by Alvin Kimel


When my children call home and leave a message on the machine, it invariably goes something like this: “Hi Mom and Dad, this is _____, your favorite child.” And when they are with us, they always seem to find an opportunity to ask us privately, “I’m your favorite child, right?” Being dutiful parents, we recite the agreed-upon formula: “I love all my children equally.” Of course, they know that is hog-wash. Every parent has a favorite child, no matter how much they try to love each child just as much as the others and no matter how hard they try to conceal their favoritism. It doesn’t mean they do not love their other children dearly. It just means that _____ is especially dear to them. My wife has six brothers and sisters. All of the McKenna siblings know that Eddie is their mother’s favorite. And as far as my own mother … well, she has a favorite too (and I’m afraid to say it isn’t my sister).

Parental favoritism need not be destructive, but it certainly can be. Jacob loved Joseph especially, and his older brothers were so filled with jealousy they sought to murder him. Denethor loved Boromir more than Faramir and could not forgive him for not being his older brother.

What about God? How does he love his children? Does he have favorites? Why Jacob and not Esau?

God loves all equally—he just loves some more equally than others. This seems to be the conclusion of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, according to Gerald Hiestand:

I was intrigued by the emphasis on love that is woven throughout the Thomistic interpretation of unconditional election. Garrigou-Lagrange interprets Thomas—and indeed the whole subject—from what he terms Thomas’ principle of predilection—“that no created being would be better than another unless it were loved more by God.” This means that for Thomas (and Garrigou-Lagrange) election presupposes love. Why does God choose the elect for salvation and pass over the non-elect? Because he loves the elect with a greater love. Protestant expressions of Augustine on this doctrine (a.k.a Calvinism) do not typically contain this emphasis on the love of God. They tend to center instead on the glory of God and the unconditional nature of grace in the face of humanity’s great rebellion. Worms all!—Yet God has chosen to save us in spite of ourselves. Perhaps this is not a fair summary of Calvin himself, but certainly his legacy in evanglicalism has not managed to meaningfully fuse together the love of God and the gratitous election of sinners. I appreciate the Thomistic emphasis of love in his treatment of predistination, particuarly in as much as he finds continuity with Paul.

This emphasis on love leads to a second signicant implication explicit within Thomas’ doctrine or predilection—God does not love everyone equally. A remarkable statment to make in the face of popular evangelicalism, but from what I read in scripture here and here (along with others passages), a true statement (and one which my pastor has affirmed publically). In fact, I believe it is our evangelical failure to recognize this aspect of predilection that causes us to loose sight of the love of God in unconditional election. If God loves everyone equally, then love cannot be his motive in election. Thus the emphasis in evangelical expressions of Augustiniansim focus on the unworthiness of sinners and the glory of God. Thomas’ (and I think Augustine’s) doctrine of predestination contains the evangelical emphasis without sacrficing the Thomistic emphasis on God’s love for the elect.

But why does God love the elect more than the non-elect? “Ask not,” Augustine says, “if you wish not to err.”

And so we are brought into the thicket of predestination and the problem of divine favoritism. It is one thing for a parent to have favorite children; it’s quite another thing for God to love some of his children to eternal life and glory and to love the others not quite enough to the same eternal life and glory. If a human parent were to love like this, we would call it an imperfection, if not a great evil. Speaking of the divine reprobation, Calvin rightly described it as the decretum horribile: “It is a horrible decree, I confess, but no one can deny that God foreknew the future, final fate of man before he created him, and that he did foreknow it, because it was appointed by his own decree.”

