[This is an enhanced and lengthened version of a previous blog for external publication. If you prefer a shorter version, you can read it here.]
Star Trek and the Prime Directive
I’m an avid Star Trek fan. I have probably seen almost every episode of each series in the franchise, and all the films so far except for maybe two. One of the major themes that occurs in Star Trek is the Prime Directive, the overarching law made by The Federation that no ships encountering a more primitive civilisation shall intervene or interfere with their culture in any way. Later on, we were introduced to the timeships, which came from a future federation, covered by a temporal Prime Directive, which forbade them from interfering in a timeline by changing events, which would affect the future. This is a recurring theme in science fiction, since the possibility of travelling back in time always carries consequences for the future. The very appearance of timeships from the future surely poses problems for the temporal Prime Directive, since who knows what that might change, considering all the possible variables present. To be able to predict accurately, one would need to know everything that was going to happen, forever. This is impossible… unless you’re God. Yeah, only God would have the ability to ‘alter a timeline’. Hold that thought…
I was introduced to the basic doctrinal argument/ debate of Calvinism v. Arminianism in Bible College: Here I’m laying aside the complexities and details of all the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ which Calvin wrote, to boil this down to the most basic debate; Calvinism is the belief that salvation is entirely down to the work and choice of God (predestination) and has nothing to do with any decision or effort on our part, since we are all incapable of saving ourselves from our inevitable all-encompassing sin, and salvation is set in stone and unalterable, whereas Arminianism is the belief that we can choose to follow Christ and then choose to stop following him. Coming from a pentecostal evangelical fold that is avidly Calvinist, I was already immersed in that theological perspective enough, and perusing over his doctrine I came to admire and respect it as a wonderfully concise and ordered theology that draws perfect little pictures from scripture; it is very easy to argue scripturally, and very hard to refute. I have never read all of his ‘Institutes’ – they’re quite extensive – but they have been boiled down and explained so precisely by his followers, there is little need to, except for his most devoted disciples. However… there were bits of it I was never comfortable with, and I sought to marry the two views, while still describing myself as in the Calvinist camp, due to the enormous amount of supporting scripture in the New Testament. What has surprised me is how much he is revered, to the point of being almost as ‘divinely inspired’ as the Holy Bible itself! There is not one school of theology that has all the truth, and certainly no theologian who has infallibility. That should be a ‘given’, yet Calvinists usually get very obtuse if you even dare to question any point that Calvin makes. How dare someone as lowly as you or I stand up to challenge him! I knew this attitude existed in a successful church I belonged to for many years – the senior pastor was not to be doubted!
My main objections were twofold, with a third growing on me over time:
1. ‘double predestination’
Once you adopt the belief that God has chosen his ‘elect’ and that this was done ‘before the foundation of the world’ then you have to agree with double predestination i.e. if God has chosen some to be his elected inheritors of his kingdom of heaven, then that means he has also chosen all the others to be eternally lost/ punished/ burning in hell. We are all endowed with a moral compass, a sense of justice, and Christians are always arguing with atheists that such a moral compass has to have been instilled in us by a divine creator, or else we would have rampant moral relativism, with no agreed sense of right and wrong within any society. Having this moral compass must scream at us that double predestination is unjust! If your father said to you that your brother would inherit his whole will but you would get nothing, and that he had decided this even before both of you were born, would you not be insensed at such a ridiculous decision? No factor in your (yet to be lived!) life, character or behaviour (or of your brother) would have any bearing on the outcome! You’d wonder why you should have bothered being any sort of good or obedient son at any time, wouldn’t you? The standard answer to this was always that we were not to question God’s ways, decisions or ‘wisdom’ but this dismisses the natural inbuilt sense of right and wrong we have all been given, by God! Had I been told this doctrine before my conversion, I would have concluded that the Christians’ God was a total jerk and had obviously not elected me! I would have refused to even wish to follow such a ‘loving creator’. The problem I see is that many who blindly accept this are safely cocooned in a subculture of fellow believers where their ‘picture’ of God is easy to like and acquiesce to, since God ‘smiles’ on them (and has smiled since the beginning!). It does not produce a very pleasing picture of God to those outside the scope of that smile… but then again, if ‘God has not chosen to smile on them, then so be it’ – my soul cannot help but scream out against that portrayal of my Lord and Saviour.
2. MY choice
The clear recall I had of the process I underwent myself when I chose to follow Jesus was something I just had to raise each time I was presented with the clear scriptures of Calvinism. It had to be rewritten in my memory as something that God had done: this was ‘irresistible grace’, and I could have done nothing to avert that moment in time or stop it happening, when
I made the decision God called me. Each time, though, I felt like I was in a science fiction story as a robot that had never been aware that he was not a human!
I even wondered at times why we were singing “I have decided to follow Jesus…”!!
