Recovering the Good News of Predestination

How can the Church recover the preaching of predestination? The key, I believe, is the recognition that in Holy Scripture predestination is good news. It is not a philosophical conundrum to be solved; it is a form of the gospel to be proclaimed—and specifically, a form of the gospel to be proclaimed to the baptized. No theologian of the Church has seen this more clearly than Karl Barth:

The truth which must now occupy us, the truth of the doctrine of predestination, is first and last and in all circumstances the sum of the Gospel, no matter how it may be understood in detail, no matter what apparently contradictory aspects or moments it may present to us. It is itself evangel: glad tidings; news which uplifts and comforts and sustains. Once and for all, then, it is not a truth which is neutral in face of the antithesis of fear and terror, of need and danger, which the term itself suggests. It is not a mere theorem whose content does not amount to anything more than instruction in, or the elucidation of, something which is quite unaffected by the distinction betwen right and wrong or good and evil. Its content is instruction and elucidation, but instruction and elucidation which are to us a proclamation of joy. It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation. Originally and finally it is not dialectical but non-dialectical. It does not proclaim in the same breath both good and evil, both help and destruction, both life and death. It does, of course, throw a shadow. We cannot overlook or ignore this aspect of the matter. In itself, however, it is light and not darkness. In any case, even under this aspect, the final word is never that of warning, of judgment, of punishment, of a barrier erected, of a grave opened. We cannot speak of it without mentioning all these things. The Yes cannot be heard unless the No is also heard. But the No is said for the sake of the Yes and not for its own sake. In substance, therefore, the first and last word is Yes and not No.

The election of grace is the sum of the Gospel—we must put it as pointedly as that. But more, the election of grace is the whole of the Gospel, the Gospel in nuce. It is the very essence of all good news. It is as such that it must be understood and evaluated in the Christian Church. God is God in His being as the One who loves in freedom. This is revealed as a benefit conferred upon us in the fact which corresponds to the truth of God’s being, the fact that God elects in His grace, that He moves towards man, in his dealing within this covenant with the one man Jesus, and the people represented by Him. All the joy and the benefit of His whole work as Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer, all the blessings which are divine and therefore real blessings, all the promise of the Gospel which has been declared: all these are grounded and determined in the fact that God is the God of the eternal election of His grace. In the light of this election the whole of the Gospel is light. Yes is said here, and all the promises of God are Yea and Amen (2 Cor 1:20). (Church Dogmatics, II/2: 12-14)

Predestination intends Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God and second person of the Holy Trinity, the Messiah of Israel and the mediator and embodiment of the world’s salvation. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends Israel, elected by God to receive in her flesh the Savior of the world. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends the Blessed Virgin Mary, chosen by God to conceive, birth, nurture and protect the Messiah of her people. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends the Church, the body of Christ, the new Israel and elect company of the twice-born. And because predestination simultaneously intends Jesus, Israel, Mary, and the Church, it also intends the individual believer in Christ, who has been baptized into the death and resurrection of the Lord, incorporated into the eschatological community, and made an heir of the kingdom. The gospel of election proclaims to the baptized that through their sacramental incorporation into the incarnate Son of God, they participate in the divine Sonship and are destined to be with Christ in his kingdom. Jesus is the elect One of God.  United to him we share in his divine election. To be in the Church is to be in Christ; to be in Christ is to be in God; and to be in God is to enjoy eternal salvation in the life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:

Jesus is the Christ because of his election. If the believer bears—in the profound, biblical sense—the name of Christ by bearing the name of Christian, he does so because he shares in the election of Christ. The idea that we share or participate in Christ is characteristic of the Christian religion. We share in Christ’s death, his resurrection, his Spirit, his ascension, his return, his judgment of the world, his threefold task as prophet, priest, and king, his suffering, his kingdom, power, and glory. And we share in his election. That we do so is only another expression for the fact that election in biblical thought is never a purely individual matter. The election of the believer, as that of Israel and the church, is an involvement in the divine election of Jesus….