What does the Catholic Church definitively and irreformably teach about predestination? The correct answer seems to be—precious little. She has set out, rather, specific boundaries to protect the mystery of grace and election and to prevent distortion of the gospel:

(1) In his infinite, comprehensive love, God truly and sincerely desires the salvation of all humanity. As Pius XII declared:

Thus the love of Jesus Christ the Son of God, by the sacrifice of Golgotha, cast a flood of light on the meaning of the love of God Himself: “In this we know the charity of God, because He hath laid down His life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” And in truth it was more by love than by the violence of the executioners that our divine Redeemer was fixed to the Cross; and His voluntary total offering is the supreme gift which He gave to each man, according to that terse saying of the Apostles, “He loved me, and delivered Himself for me.” (Haurietis aquas 74)

In his apostolic constitution Cum Occasione (1635), Pope Innocent X condemned the following Jansenist proposition: “It is Semi-Pelagian to say that Christ died or shed his blood for all human beings without exception.” The Second Vatican Council asserted: “The Word of God, through whom all things were made, was made flesh, so that as perfect man he could save all men and sum up all things in himself” (Gaudium et spes 45). The universal salvific will of the merciful God who has become incarnate in Jesus Christ underlies the documents of Vatican II, the encyclicals of John Paul II, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is true that some Catholic theologians, notably St Augustine, have restricted God’s salvific will to the elect; but the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has achieved dogmatic clarity on this matter and has rejected this thesis. In the words of the Catholic Catechism:

By giving up his own Son for our sins, God manifests that his plan for us is one of benevolent love, prior to any merit on our part: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” God “shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”

At the end of the parable of the lost sheep Jesus recalled that God’s love excludes no one: “So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” He affirms that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many”; this last term is not restrictive, but contrasts the whole of humanity with the unique person of the redeemer who hands himself over to save us. The Church, following the apostles, teaches that Christ died for all men without exception: “There is not, never has been, and never will be a single human being for whom Christ did not suffer” [Council of Quiercy (853)]. (CCC 604-605)

(2) In his infinite, comprehensive love, God provides sufficient grace to every human being to turn to him and be saved. The love of God pushes out beyond the bounds of the Church to all of humanity. “For, since Christ died for all men,’ Vatican II declared, “and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (Gaudium et spes 22). The universal salvific intent of God is sincere. All sinners are provided the opportunity and power to turn to God in repentance and be incorporated into the divine life of God.

Thus while the Catholic Church insists upon the Sacrament of Holy Baptism as the divinely appointed means of incorporation into the life of the Holy Trinity, yet she acknowledges that God is not restricted to the sacraments he has ordained. She clearly affirms both the necessity of Baptism (“The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude” [CCC 1257]) and the expansiveness of God’s love (“Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such person would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity” [CCC 1260]). Wtih regards to children who die without Baptism, the Church confidently entrusts them to the mercy and loving kindness of God.

Joined to the assertion of God’s provision of sufficient grace to all is the rejection of the thesis of the Jansenists that all grace is necessarily efficacious. In 1713 Pope Clement XI condemned the proposition that “Grace is the working of the omnipotent hand of God which nothing can hinder or retard” (Unigenitus Dei Filius). There is an authentic grace that is truly sufficient for salvation, which provides to the sinner the Spirit-enabled freedom to turn to God but does not necessarily and irresistably realize its salvific end, a grace that man may mysteriously and inexplicably reject. Even those who have been born again by water and Holy Spirit may fail to persevere in faith and good works. Or as the Synod of Quiercy taught: “God wishes all men without exception to be saved, although not all will be saved.”

(3) The salvation of particular individuals is the work of God and by grace alone. In my earlier articles on Semi-Pelagianism, I demonstrated that the Catholic Church, grounding her witness in the dogmatic canons of the Second Council of Orange, insists upon the necessity of grace even for the first step toward faith. But the Catholic Church also asserts the necessity of grace throughout the entirety of the Christian life. The following canons from II Orange are illustrative:

Canon 6. If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).

Canon 18. That grace is not preceded by merit. Recompense is due to good works if they are performed; but grace, to which we have no claim, precedes them, to enable them to be done.

Canon 20. That a man can do no good without God. God does much that is good in a man that the man does not do; but a man does nothing good for which God is not responsible, so as to let him do it.

