Freedom and Pharisees

I ended a recent post, which discussed the New Testament’s use of the word “foreknow”, with the question of what kind of view Paul is most likely to have had on the issue of free-will. After all, it’s one thing to see different ways in which a text might be interpreted, or has been interpreted in Christian history. But if, to give one important example, the Renaissance notion of libertarian free-will did not exist in the New Testament world, to interpret the word “freedom” that way would be anachronistic. So knowledge of Paul’s religious culture would be valuable.

Providentially we have a relevant first century Judaean source in the historian Josephus, who actually discusses this very issue in several passages, particularly in those describing the various Jewish parties of his time. These he refers to as “philosophical sects”, which tells us about his intentions as an author: he is writing to a Gentile audience after the defeat of his nation in the Jewish War, to persuade them of the wisdom and worthiness of the Jews.

For this reason, he uses the word “fate” (εἱµαρµενη), though as Steve Mason points out in his exhaustive study Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees he generally uses this word not as pagans used it, but in the sense of “providence”, since it usually appears in proximity to “God”. For example, “offering advice in despite of fate” is paralleled with “struggling to save those whom God has condemned.” And of the destruction of the temple in 70AD, “God had long sentenced it to flames, but now had arrived the fated day.” So Josephus’s idea of fate is not some separate power, but the execution of God’s decree, and hence providence (as which it is sometime translated).

The first passage is from Jewish War Bk 2 ch 8:

2. For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews. The followers of the first of which are the Pharisees; of the second, the Sadducees; and the third sect, which pretends to a severer discipline, are called Essenes.

After a lengthy section on the Essenes, with whom he has greatest sympathy, he goes on:

14. But then as to the two other orders at first mentioned, the Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws, and introduce the first sect. These ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does co-operate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.

But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order, and take away fate entirely, and suppose that God is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say, that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men’s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to every one, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades…

So far that accords with the biblical picture of the two parties: the Pharisees are careful about Scripture and believe in eternal life and resurrection, whereas the Sadducees don’t. We’ll look at fate and freedom later. A second passage in Antiquities Bk 18 ch1 adds more:

3. Now, for the Pharisees, they live meanly, and despise delicacies in diet; and they follow the conduct of reason; and what that prescribes to them as good for them they do; and they think they ought earnestly to strive to observe reason’s dictates for practice. They also pay a respect to such as are in years; nor are they so bold as to contradict them in any thing which they have introduced; and when they determine that all things are done by fate, they do not take away the freedom from men of acting as they think fit; since their notion is, that it hath pleased God to make a combination, whereby what he wills is done, but so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously…

4. But the doctrine of the Sadducees is this: That souls die with the bodies; nor do they regard the observation of any thing besides what the law enjoins them; for they think it an instance of virtue to dispute with those teachers of philosophy whom they frequent: but this doctrine is received but by a few, yet by those still of the greatest dignity…

5. The doctrine of the Essenes is this: That all things are best ascribed to God.

And in Antiquities Bk 13 ch5

9. At this time there were three sects among the Jews, who had different opinions concerning human actions; the one was called the sect of the Pharisees, another the sect of the Sadducees, and the other the sect of the Essenes. Now for the Pharisees, they say that some actions, but not all, are the work of fate, and some of them are in our own power, and that they are liable to fate, but are not caused by fate.

But the sect of the Essenes affirm, that fate governs all things, and that nothing befalls men but what is according to its determination.

And for the Sadducees, they take away fate, and say there is no such thing, and that the events of human affairs are not at its disposal; but they suppose that all our actions are in our own power, so that we are ourselves the causes of what is good, and receive what is evil from our own folly.

An editorial note on this passage in the edition I consulted gives Josephus’s own bias thus:

However, our Josephus, who in his heart was a great admirer of the piety of the Essenes, was yet in practice a Pharisee, as he himself informs us, in his own Life, sect. 2.

It seems Josephus spent some time with the Pharisees, and even longer with the Essenes, so his picture of the three shades of belief is likely correct. The Essenes were divine determinists or fatalists, the Sadducees what we would now call libertarian free-willers (or even Pelagians), and the Pharisees somewhere (slightly confusing, from the three passages cited) in between.

Bearing in mind he was writing history and apologetics, not philosophy or theology, Josephus’s imprecision is understandable. It might seem from the last passage that to the Pharisees most things are caused by God, but not human acts which are free. But that would be a misinterpretation. The last passage, having seemed to suggest that our acts are in our power, adds that they are still “liable to fate”, but not “caused” by it.

The previous passage is a little clearer. All things are done by providence, he says, but so as not to take away man’s freedom of action. It has pleased God, say the Pharisees, to “make a combination, whereby what God wills is done, but so that the will of man can act virtuously or viciously.” Without engaging in longwinded philosophical reasoning, that’s as close to an Augustinian or Thomist position as one could get.

The first passage, which is more of a brief summary on this matter, says once more that the Pharisees “ascribe all to fate, and to God,” yet put moral actions “principally in the power of men,” with providence in a “cooperating” role. Yet in the previously discussed passage, the will of God is the first in logical order, rather than bringing up the rear, still less having no part in human acts, both good and evil.

