Tom Talbott Reviews ‘That All Shall Be Saved’ (Part IV)

by Thomas Talbott, Ph.D.

Predestination unto Glory

Christians have traditionally held that, because they are saved by grace, they can take no credit for their own salvation, all of the credit for which goes to God. As Paul himself put it in his letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this [the faith] is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9–NRSV). Indeed, as I interpret him, Paul taught that God’s grace is utterly irresistible in this sense: however free its recipients might be to resist it in certain contexts, or even to resist it for a substantial period of time, they are not free to resist it forever. For the end, at least, is foreordained. In Paul’s own words, “For those God foreknew [that is, loved from the beginning] he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29—NIV). But if some end, such as a person’s eventually being conformed to the image of God’s Son, is predestined or foreordained, then that end cannot be avoided forever.

So how do the infernalists, as David Bentley Hart calls them, interpret this Pauline doctrine of grace and the related doctrine of a foreordained salvation for those whom God has foreknown? Western theology in particular offers two very different (indeed inconsistent) interpretations, both of which in the end undermine the concept of grace entirely. According to the tradition of Augustine, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards, among others, God restricts his redemptive love to a limited elect even as he foreordains the rest to a fate of eternal torment; and according to various free will theists (Arminians, Wesleyans, Roman Catholics, and the like), predestination itself rests upon God’s foreknowledge of which specific persons will freely choose to accept God’s grace. Both interpretations, Hart argues, illustrate how “the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment forces the mind toward absurdities and atrocities” (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 78). He thus points to Tertullian who spoke of “the saved relishing the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” points to Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas who asserted that “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven),” and points to Martin Luther who insisted that the saved will rejoice to see their [former] loved ones roasting in hell (p. 78). “Here it suffices to note,” Hart concludes, “that, in the end, the deepest problem with such claims is not so much their logic as their sheer moral hideousness” (p. 79).

For reasons of a kind already mentioned in Part II of this review, any conception of an everlasting hell undermines altogether Paul’s own understanding of God’s all-pervasive grace. In addition to these previously mentioned considerations, the Augustinian interpretation, which restricts God’s redemptive love to a select few, flatly contradicts such explicit scriptural statements as 2 Peter 3:9: “The Lord is not delaying what is promised, . . . intending [instead] for no one to perish, but rather for all to advance to a change of heart” (Hart’s translation), and 1 Timothy 2:4: God “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth” (Hart’s translation). The alternative interpretation, which stresses the power of our free will to overpower God’s intentions concerning our salvation, appeals to God’s foreknowledge of our future free choices. But that interpreta­tion seems clearly to misconstrue Paul’s use of the term “foreknowledge.” For given Paul’s own use of this term, it is persons who are foreknown without regard to any of their future free choices. Elsewhere he thus used the same term when he wrote, “God has not rejected his people [i.e., the people of Israel] whom he foreknew” (Rom 11:2). Here those fore­known are all the people of Israel, including those disobedient ones who had rejected Christ, who had been blinded and hardened (11:7), but who had not stumbled so as to fall (11:11), and whose full inclusion (11:12) would eventually result in the salvation of all Israel (11:26). However disobedient some of them may have been, “as regards election they are beloved, for the sake of their ancestors; for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:28-29—NRSV). The clear implication here is that all of those whom God has fore­known, no matter how rebellious they may have become in the present, will eventually be conformed to the likeness of God’s son.

But if God has foreordained a glorious end for each of us; and if, according to Paul, our ultimate destiny “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy” (Rom. 9:16—NRSV), then a host of confused questions are apt to arise concerning the nature of our independent rationality, the nature of human freedom, and the purpose of an earthly life. Perhaps the most serious of these confusions arises from the false assumption that, unless we freely choose between different ultimate destinies (as if that itself could be a meaningful choice), our free choices have no essential role to play in God’s plan of salvation, no contribution to make to the means of grace available to us, and no relevance at all to the lessons of love we are still required to learn as we travel the road to our ultimate salvation. According to Hart, however, that false assumption ignores the following obvious point: “As an infinite and transcendental end, God’s goodness may [yet] be indeterminate as regards proximate ends, and that very indeterminacy may be what allows for deliberative determi­nations. There may be conflicts and confusions, mistakes and perversities in the great middle distance of life” (p. 186), which could conceivably last for eons. Suppose, then, that we think of these proximate ends, as Hart calls them—the “conflicts and confusions, mistakes and perversities,” as well as the moral virtues acquired in cases of obedience—as the freely embraced means of grace available to us. That begins to look very much like the picture that Paul provided in the eleventh chapter of Romans. For although Paul never even addressed, of course, the philosophical issue of libertarian free will, he nonetheless provided a perfectly clear picture, I believe, of how libertarian freedom, indeterminism, and even sheer chance, if you will, could fit into a predestinarian scheme in which a glorious end is ultimately inescapable.