The idea of participation in Christ’s election spells the end of any purely individualistic doctrine of election and the illegitimacy of theologically tailoring the gospel to fit such a doctrine. It liberates us from the insoluble problem that a merely individual election raises for the proclamation of the gospel. It makes election the language of grace, thereby removing its vulnerability to rational manipulation in terms of logical inferences and implications. (James Daane, The Freedom of God, pp. 198-199)

At the moment one makes the Augustinian turn and seeks to explain human rejection of the gospel in terms of God’s eternal decrees, the preaching of election becomes impossible. The logic appears inescapable. If salvation is by grace alone, and if some reject Christ to their damnation, does this not mean that God reprobates the damned? But the gospel itself disallows the question. The election of Christ Jesus is the reason why some are saved; but it is not the reason why some are not! As James Daane comments: “Nothing in the Bible suggests that God created the world to save some men and damn others. Nothing in the Bible suggests that God elected Israel in order to damn all Gentile nations. Nothing in the Bible suggests that God sent Christ into the world both to save and damn. On this matter the Apostle is unequivocal: ‘God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him'” (p. 201).

In his book Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor, Joseph Farrell asks, “Why does the West seem constantly plagued by recurring controversies over predestination and free will?” (p. 199). It’s not that the East was not also plagued by such controversies, as the centuries-long Eastern debates about the apokatastasis witness; but these debates appear to have disappeared after the resolution of the monothelite crisis. Farrell proposes multiple reasons for the West’s continuing struggle with predestination, many of which are highly speculative; but his most plausible candidate is the failure to properly distinguish between person and nature. Farrell cites St Augustine’s exegesis of John 6:39 (“This is the will of the Father who hath sent me, that of all that he hath given me I shall lose nothing”) as an example. Who are the “all”? According to Augustine, the “all” are the specific individuals who have been divinely elected to salvation: this “number is so certain that one can neither be added to them nor taken away from them.” For Augustine, predestination pertains to persons. Maximus, on the other hand, interprets “all” as referring to the human nature assumed by Christ in the Incarnation. Farrell states the contrast:

Rather than interpreting the “all” in a “Maximian” manner as referring to the single human nature of Christ, that is, rather than interpreting it christologically, in reference to Christ, St. Augustine interprets it predestinationally, in reference to his general doctrine of predestination. Christological considerations have been subordinated to an overarching structure of predestination. (p. 207)

Because human nature has been resurrected in Christ, all human beings will share in the resurrection, either to their salvation or to their damnation, depending on their free personal decisions. Predestination thus refers to the future state of embodied life, guaranteed to every individual by the paschal victory; it does not refer to the choice each individual must make in relationship to his Creator. Or to put the matter in different words: grace as resurrection is irresistible; grace as the enhypostasization of eternal beatitude is resistible. Farrell explains:

Christ produces the permanence of everlasting being for all of human nature, but only “as each human hypostasis” wills. To put this point in more “Calvinistic” terms makes its implications quite clear: the resurrection is the one, universal, irreformable and ineluctable fact of all human destinies, admitting of no exceptions. However, the type or state of that resurrection, that is to say, Ever-Ill or Ever-Well Being depends upon the person. One might go so far as to say that the irresistible will of God to save all men is viewed as being fulfilled by Christ in His resurrection of all human nature to everlasting being. The “all” of St. John 6:39 would thus be taken as referring to Christ’s humanity, that is, to His human nature, and not to a predestined number of human persons. It is this humanity in its fullness and perfection in Christ which is raised, and nothing is lost to it if some person wills not to be saved. Nothing has been denied to God’s sovereignty because nothing is lacking to Christ’s humanity, and yet nothing has been denied to personal human liberty either. (p. 217)

The Sixth Ecumenical Council tells us that the human nature assumed by the eternal Son included the faculty of volition—Christ has both a divine will and a human will. But if the human will has been redeemed and healed, and if Christ, in both his divine and human natures, wills the salvation of all humanity, and if all human beings are united to Christ in their ontological depths, then apokatastasis would seem to be an inevitability. Maximus solves this problem by positing two human wills: “the will as a property of nature” and the will as “property as the person,” i.e., “the equally real mode of using and employing the will” (p. 218). The natural will, redeemed in Christ, always chooses the good; evil choices, however, belong to the personal or hypostatic will. This distinction between the natural will and the personal exercise of the will thus allows Maximus to assert both that all humanity is saved by Christ through his regeneration of human nature and that each individual is free to align or disalign his will with the will of God. Through and in the incarnate Son the created human hypostasis enjoys the liberty to decide for heaven or hell.