Canon 23. Concerning the will of God and of man. Men do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is his will by which what they will is both prepared and instructed.

Canon 25. Concerning the love with which we love God. It is wholly a gift of God to love God. He who loves, even though he is not loved, allowed himself to be loved. We are loved, even when we displease him, so that we might have means to please him. For the Spirit, whom we love with the Father and the Son, has poured into our hearts the love of the Father and the Son (Rom. 5:5).

These canons, which the Catholic Church wholeheartedly affirms, dogmatically commit the Church to the sola gratia: the work of salvation, from beginning to end, is the work of God. This does not mean that man is purely passive: grace confers upon him a new freedom to love and obey God and to cooperate with him, but not in the sense that God does part of the work and man does the rest. That would confuse the distinction between deity and creature. Louis Bouyer explains:

The Council of Trent’s insistence on the fact that man is not saved passively …, but through his free acceptance, certainly is not to be held as implying the modification of the decrees of Orange. Its whole aim is to show that grace does not dispense us from acting ourselves but restores to us the power to act well. This, in turn, does not mean a parallel action on the part of God and man, a sort of “synergism,” where man contributes, in the work of salvation, however slight, independent of grace…. Catholic doctrine itself, as defined at Trent, does not admit salvation by faith and works, if by that is meant works that are not themselves the product of saving grace received by faith. On the contrary, the profound assertion of the total causality of grace in salvation requires that both the good works following on grace and the faith that receives it are its product. Our final conclusion is that the Catholic not only may, but must, in virtue of his own faith, give a full and unreserved adherence to the sola gratia, understood in the positive sense we have seen upheld by Protestants. The assertion that, in salvation, all is the work of grace, is neither heretical nor suspect. It is precisely what is affirmed by the genuine Catholic tradition in its witness to the doctrine of the apostles and the early Church, of St. Augustine as of St. Paul. (The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, pp. 70-72)

Fourth, God does not predestine anyone to evil or Hell; he does not reprobate independently of demerits and sins. The Synod of Orange is clear: “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.” Absolute predestination in a supralapsarian sense is excluded from legitimate Catholic opinion.

Within the established dogmatic bounds, a wide diversity of opinion exists in the Catholic Church on the subject of predestination. In his book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, Ludwig Ott identifies two general approaches:

Absolute predestination: God decides, without consideration of merits, to summon particular individuals to eternal salvation and provides them the efficacious graces to respond to his call and persevere in faith and good works. This position is classically advanced by Thomists, Domingo Bañez being one of the foremost exponents. It is hard for me to distinguish the position of Bañez from the position advocated by infralapsarian Calvinists. One of the interesting questions is whether St Thomas is rightly identified as a Thomist (see William Most).

Conditioned predestination: In his omniscience God foresees the responses of all human beings to his grace. In light of this foreknowledge, he elects to eternal salvation those who perseveringly cooperate with his grace and condemns to eternal perdition those who deny their cooperation. This position was comprehensively advanced by Luis de Molina. It is similar to the position of Arminius.

I believe it is accurate to say that this latter approach, in various modified forms, is dominant in contemporary Catholic theology.

My wife has figured out how to solve the question “I’m your favorite, aren’t I, Mom?” She has decided to compose a letter to each of our children, to be delivered at her death. In this letter she will write “You are my favorite! But please don’t tell your siblings!” And now please don’t tell my children and spoil the secret.

