Why is Predestination Missing in Action?

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).

(Go to “The Unpreachability of the ‘Doctrine’ of Predestination”)

(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 16 September 2006)

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12 Responses to Why is Predestination Missing in Action?

  1. I’m glad that you mentioned Barth, who saw Jesus as the Chosen One, the Son who is given the inheritance and shares everything he has out of his divine status and being. We, therefore, are chosen in Christ before the foundations of the world … nothing we are or have is apart from being placed in Christ. I love this Pauline Christocentric election!

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  2. tgbelt says:

    A bit of push back.

    I fail to see Barth as an exception. He’s clearly a determinist (his doctrine of concursus), even when it’s qualified Christocentrically.

    I can appreciate the potential harm in Pelagian approaches, but if it’s considered heterodox it’s not any more heterodox than deterministic models. If I had to choose one or other to stand under, I think Pelagianism would have had far less adverse effects than Calvinism. But anyhow, what I wanted to say was that I think it’s a mistake to suppose that Augustinian determinism is orthodox (small ‘o’) but only “sometimes produces destructive side-effects…or pride” while Pelagianism doesn’t sometimes produce destructive side-effects, rather, it just IS its destructive effects, i.e. it “undermines gratitude…and muddles the proper distinction between God and the world.”

    I’m not an expert on Pelagius (what have we got of his writings really?), but I don’t think it follows from believing that we are free to choose in ways not determined by God that we therefore have grounds for boasting. All one need remember is that one’s inherited natural powers are the mediated grace of God, we are ‘given’ our existence, our powers to self-determine, and we depend constantly for their proper exercise upon the Spirit’s presence and draw. We have no powers to exercise (even exercise contrary to God’s will for us) which are not always already God’s grace, mediating and sustaining our powers to so self-determine. So creaturely freedom to self-determine can be—when understood properly—grounds for gratitude. It’s not that theosis is achieved “by my performance” so that I only have myself to thank, for even ‘freely self-determining’ creatures are preceded in their existing and choosing by grace. Creation is never not dependent upon the empowering grace of God.

    But Pelagianism does a far better job at maintaining the creator-creature distinction, for that distinction is more egregiously blurred by determinism’s monergistic cosmology-soteriology. If creatures are secondary causes of effects predetermined by God, creatures are just God-extended. In the end, Hartshorne was right—determinism implies pantheism. If A wholly determines B, B is just A over again.

    But if determinists can intentionally avoid these destructive tendencies in their view, so can Pelagians intentionally avoid the harmful tendencies of their view.

    Tom

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  3. Barth, in Church Dogmatics, says concursus “is an operation in the Word and therefore by the Spirit, in the Spirit and therefore by the Word,” and hence it doesn’t “prejudice the autonomy, the freedom, the responsibility, the individual being and life and activity of the creature, or the genuineness of its own activity, but confirms and indeed establishes them.”

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  4. Ronald MURPHY says:

    Since God created all rational beings “very good” in the beginning as God reveals to us in Genesis, He must have created the “potential of evil” to test His rational creatures, as to whether they would freely choose to love and obey Him or choose to disobey and rebel. God didn’t arbitrarily create good angels and evil angels. Lucifer and the other fallen angels freely chose to do evil and rebel, with the consequence of being cast out heaven. Likewise, Adam and Eve were created immortal and sinless, but they disobeyed God’s Holy Command and sin, evil, death and destruction came into the world. Down through history mankind still chooses to do good or evil. After Christ and the Gospel of His Redemption came into the world, far too many of Adam’s race choose to reject Him and His Salvation–choosing to practice sinfulness and evils and following Anti-Christ religions and whatever idols people choose to love more than their Creator and Redeemer. I can’t understand why so many Christian believers and theologians can deny a free will for His rational creatures, and believe in some “fatalistic, Stoic, absolute determinism, double predestination that Augustinian and Calvinists teach. God will get His absolute infinite will, when He ultimately saves and reconciles ALL at the end of the Ages! Colossians 1:15-20, Ephesians 1:10, 1 Corinthians 15:22-28, Romans 8:19-21, and other precious Scriptures!

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  5. Mike H says:

    First time poster.

    Really thought provoking post and I really appreciate all the work and thought that you put into your blog. I read that first quote from Oakes and was like wow! If you get thru #1 – #3 and can really believe them, you get to #4 and gratitude really is the only response. If that’s what “predestination” is then count me in. It’s honestly the first time that I’ve ever seen predestination presented in a way that isn’t horrific.

    Problem is, like I said, I have NEVER heard predestination presented in that way before. Perhaps it’s because what I’ve been presented with is a caricature, but I really don’t think so. Regardless of how predestination is defined at it’s most basic level, it does seem to naturally lead to “speculation on the fate of others” and often to deep angst as to the character of a God who could save all (however “save” is defined”) but freely chooses not to “for his glory”. Why wouldn’t it lead to questioning about the fate of others? How could it not? I really don’t think that the idle workshop of the logical mind is to blame or that saying it is will stop the inquiry. Especially for us thinking, analytical people, asking that following question, diving deeper into what it says about the character of God is really the only option. Not taking that next step would be like listening to the booming voice and flames of the wizard in the Wizard of Oz who yells “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” and obeying it.

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    • Michael Bauman says:

      Here in lies the problem with too much analysis: who are we to question the character of God and/or the fate of others.

      God is, we are contingent. It is impossible for contingent beings to know the full character of their creator.

