How can the Church recover the preaching of predestination? It seems an impossibility. When treated abstractly, as an explanation of why some are saved and others are not, predestination must always function as an existential threat to our personhood and security. Two questions immediately arise:
- Am I a free being or just a puppet?
- Am I one of the elect or one of the reprobate?
The first raises the concern about determinism. If God is the transcendent Absolute, the place where the metaphysical buck stops, then he must always be apprehended as a threat to our personal autonomy. He is the Other, the Deity above us who creates all, determines all. All contingencies are encompassed within his providential will. The second generates an all-consuming anxiety regarding our everlasting happiness. Has this God elected us to eternal well-being or eternal ill-being? In either case, the choice and choosing is out of our hands. We are quite literally helpless before the deus absconditus.
The key to finding an evangelical solution is the recognition that in Holy Scripture predestination is good news. It is neither a philosophical conundrum to be solved nor a doctrine to be feared but gospel to be proclaimed. 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…. 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 his body, the Church, 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. In the words of James Daane:
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 Freedom of God, pp. 198)
But what of the reprobate? The Calvinist temptation (and St Augustine nearly succumbed to it and perhaps arguably did) has been to explain human rejection of the gospel in terms of God’s eternal decrees. The logic appears inescapable: if salvation is by election and grace alone, and if some reject Christ to their damnation, this would seem to imply that God unilaterally reprobates the non-elect. But the gospel disallows the conclusion. The election of Christ Jesus is the reason why some are saved; but it is not the reason why some are not. Daane elaborates:
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)
Even so, we are left with the question how to preach election in Christ. Does it even make a difference if we do not preach it, if we avoid the predestinarian language altogether? Barth and Daane have given us abstractions, beautiful abstractions but abstractions and generalizations nonetheless. I applaud the evangelical affirmation that election occurs in the crucified and risen God-Man, intending the salvation of every human being. Yet this truth—precisely because it is an abstract, third-person truth—neither silences the condemning voices that come to us in the night nor liberates for a new future in the Spirit. Am I truly in Christ? Am I genunely intended by God’s electing grace? My sins are great, my faith and repentance too weak, my ascetical and moral efforts so manifestly half-hearted, my prayers ineffectual. What good is a corrected, improved doctrine of predestination to me? I still feel God’s wrath. The troubling problem of assurance remains. What more must I do to be saved at the final judgment? In the end does the gospel just throw us back upon ourselves to save ourselves?
And so I turn towards the East. Perhaps I will find help in our Fathers. 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 as an example: “This is the will of the Father who hath sent me, that of all that he hath given me I shall lose nothing.” Who are the “all”? According to St Augustine, the “all” refers to the totality of those “predestinated to the kingdom of God, whose number is so certain that one can neither be added to them nor taken away from them” (On Rebuke and Grace): in other words, predestination pertains to individual 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 damnation, depending on their free personal decisions. Predestination thus refers to the future state of embodied life, guaranteed to every human being by the paschal victory; it does not refer to the choices each individual must make in relationship to his Creator. Or to put the matter differently: grace as resurrection is irresistible; grace as enhypostasization of eternal beatitude, 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, argues Farrell, 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 always chooses the good; evil choices, however, belong to the personal or hypostatic will. This distinction between nature and person, i.e., between the will as property and the personal exercise of the will, allows Maximus to assert both the regeneration of human nature in Christ and the freedom of the individual to align or disalign his will with the will of the risen Savior. Through and in the incarnate Son, the created human hypostasis enjoys the liberty to decide for heaven or hell.
Maximus advances an interesting piece of speculation, but his distinction between the natural and hypostatic wills leaves sinners in the same place as with Barth and Daane, perhaps even worse. Human nature is predestined to glory, yet the choice to participate in this glory, and thus secure election in Christ, ultimately rests on our shoulders. We are the makers of our final destiny. Following Maximus, what can the preacher say to us but believe, repent, make a regular confession, receive the Eucharist, pray and work harder? He or she will no doubt assure us of the synergistic assistance of the Holy Spirit, but the responsibility and burden remains. The pseudonymous Apostle exhorts: “Therefore, brethren, be the more zealous to confirm your call and election, for if you do this you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10)—but the words do not dispel the terror and despair. My will is bound by passions and ego. Speak not to me of the predestination of human nature to glory. I am a sinner and I need good news.
The good news of predestination can only be recovered if we make the move from third-person abstraction to first- and second-person proclamation, from theology to kerygma. And here the Lutheran theologian Gerhard Forde comes to our aid. Forde begins with the premise that all human beings live under the existential burden of wrath and alienation. Our wills are bound. No theory is needed to explain this condition. It is just the the way of things, the way things really are. We are trapped within ourselves. “Scripture,“ Martin Luther tells us, “describes man as so curved in upon himself that he uses not only physical but even spiritual goods for his own purposes and in all things seeks only himself” (LW 25: 345). Incurvatus in se, humanity curved in upon itself, is the phrase he commonly uses to describe our situation. We cannot by our own efforts liberate ourselves from our bondage, because this is who we are in the devastation, who we have made ourselves to be. No matter how hard we try, no matter what we do, it is always the alienated ego who is trying and doing. Our vision is distorted, our desires corrupted, our self-righteousness determinative.
