Something is wrong with traditional formulations of the doctrine of divine predestination. For over fifteen hundred years, the theologians of the Church—Origen, St Augustine of Hippo, St John of Damascus, St Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Luis de Molina, Domingo Báñez, Jacobus Arminius, Karl Barth, Sergius Bulgakov, Hans Urs von Balthasar—have reflected deeply about this doctrine, yet none have been able to offer an exposition that can claim ecumenical consensus. In the attempt to bring together into a coherent whole the data of divine revelation, something or other always seems to get left out. Discussion has traditionally circled around two poles—divine sovereignty and human freedom. If God predestines humanity to salvation, are we not reduced to mere puppets? If God has made us genuinely free, how can we be divinely predestined to anything in any meaningful way? The disagreement appears to be irresolvable. That this is so suggests either that the question of predestination may be malformed or that we are confronted with an aporia that can only be expressed antinomically.
Edward T. Oakes proposes that the problem begins with the move from a posture of gratitude before God for the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ to 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). Whereas in the New Testament the confession of eternal election in Jesus Christ is intended to engender thanksgiving, joy, perseverance and mission, in the hands of Augustine the doctrine became speculation on why and how God chooses some undeserving sinners—but not all—to eternal salvation. Matthew Levering succinctly summarizes:
For Augustine, then, predestination has to do with God’s utterly gracious work of healing sinful creatures who were otherwise justly doomed to everlasting punishment, and elevating them to glorious union with God. Grace is the effect in rational creatures of God’s eternal predestination. (Predestination, p. 45)
The Augustinian version of predestination effectively refuted the heresies of Pelagius and Caelestius, but it has sometimes produced destructive 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). But most critically, it subverts the universality of God’s salvific will:
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. (Oakes, pp. 213-214)
But the Pelagian alternative is equally unacceptable, for it undermines the gratitude that characterizes Christian life and praxis. 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. “O Lord, I thank you for giving me the power to save myself from sin and make myself one of your chosen”—sort’ve like the un-thanksgiving prayer uttered by Jimmy Stewart at family dinner in the classic movie Shenandoah:
Lord, we cleared this land. We plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it. We cooked the harvest. It wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be eating it if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-bone hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you Lord just the same for the food we’re about to eat. Amen.
Recognizing the insoluble problems and inadequacies inherent in the traditional formulations of predestination, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox 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). Theologians, of course, continue to argue fiercely about predestination among themselves; yet pastors who know better avoid the topic altogether. Why confuse the faithful?
How far we have moved from the New Testament writers, who delighted to declare to their congregations:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. (Eph 1: 3-6)
How do we recover the good news of predestination?
(9 November 2014; rev.)