In time, I came to the realisation that so often, Calvinists fall into the trap of Hyper-Calvinism, as if it isn’t possible to be a ‘moderate’ Calvinist, and one will always end up believing that not just
our decision the moment of salvation, but every single event that occurs, and every action we take, is predestined to happen too. Me sitting here typing this has been ordained by God to happen! This takes the robot analogy to an extreme, since every part of our lives has been pre-programmed by an inventor and/or code-writer. Have you seen those scary sci-fi movies from the 70s and 80s where the protagonist in the story only finds out at the end that either they, or everyone around them, has been a programmed machine all along?
If all this is the case, then why do we bother at all with anything? Once this has become ingrained, certain beliefs and behaviours may follow in some cases, such as;
- Pharisaism and a superior attitude that ‘we are God’s chosen ones’
- a belief that moral behaviour is not important since salvation is set in stone anyway (though I have never encountered this belief personally, it would seem to have been something Paul had to address (Rom. 6:1) )
- preachers who believe that no appeal to others to come and follow Jesus is needed, since ‘his elect will be drawn by the Holy Spirit anyway’
- the church need not be concerned with society’s problems since this is God’s will and has been ordained by God to happen to a world that has fallen from him – when you add in the prevalent belief that we are in the last days, then no desire to change society for the better can be stirred. Why waste energy trying to bail more water out of a sinking ship? (This has also led to some families ‘home-schooling’ their children but with zero education since they see it as unnecessary in a world just about to be overthrown/ redeemed!!)
The Hyper-Calvinist position is surely self-defeating in preaching the gospel to God’s creation! When I was a good little smart atheist (before I decided to become a Jesus follower at 14), I argued with the Christians in my school, throwing up all the philosophical quandaries I knew they hated. A favourite was “if your God is so good and just, why does he allow so much suffering in the world?” This was especially good to use when we had just heard news of some atrocity somewhere, or heard how a little toddler had been beaten to death by their own parents! The answer was always ‘freewill’ – God gave man free will to do as he wished, in Eden, and did not interfere with man’s choice to ‘go his own way’. So all the suffering in the world is down to us, and ‘original sin’, and our foolish desire to continue ‘walking away from God’. However, once you encounter this hyper version of the Calvinist, you have to throw your hands up in horror as you realise that they are rejecting freewill and stating that every event in history is preordained… so that toddler who suffered was because ‘God ordained it’!!! YES!! If I am ‘blind’ to see this ‘scriptural truth’ I am happier to not be as blind as them!
Any objections I raised that cast doubt on the Calvinist position was routinely shot down. It was as if questioning Calvin was equivalent to doubting scripture! “Is it not possible that God’s ‘election’ of us is based on his omniscience and knowing who will choose to follow Jesus?” was refuted with a clear “no, God the Father is the one who makes all the decisions and chooses whom he will save, from before time began!”
This unwavering adherence to reading scripture in such an unquestioning way has led to some tragic situations, like I blogged on before. However, as with many dogmatic positions, it favours certain parts of scripture over others, though adherents would never wish to admit to this. Just a few verses, off the top of my head, that appear to undermine predestination:
Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Tim. 4:16)
You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. (Heb. 10:36)
You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (Matt. 10:22)
Trying to fit this into the perfect picture of God selecting us before we were even born creates a lot of tight hoops to jump through. Or you can just ignore the hoops as insignificant (which is practically impossible for fundamentalist inerrantists!)
I have long tried to present theology as similar to our quantum universe. Without going into the intricacies of quantum mechanics/ physics, let’s just say that it is now known that certain things in the micro-particle world defy logic and present clear evidence for two truths/ facts to co-exist in our universe, at the same time. For me, the apparent ‘contradictions’ in scripture are also contained in a concise way in the mind of God, the Creator of this quantum universe (in a way that is totally illogical to mere mortals).
However, it would be better if we could find things that do fit into a logical understanding, yes? If God wishes to be revealed to us, and that we should know him, then a clearer knowledge of him in our minds must be within his will. I realised that my original idea (most likely not original to me in that nobody else ever asked it) held some weight; what if God, at the beginning of time, knowing all things that were to happen, saw me on that day in 1979, seeking him and asking for him, and decided, there and then, that he would jump ahead of me (like a time traveller going backwards to ‘fix’ a timeline) and provide that ‘irresistible grace’ (one of the key points of Calvinism) for me to respond to and so give me the means and the power to be able to follow him, since he would know that on my own, in my own strength, I could not do so, and would fail at any attempt to be a ‘faithful disciple’?