At this point in my studies, I am unwilling to sign off on Farrell’s presentation of St. Maximus or to declare that Maximus has solved the predestination mystery. Farrell’s analysis has not been subjected to extensive critical review by patristic scholars and systematic theologians, and he too easily discounts Maximus’s hope for universal reconciliation (see Ilaria Ramelli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis, pp. 738-757). But I agree with Farrell that ecumenical theology needs to bring the great Eastern confessor of the faith into the conversation. Western Christianity made a wrong turn with Augustine when it sought to explain human rejection of the gospel by an eternal decree of God divorced from the Incarnation. With St Maximus and Karl Barth, we must proclaim both that the Triune God has effected the reconciliation and redemption of all humanity and that he earnestly desires the eternal salvation of every human person.

But I would go one step further. In his preaching, the preacher should confidently take to his lips the language of Scripture and to declare to his congregation the good news of predestination: “You are the elect people of God. You have been chosen for eternal salvation. In Christ you are justified. In Christ you are sanctified. In Christ you are glorified. By the love of the Crucified you are predestined to the kingdom of everlasting life. Believe and rejoice!” Every parish, every believer, needs to hear such bold preaching delivered in the name of Jesus Christ.

(Return to first article)

(This is an edited version of an article originally published on my old blog Pontifications on 29 September 2006)

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14 Responses to Recovering the Good News of Predestination

  1. Beautifully put. Amen!

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  2. joel in ga says:

    “Election: a doctrine which in the Bible asserts the fact of God’s choosing certain persons for the specific purpose of receiving first, and so communicating the gifts of his grace to the whole world.”
    George MacDonald (1824-1905)

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  3. William says:

    What I’ve found to be a principal problem in most articulations about predestination is the way they often can’t avoid placing God within time. “Before God did this, he decreed it long in advance” or something along those lines, suggesting that there was an actual time way back when God made these decrees. However, God is not in time, as I’m sure most Christians would want to agree, and what he does today is what he does in eternity, meaning it is done “before” the foundations of the world. God’s gaze upon me today, at the moment of my repentant call to him for mercy, is identical with his eternal gaze upon me “before” the world ever was or “before” I ever came to be. His choosing of you now when you unite yourself to him in Christ is no different than his choosing of you before the foundation of the world.

    But I know that is inadequate to many of the questions connected with doctrines of predestination. I think it’s absolutely right to suggest that Maximus the Confessor holds a key on this subject. In addition to the connection of the human nature of Christ with all persons who share human nature, his teachings about the logos or logoi of human nature being oriented toward God and summed up in Jesus Christ, the Logos, the principle underlying all logoi, has a very definite connection with predestination. Human destiny is written into its very nature from its beginning. It is man created in the image of God. I’m not at all in a position to expound on this, but thought it worth mentioning here.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree with you, William, that time so often gets imported into discussions of predestination. How can we speak the prefix “pre-” without automatically thinking of “before,” yet as soon as we do that, we have messed up everything. Herbert McCabe has an article in his book God Still Matters that I have found clarifying. He writes:

      Certainly, a race or a fight that is fixed beforehand is a bogus race or fight; and a human life that has been fixed beforehand is a bogus human life. What has happened here is that we are taking the ‘beforehand’ too literally. Predestination is not something we have from birth, from way back, ‘beforehand’. We do not have predestination at all; it is the plan in the mind of God, it is nothing whatever in us. Predestination exists in eternity and only in eternity, in the eternal timeless mind of God. It is not before or after or even simultaneous with anything. When we plan something and then carry out the plan, there is first the plan and then later the execution. But this cannot be so with God. God has no lifetime, no before and after. There are not times or dates to the thoughts and acts of God. His predestining Jesus to ascend into heaven does not come before his bringing Jesus to heaven. Nothing in God comes before anything else, they are all the one thing which is simply the eternal timeless life of God himself. So we must not take the ‘pre’ in ‘predestination’ literally. What is predestined happens but it doesn’t happen later than its predestination because predestination is only in the timeless mind of God. It is always wrong and a muddle to say ‘What I just did must have been predestined thirty years ago’ because predestination, like the thought of God, has no date at all. It does not mean that we move in predestinate grooves that are there beforehand, like tram lines. (pp. 184-185)

      I honestly do not know how helpful St Maximus is on the question of predestination. I suppose that the person/nature distinction, as he apparently employs it, provides a philosophical way to affirm both that humanity (i.e., human nature) is predestined in Christ to glory, while at the same time respecting human individuality; but I doubt it makes predestination any more preachable.

      In this article I have proposed that election language as a way to proclaim, in the context of first- and second-person discourse, the unconditionality of grace.

