In a recent blog entry, Elshaddai comments on Acts 13:48. He quotes the TNIV:
When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.
He then asks:
“Can anyone comment on the Greek verb form of “were appointed”? Is this an instance where the plenary meaning is “all who were [and who continue to be] appointed for eternal life…”? Certainly the translation at hand suggests predestination as a present reality for those who heard and believed.”
This verse was the exact verse that shocked me from my arminian understanding of election to a reformed view, that is, whether salvation is a divine initiative or a human initiative. There is some debate on this verse as to whether it should say “were disposed” (which leads to an arminian understanding) versus “were appointed” (which leads to a reformed understanding). As I look at the text, I will bring out some points on whether we should translate it as “disposed” or not.
In answer to Elshaddai’s question, the phrase isn’t just a verb, but a construction that is called a “periphrastic.” Basically this is just a big term that means a phrase that includes a “to be” linking verb with a participle. In this case, the phrase in question is ἦσαν τεταγμένοι (hesan tetagmenoi). Grammatically, a periphrastic (to be + participle) is to be taken as a single unit. The breakdown of the construction is as follows:
ἦσαν = εἰμί (eimi) – “to be” -3rd person, imperfect, active, indicative, plural.
τεταγμένοι = τάσσω (tassw) – “To bring about an order of things by arranging; to determine, appoint, etc.” – Perfect, Passive, Participle, Nominative, Masculine, Plural
If some of that makes no sense to you, that’s ok. I’ll bring out the meaning of the important issues.
τεταγμένοι, as I said above, is a form of the word τάσσω. It is in the “perfect” tense, which means that it is a completed past action that has ongoing significance. The word τάσσω is at the center of the debate- it is said that it should be translated as “disposition” instead of “appointed.” However, there are some problems with this rendering:
1. Very few lexicons list this as a possible meaning. It is not included in the BDAG, Liddle-Scott, Louw-Nida, or Thayer’s.
2. The verb is passive, which means that the subject is being acted upon. Even if we should take it as “disposed,” that would mean that the subject (the Gentiles) were being made disposed to accepting the Gospel- not disposing themselves as arminian theologians would take it. There is a possibility that the verb is instead a “middle” tensed verb, which would have the subject acting on itself- but this use of the middle tense is rare in the NT. Most middle tense verbs simply draw attention to the subject.
3. As a logical outcome of (2), if we were to take the verb as “dispose,” that doesn’t solve the problem, it only adds an extra step to solve. For example, since the verb is passive, we must ask ourselves then, “who is making them disposed?” that is, “who is making them so inclined to believe?” Which takes us back to the original issue.
It seems much more likely that we should understand this phrase in terms of being appointed. In fact, this is exactly how the vast majority of translations take it- the only translation that I’m aware of that translates it as “disposed” is the New World Translation, which is the Jehovah’s Witnesses Bible. Elshaddai gives quotes from many translations, all of which render it in terms of appointment, including: NRSV, NASB, HCSB, ESV, NLTse, NJB, REB, Lattimore.
So, then, taking the periphrastic phrase as “were appointed,” what can we understand from this verse?
1. As I noted earlier, the word “appointed” is in the perfect tense. This means that the action of appointing was completed in the past, but has on-going significance. What on-going significance you might ask? The most obvious significance is the belief exhibited by the Gentiles. It is not an appointment in the abstract, but concrete. In other words, the appointing has an object or goal. They were appointed “to believe.”
2. The reformed doctrine of election does not destroy human responsibility or action. As I said in (1) election is not actualized salvation, but election to salvation. Some might think that what I just said is a matter of semantics, but it is not. They were appointed to believe. The result is that they did believe – human action. Some people think that election means that if we are “on the list” we are in- whether we believe or not. They ask, “what is the point of evangelism?” Acts 13.48 is a clear picture of how election, evangelism, and human responsibility play out. God has appointed them to believe. A necessary condition for belief is hearing the Gospel (Romans 10.14-15). They heard the Gospel, and believed.
There is also an implied question that can be asked of this text. If those who were appointed believed, why didn’t the others believe? The implied answer is that they were not appointed. This leads us to Elshaddai’s next question:
“My biggest problem with those translations that use “as many as” (NRSV, NASB, ESV) is that it opens the ambiguity that predestination is a quota system – it’s not so much “who” believes, but “how many” believe.”
First of all, let me start by saying that I don’t think this is an either/or problem. I think the “who” question is asked and answered- “those who were appointed.” The Bible also talks elsewhere about the “who.” However, on to the use of “as many as.”
The question revolves around the phrase “all who” (cf. TNIV) or “as many as” (cf. ESV). If we stop and think about this for a bit, we can see that the two different phrases aren’t really different at all. They are just two ways of saying the same thing: “as many as were appointed” is equal to “all who were appointed.” For example if I were to say “As many as were named Bryan are incredibly good looking” I would be lying (with myself being a falsifying proof). However, even as big of a lie as it is, it is the same as saying “All who were named Bryan are incredibly good looking,” or “Everyone who was named ‘Bryan’ is incredibly good looking.” The Greek in question is not actually a phrase, but a word: ὅσοι (hosoi). This word is defined in the BDAG as:
“Pertaining to a comparative quantity or number of objects or events; how much (many), as much (many) as” (BDAG, hosos, 2,pg 729).
This word is used to answer the “how many” question by modifying the “who” phrase- “as many as were appointed.”
I think the best way to understand the phrase “ἦσαν τεταγμένοι” is as a “divine passive.” This means that it is God who is acting upon the subject of the verb, or in this case, the periphrastic phrase. It is God who has appointed these Gentiles to belief, the result of which is their believing the Gospel message which was preached to them.