Mormon Monday: Foreordination, not Predestination

I’ve been wanting to write this one for a couple of weeks now, but haven’t found the time.

I still haven’t found the time to do it justice, but luckily someone has already done it more justice than I could do in a reasonable amount of time.

It is rather long, and refreshingly scholarly (as compared to the palaver one generally gets on my blog), but, I think, well worth the read.  It is especially worth the read if you’ve ever wondered how free will and predestination can both apply to you at the same time (answer: they can’t).

So, get comfy, grab a drink, there will be no laughter-induced beverage spewing today, I promise.

For those who don’t have the time or inclination to read the whole long thing, here is (my version of) the Cliff’s Notes:

Predestination, as generally understood, denies a person’s free will, or freedom to choose his/her own course of action/destiny.  It is, basically, the belief that God has already determined what will happen.  Foreordination is the belief that God has appointed us to carry out certain tasks/accomplish certain things while in this life, but whether or not we do that is up to us.  Whether or not we do that to which we have been foreordained  is based on our faith, our worthiness, our willingness to seek His guidance and follow His will.

*End Elaine’s Cliff’s Notes*  On to the article I linked above:

“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Dec 1990, 29–31

Questions of general interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy

Romans 8:29–30 seems to indicate that Paul believed in predestination. Did he?

Eldon R. Taylor, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, Dec. 1990, 29–31

Eldon R. Taylor, retired administrative assistant, Church Educational System; and Gospel Essentials teacher, Mapleton Third Ward, Mapleton Utah Stake.Romans 8:29–30 states: “Whom [God] did foreknow, he also did predestinate, … them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified.”

This passage has disturbed many students of the New Testament—and rightly so. It seems to teach that an all-powerful God has predetermined the destinies of every individual. Perhaps the most well-known advocate of this idea was John Calvin, a sixteenth-century French minister. On the subject, he wrote, “We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he determined within himself what he willed to become of each man. … Eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.” 1

Calvinists claimed that once a person’s destiny was divinely decreed, it was irrevocable: “Angels and men, thus predestinated and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed; and their number is so certain and definite that it can not be either increased or diminished.” 2

To Latter-day Saints, the idea of predestination is unscriptural. Not only does it deny what Paul and other prophets taught about agency, but it also limits God’s love to only a select few. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith stated emphatically that “no person is ever predestined to salvation or damnation. Every person has free agency.” 3 Similarly, the Book of Mormon prophet Jacob taught that “one being is as precious in [God’s] sight as the other.” (Jacob 2:21.)

The problem with the idea of predestination, as C. H. Dodd put it, is that it “sets the ground of a man’s hope of salvation entirely outside himself.” 4 Elder James E. Talmage also denounced the concept of predestination, saying that it makes us merely “automatons,” 5 acting out a predetermined destiny decreed by God.

The problem is one of definition and interpretation. Many Christian churches regard the words predestine and foreordain as synonymous. 6 However, our modern-day Church leaders have distinguished between them. Predestination is not a part of Latter-day Saint doctrine; foreordination is.

The Prophet Joseph Smith clearly taught that individuals were foreordained in premortality to certain missions in mortality. “Every man who has a calling to minister to the inhabitants of the world was ordained to that very purpose in the Grand Council in Heaven before this world was,” 7 he wrote.

Several scriptures refer to foreordination; they tell us that Abraham was “chosen” before he was born (Abr. 3:23) and that Jeremiah was “ordained … a prophet unto the nations” before his birth. (Jer. 1:5.) The Book of Mormon says that others were also “called and prepared from the foundation of the world according to the foreknowledge of God, on account of their exceeding faith and good works.” (Alma 13:3.)

Elder Bruce R. McConkie wrote that “the Lord foreordained chosen spirit children in pre-existence and assigned them to come to earth at particular times and places so that they might aid in furthering his divine will. These pre-existence appointments, made ‘according to the foreknowledge of God the Father’ (1 Pet. 1:2), simply designated certain individuals to perform missions which the Lord in his wisdom knew they had the talent and capacities to do.” 8

Foreordination is thus different from predestination. There is no divine compulsion to ensure that a person who is foreordained to a particular calling will fulfill his or her tasks.

Why, then, does Paul speak of predestination? Could he possibly have meant foreordination, and could his original words have been translated incorrectly?

To discover what Paul meant in Romans 8:29–30 [Rom. 8:29–30], we must study his other writings. In his letter to Timothy, Paul wrote that God “will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4; italics added.) 9

Paul’s lifelong labor among the Gentiles is evidence that he believed that God loved all people and that salvation was available to all who would come unto Christ, repent, be baptized, and keep the commandments. Paul wrote that “the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, … and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel” (Eph. 3:6) and that “by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles” (1 Cor. 12:13.)