“Note then,” he wrote in 11:22, “the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; other­wise, you also will be cut off” (NRSV). As this text illus­trates, Paul held that our own actions, includ­ing any free choices we might make, determine how God will respond to us in the immediate future; they determine, in particular, the form that God’s perfecting love will take. If we continue in disobe­dience, then God will continue to shut us up to our disobedi­ence, thereby forcing us to experience the consequen­ces of our choices and the very life we have chosen to live; in that way, we will experience God’s perfecting love as severity. But if we repent and enter into communion with God, then we will experience his perfecting love as kindness. So given the assumption that we some­times exercise libertarian freedom, our free choices will have very real consequences in our lives and will determine how we encounter God’s grace in the future. But whichever way we choose, God’s perfecting love will meet our true spiritual needs perfectly. For Paul’s whole point in Romans 11 was that God’s severity, no less than his kindness, is a means of his saving grace; and as we saw in Part II of this review, God’s severity towards part of Israel was but one of the means whereby he will save all of Israel in the end. Essential to the whole process, then, is that we exercise our moral freedom—not that we choose rightly rather than wrongly, but that we choose freely one way or the other. We can choose today to live selfishly or unselfishly, faithfully or unfaithfully, obediently or disobediently. But our choices, especially the bad ones, will also have unintended and unforeseen conse­quences in our lives; as the proverb says, “The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps” (Prov 16:9—NRSV). A man who commits robbery may set off a chain of events that, contrary to his own intention, lands him in jail; and a woman who enters into an adulterous affair may discover that, even though her husband remains oblivious to it, the affair has a host of unforeseen and destruc­tive conse­quences in her life. In fact, our bad choices almost never get us what we really want; that is part of what makes them bad and also one reason why God is able to bring redemptive goods out of them. When we make a mess of our lives and our misery becomes more and more unbearable, the hell we thereby create for ourselves will in the end resolve the very ambigu­ity and shatter the very illusions that made the bad choices possible in the first place. That is how God works with us as created rational agents. He permits us to choose freely in the ambiguous contexts in which we first emerge as self-aware beings, and he then requires us to learn from experience the hard lessons we sometimes need to learn. So in that way, the consequences of our free choices, both the good ones and the bad ones, are a source of revelation; they reveal sooner or later—in the next life, if not in this one—both the horror of separation from God and the bliss of union with him. And that is why the end is foreor­dained: all paths finally lead to the same destination, the end of reconciliation, though some are longer, windier, and a lot more painful than others.

I conclude, therefore, that Paul’s understanding of predestination in no way requires a rigorous theological determinism: the view that God causally determines, either directly or indirectly through secondary causes, every event that occurs. And given Hart’s remarks about “proximate ends” and “the great middle distance of life” on p. 186, neither does Hart’s understanding of universal reconciliation require such determinism. When a grandmaster in chess plays a novice, it is foreordained, so to speak, that the grandmaster will win, not because he or she causally determines the novice’s every move or even predicts each one of them ahead of time; the end is foreordained because the grandmaster is resourceful enough to counter any combination of moves that the novice will in fact freely decide to make. And, similarly, the infinitely wise and resourceful God has no need to exercise direct causal control over our individual choices in order to “checkmate” each of us in the end; he can allow us to choose freely, perhaps even protect us from some ill-advised choices for a while, and still undermine over time every conceivable motive we might have for rejecting his grace. In addition to that, he is the one who has determined the rules of the “game.” So once we learn for ourselves—after many trials and tribulations, in some cases—why separation from God is an objective horror and why union with him is the only thing that can satisfy our own deepest yearnings and desires in the end, all resistance to his grace will melt away like wax before a flame.

(Return to Part I)

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14 Responses to Tom Talbott Reviews ‘That All Shall Be Saved’ (Part IV)

  1. George Domazetis says:

    ….. all resistance to his grace will melt away like wax before a flame.
    I enjoyed this, and yet I feel compelled to ask, did God created all from nothing with a resistance to his grace?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      By definition the creatio ex nihilo cannot meet resistance, given that there is nothing to resist. But I suspect you may be thinking of the famous St Augustine quote:

      But God made you without you. You didn’t, after all, give any consent to God making you. How were you to consent, if you didn’t yet exist? So while he made you without you, he doesn’t justify you without you. So he made you without your knowing it, he justifies you with your willing consent to it.