Josephus’s own position emerges in his writing on a the death of King Herod’s two sons. He is evidently closest to the Pharisees, and this is his clearest expression of it – which gives a better insight into the Pharisaic understanding. Having discussed whether their death was due more to their own intransigence or to Herod’s megalomania, he then suggests (Antiquities XVI.11.8) that the real cause is Fortune:

…who has a power greater than all prudent reflection. For which reason we are persuaded that human actions are dedicated by [Fortune] beforehand to the necessity of taking place inevitably, and we call her Fate on the ground that there is nothing that is not brought about by her… it will be enough, so I think, to weigh this tenet against that which attributes something also to ourselves and renders us not unaccountable for the differences in our behaviour, and which has been philosphically expounded before our time in the Law.

After that, he goes back to discuss the human, historical, causes. Here, as we see, he attributes his view of free will, qualified by the antecedent, overarching power of God’s providence and yet held in tension with it, to the Scriptures – a view presumably attributable to what he learned from the Pharisees’ “exact explication of their laws.” You may remember it is a conclusion also attributable to me in the second post of the Freedom and autonomy series.

Which of these views, then, is closest to the New Testament writers, and particularly to Paul in Romans? Clearly Paul is neither a simple determinist like the Essenes nor a total denier of God’s providence in human choices like the Sadducees. Like the Pharisees he’s “somewhere in between.” That would not be surprising as he was brought up a Pharisee, and studied theology under one of the two greatest of his day, Gamaliel. But did he perhaps renounce his Pharisaism on his conversion? In some respects clearly “Yes,” since he now interpreted Scripture with reference to Jesus, renounced the legalism he had known and, in fact, counted his whole past “loss” compared to knowing Christ.

Yet that does not mean he would toss out his basic theological foundations, for as Josephus says the Phrisees were the most skilled expositors of the Scriptures. Jesus himself (in Matt 23.3) told his disciples to heed their teaching (cautiously, one assumes, given 16.12) though not their example. In fact, even as a Christian Paul continued to self-describe as a Pharisee. Acts 23.6:

“I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.”

So I would argue that one needs to find very good reasons why Paul would dissent from the picture of God’s sovereign will in relation to human freedom given by Josephus – and especially why he would move in the direction of the Sadducees, of all people, to deny God’s providence in human choices. Though I suppose one could always, like the self-confident Evangelical accordion-player I talked to in a coffee-shop once, simply say, “Paul got that one wrong.”

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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37 Responses to Freedom and Pharisees

  1. Cal says:

    Should be pointed out that Paul’s self-description of being a Pharisee had to do with belief in the resurrection, which is why the Pharisees and Sadducees broke out into a fight. It also has to do with the Sadducees trying to mock Jesus about the woman and her husbands.

    I think the Scripture teaches a God who is active in the lives of His people and His creation. However, I think the idea of arguing from Josephus is a bad road. While he is knowledgeable about the sects, he is framing everything differently. We have to interpret his hellenized depictions into Hebraicisms. So what exactly Josephus meant becomes another wall to work through.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      I think you’re too pessimistic, Cal, although I’ve tried to exercise caution (as well as not pretending I’ve reach cast-iron conclusions). Josephus is a Judaean Jew describing Jews to Gentiles, and though his terminology is bound to reflect his audience, he’s got nothing to gain by misrepresenting the basic diversity of Jewish views. In fact, the difference from Gentile views of the times is useful – and bear in mind he’s almost the only contemporary sources we have about Jewish parties of that time outside the New Testament.

      Plus, of course, even Judaea is turning out to be a pretty hellenised culture at that time (excavations at Sepporis, for example). The extreme might be Philo’s philosophy and Herod’s amphitheatre, but Jewish ideas had been influenced by Greek culture for several centuries. The diaspora Jews – including ex-pat Pharisees like Paul – would have been well-used to articulating their ideas in Greek idiom.

      The resurrection issue was, of course, why I left in the Sadduccees views on resurrection in the Josephus passage, to show how Josephus confirms the NT. In that, and in the other issues mentioned in the NT (angels, spirits) the Lord and the Church seem to have taught as the Pharisees taught.

      I wouldn’t like to build my Augustinian free-will views on him, but I think one can exclude Pelagian, and even Semi-pelagian, views from the likely contenders: and that’s positive in these days when even Arminius would be regarded as a determinist.

      Incidentally, it seems there were only about 6000 Pharisees at that time, though they were the biggest influence on Jewish synagogue life. Given that, Paul aside, they formed an influential part of the Jerusalem Church (Acts 15.5) it’s no wonder Christianity made such an impact.

      • Cal says:

        See that’s the problem. Josephus had to make an attempt to translate the idea of the different sects into something that would make him and his people seem credible to the Greco-Romans. You’re right that Paul had to do the same (writing, as he did, in Greek), but that’s it. The choices Josephus made in translating ideas are not necessarily the same Paul would have made. I suppose that would require a word-study and a placing Josephus side-by-side with Paul.

