16 May 2002

Chris over at veritas has been thinking about predestination and reprobation. I've been having a similar conversation with Josh over on his blog. These are indeed difficult and thorny doctrines.

And these doctrines are not the sole property of Calvinists (though we Reformed folk tend to emphasize them in a unique way, I suppose), but have their place within most confessional traditions, whether Lutheran, Roman Catholic, or otherwise.

In the case of Catholicism, the range of permissible doctrinal stances is probably somewhat wider than many other traditions, embracing varying views ranging from certain kinds of Thomism (that verge on Jansenism) to Molinism, to...well, I'm not entirely sure how wide the range of views is. In any case, Chris quotes the teaching of the Catholic Catechism that, "To God, all moments of time are present in their immediacy. When therefore he establishes his eternal plan of 'predestination,' he includes in it each person's free response to his grace" (600). How precisely that "free response" is "included" within God's plan is left an open matter.

From the perspective of St. Thomas Aquinas, God's will is the cause of our free choices in some manner, even our sinful choices, though God is not the cause of sin (Summa Theologiae I-II.79.2). How all of that fits together is mysterious. I would note, however, that Calvinists are equally insistent that, in whatever manner we conceive of God's providence (including predestination and reprobation), God is not to be seen as the author of sin. At the same time, various forms of secondary causation, including free choices of the creature, are included within God's plan so that the will of God is the ultimate cause of those choices, yet without violating the freedom of the creature. Moreover, since the free choice to sin is the cause of the reprobation of some, the responsibility for reprobation falls upon the lost themselves. As Calvin says, their "perdition depends upon the predestination of God in such a way that the cause and occasion of it are found in themselves" (Institutes 3.23.8).

That much is clear, from a Reformed perspective, and I think Catholics and Lutherans could probably agree with most of it. The difficulties with Reformed views begin to arise when we consider whether or not God genuinely offers his grace in Christ to those who never come to a finally saving faith and what exactly that means. Setting aside the ways in which the grace of God may be at work in places where the name of Christ is not yet known, consider a situation in which the Gospel is proclaimed to two persons, where one person embraces that Gospel and is baptized and the other person ultimately rejects Christ. In both cases Christ has been truly made present by the Spirit through the Word and has genuinely offered himself to the hearer. Why, then, the difference in response?

The Reformed difficulty runs something like this. If salvation is truly by grace alone and if no one would turn to God except by grace, then the difference in response has to somehow rest in how God's grace is operative in the situation. The positive response of some, embracing the promises of the Gospel, cannot be attributed to some innate ability they possess in distinction from those who reject it since, whatever positive response to grace and co-operation with that grace is present, it is itself ultimately a gift of grace.

Nor, on the other hand, does Reformed thought want to attribute the unbelief of others, their rejection of God's grace, to any innate ability in them, in distinction from those who accept the Gospel, to render the gracious work of God's Spirit ineffective. Reformed people reject the idea that God, for some reason, just cannot get through to certain people, try as he may, since, after all, with regard to the innate ability to respond to God's grace, none of us are any worse off than another. The Reformed rejection of these ideas (that are seen as errors), is clear.

Thus, Reformed theology usually attributes the difference in response to the fact that some, by the grace of God, are elect in Christ and others God passes over in his inscrutable plan. If things were simply left at that point, however, I would find that a somewhat unsatisfactory answer. But more can be said.

Part of my dissatisfaction is that such a Reformed view, considered in itself, does not seem to take adequate account of what is called "the free offer of the Gospel"--that God, in some real sense, desires the salvation of all without distinction and truly and genuinely offers the grace of the Gospel broadly. Even if Christ's redemptive work was always already seen by God as being finally effectual for the salvation of only some (and thus, in some special sense, intended for their salvation), Reformed teaching has always maintained that Christ's work is infinitely sufficient for the salvation of all and thus is genuinely offered to all without discrimination. That has to be factored into any formulation of election and reprobation.

A second dissatisfaction I have is with the kinds of theological conclusions that are drawn from the varying responses to God's grace in light of election and reprobation, positing some kind of substantial difference in the quality of the of grace received by the elect as opposed to the non-elect or some different operation of the Spirit in the Gospel as it is offered to the elect as opposed to the non-elect. Thus certain theologians speak of some kind of "incorruptible seed" of regeneration that is granted to the elect but withheld from the non-elect and insist that the difference between the work of the Spirit in those that persevere and those who only believe for a time is not merely one of duration (these phrases come from the Synod of Dort). I think we begin to move into doctrinally dangerous waters when we pour too much positive theological content into dogmatic boundaries that were originally intended to function negatively by rejecting particular errors.

An area I would want to explore more is the idea that there is a difference between [a] the inability of any person to respond to God's grace in terms of their innate dispositions apart from that grace and [b] a persistent rejection of that grace on the part of some in the face of God's continual offer, especially if we see that offer as genuine, making Christ present by the Spirit in the Gospel, and insist that unbelief does not make the offered grace any less effective (Calvin writes along these lines in his letters to the ministers in Montbéliard). Now, I suppose, we would have to place such a persistent rejection of offered grace in the context of God's providence and state that God permits such a rejection. In any case, this is an area that requires further thought on my part and I certainly don't have it all worked neatly in my own mind.

One advantage to thinking along these lines is that, it seems to me, more closely to map onto how the Scriptures speak of election and reprobation. The Bible does not use the term "elect" to refer to those who finally persevere so much as it does to all those who respond to the Gospel, who are among the baptized community of believers who, by the Word and the Table, constitute the Body of Christ who is himself the Elect One of God. That is the special focus of election, biblically speaking (leaving open the question of how might God save those who, for whatever reason, respond to his grace but are unable to be baptized into that community; at the very least their election is countenanced in some relation to elect people of God qua church).

Reprobation, on the other hand, is not a notion that is used in Scripture to refer to those who have never heard the Gospel or have never responded to it, but rather it is used especially to refer to those elect members of God's people who, nonetheless, persistently reject whatever measure of God's grace was shown to them and turn against God and his people. That is to say, biblically speaking, the "reprobate" are apostates. That would suggest to me that reprobation needs to be considered, in the first instance, primarily in terms of persistent rejection of God's continually offered grace rather than God's merely "passing over" some. The notion of "passing over" is too theologically "thin" in light of the biblical picture.

Calvin himself writes, that he sees no reason why God "should not grant the reprobate also some taste of His grace, why He should not irradiate their minds with some sparks of His light, why He should not give them some perception of His goodness, and in some sort engrave His Word on their hearts." Yet, he says, some of these fall away from that grace, "not in some one thing, but entirely renounc[ing] His grace...For he falls away who forsakes the Word of God, who extinguishes its light, who deprives himself of the taste of the heavenly gift, who relinquishes the participation of the Spirit. Now this is wholly to renounce God" (Commentary on Hebrews). Thus, Calvin warns, "They indeed who have been illuminated by the Lord ought always to think of perseverance; for they continue not in the goodness of God, who having for a time responded to the call of God, do at length begin to loathe the kingdom of heaven, and thus by their ingratitude justly deserve to be blinded again" (Commentary on Romans).

My Reformed commitments are deep enough that I would want to protect our formulations here by rejecting certain views (i.e., that the reprobate somehow usurp God's plan or that they render God's grace ineffective). In any case, these things have been on my mind as of late and some recents conversations have forced me to think them through further. Don't take anything I've said as some kind of final formulation, but simply as my thinking out loud.