It is a single word in this verse which is used to support the Calvinist interpretation: "appointed". It should be noted at the outset, as the early Arminian exegete Adam Clarke points out:
Now, we should be careful to examine what a word means, before we attempt to fix its meaning. Whatever τεταγμενοι may mean, which is the word we translate ordained [or appointed], it is neither προτεταγμενοι nor προορισμενοι which the apostle uses, but simply τεταγμενοι , which includes no idea of pre-ordination or pre-destination of any kind.
Clarke continues (link, bold mine):
And if it even did, it would be rather hazardous to say that all those who believed at this time were such as actually persevered unto the end, and were saved unto eternal life. But, leaving all these precarious matters, what does the word τεταγμενος mean? The verb ταττω or τασσω signifies to place, set, order, appoint, dispose; hence it has been considered here as implying the disposition or readiness of mind of several persons in the congregation, such as the religious proselytes mentioned Acts 13:43, who possessed the reverse of the disposition of those Jews who spake against those things, contradicting and blaspheming, Acts 13:45. Though the word in this place has been variously translated, yet, of all the meanings ever put on it, none agrees worse with its nature and known signification than that which represents it as intending those who were predestinated to eternal life: this is no meaning of the term, and should never be applied to it.
Below I will look at 3 different ways to render the Greek word: "in line for", "disposed", and "appointed". As you will notice, these are not really exclusive understandings or interpretations, but rather they fit together very nicely, each providing support for the others.
"in line for"
Dr David Gooding, professor emeritus of Old Testament Greek at Queen’s University Belfast, offered an interpretation of this passage in his series, "The Glorious Gospel of the Blessed God". I find his explanation especially helpful because of the way he brings in prevenient grace. (It should be noted that in this sense, the Arminian view is not altogether different from a Calvinist understanding; in both, it is God who takes the initiative. It is different from a Calvinist interpretation, of course, in that it includes no "decree").
Here is what he says (Q&A audio at about 12:30):
Does the term "those that were appointed to eternal life believed" mean that they were thus appointed by God's pre-choice; pre-determination, if you like? The matter will turn on two things:
(1) The context is contrasting the Jews of the Synagogue who, having heard the Gospel, rejected it seriously. And Paul and company shook out the dust of their shoes and said "Seeing you judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, we turn to the gentiles". They were Jews making their own decision; coming to their own judgement, regarding themselves as "unworthy of eternal life" and they wouldn't have it. That was how they judged the situation; they were Jews. In contrast to that many gentiles believed--not all the gentiles, but those that were.
(2) And here you, to take it seriously, have to consider the possible translations of that Greek word. That Greek word is, in military context, used in middle unpassive in this kind of sentence: that a detachment of troops form themselves up into, say, battle formation, or line of march. And so it would be used like that of a squad of troops taking that particular formation. We could, therefore, rightly take it that those that were "lined up for".
Lined up how? Well, I myself quite believe that when it comes to the work of salvation, God always takes the initiative. It is not that humans come to God saying, "Please consider saving me", and God replies, "I hadn't thought of doing any such thing but I'll consider your application". God always takes the initiative. And what is more, as any practical evangelist will tell you, as they go to this place or that, they will find people that by God's gracious Holy Spirit, have been worked upon, and their conscience has been aroused. Maybe they haven't gotten to the point of complete illumination but they're stopping to think. And God, in His mercy, brings a preacher to them, and these folks have been prepared. And when they hear the Gospel, they believe. That doesn't mean that nobody else in the town is ever going to get saved. Some are not just ready yet, so to speak.
I take it that what Paul is saying is that these--"those among the gentiles who were 'in line for'"--they either had lined themselves up for, or God's gracious Spirit, or both, had been working in them. And now when they finally heard the Gospel, they believed.
