No theological topic provokes more angst, consternation, and passionate debate than the Latin doctrine of absolute predestination (yes, even more so than apokatastasis). No matter how carefully formulated and gently proclaimed, what we hear is this: from the mass of sinful humanity, God chooses some persons to everlasting bliss while quietly passing over the rest, forsaking them to their infernal fate. Thomists try to soften the blow by assuring us that God provides sufficient grace for everyone to turn to him in faith, but the assurance never really assures. The preteritional spectre haunts the proceedings. How can God be infinite and unconditional love if, possessing the power and freedom to confer efficacious grace unto eternal salvation, he voluntarily refrains from doing so. An absolute predestination of only some entails an absolute decision not to elect the rest. A terrifying divide between divine love and divine grace is thus introduced. God wills the good of every human being yet—in his abundant and overflowing grace—selects only some to enjoy eternal beatitude in the Holy Trinity. The non-chosen he abandons to the interminable torment they so richly deserve. Not surprisingly, the doctrine of absolute predestination comes under trenchant criticism by David Bentley Hart:
For, according to the great Augustinian tradition, since we are somehow born meriting not only death but eternal torment, we are enjoined to see and praise a laudable generosity in God’s narrow choice to elect a small remnant for salvation, before and apart from any consideration of their concrete merits or demerits (ante praevisa merita, to use the traditional formula), and his further choice either to predestine or infallibly to surrender the vast remainder to everlasting misery. When Augustine lamented the tenderheartedness, the misericordia, that made Origen believe that demons, heathens, and (most preposterously of all) unbaptized babies might ultimately be spared the torments of eternal fire, he made clear how the moral imagination must bend and lacerate and twist itself in order to absorb such beliefs. (That All Shall Be Saved, p. 76)
Absolute predestination calls into radical question the love of the Father for all of humanity. God desires the salvation of all (1 Tim 2:4), yet apparently not all. He saves the elect, but to the non-elect he speaks words of final reprobation: “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:23). The universality of the Savior’s salvific will is revealed as less than universal. Nor is the contradiction resolved by positing a distinction between, on the one hand, “God’s irresistible predestination of the elect to beatitude and, on the other, the ‘irresistible permissive decrees’ by which he sends the derelict to a damnation they never had the power to escape” (p. 48). Christ died for the ungodly. He would never accept the election of only some sinners; by death and resurrection he has elected all. Yet once the doctrine of everlasting perdition is dogmatically asserted, predestinarians have no choice but to invent a distinction to explain the schizophrenic incoherence within the Godhead, a contradiction between love and grace that can be neither rationally explained nor evangelically justified. Nor does it help to posit the libertarian freedom of the lost to reject God’s gift of salvation. Orthodox and Arminians may appeal to creaturely freedom to justify damnation but not those in the Augustinian and Thomistic traditions: through his efficacious grace, God can bring to repentance even the most incorrigible and obdurate, if he should so will. Yet he does not—thus hell.
Hart directs the bulk of his ire to the clear, and clarifying, double predestinarianism of John Calvin. Calvin states his position:
By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death. (Institutes 3.21)
Calvin makes explicit that which was implicit in St Augustine all along. It is just a short step from preterition to negative reprobation, from negative reprobation to foreordination to damnation:
Really, Reformed tradition is perhaps to be praised here, if only for the flinty resolve with which it faces its creed’s implications: Calvin, as I have noted, had the courage to acknowledge that his account of divine sovereignty necessitates belief in the predestination not only of the saved and the damned, but of the original fall of humankind itself; and he recognized that the biblical claim that “God is love” must, on his principles, be accounted a definition not of God in himself, but only of God as experienced by the elect (toward the damned, God is in fact hate). (pp. 76-77; emphasis mine)
Double predestination inflicts a mortal wound upon both the Church’s apprehension of divinity as a Trinity of persons united in mutual self-giving and the salvific recapitulation of humanity in the God-Man. As Hart rightly observes, “God is love” no longer speaks of the Father, Son, and Spirit in their immanent trinitarian life, as manifested in the economy of salvation, but only of their benevolent actions on behalf of the elect. The Father of Jesus Christ is replaced by an Oriental potentate arbitrarily plucking from ruin the fortunate few. In the words of Calvin: “Decretum quidem horribile, fateor” (“It is a dreadful decree, I confess”). Most Christians are repelled by the doctrine of double predestination, yet if Hart is correct about the significance of the final judgment for the divine identity, Calvin has simply stated what must be the logical case: God wills hell from all eternity (see “Revealing the God Behind the Curtain“). At this point the unity of the Godhead is shattered and the atoning work of Jesus Christ undone (see T. F. Torrance, “Predestination in Christ,” and James B. Torrance, “The Incarnation and Limited Atonement“).