      Jesus, the Bible, the Church Fathers all warn us against speculating on the fate of others. That fate is wholly in God’s hands.
      St. John and others tell us that God is love. We live and move and have our being as a result of that love. That love is, for me at least, totally unfathomable and ineffable. I often cannot understand why He loves such an unworthy creature as I am. Yet, He does.

      One major thing that leads us to misunderstand that love is the cultural climate of sentiment and egalitarianism. We miss characterize love as simple sentiment and “fairness”. It is neither. We must also consider the prevailing cultural mindset that worships pleasure and power.

      God does did not create evil nor does he use evil to produce good in some kind of twisted cause and effect manner. He and He alone is able to transform evil into good–to raise the dead and save the fallen.

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      • herz1512 says:

        I’m not suggesting that we can study and dissect God to the point that we understand everything and can therefore definitively say what he is allowed to do or not do. There’s no point in questioning the character of God, but we’re certainly free to discuss (in this case what “predestination” says about ) who God is aren’t we? I think that formulating doctrine without it being grounded in the character of God (which we of course get wrong) is a dangerous thing to do.

        I’m not suggesting that it’s good or healthy for individuals to look at other individuals and make some kind of decision on if they’re “in” or “out”. It’s not, and it’s hugely burdensome. I will say that the Calvinist framework (in practice) seems like it would make it very difficult NOT to do this (perhaps people look at others and think it, but don’t say it out loud). I’m just saying that I think there’s a reason that people have been asking this question for 1,500 years. And it doesn’t need to be the question of specific individuals or anything like that. If a theological framework says that God alone “saves”, but sovereignly doesn’t choose to save all (without getting into specific individuals), I’m going to ask “What’s up with that?” and “How does that work?”. And then we work out the implications – maybe there are things that I’ve misunderstood and need to be redefined. Have I misunderstood the gospel message, have I misunderstood “predestination”, have I misunderstood what it means to say that “God is love” and need to radically redefine “love”? Are those appropriate questions to ask? It’s because it’s a natural question and I just don’t see it as (necessarily) a prideful or presumptive kind of question. It isn’t over analysis or questioning God’s character in and of itself, it’s just a normal next question to ask. The question isn’t the problem IMO, it’s the answer that’s led to “destructive spiritual side-effects”.

        For me, one of the things that I got out of the post to be highlighting the effect of stuffing questions down and making it into deep dark secret rather than going back, figuring out where and when things shifted, and rethinking the framework. The result, in the case of predestination, is that it becomes MIA. It’s impossible to talk about it – it only divides. Maybe the question of the “fate of others” would be satisfied or become a non-issue in a different framework. I’ll admit that I come from a western tradition that has affected me in ways I’m just now beginning to realize. But the question is important and necessary in that framework.

        Also, I think fairness aka “justice” is an important part of love.

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      • herz1512 says:

        I’m not suggesting that we can study and dissect God to the point that we understand everything and can therefore definitively say what he is allowed to do or not do. There’s no point in questioning the character of God, but we’re certainly free to discuss (in this case what “predestination” says about ) who God is aren’t we? I think that formulating doctrine without it being grounded in the character of God (which we of course get wrong) is a dangerous thing to do.

        I’m not suggesting that it’s good or healthy for individuals to look at other individuals and make some kind of decision on if they’re “in” or “out”. It’s not, and it’s hugely burdensome. I will say that the Calvinist framework (in practice) seems like it would make it very difficult NOT to do this (perhaps people look at others and think it, but don’t say it out loud). I’m just saying that I think there’s a reason that people have been asking this question for 1,500 years. And it doesn’t need to be the question of specific individuals or anything like that. If a theological framework says that God alone “saves”, but sovereignly doesn’t choose to save all (without getting into specific individuals), I’m going to ask “What’s up with that?” and “How does that work?”. And then we work out the implications – maybe there are things that I’ve misunderstood and need to be redefined. Have I misunderstood the gospel message, have I misunderstood “predestination”, have I misunderstood what it means to say that “God is love” and need to radically redefine “love”? Are those appropriate questions to ask? It’s because it’s a natural question and I just don’t see it as (necessarily) a prideful or presumptive kind of question. It isn’t over analysis or questioning God’s character in and of itself, it’s just a normal next question to ask. The question isn’t the problem IMO, it’s the answer that’s led to “destructive spiritual side-effects”.

        For me, one of the things that I got out of the post to be highlighting the effect of stuffing questions down and making it into deep dark secret rather than going back, figuring out where and when things shifted, and rethinking the framework. The result, in the case of predestination, is that it becomes MIA. It’s impossible to talk about it – it only divides. Maybe the question of the “fate of others” would be satisfied or become a non-issue in a different framework. I’ll admit that I come from a western tradition that has affected me in ways I’m just now beginning to realize. But the question is important and necessary in that framework.

        Also, I think fairness aka “justice” is an important part of love.

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  6. Michael Bauman says:

    Well, I am no theologian but there are two things that stand in the way of predestination as commonly understood (only some ate predestined to salvation).
    1. Throughout Scripture the promise is that Jesus will “draw all men to Himself”;
    2. The antinomical principal with which Christianity is shot through. Namely that the full truth is rarely a human either/or but mostly a divine both/and.

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    • Ronald Murphy says:

      It is true that there are a lot of paradoxes in life and in the Bible. Judas Iscariot did wickedly in betraying Christ, but Jesus said no one can take His life without His Father’s will and Christ laid down His life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. God allows evil for only foreknown Ages of time, but He can and does bring about good by allowing evil. In the end, at the end of the Ages, God will save and reconcile ALL through Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. Colossians 1:15-20, and many other precious scriptural promises in God’s Word!

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