Dr Greg Boyd provides a similar explanation, writing:
Luke does not specify when the Gentiles who believed were “destined for eternal life.” Calvinists rightfully point out that the Gentiles’ faith followed their being “destined for eternal life” but mistakenly assume that this “destiny” was decided by God from before creation. The text only requires us to believe that the Spirit of God had been at work preparing the hearts of all who did not resist him to accept the Gospel when they heard it.
God knows our heart before we express it through our words or through our decisions (Ps. 139:2–4). On this basis the Lord could assure Paul before his missionary endeavor at Corinth that “there are many in this city who are my people” (viz. whose hearts have been opened and who will therefore believe your message) (Acts 18:10).
So too, Lydia listened intently to Paul’s Gospel because the Lord had already “opened her heart” (Acts 16:14). Those Gentiles who did not resist the Spirit’s work in their life were “ripe” for the message of Paul and Barnabas. They were already “destined for eternal life” and thus accepted the Good News when it was preached to them.
Others I have found which also note the military understanding include the Benson Commentary:
In the Greek classics, in its passive form, it is generally used of men, who, having been appointed for some military expedition, (and set in their proper offices, as it is rendered, Luke 7:8,) were drawn up in battle array for that purpose. So that it expresses, or refers, at once to the action of their commander, marshalling them, and to their own presenting themselves in their proper places, to be led on to the intended expedition. So Dr. Doddridge, who adds, “This I take to be precisely its sense here, and have therefore chosen the word determined, as having an ambiguity something like that in the original. The meaning of the sacred penman seems to be, that all who were deeply and seriously concerned about their eternal happiness, (whether that concern began now, or were of longer date,) openly embraced the gospel: for surely none could be said to believe who did not make an open profession of Christianity.” In a similar sense, the clause is understood by Dr. Hammond, who renders it, As many as were disposed for eternal life believed: and by Dr. Heylin, whose translation and gloss upon it is, As many as were in a fit disposition for eternal life believed. Dr. Waterland also, and many of the most learned expositors, interpret it in the same manner, namely, as describing those who were, at this time,in a disposition to comply with the terms on which God, by his apostle, now offered them eternal life; that is, to repent, believe, and obey the gospel.
Barnes' Notes on the Bible mentions, "The word τάσσω tassō, properly means 'to place' - that is, to place in a certain rank or order. Its meaning is derived from arranging or disposing a body of soldiers in regular military order." And the Expositor's Greek Testament, says:
Some take the word as if middle, not passive: “as many as had set themselves unto eternal life,” and in support of this Rendall refers to 1 Corinthians 16:15, ἔταξαν ἑαυτοὺς (see also Blass, in loco). The rendering here given by Rendall may be adopted without pressing the military metaphor in the verb, as has sometimes been done[...]
(more from Expositor's below).
Dr Brian Abasciano has written extensively on this interpretation (see the links at the end of this post), so I won't dwell on it too long.
In one of the earlier posts Dr Abasciano wrote on this verse, he notes (link):
And the most authoritative lexicon for New Testament studies (abbreviated BDAG) does not take the verb in question to mean “appoint,” but construes it under the meaning of “to put in place.” It is not surprising, then, that the distinguished biblical scholar Henry Alford argued for the rendering, “as many as were disposed,” in his well respected 4 volume work, The Greek Testament. (John Piper of all people sings Alford’s praises thus: “When I’m stumped with a . . . grammatical or syntactical or logical flow [question] in Paul, I go to Henry Alford. Henry Alford mostly answers-he . . . comes closer more consistently than any other human commentator to asking my kinds of questions.”) Alford’s treatment of Acts 13:48 can be found in this volume available online.
Secondly, I found it interesting that the popular 17th century Calvinist Matthew Henry considers the translation “disposed” in his commentary (underline mine, link):
God gave this grace to believe to all those among them who were ordained to eternal life (for whom he had predestinated, them he also called, Rom. 8:30); or, as many as were disposed to eternal life, as many as had a concern about their eternal state, and aimed to make sure of eternal life, believed in Christ, in whom God hath treasured up that life (1 Jn. 5:11), and who is the only way to it; and it was the grace of God that wrought it in them. Thus all those captives, and those only, took the benefit of Cyrus’s proclamation, whose spirit God had raised up to build the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, Ezra 1:5. Those will be brought to believe in Christ that by his grace are well disposed to eternal life, and make this their aim.