      Am I right? 🙂


      • George Domazetis says:

        This is part of want I had in mind, but overall my interest includes the law of God within these interesting discussions. To avoid circularity in this discussion, the intent of a person needs to be based on a free choice regarding the law of God, and this requires the understanding that arises within the spontaneous response of reason to the revealed goodness. The aspect of law as consequences, in this context, is understood because of the beneficial outcomes to the community when people equate good intention with good action. The law of God as articulated provides the specific understanding of how particular good acts can provide good outcomes; it may also be specifically understood as the absence of benefits to people if intent and/or act are contrary to the law (by extension contrary to the revealed good). The law of God can thus be understood in the context of benefits to a community. It is also understood within the context of the absence of benefits and the potential for the community to sink into acts that bring misfortune. This again requires conscious choice and active effort on the part of the community. The law of God does not need to be enforced; rather the community needs to choose to exist within the context of a collective lawful attribute.

        Naturally all begins to make sense with Christ, as he obeyed to law and also removed the power that sin has over us. We may then continue this discussion along the lines of those who break the law intentionally, and how appealing to sin as a way to increase grace is proposed, which Paul condemns. If they are condemned regarding their response to grace, how would Hart’s arguments hold?


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          George, Orthodox Christians do not believe that the relationship between God and humanity is mediated by law. We understand salvation as nothing less than participation in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; and in this communion law has no place, for it is a communion of love and self-giving. Law, of course, has its necessary place in fallen society; but it has no place in the Kingdom.

          Hence damnation cannot be a matter of transgression of the law but only a matter of personal rejection of and estrangement from God.


          • George Domazetis says:

            Fr Kimel, I agree that our relationship with God is not mediated by law and as an Orthodox Christian I understand salvation is participation in the communion of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

            My perhaps clumsy attempt at mentioning the law and sin refers to Rom 6:1-15, and the notion that evil deeds are both breaking the law and as it is statd, resistance of grace – all this refers to the fallen human being in need of salvation.


          • George Domazetis says:

            I should mention that I do not believe that anyone will be tortured for an eternity – such a notion is horrific and not according to God’s will.


  2. Anthony Sacramone says:

    I would love to know where Hart found that Luther quote. He seems to use it a lot. As far as I (and several other Lutherans) can tell, it is spurious, or wrongly attributed to Luther. We certainly can’t find it in any of his writings.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It would be a tad embarrassing if that quote turned out to be apocryphal.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Tom Talbott says:

      Just so there is no confusion in the matter, I should perhaps point out that the relevant quotation marks, which could make it look as if the words enclosed therein were a direct quotation from Martin Luther, should not be taken that way. The quotation was instead lifted from Hart’s own description of Luther’s view on page 78, a description that was never intended to be a direct quote from him. Now that I see more clearly the possible confusion here, I realize that I should have made this clearer in my OP.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Anthony Sacramone says:

        Thank you for that clarification! I still would love to know what in Luther’s writings has left Hart with this impression of the Reformer’s views.


  3. I loved the comments made about “That All Shall Be Saved” written by Dr. Hart. Is the book itself on your blog site, or is it too long?


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    This fourth part of Dr Talbott’s review is profitably read alongside David Hart’s article “Traditio Deformis.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I didn’t realize what an illogical interpretation of the many key points in the Book of Romans that Augustine had, until I read this commentary of Dr. Hart’s “That All Shall Be Saved”! It tempts me to think that Augustine was one the “Reservists”, who followed the doctrine that “it is not good to reveal all the truths of the Bible to the masses, but leave things like mankind’s ultimate and infinite destiny of their souls to the ‘esoteric few’; for fear that too many of mankind would sin and commit even more crimes, using the scripture verse, “throw not your pearls to the swine”, out of context, in order to justify this “Reserve” dogma. It’s one thing to hide a scripture truth to yourself and the ‘esoteric few’; but it’s quite another thing to ‘try’ to keep it as a secret, and preach the *lies* of an *everlasting hell* and a *limited atonement* to the masses! After I read some of Augustine’s “City of God”, and coming to his teaching about an everlasting hell, I quit reading–as much as possible– anymore of his literature. Augustine, and other Neo-platonists seem to have believed what Plato taught in his book, “The Republic”–“that, if it is for the good of the State, it is better top tell a lie”–or something very similar. It is one thing for a State philosopher to speak about pagan States and their governments–but totally unjustifiable for theologians to change the Word of God to try to frighten mankind to believe in a *blatant lie*, thinking that this will cause more men to come to repentance or try to deter them from committing sins or crimes! I need to read Dr. Hart’s book, “That All Shall Be Saved”.I believe that the things that Augustine and other followers of his and other’s “odium theologia” are one of the biggest reasons for “The Dark Ages” that followed! Christ warned the Pharisees and Sadducees of their evils of “teaching your ‘traditions’ as “The Word of God”! Other things that I have read about what Luther and Calvin taught from such theologians, such as Augustine and Tertullian; or their interpretations of their writings, even seemed to add to their morbid and false teachings about God’s punishments and judgments–seemingly neglecting all the Scriptures teachings that “God is Eternal Agape Love” and that it is His wrath that ends–not His love and mercy!


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