Acts 13:48 – A Calvinist Verse? (Part 1)

Acts 13:42-52 (English Standard Version)

42 As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. 43 And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God. 44 The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. 46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. 51 But they shook the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

The Issues with the Verse

For a long time I considered Acts 13:48 as the best Calvinist proof-text in the Bible. Actually I still think it should be the first verse every Calvinist quotes in a debate. As I have searched the internet for various interpretations on this verse I have come to realize that I am not the only non-Calvinist that has been puzzled by this verse. And I must admit that most of the non-Calvinist interpretations I have found are less than convincing. Often times the explanations jump into deep discussions about the Greek grammar related to the word translated “appointed” in the ESV. As far as I know these explanations might be correct, but as one who is ignorant of Greek, I would have to take their word for it. But what makes me uncomfortable is that I would have to take their word for it while ignoring every reputable Bible translation on the market. Maybe I am too much of a conformist (I have never been accused of that!) for my own good, but I can’t comfortably ignore all Bible translations for an independent translation that favors my theological perspective. So, the interpretation that I will present in the next few blog posts will work with any translation that I know of.

 Before we get into what the verse is saying, let’s look at why I, and many others, find it so fit for a Calvinist interpretation. It is three aspects of the verse that make it favorable to a Calvinist perspective and seemingly at odds with Arminianism.

1. The phrase “as many as” gives the clear implication that this is speaking about particular individuals in the midst of a group of individuals. For those who want to find the biblical concept of corporate election in this verse, this creates a great obstacle.

2. The Greek word usually translated as “appointed” or “ordained” in most English Bible versions seems to lend credence to the deterministic perspective of Calvinism. The thought is, if God decided it, then men have no genuine role to play in the outworking of what God determined would take place.

3. The phrase “were appointed to eternal life believed” seems to imply that the appointing to eternal life is the cause of them believing, since the “appointing” obviously came before the “believing.” For those familiar with Arminianism you will recognize quickly that this is at odds with the Arminian idea of conditional election. For Arminians, faith is the condition of election and salvation. It is because of one’s faith that one is included in God’s elect people and “appointed to eternal life.”

Some might feel that there are many verses that seem to have these three points in common with Acts 13:48 and I agree. Verses in John 6, Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 share one or both of the two aspects I have pointed out above. But the big difference with those verses and this one is that those have a very full context. The greater the context surrounding a particular verse the more information we have about the intended meaning of the author. The passages in Romans, Ephesians, and even John are very theological in nature. And so we have a lot of surrounding context to clarify the theological point they are making. But the 13th chapter of Acts is primarily a historical narrative with some theological comments thrown in. This is not to say that the book of Acts is not theological and Luke is not a theologian, it is and he is. But the theological purpose of Acts is seen through the big picture of its historical narrative. The theological point of Acts 13:48 at first glance doesn’t seem to have much theological context to clarify what Luke is trying to convey. For me, this situation makes it an ideal verse to use in defense of Calvinism. A robust context is always the enemy of Calvinism, and isolated verses are always its stronghold.

Besides the fact that the passage seems to lack clear theological context, the interpretation of the verse in question depends much on the word translated “appointed” in the English Standard Version. I know just enough about biblical Greek to know that I don’t know anything. And since I speak three different languages, all from different language families, I am aware of the subtleties of languages in general. So I am well aware that when facing such passages I am extremely handicapped. Actually I believe most people are, but recognizing our weaknesses is the first step in overcoming them.

What is the Verse Missing?

This series of posts is not written for Calvinists. As always all my brethren are welcome to comment their thoughts on my posts. But I have not written these thoughts to convince Calvinists of my view. In fact I am very certain that they will find it unconvincing since I will read into the verse nearly as much as the Reformed interpretation does. Instead it has been written to help my non-Calvinist brothers and sisters see that the verse is not a clear-cut Calvinist verse as those in the Reformed camp would have us believe. My limited knowledge of Greek and my necessary dependence on the translations of others makes me uncomfortable and not a little agnostic about my conclusions. But the issues I will discuss in the process of working through my interpretation are enough to encourage me that I am on the right track.

Let’s look at a few things that are not taught in Acts 13:48:

1. This verse does not tell us the criteria or method by which God “appointed” particular individuals to eternal life. Romans 9 and Ephesians 1 each spell out clearly the reason one is chosen and another is not (i.e. faith), but in this verse it simply says certain ones were “ordained.” The verse assumes election but doesn’t give the reasons for election. Of course this makes sense, since Luke is merely giving a theological comment about a historical event, as opposed to trying to teach about the subject of divine election.

2. Though my Calvinist brethren will probably fight this one tooth and nail, it must be acknowledged that this verse does not say that the God’s ordaining of certain individuals to eternal life is the cause of their faith. It is true that the appointment to eternal life and the faith of the individuals are related, but this verse does not say that either one causes the other. “As many as were appointed to eternal life” identifies and describes which individuals “believed.” It doesn’t say that their faith led to being appointed or that being appointed led to their faith. This is read into the text.

