Something is wrong with traditional formulations of the doctrine of divine predestination. For over fifteen hundred years theologians of the Church—Augustine, John Cassian, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, John Calvin, Luis de Molina, Robert Bellarmine, Jacobus Arminius, Karl Barth—have wrestled with this issue; but none have been unable to offer a resolution that has fully satisfied the sensus fidelium. Divine sovereignty versus human freedom—with the exception perhaps of Barth, all have circled around and between one of the two poles of the question, each side anathematizing the other. Why this interminable disagreement? Is it a matter of obduracy, with one side simply refusing to see the truth, or is something wrong with the way the question has been classically formulated?
Edward T. Oakes proposes that the problem begins with the move from a posture of gratitude before God to intellectual speculation on the fate of the unrepentant, either inside or outside the Church. Predestination originates, writes Oakes, in the realization of the believer that his life in Christ is an unmerited gift from God that comprehends all the events and circumstances that led him to faith:
Predestination as a doctrine really represents the convergence of several realizations in Christian life: 1) that God is eternal and his very creation is a gratuitously willed gift that did not have to be; 2) that even though man sinned, God can trump that sin and outrun the sinner; 3) that among the mass of human beings on the globe, I, for reasons that have nothing to do with my merit (for I did not even choose to be born, let alone where and when!), have been given the grace to know of this decision of God to outbid human sin; and 4) that the only response to this can be gratitude. (Pattern of Redemption, pp. 212-213)
But once we move from our response of gratitude for the blessings we have received in Christ to speculation on “the fate of others who seem to be not so similarly blessed and once the idle workshop of the logical mind gets to humming, the doctrine of predestination begins to cause problems on which theology has again and again run aground” (p. 213). In Holy Scripture the doctrine of predestination edifies believers and strengthens them in their hope, perseverance, and missionary work. In the 5th century the doctrine received a radical reformulation by St Augustine, as he sought to combat the heresies of Pelagius & Company. The Augustinian version, though, has sometimes produced destructive spiritual side-effects, leading people either into despair (what if I’m not one of the elect?) or pride (I’m one of the elect and you guys ain’t).
The trouble really is rooted in a too-close connection between the apparent outcomes of history and the eternal decrees of God: since the world is divided between believers and non-believers, and since one’s being a Christian is due to the unmerited grace of God, and since some people obviously fall by the wayside and abandon their call before death, this must all be due to the eternal ordinance of God (“according to his purpose”). And so by a rapid logical declension, one arrives at the bottom of the Jansenist hill, concluding not only that one belongs to the elect oneself but, even more relentlessly, that “Christ died specifically and only for the faithful” and that “pagans, Jews, heretics, and others in like conditions receive no influence from Jesus Christ” since “sufficient grace is in fact harmful” (because it does not suffice!). And so by a weird reversal of intent, the doctrine—originally intended to forestall pride—ends up making the believer feel set apart and better off than the massa damnata, from which pathetic mass he has been plucked by an apparently arbitrary decree of God. (pp. 213-214)
But the Pelagian alternative is equally unacceptable, for it undermines the gratitude that characterizes Christian life and practice and muddles the proper Christian distinction between God and the world. If by my inherited natural powers I am able to achieve the divine life of the Holy Trinity, then I do not find myself placed before God in gratitude. I have achieved salvation by my performance and only have myself to thank.
Recognizing the insoluble problems inherent in the Western formulations of predestination, Roman Catholic and Protestant pastors have generally abandoned the doctrine of predestination in their public preaching. This is true even in most of the Churches that trace their lineage to Geneva. As Reformed theologian James Daane observed over thirty years ago, “Election is little more preached in Reformed pulpits than in Arminian pulpits.” Indeed, he continues, “not only is election scarcely whispered in most Reformed pulpits, but the Reformed doctrine of election has at times imperiled the very possibility of preaching the gospel” (The Freedom of God, pp. 18-19). Thomist or Molinist, Calvinist or Arminian, pastors do not publicly proclaim divine election. The doctrine of predestination is now silenced in the preaching of the Church. How far we have moved from the New Testament writers, who delighted in telling their readers that God had chosen them in Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless” and predestined them “to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph 1:4-5).
(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 16 September 2006)