        Both were Pharisees but with two entirely different Lords. I admit I’m being pretty pessimistic. However, I think you’re right to make the point that either way you shake it, you don’t get the sort of deism in some people’s explanation of Providence (or lack thereof).

        Also, I’ve read that the Sadducees did not teach that God wasn’t present in the world, but rather that the vision of Messiah had dimmed in their eyes. They had a strong view of Torah over some of the later prophets, and thus lost that sort of revolutionary fervor that the prophets possessed. Funny enough that they would, seemingly, be more friendly to Josephus the traitor than his fellow Pharisees. Especially since he hints, as far as I can remember, that Vespasian was the christ.

        Where was the oblique Hegel reference? Are you talking about my other post?

        • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

          The problem with anything about these groups is that, aside from Josephus and the NT, there’s just a little later Rabbinical stuff (anti-Sadducee, of course – apparently there were still a few around) and some DSS mentions.

          There is some evidence that the Sadducees were basically the Hellenised priest-aristocrats, and their views were largely Epicurian – which seems consistent with their downplaying of fate.

          Nevertheless, there seems a good bit of recent scholarly opinion that doctrinally Jesus had much in common with the Pharisees, who get a much more positive image overall than they do in the gospels. It’s even been suggested that it was mainly the Shammai Pharisees who opposed Jesus (the Hillel ones being often sympathetic like Gamaliel but secretly). That’s too simple, though, since Saul was Gamaliel’s pupil and a rabid persecutor.

          More plausible is the scholar who says their opposition was not to Jesus’s doctrine primarily, but his mission… ie who he was.

          • Cal says:

            In some senses it seemed like Jesus and the Pharisees would agree (e.g. Resurrection). However, how many times did Jesus blast the Pharisees for following the commandments of men? I don’t think this is just in the failure to practice but the addition of teachings and misinterpretation of the Law and the Prophets.

            This is sort of careening from your original point. Suffice to say, I don’t think the neo-deists have really much of a shot. Even if the Sadducees had believed the time of miracles and God active in the course of Israel had ended God’s salvation of Israel out of Egypt and the giving of the Law was not ever disputed. Hardly an Epicurean.

            So I suppose I’m just sort of quibbling. I think all 3 of the sects would’ve hissed or been baffled at the notion that YHWH did not create and sustain the world. The contention was Israel’s role and the Messiah.

          • Cal says:

            Addendum: I guess it should be stated that God interacting in the world (whether or not continuously) implies a freedom of the Lord over and above the Human will. No one asked YHWH whether it was ok or not to liberate Israelites and destroy all the gods of Egypt in the process.

  2. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    You have taken an interesting approach to the subject of fate, free-will and the various opinions during the time of Christ. As is so often the case, a thorough treatment would require a great deal of study to, for example, understand the impact of Hellenic thinking after Alexander the Great – I note that the Macedonian Prince of Egypt had the OT translated by 70 scholars into Greek (Josephus goes into some detail). What interests me is the distinction into three outlooks re the Jews, while Hellenics had a plethora of philosophical opinions, perhaps with Plato and Aristotle considered prominent. I think the Greeks liked amalgamating and mixing various outlooks, perhaps to enable a philosopher to claim originality and prominence.

    I often ask myself how our current thinking has been influenced by this amalgamation – this is just a thought that may interest you and others. I think that we may need to spend as much time differentiating our ‘mixed’ views we have picked up through modern education, from those taught in the new testament. Orthodoxy has been the big effort in this area, but we may need to continue in that tradition.

  3. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi GD

    The Josephus stuff just seemed relevant information worth sharing. It’s inevitable, I guess, that Christianity will always take up some of the colour from the surrounding culture – which is actually a good thing, in that the Lord sent the gospel from Jerusalem out to all nations (geographically and temporally), rather than having us all learn Hebrew and be circumcised.

    That’s why I’ve been sympathetic in these posts to the differing philosophical spins put on things by Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and so on.

    But as I’m sure you agree, the touchstone is still Scripture, which refuses to mould itself to any one philosophy but critiques them all. In that way (speaking as non-Orthodox, you understand) heeding the tradition of the Church is a way, as some have put it, of not privileging the present generation over the voice of the whole Church … yet it needs to be assessed as carefully as modern thought for any cultural bias that takes it away from Scriptural truth.

    Until the Day comes, we’re bound to “see through a glass, darkly.”

  4. Avatar photo GD says:

    Hi Jon,

    The statement, ” the touchstone is still Scripture..” is about as orthodox as any of us can get – my comments were more of a response to your recent post(s), which have got me thinking about a truly wide range of issues/matters, and the increasing realisation on how my (and our) thinking is shaped by what and how we have been taught. The reference (oblique) by Cal to Hegel acted as a catalyst – indeed this philosopher has exerted influence esp. to European thinking, and his followers have taken turns that seem sheer madness at times. But back to the Gospel, yes until that Day …..

  5. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Over many years now I’ve been convinced that the greatest purpose of Scripture is to steep us in a godly and Spirit-imbued worldview that at every point challenges whatever cultural or subcultural biases we’ve acquired.