Paul told the Galatians, “As many of you as have been baptized unto Christ have put on Christ. … And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:27–29.) 10

On the questions of agency and accountability, Paul taught that God “will render to every man according to his deeds. … For there is no respect of persons with God.” (Rom. 2:6–11.) 11

In the same letter, Paul told the Romans that their conduct would determine their eternal reward: “Know ye not … his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?” (Rom. 6:16.)

Paul’s letters also make it clear that “the elect” can fall from grace and thus lose their reward. (See Rom. 11:17–21.) In fact, Paul claimed no guarantee of his own salvation; one of his favorite themes was the necessity of holding “stedfast unto the end.” (Heb. 3:14; see also 1 Cor. 9:27.) Such constant exhortations to righteousness would hardly seem necessary if he had believed that human beings did not help determine their own eternal destinies by their conduct during mortality.

From these scriptures, it seems clear that Paul did not believe in predestination—at least as a Calvinist defines the term. But then, we might ask, did Paul believe in and teach the doctrine of foreordination—as we define the term?

Again, to find out, we need to study Paul’s writings. He himself said that he had been set apart “before [he] was born.” (Gal. 1:15, Revised Standard Version.) 12 He wrote to Timothy of their “holy calling” given “before the world began.” (2 Tim. 1:9.) To the Ephesians, he said that the Lord “hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world” to receive the gospel and its blessings. (Eph. 1:3–5.) 13 He told the Thessalonian members that “God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth.” (2 Thes. 2:13.) Indeed, all people are foreordained to salvation and exaltation, but to fulfill that foreordination they must accept the ordinances of the gospel, keep the commandments, and endure to the end.

But if Paul did not believe in predestination, why does the passage in Hebrews refer to it? Could those who translated the King James Version have erred in using the English word predestinate to convey the meaning of foreordain?

Possibly. The problem arises because the Greek word proorizo, which is made up of the prefix pro (meaning “before or in front of; beforehand, or earlier”) 14 and the verb orizo (meaning “to determine, mark out, designate, destine, ordain, or appoint,” or “to divide or separate from … to pre-appoint or pre-ordain)” 15 can be translated a number of different ways. In fact, various combinations of words have been used to translate the term over a period covering hundreds of years. 16 The examples on page 31 come from various translations of Romans 8:29–30. Note how the same idea is translated in a number of different ways.

Translation       Year       Romans 8:29       Romans 8:30

Wyclif                        1380        bifor ordeyned          bifor ordeyned

Tyndale                    1534        ordeyned before       appoynted before

Cranmer                   1539        ordeyned before        appoynted before

Geneva                     1657         ordeyned before        appoynted before

Rheims                     1582         predestinated              predestinated

Standard Rev.       1881         foreordained                foreordained

James Moffatt      1913         decreed of old              has thus decreed

J. B. Phillips           1958        chose them                    chose them long ago

Wm. F. Beck          1963        appointed long ago   appointed long ago

New Testament     1966      had also set apart     had already set apart (in Today’s English)    

In addition to these translations, the Greek word proorizo can be translated several other ways—for example, with such English words as allotted, planned, and fore-approved. Obviously, the most correct way to translate the word cannot be determined by simply referring to a dictionary. And the word chosen may not fully or accurately convey the original author’s intent. The accuracy of any translation depends on the translator’s ability to determine what the original author had in mind and then to convey that idea to the reader in another language.

Determining what the original author meant is not a simple matter, especially when the writing was produced under inspiration. As Peter warns, “No prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” (2 Pet. 1:20–21.) Just as the authors of the scriptures sought the Spirit as they wrote, so must we as we study the scriptures if we are to understand them.

From the tenor of Paul’s letter, we may determine that the English word predestinate does not accurately convey what Paul meant in Romans 8:29–30. What, then, did he mean? To understand that, we need to look at the verses in context. In verses 4 through 6, Paul tells members to “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. … For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” 17 In verses 14 through 17 [Rom. 8:14–17], he explains, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. … We are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.” In verse 24 [Rom. 8:24], Paul explains the need for hope in order to attain promised blessings, 18 and in verse 28 [Rom. 8:28], he says that “all things work together for good to them that love God” and who are foreordained to accept the gospel and become like Christ.

Further, those who are thus foreordained are “justified,” “sanctified,” and “glorified” (see Rom. 8:30) through receiving the saving ordinances of the gospel and obeying the commandments—which is Paul’s theme throughout his epistles. 19

Overall, Paul’s teachings cannot be reconciled with the concept of Calvinistic predestination, and to translate proorizo as predestinate does not accurately convey the Apostle’s intended meaning.