Consider this sentence, “As many as had been born with red hair believed.” When such a statement is made, no one would assume that having red hair was the cause their faith. It just means that the persons in question have two things in common, red hair and faith. It does not spell out the relationship between the two qualities. So though Luke is making it clear that the ones that believe are the same ones that were appointed to eternal life, he goes no further. He does not tell us that one is the cause and the other the result. This is read into the text because of prior theological commitments, namely the Calvinistic doctrine of Unconditional Election.

3. Unconditional Election is not the only doctrine that is assumed in this passage by those in the Reformed camp. This passage is also often quoted as a proof-text for the doctrines of Monergistic Regeneration and Irresistible Grace. Calvinism teaches that no man can believe until they have been spiritually reborn. And that once they are reborn they cannot remain in unbelief but are irresistibly drawn to faith. This rebirth is believed to take place without any cooperation or participation of the soul being “resurrected spiritually.” So anytime one believes the gospel in Scripture, Calvinism assumes that the person has already been regenerated. And it is assumed the individual was completely passive in receiving this new birth. Whatever Scriptural evidence one might point to in order to defend these two closely related doctrines, it is hoped that we can all admit that this verse does not teach it. For a person to assume that they are implied because scripture teaches them elsewhere is one thing, to assert that they are spelled out in Acts 13:48 is quite another.

To Be Continued…

14 thoughts on “Acts 13:48 – A Calvinist Verse? (Part 1)

  1. I enjoyed this article. I’m 77 years old. A Christian since age 20. I was a Russian translator in the USAF (studied Russian under Russian teachers). I studied German under German teachers in Germany. I studied NT Greek under two teachers, Americans, one a contributor to the NIV. I studied Linguistics at Bible College and at U of Michigan. I have always been a student with an independent mind.

    Shortly after my conversion I was confronted by a JW who didn’t believe in the Incarnation. I proved him out with a Websters dictionary and logic bases on 1 Tim 3:16. I have given Greek NTs to Greek immigrants who hadn’t read a Greek NT in years. One of my colleagues a native Greek taught me much about Greek another surname Zodhiates was forthright about baptism being spiritual not H2O.

    As for Acts 13:48. Many languages are not dependent on word order as are the English speakers. Greek is one of these. In English word Acts 13:48 would read “As many as believed were ordained to eternal life” which is consistent with every text I know of that speaks of the new birth (even those using other words). The elect are those who have been chosen for their faith plain and simple. They, the Elect, (since they have been chosen by faith and sealed by the Holy Spirit, repeat, the Elect thusly, were foreordained IN CHRIST before the foundation of the world which is consistent with the plain reading of all the scriptures. Again those who were foreordained are those who have been born again. No one has ever been chosen to be born before they were born to be born to believe.

    One of my Missions teachers who was Mennonite convinced me that God will not lose one who is Elect.

    I judge all translations by two verses: 1 Tim 3:16 and Matt 5:31-32 re: divorce In this case, Wycliffe first, then Tyndale, then the KJV then Queen Victoria pronounced doom on all divorce and so it is today. In Matt 5:31 the word divorce should be “put away” and interpreted by the OT Law. Jesus did not overturn the OT Law. He was also speaking to Jews and not to the Church at that point. Paul is the only other NT authority and he wasn’t quite sure what the Church should do. The Law says to put away without divorce is still marriage,making fornication a sin. With the divorce the divorcee is FREE to marry someone else. Jesus did not change this.

    I have the Russian Diploma, BA, ThB, and MA degrees. I am a former Teacher, Special Ed Teacher, ESL Teacher, and Pastor.

    God bless your work.

  2. The Greek scholar of Cambridge, Henry Alford, said that “disposed to believe” was the proper reading of the text in Acts 13:48. It should be noted he was a staunch Calvinist, but insisted this was no proof text for sovereign election to salvation. You can find these statements for yourself in his Commentary on the New Testament, a monumental work that took Alford 20 years to complete. As an interesting aside, John Piper has said Alford is by far his most trusted Greek scholar.