    That means, of course, steeping ourselves in Scripture (a good old Evangelical habit) and consciously getting into the habit of saying, “What does this say, as opposed to what I’ve always assumed it says.” After that there’s a hermeneutic process of seeing how what it actually says interacts with what we actually do/believe and requires it to change. It’s a lot more of a universal acid than mere evolution.

    One example of that is in preaching, where the habit of many seems to be to decide what you want to say and then find a Scripture to support it (more or less loosely). If you instead start from a passage of Scripture, or better still a whole book, and ask what it’s saying, it usually changes what you wanted to say anyway.

    In one sense, of course, that’s Hegelian – there’s an ever-changing synthesis of what Scripture tells us and what we’re ready to listen to as yet.

    • Avatar photo GD says:


      I am going ‘of topic’, but I view Hegelian thinking as negation and placing our meaningful concepts in a strange dialectic, so that to, for example, speak of what is noble, we must descend into the debauched and deranged ….. I understand some may view Hegelian outlook as a more benign: thesis – antithesis – synthesis; however from what I have been able to render comprehensible, Hegel had a far wider view of his outlook and his followers continue to descend into the absurd.

      I instead take the view that we rediscover the meaning of the Gospels by obtaining understanding from the words and language that we are ‘steeped’ in. The writings of the Gospel and Epistles remain the same, but they are also translated into each of the Bibles we use. We read these words and seek to go beyond these into the meaning communicated by the Apostles and ultimately we understand what Christ means. This removes the ‘curtain’ while we look through that dark glass – however the services and the communal worship are also very important in this baptism.

      I am not as familiar with preaching, and most of the time, I consider the service performed by the priest as part of the overall process of conversion and worship. However I understand those in the evangelical tradition have a more active role in preaching and pastoral care.

  6. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Yup – I was certainly not endorsing Hegelian philosophy overall (it’s always a bit worrying when people endorse any thinker totally – we all get some stuff wrong).

    What happened to preaching in Orthodoxy? John Chrysostom did it so well, and Gregory Palamas! Proclamation and teaching of the word is so basic to Reformation thinking that it’s hard to imagine life without it – though back in the day here it was largely the lack of preaching in the mediaeval Catholic Church that led to John Wyclif and the Lollards, who did nothing else. It was such a lost χαρισμα that, come the Reformation in England, they had to send out a book of Homilies to the churches – less to ensure conformity than to ensure preaching.

    I have a 1687 copy, of which the very first is “A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading of Holy Scripture.” Good stuff:

  7. seenoevo says:


    “What happened to preaching in Orthodoxy? …Proclamation and teaching of the word is so basic to Reformation thinking that it’s hard to imagine life without it … come the Reformation in England, they had to send out a book of Homilies to the churches – less to ensure conformity than to ensure preaching.”

    I find it a bit strange for a Protestant/evangelical/reformed/whatever to bemoan a supposed dearth of preaching.

    Why would such a person even need or expect preaching at his weekly church time? Virtually everyone there already considers himself a Christian and has a Bible. And if a few in attendance don’t fit that mold, about the only preaching they’ll need is “Go buy a Bible and read it!”

    After all, one of the five “solae” is Sola Scriptura (a “sola” found nowhere in the Scriptura itself), and none of them is Sola Sermon.

    What’s the big deal about preaching, especially “preaching to the choir”?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Dear me Seenoevo

      I take it then that your own use of Scripture is entirely what you make it out to be yourself, since you suggest preaching and teaching are unnecessary. I have to say, it shows.

      OK, Paul tells Timothy, managing the church or churches in Ephesus: “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.”

      In the next chapter he says, “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

      In 2 Tim 2 he tells Timothy to entrust his teaching to reliable men who will be able to teach others.

      In Ephesians 4 he lists evangelists, prophets and teachers after apostles and prophets as those appointed by God to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.

      In Philippians 1.18 he even puts the importance of preaching Christ above the bad motives of those who were doing it, and in Romans 10 that people will not believe unless someone is sent to preach to them.

      James warns that not many of us should become teachers because teachers will be judged more strictly – but not that teaching is unnecessary.

      In Acts 2 the new church devoted its life to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers (in that order). The two categories of people in authority mentioned at Antioch in 13 are prophets and teachers.

      In the Old Testament the priests were specifically commissioned to teach the Law of God to the people and remind them of it continually, a practice that continued weekly in the synagogues in Jesus’s time.

      The Patristic Church is full of preaching and teaching and even descriptions of worship like that of Irenaeus:
      “And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.”

      And so it is that Evangelicals have preferred to follow the teaching and example set in those early days to your advice to “Go and buy a Bible and read it.” The church with which I was longest associated has grown from about 100 members to nearly 400 over the last 25 years, because we didn’t assume that everybody knew everything and there probably weren’t unbelievers there anyway.

  8. seenoevo says:

    I can understand the intense focus on this supposed puzzle of freedom/autonomy vs. predestination/providence. I think 7 of the last 8 blog articles are on this subject.

    This fills a great need in the church. For so very many are perplexed by Christ’s words and warnings, such as

    “And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, AS YOU DID it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ “Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, AS YOU DID it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” [Mat 25:40, 45-46]

    “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, THOSE WHO HAVE DONE GOOD, to the resurrection of life, and THOSE WHO HAVE DONE EVIL, to the resurrection of judgment.” [John 5:28-29]

    “DO?”, the poor stupid sheep ask. “ME do?”