This point raises another question. If the word predestinate does not accurately convey Paul’s original meaning, why didn’t the Prophet Joseph Smith correct the passage when he worked on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible?

Perhaps he was concerned with other things and he simply bypassed it. Nephi tells us that Lehi overlooked a significant element in his vision of the tree of life because his mind was “swallowed up in other things.” (1 Ne. 15:27.) Or perhaps the Prophet defined the word predestinate in his own mind as we define foreordain. The Prophet once spent more than two hours discussing the question of election and said that “unconditional election of individuals to eternal life was not taught by the Apostles. God did elect or predestinate, that all those who would be saved, should be saved in Christ Jesus, and through obedience to the Gospel; but He passes over no man’s sins, … and if His children will not repent of their sins He will discard them.” 20

In summary, Paul did not believe in predestination as Calvinists have defined the word. It has been his interpreters who have confused the doctrine. Paul himself taught that God loves all his children and has offered salvation to all who come unto Christ and are justified and sanctified through obedience to the covenants they make with him.

1. Institutes of Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1957, 3:21:7.

2. “The Westminster Confession of Faith” in Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols., 6th ed., Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker House Books, 1931, 3:608.

3. Doctrines of Salvation, 3 vols., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954, 1:61.

4. The Epistle of Paul to the Romans, vol. 6 of The Moffatt New Testament Commentary, ed. James Moffatt, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1932.

5. The Vitality of Mormonism, Boston: The Gorham Press, Deseret News Press, 1919, p. 318.

6. Even Webster’s Dictionary defines foreordain as “to dispose or appoint in advance: PREDESTINE.” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Springfield, Mass.: Merriam Webster, Inc., p. 483, s.v., “foreordain.”)

7. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1977, p. 365.

8. Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966, p. 290. Elder McConkie stated that President Spencer W. Kimball was foreordained to be President of the Church “in the grand council when God himself was there.” (Ensign, May 1974, p. 72.)

9. Here Paul’s counsel echoes Nephi’s, that the Lord “inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; … all are alike unto God.” (2 Ne. 26:33.)

10. Note the harmony between Paul’s teachings and those of King Benjamin: “Because of the covenant which ye have made ye shall be called the children of Christ, his sons, and his daughters; for behold, this day he hath spiritually begotten you.” (Mosiah 5:7.)

11. This, too, agrees with Book of Mormon teachings about agency: “Wherefore, men are free … to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil.” (2 Ne. 2:27.)

12. The New Testament, Revised Standard Version, New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1946, p. 402.

13. Here and in verse 11 we find other references to predestination—the context of which implies that Paul did not teach predestination, but foreordination, just as he probably did in Rom. 8:29–30. The confusion between the words may be the result of inaccurate translation.

14. Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.

15. See Arndt and Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1957; Moulton and Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1952.

16. See Acts 4:27–28; 1 Cor. 2:7.

17. See also Mosiah 3:16.

18. Other statements about the importance of hope can be found in 2 Ne. 31:20; Ether 12:4, 8, 28, 32; and Moro. 7.

19. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained that “all members of the Lord’s earthly church—all are participants in the blessings of foreordination.” (Ensign, May 1974, p. 72.)

20. History of the Church, 7 vols., 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1949, 4:360.

And George, if you’re out there, Tewt the Newt can’t believe you read this far.

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4 thoughts on “Mormon Monday: Foreordination, not Predestination

  1. LilolaDenvers

    In my previous (nonLDS) life, I attended the generic Protestant services in the base chapel or, when not living on base, the main stream Protestant denomination for which predestination was an essential doctrine. About the age of 16, my Sunday School teacher taught us that doctrine. It made no sense to me, in fact, I thought it was complete lunacy. So I asked him how he knew it was true. His response changed my life forever.

    He said, “It is what I believe. I don’t know that it’s true – the people down the street could have the truth. This is what I believe.”

    I never went back and looked back.


  2. rainbowmom

    Honestly, I hate to admit this, but I usually skip Mormon Mondays…me not being of the LDS variety. But, I want to say that predestination is always something I’ve struggled with. I am however all about foreordination. I too do not think that they are synonyms. Predestination just does not make sense to me with the whole free will that God gives us. It does limit God, and who can limit God! If something contradicts the truths of the Bible, then it has to be wrong thinking. I agree that the word Paul used has been mistranslated, skewing the concept Paul was writing about.


  3. Joy O'Neill

    Your analysis is logical and straightforward. Thank you for answering many of my questions and enabling me to teach a Sunday School lesson more intelligently.


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