14 September 2006


Something is wrong with the traditional Western formulations of the doctrine of divine predestination. For fifteen hundred years theologians of the Church—Augustine, John Cassian, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, John Calvin, Luis de Molina, Robert Bellarmine, Jacobus Arminius, Karl Barth—have wrestled with this issue; but none have been unable to offer a resolution that has fully satisfied the sensus fidelium. With the exception of Barth, all have been condemned to circle around one of two poles of the question—absolute predestination or conditioned predestination—with each side anathematizing the other. Why this interminable disagreement? Is it a matter of obduracy, with one side simply refusing to see the truth, or is something wrong with the way the question has been classically formulated? Edward T. Oakes proposes that the problem begins with the move from a posture of gratitude before God to intellectual 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: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his good purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined…. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rm 8:28-39). (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). The doctrine of predestination, as expressed in Holy Scripture, is intended to function to edify believers and strengthen them in their hope and perseverance. Yet the doctrine, in its Augustinian formulation, ends up leading people either into fear and despair (what if I’m not one of the elect?) or pride.

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!) [Jansenist propositions condemned by the Magisterium]. 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. (pp. 213-214)

But the Pelagian alternative is equally unacceptable, for it undermines the gratitude that characterizes Christian life and practice and muddles the proper Christian distinction between God and the world. 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. Yet as Robert Sokolowski notes, the practice of self-salvation violates the specifically Christian understanding of nature and grace.

Recognizing the insoluble problems inherent in the Western formulations of predestination, Christian pastors, both Catholic and Protestant, 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). Thomist or Molinist, Calvinist or Arminian, pastors do not publicly proclaim divine election. The doctrine of predestination is now silenced in the preaching of the Church. How far we have moved from the New Testament writers, who delighted in telling their readers that God had chosen them in Christ “before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless” and predestined them “to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Eph 1:4-5).

16 September 2006


When was the last time you heard a sermon preached on election and predestination? In twenty-five years of ministry I think I may have preached on it once. Christian pastors do not preach on the topic; 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 Western theological reflection, the refusal of pastors to proclaim predestination to their congregations needs explanation. I believe the explanation is obvious: the doctrine of predestination has become unpreachable.

James Daane has explored the unpreachability of predestination in his book The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit (1973). “Sermons on election are so rare,” Daane 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 so much a doctrine to be taught as good news to be proclaimed. When the Apostle Paul writes 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 a bit of abstract theological 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 intellectual speculation. The doctrine of election has been divorced from the gospel; it has been divorced from Israel, Incarnation, and the Church.

It is not surprising, suggests Daane, that predestination has disappeared in Arminian pulpits. Arminianism is concerned to maintain the freedom of the sinner, “against every overture of divine election and grace, decisively to reject God’s elective choice” (p. 15). As a good Reformed theologian, Daane is unsympathetic with this concern. The freedom to choose or reject God “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). Ultimately, for the Arminian predestination means man’s election of God, not God’s election of man. Hence it is not surprising that Arminians 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)

Catholic readers: substitute “Molinists” for “Arminians” and “Molinism” for “Arminianism”—Daane’s point equally obtains. In both Arminianism and Molinism (and also Orthodoxy), 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 doesn’t build up the body of Christ. It doesn’t edify. It doesn’t embolden or encourage. It simply gives an answer to a perplexing theological question that is of interest only to a few. Why waste limited preaching time on predestination? Good preachers have more important words to speak to their congregations. The Arminian pastor cannot stand before his congregation and announce to them that they are the elect of God, 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. There is a gap, asserts Daane, 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 preacher, 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 J. 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 members of his congregation for eternal glory and has, directly or indirectly (preterition), chosen the others for perdition; but as neither pastor nor congregants know who the elect and reprobate are, the pastor has no choice but to refrain from proclaiming predestination.

But why not 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 instinct of the Reformed tradition is right—predestination is a form of the gospel. But when predestination, and therefore the gospel, is interpreted in terms of God’s absolute decree, 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, 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 this solution does not work, for visible membership does not guarantee God’s electing favor; moreover, the solution 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,” comments Edward Oates: “to pray to be delivered from grace!” But we should not be surprised. Absolute predestination appears to generate strange thinking. No wonder pastors finally stopped preaching it.