    Doesn’t Christ mean “As God MADE YOU DO”? and “Those who have DONE GOOD, THE GOOD WHICH GOD FORCED THEM TO DO”?

    “Why these words, why these warnings, if we have no choice in the matter?”, they bay.

    “This is SO confusing”, they bleat.

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      You seem prone to do a lot of preaching. Is this how you use the freedom God grants to all of us?

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      If you stick around, Seeonevo, you’ll see that my blogs sometimes try to follow through trains of thought in some depth.

      Despite the last 7 blogs being about freedom and sovereignty, you seem not to have progressed beyond total incomprehension of what is being discussed, and certainly have a very poor understanding even of the official Catholic doctrine of grace, from which as one small example I quote (from your Catechism):

      2001 The preparation of man for the reception of grace is already a work of grace. This latter is needed to arouse and sustain our collaboration in justification through faith, and in sanctification through charity. God brings to completion in us what he has begun, “since he who completes his work by cooperating with our will began by working so that we might will it:”50

      Indeed we also work, but we are only collaborating with God who works, for his mercy has gone before us. It has gone before us so that we may be healed, and follows us so that once healed, we may be given life; it goes before us so that we may be called, and follows us so that we may be glorified; it goes before us so that we may live devoutly, and follows us so that we may always live with God: for without him we can do nothing.51

      God’s grace began, it says, by working so that we might will to be justified. That is no more or less coercive than grace in Reformed theology – both avoid the failure to realise that God’s creative power exercised in his creatures cannot be coercive, for in him they live and move and have their being. You’re making exactly the same category error that the theistic evolutionsists make when they too bleat about nature being coerced by God instead of being left to itself.

      Your thinking is desperately close to Charles Finney’s frank and folksy Pelagianism, so I’m not surprised that James found it hard to accept you might be a Catholic rather than a Fundamentalist from a church that has lost sight of the need for sound teaching.

      Which, I suppose, means that I need to do another 7 blogs on it – I rather thought I’d done enough.

  9. seenoevo says:


    “You seem prone to do a lot of preaching.”

    Preaching? Well, I guess if you consider asking a lot of questions to be “preaching”, then, yes.

    I ask a lot of basic, logical questions that no one here seems to be able to answer.

    “Is this how you use the freedom God grants to all of us?”

    Why don’t you ask that of Jon?

    You could phrase it like this:
    “You seem prone to write a lot of articles on whether or not we have free will. Is this how you use the freedom God grants to all of us?”

    • Avatar photo GD says:

      A lot of scripture and perhaps argumentative comments/questions – yes. I cannot see many logical, basic questions that do much to further useful dialogue – but perhaps you do not need to account for these, since you may disagree with various people including Jon, James and perhaps others.

      Why not make comments that you think may add to the content of the posts by Jon? I think this is a logical and basic question that I can ask you.

  10. In response to ‘Mine to foreknow, yours to find out’ and subsequent posts – due to work commitments (and being, perhaps, a Bear of very small brain) I’m a slow responder.

    Jon, I have studied your expositions of the word proginosko and followed the texts through in my Nestle’s interlinear. I see how you have reached you conclusions, but I disagree with them. Taking Acts 2.23, I see that ‘set purpose’ or ‘fixed counsel’ is determinative, but not that the foreknowledge of people or events is determinative. Why conflate the meaning of two expressions simply because they are juxtaposed? He both determined and He also knew.
    In 1 Peter 1.20 the KJV translation ‘foreordained’ is eisegetical. Christ was known before the foundation of the world. Now He is manifested to us. There is no requirement for foreknown to be translated foreordained (even though He was also foreordained).
    Hal Harless’ word study is very helpful, especially on the relational aspect of foreknowledge. I am swayed towards the views taken by Wesley and Vine (to whom I first went to study this).
    One of the problems we encounter in discussion is the limitations of language. Is ‘passive’ the best way to describe foreknowledge that is not inherently determinative? I think not. After all, ‘active’ foreknowledge does not necessarily infer determinism.

    On freedom and choice:

    Sometimes I hear people say, “God is in control”, usually when circumstances have become difficult.
    Are they correct? Perhaps they sometimes are, but all too often I think, “No, God is not in control in this circumstance”.
    Is God in control of the tsunami that wipes out thousands of people, or the suicide bomber who blows up thirty people in a café, or the malaria parasite laden mosquitoes which kill millions every year? I say He is not in control of these things. Equally, I say He is not in control of every detail of our lives unless and until we submit to His Lordship in every area.

    God has devolved His authority to govern the earth to man kind (Genesis 1.28, Psalm 115.16).
    He has given us the power to choose life or death, blessings or cursings (Deuteronomy 30.19). Choice would not be choice if it was predetermined – it would be a sham.
    Jesus said that a similar fate to those who died at the tower of Siloam (Luke 13.4) awaits us if we do not repent. We have a choice, and what happens is contingent upon that, not on some pre-ordained divine disaster plan.