Given this inherited condition, this original sin and sinfulness, the abstract Deity taught by theologians and philosophers will always be heard as a threat to our autonomy. He is the transcendent, infinite, immutable, ineffable Other who stands outside us and above us. Forde describes this God as the unpreached God, majestic in his glory and fearsome in his commands and predestinations:
Thus God apart from proclamation is a rather intractable problem for us. We neither get along very well with God, nor without God. We are at best ambivalent about God. On the one hand, we like the idea of an eternal “anchor” to things, or an eternal goal that is also the source and guarantor of all the things we seek: eternal truth, goodness, beauty, and so on. On the other hand, God is a threat to us: the ruler, the judge, the almighty One who has the final say. We are caught between seeking and fleeing God’s presence…. Our thinking does not exactly help us, at least not in a direct positive sense. The problem is that when we think “God” we come up against an awesome string of sheer abstractions, what Luther meant, perhaps, by the “naked God in his majesty” (deus nudus in sua maiestate), the “bare idea” of God. God is absolute, immortal, infinite, timeless, passionless (apathos), omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient; God is the eternal ruler, judge, and disposer of all things, by whose power and will all things come to be and not to be. God is, by definition, God. (Theology is for Proclamation, pp. 14-15)
“We are not saved by our theology,” Robert W. Jenson once told me. What does the theologian offer us but abstractions and doctrines and stories about the Absolute, communicated to us in the mode of third-person discourse. Precisely as language about God, it cannot liberate nor bestow new life. No doubt it can be instructive, insightful, illuminating, yet is not the Word that raises the dead. “Lazarus, come forth!” What is needed is primary speech in which God is the speaker. Forde invites us to consider the language used by lovers:
Imagine the lover and the beloved at a critical moment in which the primary language is to be spoken. “Do you love me?” asks the lover. And the beloved answers, “Well, that is an interesting question. What is love after all?” And so launches into a discussion about the essence of love. After patient waiting, the lover finally gets another chance. “Yes, that’s all interesting, but do you love me?” Then the beloved takes another diversionary tack and say, “Well, yes, of course. You see, I love everybody!” (A universalist!) The lover protests, “That’s not what I mean! You haven’t answered the question! Do you love me?” So it goes. In spite of all the helpful things it does, secondary discourse makes the would-be lover look ridiculous when substuted for primary discourse.
There is only one type of discourse that will do the job in the case of lovers: primary discourse, the proclamation, the self-disclosure in the present tense, first-to-second-person address, the “I love you,” and the subsequent confession, “I love you too!” What happens in the church’s proclamation is often similar; secondary discourse gets substituted for primary and so proclamation never occurs. (p. 3)
Theological abstractions cannot deliver us from our bondage to self, for we will always twist them to defend the autonomy of our false selves. What is needed, declares Forde, is the predestinating God who speaks directly to sinners and elects them—now, today, in the present—to salvation in Jesus Christ. Election occurs not in the hidden heights of eternity but in the gospel declared by the preacher:
The crucial question is not the whether or why of it, but the who. The preacher must claim the audacious and unheard-of authority to say who is intended, to actually speak for God. The answer, to anticipate, is always you: “You, now that you are here within earshot.” This is the place of the preacher. There is only one question about predestination we can answer with any authority, and it the only one that matters: Who?
The preacher acts on the presupposition that only the present-tense, here-and-now deed of God, the proclamation itself, can be the solution to the problem of God. The proclamation is the end result, the culmination, of the great acts of God in history. The preacher ought to have the consciousness of standing in that place knowing that the Word and sacrament are themselves the end (telos), the purpose of it all. The concrete moment of the proclamation is the doing of the mighty act of God in the living present. It is not a recital of past acts, but the doing of the act itself now. Only when there is an authoritative Word from God in the present tense do we escape the threat of the hidden God. Only then can a faith be created to stand in the face of that threat. As Paul wrote, “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), “for … it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21). (pp. 35-36)
Only the unconditional announcement, spoken to us in the Name of the crucified and risen Christ, can pierce our alienation and liberate us for faith. The preacher must take to his lips the language of Scripture and declare to each member of his congregation the good news of predestination: “You belong to the elect people of God. You have been chosen for eternal salvation. In Christ you are justified; in Christ you are and will be sanctified; in Christ you are and will be 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.
(12 November 2014; rev.)