I'll only add that, often, much is made by Calvinists of the fact that most English translations use the word "appointed". On this, Dr Abasciano has said (link):
It can easily be chalked up to tradition or failure to attend to exegetical details. Translations are not authoritative and translators can rarely exegete the text in detail given the focus of their task. This point [...] is effectively countered by the fact that the most authoritative lexicon for New Testament studies (abbreviated BDAG)* translates the word differently than all those translations.
Finally, some who hold to an Arminian interpretation still retain the translation as "appointed", but understand it in a corporate, rather than individual, sense. The Expositor's Greek Testament seems to take this view when it says:
there is no countenance here for the absolutum decretum of the Calvinists, since Acts 13:46 had already shown that the Jews had acted through their own choice. The words are really nothing more than a corollary of St. Paul’s ἀναγκαῖον: the Jews as a nation had been ordained to eternal life—they had rejected this election—but those who believed amongst the Gentiles were equally ordained by God to eternal life, and it was in accordance with His divine appointment that the Apostles had turned to them.
(Expositor's then considers the alternative "middle, not passive" understanding as noted above).
In The New Chosen People, William Klein takes a similar approach (p 109-110):
Without question, the basic sense of tassō is to set or appoint. The passive voice seems to point to God as the agent. However, we question that Luke intends this to point to some pretemporal election of certain ones so that they, and only they, come to believe. This would fit poorly in the context. The Jews' rejection of the Word of God accounted for their failure to gain eternal life. They did not consider themselves worthy of eternal life (v. 46).
What a contrast to the Gentiles who, upon hearing the good news, rejoice, honor the Word, and believe. Surely in this context Luke does not intend to restrict the application of salvation only to those appointed. Rather he shows that salvation's sphere of application must expand from only Jews to believing Gentiles. We believe that [FF] Bruce misread the context. The key issue concerns whether people accept or reject the word of the Lord. Those who reject disqualify themselves from eternal life. On the other side, Luke describes believers as "those who were appointed for eternal life". Neil says of our text:
It is not in any sense narrowly predestinarian, as if some are scheduled for salvation and others for damnation; the Bible constantly stresses the element of free choice: we may accept or reject the Word of God. In this case the Jews of Antioch as a whole rejected the offer of eternal life, while some--but by no means all--of the Gentiles accept it. Those who do accept the Gospel fulfil the purpose of God that all men shall be saved, and by their response they show that they are worthy to be numbered with the saints in heaven.
Thus the Believers are "the appointed ones," a title that has obvious parallels to "the chosen ones" we saw in Mk 13:20, 22, 27, par. As did the people of God in the Old Testament, so Christians also considered themselves "the elect." Perhaps we have here a parallel expression. The "appointed" believed. Luke views those who have been appointed as a corporate group; they, as believers, stand over against those who rejected the message.
- Brian Abasciano:
- “A Conversation about the Translation of Acts 13:48”;
- “On the Translation of Acts 13:48”;
- “James White’s Faulty Treatment of the Greek and Context of Acts 13:48”; and
- “A Reply to James White Concerning His Faulty Treatment of the Greek and Context of Acts 13:48”.
- Steve Sewell (The Arminian Files), “The Key to Acts 13:48”;
- Dead Heroes Don’t Save, “Wesley and Watson examine who is Appointed to Eternal Life (Acts 13:48)”;
- Arminian Perspectives, “Acts 13:48: Two Non-Calvinist Views”;
- Arminian Today, “Arminian Honesty About Acts 13:48”;
- Greg Boyd, "How do you respond to Acts 13:48?".