    Not everything that happens on earth is part of God’s will and purpose. This is easy to demonstrate:
    1Timothy 2.4 ‘God wants all men to be save and come to a knowledge of the truth’.
    2Peter 3.9 ‘He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’.
    Unless I am very much mistaken, not everyone is saved and some do perish despite the fact that Christ died for the sins of the whole world. So God’s will has not been done in those cases. He is not in control of them, else they would be saved as He wills. How can God’s purpose thus be thwarted? Because He has devolved to us the power to choose a course that is contrary to His will, if we wish.

    Finally, Matthew 6.9, the disciples are instructed to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. If God’s will was being done on earth, that instruction would be superfluous.

  11. seenoevo says:


    Yes, that sure is a lot of talk of preaching (and teaching). Even by the Patristic Fathers, who vouched for 7 sacraments, no more and no less, and foremost of which was the Eucharist, the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

    But even earlier than the Patristic Fathers, emphasis was placed not so much on preaching, but on WHO was doing the preaching:

    “But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, KNOWING FROM WHOM YOU LEARNED IT” [2 Tim 3:14].
    (Other examples: Phil 4:9; Col 1:7; 1 Thes 4:1.)

    But all that preaching (and teaching) was BEFORE they had a Bible. For a long time now, just about anyone can have their very own copy of that 72-book tome. So, no more need for preaching/teaching. The Bible preaches/teaches itself. Or at least it does if you and the Holy Spirit try hard enough. Sola Scriptura.

    “Sola Sermon” is no longer necessary, just as the Church (e.g. Acts 16:4-5; 1 Tim 3:15) is no longer needed. (And some here have said with their silence that it no longer exists).

    Cause you got your Bible.

  12. seenoevo says:


    You write to me:

    “… you seem not to have progressed beyond total incomprehension of what is being discussed, and certainly have a very poor understanding even of the official Catholic doctrine of grace … Your thinking is desperately close to Charles Finney’s frank and folksy Pelagianism … lost sight of the need for sound teaching.”

    Regarding “sound teaching”, see again my words above on WHO is doing the “sound teaching”.

    Regarding my “total incomprehension”, how far off would you say these impromptu words of mine were?
    “God knows all things, including what the future holds. Predestination does NOT mean only that God knows what your future destiny is. Predestination more importantly means your destiny is PREDETERMINED by God such that you have NO CHOICE, NO FREE-WILL DECISION and action in the matter. If Predestination is true, what’s the point of Christ’s incarnation and preaching and death, what’s the point of following his commands to grow in virtue and preach and evangelize? If Predestination is true, WHAT’S THE POINT OF ANYTHING?”
    “My own definition above of Predestination included the absence of human free-will decision. (I did NOT make explicit something else which I also believe: This “free-will”, like everything else, IS a gift from God (i.e. grace), and our proper exercise of it ALSO requires grace. NEVERTHELESS, we DO exercise the free-will to some mysterious extent on our own and apart from God’s influence. It is a mystery to me, and I think to the CC. Bottom-line: God does NOT force us or program us like robots. He does NOT pre-program us, he does NOT “predestine” us. I didn’t make all this explicit earlier because I didn’t think I would need to. I probably assumed too much.”

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      ‘Regarding my “total incomprehension”, how far off would you say these impromptu words of mine were?’

      “Completely” would be roughly my assessment of how far off they are. I wouldn’t let anyone whose view of predestination was so much of a pastiche straw man teach it to my worst enemy. Given that you’ve said it in contradiction of even your own Catechism, I’d be inclined to consider you unteachable.

  13. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Peter

    Thanks for replying. My purpose in answering the points you raised was to give an answer, and your further replies to it really mean “job done” as far as I am concerned – we’ve aired the opposing viewpoints and people can weigh them on their strengths.

    So my further comments here are really supererogatory.

    In Acts 2.23 the case for joining “determination” and “foreknowledge” is grammatical – both govern the verb “delivered up”. How does “foreknowledge” contribute to delivering up? In any case, even without the foreknowledge, God’s determination delivered Jesus up: he only foresaw what evil men would do given his actively making it possible and willing the outcome in Christ’s passion.

    Your arguments on freedom and choice seem, to me, to follow philosophical reasoning rather than Scriptural teaching – which was the point of what I was saying in the series on autonomy.

    For example, I can match each instance you give of God’s not being the sort who “ought” to control terrible things, with direct Scripture references that he does: as for tsunamis, God sent the Flood, but if that is an exception he also washed away the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. As for the suicide bomber, Pilate’s massacre of worshippers in the Temple is described in parable by Jesus as God having the gardener dig around a dead tree to produce repentance before all likewise perish. As regards malaria, I already gave you a list of references to God’s causing plagues, and for Israel freedom from the diseases of Egypt was contingent on obedience, not mosquito control.

    Of disasters in general, in Isaiah 45 God says he creates that as well as prosperity, and of course in the NT Revelation speaks of “the last disasters, because after them, God’s anger is finished.”