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jer. 29:13)
God looks down from heaven on all mankind
to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. (Ps. 53:2)
As I said, this was rejected by those who had studied Calvin: “No, God chooses us, we have no part in the process!” I do know why they maintain this; they are keen to stand on the truth that it is grace from God that saves us and nothing of effort, so to admit that we make the choice might undermine Jesus’ perfect work. However, it has always struck a chord in my heart, since we know that in Eden, God clearly gave freewill to Adam and Eve; it was their choice to eat the fruit that was forbidden, and there was no high fence around the tree! My proposal was not that salvation is achieved by our effort, but by God’s empowering of an initial choice we make that we wish to turn around (repent) from the walking away and walk towards God. With no grace, that desire would come to nothing, like the alcoholic who might desire to stop drinking but find no strength to do so. The desire to become righteous will not produce righteousness, but God stepping down to meet us at that point where we turn and look back is the way he imputes righteousness upon us.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. (Matt. 5:6)
This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. (Rom. 3:22)
When we go to the favourite passage of Calvinism, we can analyse it quite easily:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28-30, emphasis mine)
Note those two words I highlighted: the Greek word for ‘foreknew’ is proginosko, but I don’t even need to go into any depth on that. It is used 5 times in the New Testament, and each time simply means what it translates as – ‘knowing beforehand’. The first line of verse 29 states first that God had foreknowledge of us, and then he predestined us! The choice was ours, but the empowering and the process is all his!
Still not with me? Confusing? This is deep theology, and trying to simplify it is an uphill task – I have gone over this a fair bit to make it easy to read, believe me. Let’s try the trusted tool of explanation for these things that Jesus used; the parable.
The Parable of the Determined Son
A father was asked by his children, two sons and a daughter, what he would like for Christmas. He answered them that there was nothing specific that he’d like, except for one thing that he knew was far too expensive for them to buy him, even if they pooled all their savings, and he told them he knew that. They were to buy some smaller presents and not worry about it. The youngest child later told his brother and sister that he was going to save up enough money to buy this present by going to all the neighbours and asking them to pay him for washing their cars or tidying their garden. No amount of explanation from the older siblings that he’d never earn enough would deter him.
They realised how determined their youngest was as he started putting money into his piggy bank, so they told their father. The father did not wish to dishearten the youngest by telling him to stop his quest, nor let him be disappointed, so late one night he sneaked into the boy’s room and put the amount of money needed into the piggy bank. When Christmas approached, the youngest came to his siblings and asked them to count his money with him to see if he had enough. When they added it up, they of course could not believe that it was all there!
What does this mean?
The youngest child had been the one to decide to get this present and put his heart into achieving it, but he was never going to be able to. The father saw the love and determination his son had, and provided the means for the son to be able to give his father the present he knew he wanted and that the son wished to give. If we are to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” as Jesus commanded us (Mark 12:30), then this must require effort on our part, borne from love. Such love produces action from us, or it is not love (John 14:15, 21; 15:10; 1John 2:3; 3:22; 5:3). Yet this action cannot produce any ‘saving power’ (Eph. 2:8-9) or achieve what was accomplished by Jesus on the cross (1 Corinthians 1:18). God foresees all these actions, this determination to seek him, and intervenes to save us before we think that we must do these things to save ourselves.
To go back to Star Trek, what then is God’s Prime Directive? Freewill! The answer to the question of why he doesn’t intervene in the world more than he does, is that we know that he always left us to our own will and he will not make ‘first contact’. In Star Trek, the Prime Directive can be ignored once a civilisation develops warp drive and is about to enter space and travel at faster than light speed, and then any space-travelling civilisation can make contact (as the Vulcans did when they were the first to see Zefram Cochrane’s warp signature). So God ignores his own Prime Directive once we are the ones to seek him! For God to enter into our lives early and uninvited would break that and make a mockery of our statement that we are ‘left to our own free will’! However, the moment of our decision, seen by God from his vantage point at the beginning of time, is the moment he is able to fill our piggy bank with all the grace we need to be righteous enough to be saved.
The Calvinist can come back with a retort like the quote from Jesus’ own lips: You did not choose me, but I chose you… (John 15:16), but this must be taken in context (as always). Jesus was addressing the Twelve, the close apostles he had called to… “follow me” and in his words and prayers, he draws a distinction between his present disciples and those who are to come after (e.g. John 17:20). Even if you do take ‘you did not choose me’ to literally apply to every Christian in all eternity, you can still ask the question ‘what caused Jesus to choose this one but not that one?’ The Calvinist, in their headlong rush to destroy any vestige of belief in ‘salvation by works’, insists that it is purely the choice of God alone and our decisions have zero bearing on that. In that I see God with a hand-cranked basket of lottery balls, lifting out names as they turn and land over the rest, and God must roll up his sleeves like a magician to show ‘look, no trick!’ as he ‘proves’ to us all that there is no reason to it other than pure fortune. There has to be some mechanism by which God makes the choice, and I propose it is as I have laid out.
I’m not rejecting predestination, I’m rejecting Calvin’s narrow and shortsighted interpretation of it.
I don’t accept his version, I accept what I read. To be fair to Calvin, though, he didn’t have Star Trek.
I’m not saying that God does not ‘elect’ us to receive salvation by his own power, I’m saying that he doesn’t select us. Scripture teaches election, Calvin teaches selection, and these have a subtle distinction. After all, when we elect someone, they have to decide to stand for election in the first place!
Grace be with you.