Monday, September 18, 2006


Fr. Al Kimel of Pontifications has a post up on election and predestination that, as usual, has me astounded by its lucidity. (Where was this guy when I was first coming to the faith?) It is principally a discussion of some aspects of James Daane's book The Freedom of God: A Study of Election and Pulpit (Eerdman's 1973), but Fr. Kimel brings his own keen eye and expository powers to the theme in a way that is both challenging and rewarding.

Fr. Kimel's post appears to be something of a promisory note, as it has "(cont)" at the bottom, which I assume means that he will have more to say on this topic in due course. In this opening salvo he addresses specifically the topic of the preachability of election and predestination. To be preachable, on Fr. Kimel's account, is to carry some message of encouragement, something that will build up the body of Christ, and he suggests that some aspects of election and predestination fail in that necessary condition of preachability. An element of this that has always fascinated me is the logical relation that exists between the predestination of the elect, and, well, what certainly looks like the predestination of the rest:
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.
It is difficult to disagree with the advice to "refrain from proclaiming predestination", given the epistemological problem involved, but I assume that it is possible to preach against fornication without knowing who, if anyone, in the congregation is a fornicator? What is difficult to avoid, however, is the implication that some folks are predestined to damnation. No matter how you construe it--either as a logical implication, as in the construal of Suarez, or as a necessary feature of God's foreknowledge and the very meaning of election--it looks as though some are predestined for damnation in precisely the same way that others are predestined for salvation. If God already knows who will choose to follow him, presumably he also knows who will choose not to follow him; and if he elects the former for eternal life, simply by choosing some he ipso facto excludes others.

Famously, the Catholic Church prefers not to put things this way. Instead, we find such as the following, taken from the J. Pohle in Fr. Kimel's post--Pohle is the author of the article on Predestination in the old Catholic Encyclopedia:
We may now briefly summarize the whole Catholic doctrine, which is in harmony with our reason as well as our moral sentiments. According to the doctrinal decisions of general and particular synods, God infallibly foresees and immutably preordains from eternity all future events (cf. Denzinger, n. 1784), all fatalistic necessity, however, being barred and human liberty remaining intact (Denz., n. 607). Consequently man is free whether he accepts grace and does good or whether he rejects it and does evil (Denz., n. 797). Just as it is God's true and sincere will that all men, no one excepted, shall obtain eternal happiness, so, too, Christ has died for all (Denz., n. 794), not only for the predestined (Denz., n. 1096), or for the faithful (Denz., n. 1294), though it is true that in reality not all avail themselves of the benefits of redemption (Denz., n. 795). Though God preordained both eternal happiness and the good works of the elect (Denz., n. 322), yet, on the other hand, He predestined no one positively to hell, much less to sin (Denz., nn. 200, 816). Consequently, just as no one is saved against his will (Denz., n. 1363), so the reprobate perish solely on account of their wickedness (Denz., nn. 318, 321). God foresaw the everlasting pains of the impious from all eternity, and preordained this punishment on account of their sins (Denz., n. 322), though He does not fail therefore to hold out the grace of conversion to sinners (Denz., n. 807), or pass over those who are not predestined (Denz., n. 827). As long as the reprobate live on earth, they may be accounted true Christians and members of the Church, just as on the other hand the predestined may be outside the pale of Christianity and of the Church (Denz., nn. 628, 631). Without special revelation no one can know with certainty that he belongs to the number of the elect (Denz., nn. 805 sq., 825 sq.).
Clearly much of this makes a good deal of sense, or, as Pohle puts it, "is in harmony with our reason". Things only begin to fall apart, in my view, in the last three or four sentences. But they do begin to fall apart, and that is why the final sentence is a very good addition to the overall sentiments being expressed.

"Fall apart" may be a little too strong, but certainly there are difficulties. The difficulties appear to arise due to an asymmetry between the finite and temporal order and the infinite and eternal order. Freedom is an essential good in both orders, but because human freedom is constrained, both epistemically and metaphysically, it is difficult to imagine what it would mean to say that there is the same kind of freedom in both orders. To see what I'm getting at, just consider what Pohle has to say about the "theological controversies" that arise from this topic:
Owing to the infallible decisions laid down by the Church, every orthodox theory on predestination and reprobation must keep within the limits marked out by the following theses: (a) At least in the order of execution in time (in ordine executionis) the meritorious works of the predestined are the partial cause of their eternal happiness; (b) hell cannot even in the order of intention (in ordine intentionis) have been positively decreed to the damned, even though it is inflicted on them in time as the just punishment of their misdeeds; (c) there is absolutely no predestination to sin as a means to eternal damnation.
Note how he prefaces his remarks by pointing out that we are constrained by "infallible decisions laid down by the Church". The rest is a rather straightforward appeal to the essential temporality of causal relations, even though God's is an essentially atemporal order. Logical chaos is bound to ensue, independently of any laying down of infallible decisions. What kind of chaos? Well, just for starters:
A. The Theory of Predestination ante praevisa merita

