future perfect (“will be [what has already been] bound / loosed”), though this at least arguaable. We can neither safely conclude that Jesus’ point in Matthew is the priority of the divine decree, nor of the human decision. Taken with the following verse (“Again, I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven”), the point is rather the congruence of leadership decisions in the church with the mind of God, particularly, I would add, those concerning admission to or exclusion from the Christian community, taken in the context of prayer. What this does suggest to me is that, rather than adopting an antipredestinarian stance, I ought to be reticent to declare some members of the earthly church as not part of the heavenly church (much as I am sometimes tempted).

Predestination will have to fall or stand on some other basis.

1 comment:

Steven Coxhead said...

I agree with John that arguing for or against predestination on the basis of Matt 18:18 is a bit much. Although, there is a point to Witherington's idea in that it is possible to "force" God's hand as it were. We human beings actually have a lot of power. If I decide to go out and kill a cat (no, not my cat Fluffy ... some other cat), and if I succeed in doing that at 10:46 PM on 12th May 2008, then we would have to conclude that although the death of that cat was preordained by God, I certainly had a lot to do with it. In fact, without my evil deed against that cat, it would never have been predestined for the poor little thing to die at 10:46 PM on 12th May 2008 at the hands of Steven Coxhead. We actually have the power to "determine" what has been predestined from all eternity. Rather amazing really.