The Unpreachability of Predestination

When was the last time you heard a sermon preached on election and predestination? In thirty-plus years of priestly ministry I think I may have preached on it once. Christian pastors simply do not preach on it; and it doesn’t matter whether they are Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox; Thomist, Molinist, or Maximian; Calvinist or Arminian. Given the many New Testament texts that speak to predestination and given the importance of this subject in theological reflection, the refusal of pastors to proclaim predestination to their congregations cries out for explanation.

Thesis: Preachers no longer preach predestination because the doctrine of predestination has become unpreachable.

Reformed theologian James Daane explores the unpreachability of predestination in his book The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit (1973). “Sermons on election are so rare,” he writes,

that even a regular churchgoer may never hear one…. And the rare occasion when a minister does venture to preach on election is more likely to be an apologetic lecture defending a particular form of the doctrine than a sermon proposing election as something in which the hearer should place his faith and ground his trust. (p. 14)

This last sentence is important. In the New Testament predestination is not a doctrine to be taught but good news to be proclaimed and believed. When the Apostle Paul declared that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son … And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justi­fied, he also glorified” (Rom 8:29-30), he was not engaging in philosophical speculation. He was proclaiming gospel to the believers in Rome and offering a powerful word of hope and encouragement. God has predestined you to glory! Therefore, you need not fear “trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword” (Rom 8:35). The biblical language of predestination is first- and second-person discourse. It is a way of speaking the gospel to those who have died with Christ in Baptism and been raised to new life in the Church. But this way of speaking the good news of Jesus has been effectively nullified by the transposition from proclamation to scholastic theory. The doctrine of election has been divorced from the gospel and alienated from the history of salvation in Israel, Incarnation, and Church.

It is not surprising, suggests Daane, that predestina­tion has disappeared in Arminian pulpits. Arminian­ism is concerned to maintain the integrity of the human person as a free being. As a good Reformed theologian, Daane is unsympathetic with this concern. The freedom to choose or reject God, he maintains, “in fact characterizes the nature of man who has not yet become a Christian. It is as a natural, non-Christian man that man possesses and exercises the freedom to choose or reject God” (p. 16). For Arminians predesti­nation can only mean man’s election of God, not God’s election of man. Hence it is unsurprising that they do not proclaim predestina­tion: “The Arminian doctrine of election as a possibil­ity of human freedom cannot be preached, for to do so would be to preach man, not Christ, and the Arminians have no desire to preach anything more or less than Christ and him crucified” (pp. 16-17).

I am not concerned here with intra-Protestant debate, given that free-will synergism characterizes both (many) Roman Catholics and virtually all Orthodox. Daane’s point obtains. For the synergist position, the predestined are those whom God has foreseen as persevering in faith. Daane suggests that the Arminian construal of election is unpreach­able because it is too humanistic; but this misses, I think, the crucial point. Arminian predestina­tion is unpreachable because it is not good news about anything. It is only a doctrine. It does not invite faith, only assent. It does not build up the body of Christ; it does not edify; it does not embolden or encourage. It simply gives an answer to a perplexing theological question. Why waste limited preaching time on predesti­nation, therefore? Good preachers have more important words to speak to their congregations. The synergist pastor cannot stand before his congregation and announce to them that they are eternally predestined for salvation, because he does not know who in his congregation will persevere in their faith and be saved and thus “become” the elect.

But Reformed preachers are in no better position, says Danne. There is a gap between what is declared in the Reformed confessions and what is preached in the Reformed pulpit. Why? Because in Reformed reflection predestination goes hand in hand with reprobation:

In classical Reformed theology, election does not stand alone. Although Scripture speaks of predestination to life and never, explicitly, of predestination to damnation, election in Reformed thought implies its opposite, reprobation. Election was regarded as selection, a divine choice by which some men were predestined to eternal life, and all other men were regarded as reprobates predestined to eternal damnation. With election, reprobation emerges. This dual aspect was frequently called “double predestination.”