    Similarly “Choice would not be choice if it was predetermined – it would be a sham” is a philosophical judgement not shared by generations of interpreters of Scripture including Augustine, the Council of Orange, Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Luther, Calvin, and the other first generation Reformers, George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, C H Spurgeon … who all believed that the concurrence of God’s will and man’s will was what is taught in Scripture, and accounted for it in various ways, but not by pronouncing it intrinsically impossible or unjust.

    A further point about Romans. At various points “objectors” raise questions about the “injustice” of God’s acting or his own reasons rather than according to man’s will or effort. And Paul’s answer is to tell them not to question God, leaving their objections unanswered – when, it seems, it would have been a lot easier and clearer for him to reply, “Hey guys – relax – not even God can influence with your free choices, or they wouldn’t be your choices, right?” That would have been obvious for Paul to say – unless, in fact, it weren’t true.

    And the texts in 1 Tim and 2 Pet have at least 700 years of discussion which I won’t repeat in depth. For example Aquinas accounts for 1Timothy 2.4 by distinguishing God’s antecedent and consequent will. The same can be true of 1 Peter 3.9, but additionally it has been pointed out that it says God is patient with “you”, the paragraph being addressed to “dear friends” and the letter to recipients of the faith, rather than to mankind in general. So both these, and comparable texts, are liable to different interpretations. They need to be harmonised with, rather than balanced against, the passages in Scripture that clearly teach God’s determining will.

    • Thanks, Jon.
      As you say, we will have to agree to differ.
      Perhaps, however, you could comment on my final paragraph about the disciple’s prayer – do you think we should pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? And does the fact that such a prayer was taught by Jesus have any implications with respect our understanding of whether or not God’s will is being done on earth?

      • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

        Sure Peter – sorry to omit it. I’d draw on something like the Aquinas distinction I mentioned before. God’s aim is to unite all things together in Christ, including that mankind should be living in willing obedience to God’s law, AKA “freedom” in the biblical sense.

        The present state is that God (in Christ) is still Lord of Lords and actively reigning over every name (Phil 2.9), but men choose to disobey his law and are culpable for that.

        That God’s overarching purpose foresees and encompasses that rebellion (so it is within his providential will) doesn’t make the reality of a Creation at one with his character and with its God-given nature any less his purpose.

        Analogies are misleading because God is unique, but one might compare it to a man whose will is to climb Everest, even though he anticipates, and expects with certainty, hazards, diversions, even repeated attempts, because the adventure is part of the purpose.

        So if we want his will fulfilled, we don’t lend him a helicopter, but hope that he overcomes the foreseen difficulties.

        In God’s case, the Scripture seems to imply (and many theologians like Augustine have believed) that in God’s secret wisdom, to bring good from evil is a greater good than to prevent evil ever arising. One instance of that is that the New Jerusalem will be better than Eden ever was.

        So in one sense God commanded, and so willed, for Adam to remain obedient. In another sense of “will” he foreordained the work of Christ (even before Creation) to deal with the sin he foresaw and bring all under his Son in his greater purpose.

        So when we pray the Lord’s prayer, it’s that God will bring more and more of humankind (especially) into conformity with his law of love – and maybe briong justice on the impenitent, since justice is also expressed as God’s will.

        • Cal says:

          Jumping in for a quick one:

          While Calvin fumed at the word, I think a certain kind of “permission” language should be granted instead of two wills. Otherwise we seem to put something outside the will of God infleshed, the Christ. This is how you get Luther waving his hands when people asked about election, it was a scary topic for him. Granted, it’s a sort of active-permission, but it makes more sense than a “hidden will” that’s outside of Christ.


          • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

            Cal, despite the specificity my own position, I’m actually pretty flexible on the ways different people account for the Scriptural data, recognising it’s about the deep things of God. What bugs me is when Scripture is sidelined or explained away on the basis of human judgements about what God “ought” to do.

            Still, I’m not sure that we’re talking about a “hidden” will, since both aspects are openly presented simply as God’s will, leaving the paradox intact.

            However we resolve the texts, God does say the words “…who wants all men to be saved, and to come to a knowledge of the truth,” and he also says, just as plainly, “What if God, wanting to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the vessels of his wrath – prepared for destruction.”

            I don’t think any of that will is outside Christ, any more than predestination is (see today’s post!) – assuming we accept final judgement, every knee will bow before Christ either in salvation or judgement, to his glory… and that glory is the final purpose of God.

        • Thanks for that, Jon. Allow me one parting shot 🙂

          The idea of ‘two wills’, of which one is ‘permissive’, appears to be philosophical rather than Scriptural.
          The two types of will that Jesus knew of were human will, including His own (‘not my will’) and His Father’s will (‘but yours be done’).
          Evidently Jesus thought that God’s will was not fully being done on earth and it seems to me (again) that we should define and use words in the way that Scripture does – that is, if Jesus says God’s will isn’t being done on earth then it isn’t – and I conclude that we should not redefine God’s will as including the things that He condemns but permits (so that according to us His will *is* being done on earth).

          I find it simpler as well as consistent with Scripture to believe that God is well able to accomodate, indeed employ, in His eternal purpose the things He neither approves nor wills. Perhaps we are splitting hairs, but I suspect not.