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    • William says:

      As for the preachability of predestination, it may be only the word itself that is unpreachable, because all that history has mired it in has made it impossible to utter without conjuring in the hearer various meanings and arguments or protestations that miss the point (unless I have missed the point). And maybe the word’s absence is not such a loss if we find that the notion behind it is still preachable. It seems that speaking of God’s will or God’s intention for our salvation, and that of the whole world, in fact speaks the same thing or something very close to God’s predestination (despite the fact that someone like John Piper and his fans might dispute this), although the word “predestination” usefully emphasizes the priority of that will or intention over our wills or intentions. But to say that God’s will is for all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth is to say of me and you that God’s will is that you and I be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. To me, this is something very similar to saying God predestined your salvation and mine. When you have found salvation and come to a knowledge of the truth, you have come into that destiny that God has already willed or intended even when you did not, or he willed it independently of and “prior to” your willing it. The preacher can still point to Jesus Christ and say, “This is the image in which you were created; this divine life that Christ lived humanly on earth and which he possesses by nature is the only life that God intends for you, gives to you — without which you cannot live. This is the only destiny conceived for you by God, and there is no alternative that will bring you life, for the simple fact that there is no alternative life besides life itself.” And these kinds of statements are for me adaptations of things I have read in Maximus the Confessor (though not exclusively in him). I am certainly no expert in Maximus, but I don’t know how many times I have read passage from him and felt it addresses (without necessarily intending to) questions related to predestination. But I in my haphazardness am unable to articulate exactly how his teachings address the subject of predestination.

      From another angle, it seems to me that a statement like Irenaeus’ “God created man in order to save him.” is to speak of predestination without using the word itself. I know that’s third-person, but it can easily be converted to first- or second-person.

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    • William says:

      Also, thank you for that wonderful quote from McCabe.

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  4. tgbelt says:

    It wouldn’t be a complete conversation unless somebody spoke of for that little word “if.” So I’ll go ahead and do so. ;o)

    Nobody who objects to Calvin’s predestining decree need disagree that God’s love forgiveness and choice of us is conditional. There’s no “if” which the gospel predicates of God when it comes to God’s pursuit of us and the gospel’s invitation. But there clearly is an “if” which the gospel predicates to human beings which, it seems to me Fr Aidan, you may want to simply ignore or relegate into an “unpreachable” abstraction. I don’t know.

    – Heb. 3.15: “As has just been said: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.’”
    – Rom 10.9: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
    – John 8’s: “If you abide in my word and my word in you, then….”
    – Col. 1.23: “If you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel.”

    The “if” is predicated explicitly to hearers of the gospel in the proclamation of the gospel. There’s no getting around that. This doesn’t imperil predestination classically understood unless one includes creaturely response (the effective operation of that ‘if’ predicated by the gospel to human beings) within the scope of God’s own predetermining agency as later determinists did. I don’t see positing this “if” as a foreign philosophical abstraction upon the biblical text. The text has to be read and the gospel heard “meaningfully.”

    Predestination as simply the proposition that God elects Christ as the inheritor and executor of creation’s telos is perfectly biblical (and arguably entailing of eventual universal reconciliation—God never gives up pursuing us) and suffers no threat by standing alongside the Bible’s own “if” predicated without fear or embarrassment to human beings responsible before God. But this is a far cry from both Calvin’s unconditional all-inclusive decree and as well as the notion (here) that no “if” exists within the gospel proclamation.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “It wouldn’t be a complete conversation unless somebody spoke of for that little word “if.'”

      Being the good Pentecostal synergist that you are, Tom, I wouldn’t expect anything less. 🙂

      Not only do you have commonsense on your side, but you’ve cited good NT texts to support your case. Alas, I am shortly off to the airport, so do not have time to respond. But I’m sure this matter will come up again in future conversations. 🙂

      Quickie response: Perhaps the synergist/monergist dualism is not the best way to think about this matter.

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  5. tgbelt says:

    Safe travels my friend! Have a wonderful time!

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  6. tgbelt says:

    I said “Nobody who objects to Calvin’s predestining decree need disagree that God’s love, forgiveness and choice of us is conditional.”

    I of course meant “unconditional”!

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  7. tgbelt says:

    I said “which, it seems to me Fr Aidan, you may want to simply ignore….”

    What’s with me? I meant “…you SEEM to want to ignore.”

    Gosh.

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