18 September 2006


How can the Church recover the preaching of predestination? The key, I believe, is to recognize that in Scripture predestination is good news. It is not a philosophical conundrum to be solved; it is a form of the gospel to be proclaimed—and specifically, a form of the gospel to be proclaimed to the baptized. 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. Once and for all, then, it is not a truth which is neutral in face of the antithesis of fear and terror, of need and danger, which the term itself suggests. It is not a mere theorem whose content does not amount to anything more than instruction in, or the elucidation of, something which is quite unaffected by the distinction betwen right and wrong or good and evil. Its content is instruction and elucidation, but instruction and elucidation which are to us a proclamation of joy. It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation. Originally and finally it is not dialectical but non-dialectical. It does not proclaim in the same breath both good and evil, both help and destruction, both life and death. It does, of course, throw a shadow. We cannot overlook or ignore this aspect of the matter. In itself, however, it is light and not darkness. In any case, even under this aspect, the final word is never that of warning, of judgment, of punishment, of a barrier erected, of a grave opened. We cannot speak of it without mentioning all these things. The Yes cannot be heard unless the No is also heard. But the No is said for the sake of the Yes and not for its own sake. In substance, therefore, the first and last word is Yes and not No.

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, Theotokos, chosen by God to conceive, birth, nurture and protect the Messiah of her people. Because predestination intends Jesus, it intends the Church, the body of Christ, 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 Jesus Christ, the eternal 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. James Daane elaborates:

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 idea of participation in Christ’s election spells the end of any purely individualistic doctrine of election and the illegitimacy of theologically tailoring the gospel to fit such a doctrine. It liberates us from the insoluble problem that a merely individual election raises for the proclamation of the gospel. It makes election the language of grace, thereby removing its vulnerability to rational manipulation in terms of logical inferences and implications. (The Freedom of God, pp. 198-199)

At the moment one makes the Augustinian turn and seeks to explain human rejection of the gospel in terms of God’s eternal decrees, the preaching of election becomes impossible. The logic appears inescapable. If salvation is by grace alone, and if some reject Christ to their damnation, does this not mean that God reprobates, directly or indirectly, the damned? But the gospel itself disallows the question. The election of Christ Jesus is the reason why some are saved, but it is not the reason why some are not! As James Daane comments: “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).

In his book Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor (1989), 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 person and nature. Farrell cites Augustine’s exegesis of John 6:39 (“This is the will of the Father who hath sent me, that of all that he hath given me I shall lose nothing”) as an example. Who are the “all”? According to Augustine, the “all” are the specific individuals who have been divinely elected to salvation: this “number is so certain that one can neither be added to them nor taken away from them.” For Augustine, predestination pertains to 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 to their damnation, depending on their free personal decisions. Predestination thus refers to the future state of embodied life, guaranteed to every individual by the paschal victory; it does not refer to the eternal choice each individual must make in relationship to his Creator. Or to put the matter in different words: grace as resurrection is irresistible; grace as the enhypostasization of eternal beatitude is resistible. As 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)

But one might observe that at this point the human will is here, apparently, attributed to the person and not to the nature, yet III Constantinople tells us that the human nature assumed by the eternal Son included the will—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. If I am reborn in the human nature of Christ, then I am destined for eternal bliss independent of my personal appropriation of grace; my will must be compelled by and conformed to the redeemed will of Christ’s human nature. Maximus solves this problem by positing two human wills: the will as a property of nature and the will as the personal and “real mode of using and employing the will” (p. 218). The natural will, redeemed in Christ, always chooses the good; evil choices, however, belong to the personal or hypostatic will. This distinction between the natural will and the personal exercise of the will thus allows the Church to assert both that all humanity is saved by Christ through his regeneration of human nature and that each individual is free to align or disalign his will with the will of God. Through and in the incarnate Son the created human hypostasis enjoys the liberty to decide for Heaven or Hell.