      1. Your welcome, my brother. As for the modern translations, don’t put much stock in them. Most are based on Westcott & Hort’s CT, which is greatly debated among those who study textual criticism. But that and a nickel won’t get you a ticket on the subway, and far too often the debate over texts will distract you from your higher purpose. “He that winneth souls is wise.” Proverbs 11:30 I love that verse. It’s New Testament theology in Old Testament verse. [Or perhaps, we’ve misunderstood the Old Testament]. Either way, ditch the ESV, NIV, RSV, etc. They all have deleted more than 20 verses from the original English translations of the 14 through the 16 Centuries, which were based on the RT (Received Text of Erasmus). Google “missing verses ESV” and be amazed. I’m not a KJVO guy by any stretch. Greek was my Minor in College. For my money, the RT is the most reliable Greek text, not the CT (W&H’s “Critical Text”). I read from the NKJV, actually, and love it. It has all the verses ! 🙂

  3. Greetings again Pastor Chapman,

    I’ve enjoyed your four posts on Acts 13:48 and the refreshing honesty you bring to them–especially when you freely admit to reading into the text, making assertions you don’t intend to prove, etc. Oh the joys of blogging where one can freely get away this! I hope you don’t mind that I’ve once again taken my Calvinist red pen to your series. (That’s the teacher in me.) And please understand that my constant references to “Arminian Bizarro World” are said mostly in jest (and at times out of genuine sense of perplexity).

    Here’s the link for you: http://fallibility.blogspot.com/2012/10/acts-1348-in-arminian-bizarro-world.html

    Blessings to you!

    Mike Taylor

    1. michael,
      thx again for taking an interest in my ramblings on this topic. i try not to take myself too seriously so i enjoy a good shot taken at my expense (or the expense of those in my camp). i do the same thing to calvinists & other bros i disagree with, & i just hope they understand that like u it is done for fun. just because these are serious topics, is no reason we have to take ourselves so seriously.
      bless u bro,
      chris

  4. Dear Chris,

    Good article. Though I do think the Grammatical argument for rendering it “as many as were disposed to eternal life believed” has strength, simply because of the context, and the manner in which Luke is contrasting the Jewish response with that of the Gentiles. As you rightly point out the contextual information just isn’t there to assume into it all that Calvnism twists it to say. I personally like the rendering “were disposed” because it does not say who disposed, and it preserves the original ambiguity of voice of the Greek. When you add up all the arguments together, ambiguity of Grammar, contextual information etc, what looks like a Calvinistic “slam dunk” turns out to be a damp squib.

    1. Howdy,
      Thank for your comment.
      In the follow up posts I will be addressing why I think the “disposed” interpretation is not correct in light of how Luke always uses the word. Nevertheless the “disposed” interpretation does fit the immediate context well. As far as I know it might be the correct interpretation, but the fact that not one single Bible translation renders it that way makes me cautious. I guess one could claim their is a Calvinist conspiracy to corrupt all Bible translations, but Im sure none would;) So then we are left asking the question why no Bible translator has rendered it “disposed.”
      In the next post i will show that Luke never used the word that way.
      Gbu
      Chris

      1. Hi Chris, Hmm I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there is some kind of evil Calvinite conspiracy. Though of course it would make it much easier to dismiss Calvinism’s claims if it could be proven to be some dreadful plot by an evil scripture corrupting cabal of conspiratorial Calvinists colluding to conquer Christendom. And I really wouldn’t want to press the Grammar middle vs passive voice thing too far, at best it could only ever be a supporting argument against the certainty or veracity of the Calvinist interpretation of the verse. Because on the evidence available I don’t think it’s case is strong enough, but I still think it worth mentioning. On the other hand it should be taken into account as nearly all English translations have been a direct descendant of the earlier mass produced translations like Tyndale the Geneva Bible and the KJV it is inevitable that the Calvinistic way of thinking would set a precedent, not only so it seems many of the modern translators too hale from a Reformed perspective. Without mentioning any kind of plot, people do translate according to their doctrinal slant. That’s being human and being consistent with our belief systems and is not necessarily sinful or implying deliberate deceit. Though this can be taken too far. Some of the more modern dynamic equivalence translations go way, way beyond what the text implies and are simply quite dreadfully biased.

        To some extent I am working through a lot of these things myself. I haven’t arrived yet. I am still acquiring data and testing things to see what fits the text best.

        I have never considered myself a Calvinist, but some years ago I was experiencing some problems praying specifically for the lost and witnessing to people, plus a number of other issues It was only as I began to investigate Calvinism for other reasons and understand what it actually taught, that I realised it had infected my thinking to some extent without my knowing it.

        As I investigated things more thoroughly I began to experience a once again, liberty in my prayer life to pray for the lost, and a renewed hunger to share the Good News, plus a greater appreciation of God’s loving character, and greater personal victories too.

        I am thoroughly convinced that on the whole Calvinism is a tool of the enemy that deadens the Church and fossilises it, blunts the Gospel and stifles spiritual vitality. I can testify to some of that from personal experience.

      2. haha, “calvinistic cabal”, hilarious!
        As far as the danger of calvinism is concerned, im in complete agreement. If i didnt think it was a system that hurts disciples & the kingdom of God I wouldnt spend my energies trying to expose its errors. Im glad helped you see through its unbiblical teachings.
        thanks again for your comments.
        gbu
        chris

  5. Hello, Chris! I am a Brazilian blogger, and I am spending some time translating articles and blog posts about Arminian/Molinist theology. Can I translate some posts from your blog?

    Many Thanks! CFTWB

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