But what about Romans 9-11? These three chapters constitute the locus classicus of predestinarian biblical exegesis. Space prohibits lengthy discussion. Readers may wish to read the chapters in Hart’s translation of the New Testament, followed by a careful reading of pp. 130-138 in That All Shall Be Saved. In Romans 9-11 the Apostle Paul wrestles with the painful question of Jewish failure to accept Jesus as the chosen Messiah. Did the LORD summon the tribes of Israel to himself only to make them vessels of his wrath? Will he now abandon them in favor of the Gentile believers in Christ? Hart summarizes Paul’s reflection:
We know, he says, that divine election is God’s work alone, not earned but given; it is not by their merit that gentile believers have been chosen. “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated” (9:13) (though here, recall, Paul is quoting Malachi, for whom Jacob symbolizes Israel and Esau symbolizes Edom, which would seem to be, if one imagines the point to be merely the separation between the damned and the saved, the very inverse of the typology Paul is employing). For his own ends, Paul continues, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He has mercy on whom he will, hardens whom he will (9:15-18). And if you think this unjust, who then are you, 0 man, to reproach the God who made you? May not the potter cast his clay for purposes both high and low, as he chooses (9:19-21)? So, “then, what if” God should show his power by preserving vessels suitable only for wrath, keeping them solely for destruction, in order to provide an instructive counterpoint to the riches of the glory he lavishes on vessels prepared for mercy, whom he has called from among the Jews and the gentiles alike (9:22-24)? It is a terrible possibility, admittedly, and horrifying to contemplate, but perhaps that is simply how things are: The elect alone are to be saved, and the rest left reprobate, solely as a display of divine might; God’s faithfulness is his own affair. Well then, so far, so Augustinian. But then also, again, so purely conditional: that “what if … ?” must be strictly observed. For, as it happens, rather than offering a solution to the quandary in which he finds himself, Paul is simply restating that quandary in its bleakest possible form, at the very brink of despair. He does not stop there, however, because he knows that this cannot be the correct answer. It is so obviously preposterous, in fact, that a wholly different solution must be sought, one that makes sense and that will not require the surrender either of Paul’s reason or of his confidence in God’s righteousness. Hence, contrary to his own warnings, Paul does indeed continue to question God’s justice; and he spends the next two chapters unambiguously rejecting the provisional answer (the “vessels of wrath” hypothesis) altogether, so as to reach a completely different—and far more glorious—conclusion. (pp. 134-135)
In reading these chapters, Hart counsels us, we must keep in mind throughout the hypothetical mood of Rom 9:14 (“What then shall we say? Is there injustice with God? Let it not be so!”), Rom 9:22-24 (“And what if God, though disposed to display his indignation and make known what is possible for him, tolerated with enormous magnanimity vessels of indignation, suitable for destruction …), and Rom 11:1 (“Therefore I say, ‘Did God reject his people?’ Let it not be so!”). Paul’s thought experiment leads him into a wondrous revelation:
So I say: Did they stumble that they might fall? Let it not be so! Rather, through their error comes salvation for the gentiles, so as to provoke them to envy. But if their error is enrichment for the cosmos and their discomfiture enrichment for the gentiles, how much more so the full totality of them? … For if their rejection is reconciliation for the cosmos, what is their acceptance except life from the dead? (Rom 11:11-12,15)
For I do not want you, brothers, to be ignorant of this mystery, lest you be arrogant in yourselves: that a hardness has come upon one part of Israel until the full totality of the gentiles enter in, and thus all of Israel shall be saved, just as has been written, “The one who delivers will come out of Zion, he will turn away impiety from Jacob, and this is the covenant on my part with them, when I take away their sins. On your account, as regards the good tidings, they are enemies; and yet, on account of the fathers, as regards election, they are beloved. For God’s bestowals of grace and vocation are not subject to a change of heart. For, even as you once did not trust in God but have now received mercy through their mistrust, so they now also have not trusted, to the end that, by the mercy shown you, they now also might receive mercy. For God shut up everyone in obstinacy so that he might show mercy to everyone. (11:25-32; emphasis mine)
Paul’s “predestinarianism” leads him to a strong assertion of the salvation of Israel … but not only of Israel but of all humanity. In the eschatological consummation there will ultimately be no vessels of wrath, for in Christ God has made all human beings vessels of mercy, “prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom 9:23). The people of the covenant may stumble, but the LORD will never permit them to fall into final impenitence—just so, for all of humanity. The elect are but “the firstfruits of the grand plan of salvation,” writes Hart. “The ‘derelict’ too will, at the close of the tale, be gathered in, caught up in the embrace of election before they can strike the ground” (p. 137).