          • Cal says:

            One rejoinder 🙂 :

            The language of Permission comes through in passages like Romans 1 (Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts), the Spirit of God withdrawing etc.

            “I find it simpler as well as consistent with Scripture to believe that God is well able to accomodate, indeed employ, in His eternal purpose the things He neither approves nor wills. ”

            That’s not contradictory to the concept of Providence. God actively permits (‘not a sparrow falls outside of the Father’s care’) Joseph’s brothers to betray him, so that he will do a greater good. God works all things to the good of those that love him. That’s the distinction. They may not all accord to His will, but they are in his hands regardless, being refashioned.

  14. seenoevo says:

    Good points, Peter.

    • Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:

      Just for interest, a quote from St Thomas Aquinas which is (a) Catholic (b) from an expository sermon and (c) teaches (supernatural) grace and predestination as preceding free choice: claiming “free will” to constitute grace is straight Pelagianism, anathematised at the Council of Orange, as I will show when I get round to posting on that council:

      703. Regarding the order between foreknowledge and predestination some say that foreknowledge of good and of evil merits is the reason for predestination and reprobation, in the sense that God predestines certain ones, because he foresees that they will act well and believe in Christ. According to this the present text reads: “Those whom he foreknew to be conformed to the image of his Son, he also predestined.”
      This interpretation would be reasonable, if predestination were restricted to eternal life which is bestowed for merits. But under predestination falls every salutary benefit prepared for man from all eternity by God; hence all the benefits he confers on us in time he prepared for us from all eternity. Hence, to claim that some merit on our part is presupposed, the foreknowledge of which is the reason for predestination, is nothing less than to claim that grace is given because of our merits, and that the source of our good works is from us and their consummation from God.
      Hence, it is more suitable to interpret the present text as stating that those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. Then this conformity is not the reason for predestination, but its terminus or effect. For the Apostle says: “He destined us to be his adopted sons through Jesus Christ” (Eph 1:5).

      Aquinas on Romans 8.29

  15. seenoevo says:


    Me: “Regarding my “total incomprehension”, how far off would you say these impromptu words of mine were (in my 2:31 p.m. post)?”

    You: “Completely” would be roughly my assessment of how far off they are. I wouldn’t let anyone whose view of predestination was so much of a pastiche straw man teach it to my worst enemy. Given that you’ve said it in contradiction of even your own Catechism, I’d be inclined to consider you unteachable.”

    This one should be easy for you, since you consider everything in my 2:31 p.m. post to be wrong (or at least my statements are in your words “completely” off.).

    Would you please pick out one thing I said that is in conflict with the Catechism or Aquinas, and explain why it’s in conflict? Because I don’t see what you’re talking about.

  16. seenoevo says:


    Touché. Well done.

    One can learn so much from one whose rejoinders consist of cries of “incoherent”, “total incomprehension”, and “pastiche straw man”.

    Just like the tactic so often employed by liberals when they’re losing an argument. Don’t deal with the arguments and questions themselves. Just call them incoherent or straw men. Or ignore them. Or divert attention to some other topic. Or resort to ad hominem. Anything but legitimately and logically address the arguments and questions.

  17. Avatar photo Jon Garvey says:


    Cal used the last nestbox! I agree that “two wills” ideas are philosophical – underlines my point that to go beyond Scriptural paradox requires philosophy, with its risks.

    Your final para makes sense, yet we still have the paradox with verses like Rom 9.9, “Who can resist his will?” alluding to verses like Dan 4.35: “He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of earth. No-one can hold back his hand or say to him, “What have you done”; or Ps 115.3, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him”; Ps 135.6, “The Lord does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths”; and of course Eph. 1.11 , “…the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…”.

    Similarly, when Paul in Acts 21 insists on going to Jerusalem despite prophecies that he will be wickedly bound, handed over and maybe executed, the believers (including the writer) say, “The Lord’s will be done,” clearly suggesting that it may well be (and probably is) God’s will that this happen. God does not will evil acts, which come from the Jews and Gentiles involved, but he doesn’t simply use stuff that’s inevitable – he sends Paul (willingly) into a situation that he could easily avoid, and the TOTALITY of the situation is, to the saints, “God’s will.”

    Another limited human analogy based on your last para. As Allied commander I plan the D-Day landings, with the purpose of winning the war. Even without divine foreknowledge, I know that strong resistance will lead to many losses of my men from the enemy. Do I will their deaths? Directly, no, but if I absolutely willed their survival, I could call off D-Day. Were I to lose too many, or fail in the attack, my critics would blame me, not the Germans, for the cost of my plan – I went into it having calculated, and accepted, the evil that would ensue. And in that sense, I “permissively will” the death of my own men as part of my “active will” to end the war.

    But what if one of my cunning plans is to use false Intelligence to fool some Germans that an approaching German tank column is one of mine, so they bomb it? I’ve incited them to an act of killing that otherwise would never have happened at all – they’d have offered them tea had I kept quiet. I still didn’t will their antipathy to what they thought were Allied forces – but I did will its result, once more subordinated to the final goal of ending the war.

    There are direct parallels to that in Scripture, such as 1 Kings 12.12-15.

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