This theory, championed by all Thomists and a few Molinists (as Bellarmine, Suarez, Francis de Lugo), asserts that God, by an absolute decree and without regard to any future supernatural merits, predestined from all eternity certain men to the glory of heaven, and then, in consequence of this decree, decided to give them all the graces necessary for its accomplishment. In the order of time, however, the Divine decree is carried out in the reverse order, the predestined receiving first the graces preappointed to them, and lastly the glory of heaven as the reward of their good works.
Fr. Kimel's advice to preachers to keep silent about predestination and election begins to look better and better. Pohle seems to agree:
B. The Theory of the Negative Reprobation of the Damned

What deters us most strongly from embracing the theory just discussed is not the fact that it cannot be dogmatically proved from Scripture or Tradition, but the logical necessity to which it binds us, of associating an absolute predestination to glory, with a reprobation just as absolute, even though it be but negative. The well-meant efforts of some theologians (e. g. Billot) to make a distinction between the two concepts, and so to escape the evil consequences of negative reprobation, cannot conceal from closer inspection the helplessness of such logical artifices.
Pohle appears to endorse the attempt of St. Frances de Sales in making sense of all this:
C. The Theory of Predestination post prœvisa merita

This theory defended by the earlier Scholastics (Alexander of Hales, Albertus Magnus), as well as by the majority of the Molinists, and warmly recommended by St. Francis de Sales "as the truer and more attractive opinion", has this as its chief distinction, that it is free from the logical necessity of upholding negative reprobation. It differs from predestination ante prœvisa merita in two points: first, it rejects the absolute decree and assumes a hypothetical predestination to glory; secondly, it does not reverse the succession of grace and glory in the two orders of eternal intention and of execution in time, but makes glory depend on merit in eternity as well as in the order of time. This hypothetical decree reads as follows: Just as in time eternal happiness depends on merit as a condition, so I intended heaven from all eternity only for foreseen merit. -- It is only by reason of the infallible foreknowledge of these merits that the hypothetical decree is changed into an absolute: These and no others shall be saved.

This view not only safeguards the universality and sincerity of God's salvific will, but coincides admirably with the teachings of St. Paul (cf. 2 Timothy 4:8), who knows that there "is laid up" (reposita est, apokeitai) in heaven "a crown of justice", which "the just judge will render" (reddet, apodosei) to him on the day of judgment.
Nothing like throwing in a little Latin or Greek in the hope that it will fool people into thinking that you've shown something to be quite clear that is, in fact, quite obscure. In some ways, of course, it's not very obscure: God chose, from outside the temporal order, the bring into eternal life those whom he has always known, from outside the temporal order, to be all and only those who would freely choose, from within the temporal order, to follow him. That's something that is, indeed, in some harmony with our reason, but if we are also to make sense orf God's justice and human freedom, we are faced again with the problem of the asymmetry between the temporal and the atemporal. It is tempting to say that the freedom to turn away from God is an inviolable part of this picture, but since God desires the salvation of all, putting human freedom in the causal driver seat here appears to give mere humans a leg up on divine omnipotence.


Apollodorus said...

Do I understand this correctly to mean that, though some people are predestined to be saved, those who are not predestined to be saved are not thereby predestined to damnation, but can freely respond to God's grace? If not, then freedom would seem to be compromised, and God would both be responsible for and would directly will the damnation of those people whom he has not preordained. In that case, God wouldn't seem to be much of a god, and as far as I can see the basic Christian message would become incoherent at its core -- God became man to save 'humanity', of course, but only a few choice humans whom he selected out from eternity. But if salvation was, from the start, intended only for a chosen group of individuals, then it would be plainly ridiculous to claim that it was a salvation for humanity as such, wouldn't it?

Frankly, as someone struggling to figure out whether or not the divine grace that he feels calling him is something real or some kind of projection, wishful thinking, or misunderstanding of a legitimate reality, reading about things like 'the predestination of the elect' makes me begin to incline very much toward the latter. Hopefully, I'm on the right track in my understanding of this doctrine, and the basic Christian message isn't in danger of becoming incoherent because of some idea that God has already preordained everything.

Scott Carson said...

I certainly can't claim to understand this fully, but my impression of things so far is that there is a tension between God's perfect knowledge, which is atemporal, and man's freedom, which is temporal. Of The views discussed by Pohle, the last one makes the most sense to me: God gives all men perfect freedom to choose to follow him, and he offers the grace to do so to all men, but some men, of their own free will, reject that grace and choose not to follow him. God does not cause any of this to happen, however. When someone freely chooses to follow him, that person is with God for all eternity, and because of his atemporal omnipotence God knows who these people are "going to be" (it's already a little funky when you start talking about "knowing beforehand" or knowing what's "going to happen" with reference to a being who is fully outside of time to begin with).