The combination of election and reprobation created considerable intellectual difficulties for theologians, as the long history of Christian thought reveals. But for those called to preach the gospel, it created an even greater practical problem. How could one preach election?

The difficulty here stems not from election, but from reprobation. If all men were elect, the preaching of election would create no problems. One could preach election as he preaches all other Christian truth: by proclaiming it and calling people to believe it. But since some men are reprobates, the elect are not known. And if they cannot be identified from the vantage point of the preacher of the gospel, how can election be preached, even to the elect? (p. 19)

The Reformed preacher, like the Thomist, stands before a congregation composed of elect and reprobate. At this point it doesn’t matter if the preacher is a supra­lapsar­ian or infralapsarian, double predesti­nar­ian or single predestinarian. As Catholic theologian Joseph Pohle states: “The absolute predestination of the blessed is at the same time the absolute will of God ‘not to elect’ a priori the rest of mankind (Suarez), or which comes to the same, ‘to exclude them from heaven’ (Gonet), in other words, not to save them.” God has chosen some for eternal glory and others (either directly or indirectly) for perdition; but as the pastor does not know who the elect and reprobate are, he has no choice but to refrain from proclaiming predestination.

But why not then preach both election and reprobation to the congregation? Because reprobation can never be a proper theme of Christian preaching:

The content of Christian preaching is something in which men are summoned to believe and trust to the saving of their souls. Reprobation does not satisfy that criterion. Reprobation is ultimate judgment—and no man can hope, trust, and have faith in that. The Bible indeed speaks of judgment, and the pulpit must proclaim judgment, but the Bible does not teach and the pulpit cannot preach an irreversible ultimate judgment as an object of faith. (Daane, p. 20)

The Reformed instinct is right—predestination is a form and expression of the gospel. But when predestination is interpreted in terms of God’s absolute decree, dividing humanity into the eternally blessed and the eternally damned, the preaching of the gospel itself becomes problematic. Daane writes: “If Arminianism … was unable to include election within its preaching of the gospel, Reformed theology … was at some points in its history theoretically unable, because of its view of election, to preach the gospel at all” (p. 19). In the 17th century, for example, Scottish theologians argued that preachers may not offer salvation indiscrimi­nately. Pastors solved this problem by restricting the offer of salvation to the membership of the visible church. But the “solution” cannot work, for visible membership does not guaran­tee God’s electing favor. More importantly, it leaves unaddressed the question of preaching the gospel to the nonbaptized. In the 18th century, Dutch theologians argued that the prior identification of the elect is a condition for gospel-preaching: only those whose election has been established apart from the gospel are entitled to hear the gospel; salvation cannot be offered to those whom God has predestined to hell. Here we see divine reprobation driving theological reflection, terminating in a bizarre, anti-gospel conclusion. The Reformed Church actually found itself wondering whether the gospel could be preached at all. The theological and spiritual absurdity is only matched by the Jansenist claim that the baptized should pray to be delivered from sufficient grace: A gratis sufficienti libera nos, Domine. “Surely a unique moment in the history of heresy,” remarks Edward Oakes: “to pray to be delivered from grace!” But we should not be surprised. Predestination appears to generate strange thinking. No wonder pastors finally stopped preaching it.

(11 November 2014; rev.)

(Go to “Preaching Predestination”)

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18 Responses to The Unpreachability of Predestination

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Are you suggesting Fr Kimel that their theology is in actuality changing, or is it merely the homiletic practice? If your thesis is right, then there is a glaring disconnect between what is believed and what is practiced. Any thoughts on this?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      If the homiletic practice changes, does this not perhaps suggest that some kind of doctrinal change is in the works? The disconnect that you note is not irrelevant, so it seems to me. When a doctrine ceases to inform homiletic and pastoral practice, then what use is the doctrine? Even if it is never formally rejected, it has simply become a museum piece.

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  2. this is fine if you have your elect as a (small) minority.
    Remember that some simply means not necessary all.
    A wee look at John 17: 13 you have one person predestined to Reprobation. Thus I can preach on election, through the grace of God – but don’t ask about him or her, it is not of your business. _ see John 21: 21&22

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  3. cjposter says:

    I have heard sermons on Election from at least three pastors that I can think of off the top of my head. And I know that Gerhard Forde wrote a bit on preaching the doctrine.