In my current state of ignorance, I am unwilling to sign off on Farrell’s presentation of St. Maximus or to declare that Maximus has solved the predestination puzzle. Farrell’s analysis has not been subjected to extensive critical review by patristic scholars and systematic theologians. But I strongly agree with Farrell that Western reflections needs to bring the great Eastern confessor of the faith into the conversation. Western Christianity made a wrong turn with Augustine when it sought to explain human rejection of the gospel by an eternal decree of God divorced from the Incarnation. With Maximus and Barth, and with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we must proclaim that the Triune God has effected the reconciliation and redemption of all humanity and that he earnestly and sincerely desires the eternal salvation of every human being.

But I would go one step further. In his preaching, the preacher should confidently take to his lips the language of Scripture and to declare to his congregation the good news of predestination: “You are the elect people of God. You have been chosen for eternal salvation. In Christ you are justified. In Christ you are sanctified. In Christ you are 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.

29 September 2006


It was just a routine medical procedure, one that is encouraged for all who reach my “advanced” age. Yet the pre-surgical instruction contained this warning: “It is extremely rare, but death remains a remote possibility.” And so the morning of the procedure I privately offered to God my confession and asked for his forgiveness. When the anesthesiologist asked me to take five deep breaths, I recited to God the prayer of my Lord: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” And I fell asleep.

No fear. No apprehension. No concern that I might awaken to find myself in Hell or even in one of the horrifying medieval visions of purgatorial fire. None of the terrors that Protestant apologists tell me that we Catholics should and must experience because of our theological understanding of justification, final judgment according to works, purgatory, indulgences, and the temporal penalties of sin. Certainly I am under no illusion that I am too good a person to be damned. My need for both infinite mercy and radical sanctification is all too apparent, both to myself and to all who know me.

Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.

I am a sinner, a man who struggles with disbelief, selfishness, and evil every moment of his waking existence. I know my unworthiness, and the despair of unworthiness, too well; yet as I contemplated my possible, albeit unlikely, death, I became very much aware that I do not dread the final judgment. Perhaps I should. Perhaps I will when my death seems imminent. But on that day of surgery I did not. At this moment I do not.

I do not because of who I believe God to be.

And I do not because of who I do not believe God to be.

I do not believe God to be the absolute predestinarian of Augustine, Calvin, Beza, and Bañez. I do not believe God to be a God who has eternally decreed, before prevision of irrevocable rejection of divine love and forgiveness, the eternal salvation of some and the eternal reprobation of the rest. I am convinced that for all of his greatness, St Augustine went tragically astray on this matter of predestination and that his theory has had pernicious repercussions on the spiritual lives of Western Christians. The theory of absolute predestination calls into question, at the most fundamental level, the identity and character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

I realize the sweeping nature of this judgment. To those who disagree, all I can say is go back and reread the New Testament. If you still disagree, then consider what it means for God to be an eternal trinitarian community of absolute and infinite love. Consider what it means that the eternal Son of God should assume human nature, should bear the sins of humanity unto suffering and death, should rise again as the New Adam and ascend to the right hand of the Father. And then go back and reread the New Testament.

The God and Father of Jesus Christ intends the eternal salvation of every human being he has made and will make, without exception. If God did not die on the cross for the sins of mankind, then he does not truly desire “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” and the Apostle Paul is made a liar (1 Tim 2:4). If God has unconditionally reprobated just one person, then God is not absolute love. If God has chosen to rescue from the damnable mass of humanity only some but not all, then he is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

I have heard all the counter-arguments. I have read the predestinarian exegesis of the controverted biblical texts. I have listened to the rhetoric about how God is glorified by the reprobation of the ungodly, that his decision to elect some but “pass over” the rest must be truly just, though we cannot presently fathom its justice. Not only am I not persuaded but I am offended to the core of my being. John Wesley described the doctrine of absolute predestination as blasphemy, and surely that is what it is:

Such blasphemy this, as one would think might make the ears of a Christian to tingle! But there is yet more behind; for just as it honours the Son, so doth this doctrine honour the Father. It destroys all his attributes at once: It overturns both his justice, mercy, and truth; yea, it represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust. More false; because the devil, liar as he is, hath never said, “He willeth all men to be saved:” More unjust; because the devil cannot, if he would, be guilty of such injustice as you ascribe to God, when you say that God condemned millions of souls to everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, for continuing in sin, which, for want of that grace he will not give them, they cannot avoid: And more cruel; because that unhappy spirit “seeketh rest and findeth none;” so that his own restless misery is a kind of temptation to him to tempt others. But God resteth in his high and holy place; so that to suppose him, of his own mere motion, of his pure will and pleasure, happy as he is, to doom his creatures, whether they will or no, to endless misery, is to impute such cruelty to him as we cannot impute even to the great enemy of God and man. It is to represent the high God (he that hath ears to hear let him hear!) as more cruel, false, and unjust than the devil!

Why do Western Christians fear God? Might not it be because the God who saves and damns in absolute, inscrutable determination still haunts our imaginations? When confronted with such a deity, we will always urgently ask the question “How can I get a gracious God?” Hidden deep below all conscious thought lies the knowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, God has abandoned us, abandoned “me,” unto perdition. And so God himself becomes our enemy. The holy Creator becomes Satan!

But even if the hard predestinarianism is pushed into the theological and homiletical background, it continues to do its insidious work. If we are unsure, even to the tiniest degree, that God wills the good of every human being—if “I” am uncertain that he wills “my” good—then we must find ways to negotiate with him. Hence the rise of that quid pro quo transactionalism that often characterized late medieval spirituality and church life, against which Martin Luther so powerfully protested. To what extent does this transactionalism still shape the spiritual lives of Catholics and Protestants today?

I know that I traduce the vast theological work of St Augustine. Augustine speaks profoundly of the love and mercy of God throughout his homilies and tractates. In his De Trinitate he brilliantly unfolds the mystery of the triune God who is infinite love. But the controversy with the Pelagians forced him to subtly divorce love and grace. Augustine did not explicitly draw the conclusion of double predestination, yet how close he came. Driven by the logic of irresistible grace, he found himself incapable of affirming the universality of the salvific will of the Creator. But for anyone of sensitive conscience, the fine distinction between reprobation and preterition hardly matters. The damage is done. Both positions call into question the truth and reality of God’s love for the individual sinner. Am I the object of divine love or divine hatred?

There are many days, too many days, when I do not know if I believe in God, when I do not know if God exists. But I do know whom I struggle to believe. He is the God made known in Jesus Christ. He is the God who is a holy communion of absolute love and gladness. He is the God who searches for the one lost sheep and upon finding it hoists it upon his shoulder and restores it to the flock. He is the God who turns his house upside down until he finds the one silver coin he has lost. He is the God who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our inquities; by his stripes we are healed. This is the only God worthy of our belief. This is the only God deserving of our faith and adoration. In the words of Hans Urs von Balthsar:

Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the “work” of faith: to recognize this absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (“credere contra fidem” like “sperare contra spem“), against every “rational” concept of God, which things of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love.

I do not fear the God who is Holy Trinity. I fear my own freedom to turn from this God, to hide myself in an impenetrable egotism and despair which will forever close me to the roar of his love. I fear that my self-will will ultimately triumph over my desire for the supreme and ultimate Good. I fear that I am becoming, have become, a person who declares to infinite Love, “My will, not thine, be done.” I fear also the purifying suffering that I must endure, both in this life and beyond, to free me from my bondage to self and the goods of this world. But I do not fear the God of Jesus Christ. I know that if God does truly exist, then at the moment of my death he will meet me as the Crucified, still bearing the marks of his sacrifice on his hands. Judge and Judged, Priest and Victim, absolver of sins and victor over death—to this Jesus I entrust my future; to his Father I commend my spirit. Amen.

15 December 2007


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