I suppose one way to look at it is to imagine--if it can be imagined--that for God all of the temporal order is but an instantaneous, completed singularity, and when we speak of "election" in a context like this we are really deploying a metaphorical language to try to make sense of the notion that God is actually pleased that some folks choose to follow him. Since God is atemporal it is technically not well-formed to say that he chooses people "beforehand"; this has to be the divine author's attempt to communicate, however imperfectly, the fact that God is cognitively aware of everything that happen(ed/s) in that completed singularity and has an active will with regard to interacting with it, though in fact he does not cause any human choices to go one way rather than another.

It would seem to follow from all of this that God also "knows in advance" who is not going to choose to follow him, and presumably he is far less pleased about that choice (though sadness, rather than anger, is the best metaphor here). God offers to all the chance to be with him in eternity, but not all choose to take him up on that--this is a failure on their own part, an artefact of something that is true about them. God created each person with the capacity to choose goodness over evil, however, and even those who choose evil are nevertheless capable of choosing good instead (otherwise there isn't really any free will).

Although I struggle with this teaching, I do not find it impossible to believe or even assent to, in Newman's sense. What is difficult to understand, it seems to me, is not how all of this can be reconciled with notions of God's goodness, justice, compassion, mercy, etc., but how it could ever be possible, in any context, not just this one, to make logical sense of a universe in which there exists both a temporal and an atemporal order. But I don't take the fact that I have difficulty making logical sense out of that as evidence that it either doesn't make sense or just isn't possible.

This issue, like the teaching on the Trinity, is a pretty good source, at least for me, of learning about the virtue of humility. But I agree with St. Anselm that this will not be possible for everyone: "I do not seek to understand so that I may believe; but I believe so that I may understand. For I believe this also, that unless I believe, I shall not understand".

Apollodorus said...

Well, I am well beyond the point of insisting on understanding everything completely before I consider believing it, but I haven't yet reached the point -- nor do I think it would be good for anyone to reach the point -- at which I could accept blatant incoherence. My inability to understand the cognitive relationship that an atemporal being could have with a temporal order does not impel me towards rejecting the idea of an temporal being -- though I really do have no idea how it would work. A teaching about 'election' which amounted to a thesis of pre-destination, robbing us of any kind of freedom in the operation of grace, would lead to an incoherence with the basic Christian message and the idea of God, and I would be compelled to reject it. So I'm glad that the Church doesn't teach it. Thanks for the clarification.

Mike L said...


Before I give my own view, it should be noted that this entire topic is theologoumenon, theological opinion, and for that reason alone not a fit subject for proclamation in homiletics.

That said, I would insist that the theory of predestination ante praevisa merita does not entail negative reprobation just by itself. That entailment requires the additional premise that if God doesn't supply efficacious as distinct from sufficient grace to everybody, then those who don't get it are deprived of what they need. But from the fact that some people are guaranteed a good outcome, it doesn't follow that the others who aren't are being consigned to a bad outcome. Some will have a good outcome regardless, and the others have only themselves to blame since they freely choose to reject grace that is sufficient.

Of course that still faces the problem of what you call "the assymetry of the temporal and the atemporal." But as you point out, so too does your preferred theory of predestination post prœvisa merita. Indeed, I'm inclined to say that the problem is insoluble across the board, not just on the matter of predestination. The best we can do is ensure that, when we touch on matters involving such asymmetry, our affirmations aren't logically contradictory. We cannot really solve problems beyond that. But I don't think we should be expected to either. We can't explain how three persons are the same God or how a divine person is a man, but we don't object to affirming those, do we? If that's so for preachable article of faith, it should not trouble us that it's so for unpreachable opinions.


Rex Kochanskir said...

The late Fr. William Most, in an essay entitled "Help for Ecumenism: On Predestination", in his book "Catholic Apologetics Today" has an interesting essay on the question. Briefly, he proposed that God wills to save all without exception, but those who freely reject him justly fail to receive their inheritance. He related this to the text "The wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life".

Dan Jasmin said...

I am not a theologian, but I have read Fr. Most's writings on this issue. If I recall correctly, he posited that God gives grace to all and we can do 1 of 2 things:

1. Do nothing
2. Reject the grace

If we do 1, then God's will is done and we would "merit" heaven. If we do 2, we sin. So to say we can "do" 2 things is incorrect. We can really only "do" 1 thing on our own, reject grace. Therefore it can be truly said that those who are saved are saved by God's grace alone, but that those who are damned have no one to blame but themselves.

Pontificator said...

Thank you, Scott, for your kind words about my article on predestination

I have completed my final article in the series. I would be most interested to hear your thoughts about it, especially about Farrell.