    Here is a presentation that turns to preaching at the end tying Election with Absolution:

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I knew that someone would quickly pop up to prove my claim false. 🙂

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      My guess is that this video is not the one you intended to link to. 🙂

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    • cjposter says:

      You’re right. The Elon Musk video, whatever it had to do with the future, was in no way my intended sermon on Predestination. My intention was to share a Steven Paulson presentation. Paulson was also mentioned in the comments by Adam Morton.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Walker says:

    You might want to give a bit of attention to the so-far 2/3-finished set by Stephen Paulson, Luther’s Outlaw God. Predestination and preaching feature in a large way.

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    • Robert Fortuin says:

      yikes, no thanks

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    • Adam Morton says:

      Yup. Paulson is following on (and expanding greatly on) Forde’s reading of Luther on election, which is precisely meant to be preached.

      However (and I say this admiringly) Steve is an extreme outlier. Yes, someone does it, and taught his students to do it. It’s a rare path to go down (though one I find incredibly fruitful).

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  5. Iain Lovejoy says:

    The problem as I see it is what you are preaching people are predestined *for*.
    Calvinist predestination is not in any rational, preachable sense “good news”.
    Paul’s predestination is: he is telling the Roman Christians that God predestined them as a body to be the first glorious generation of the church, the beginning of the salvation of mankind, of which they are a crucial part. It encourages the faithful to persevere in the faith, help one another and preserve and grow the Church by telling them that even though they may think they suck at it, they were in fact handpicked for the task by God.
    Calvinist predestination, by contrast, is telling a congregation that they individually (or perhaps just some of them) have been arbitrarily spared from the eternal torture God has set aside for the rest of mankind. It is not “good” news but “bad but at least not quite as bad for you” news. In so far as it encourages anything it encourages the faithful to harden their hearts against the fate that awaits their neighbours and complacently look forward to dying. I am not surprised if people don’t reckon it preaches particularly well.

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  6. Maximus says:

    Great post, Fr Aidan. I look forward to how this series unfolds. It seems to me that the doctrine of election is good news in both the Old and New Testaments specifically as good news *for the poor.* This has bearing on the disputed topic of conditional vs. unconditional election. It is actually the former that a trans-testament biblical theology seems to uphold. For instance, St Paul encourages the Corinthians that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world” (1 Cor 1:27). It seems that God’s election is indeed conditioned by (lowly) human circumstances.

    This Corinthians text is possibly an echo of the premier OT election text, which says something similar: “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all people…” (Deut 7:6-7). I wonder if this focus on God electing the weak, the poor, the least wise in the world, etc., doesn’t make election really good news indeed, and eminently preach-able. Mostly importantly, this was thematic of the gospel according to Jesus—blessed are the poor (in spirit).

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    • Maximus says:

      It’s worth noting that John Piper’s go-to verse in Rom 9 is also covered in this approach to election. God’s choice of Jacob rather than Esau seems to be conditioned, not by any “works” they did, but by the fact that God delights in a man of humble circumstances. That is, Jacob the *younger* was chosen—he who had no rights of the progenitor—and not the firstborn Esau. In worldly terms, Esau would have all the family rights and privileges. But God’s purpose in election overturns this worldly way, since He “resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jam 4:6). Even God’s eternal predestination seems somehow conditional on the “two ways” of mankind’s life in the world. The humble get God’s help. The infirm receive a Physician.

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  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Is Chesterton’s characterization (Autobiography, ch. 7) of, e.g., MacDonald’s “Universalism” as “a sort of optimistic Calvinism” relevant here?

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  8. Dallas Wolf says:

    Preached or not, the theology and doctrines are unhelpful and unfortunate. Just one man’s opinion.

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    The next article in this series may be delayed a bit. Yesterday I reread what I wrote 5 years ago, and I’m not at all satisfied with it. It needs to be completely rewritten.

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