Friday, August 7, 2009

Predestination Thoughts

I'm currently in Book 3, Chapter 21 of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. This is where he puts forth his comprehensive teaching on the doctrines of predestination and election. I'm still fairly early in his discussion, but so far I'm finding his teaching to be sober, balanced, careful, and non-speculative—all the things that are commendable about him. Instead of forcefully plowing ahead and asserting his point of view, he is careful to let the Bible speak its own words without forcing them into his conclusion. Whether you accept his teaching of double predestination and of unconditional election to salvation versus unconditional reprobation, you can't knock his method.

There are three thoughts that come to mind about my own prejudices concerning this topic. I need to get them out in the open.

First, I am completely comfortable with the idea that salvation is purely by God's free, unmerited mercy without reference to anything I can do, have done, or will do. That sinners accept salvation is totally dependent on God's decision; it is God's means of securing for the elect the end to which He has destined them.

I am not comfortable, however, with the inverse—that our damnation is purely by God's eternal decree and is without reference to the sins that the damned can commit, have committed, or will commit. That people are recalcitrant sinners is God's will; it is His means of securing for the reprobate the end to which He has destined them.

To sum up, I accept that salvation is totally unmerited, but I cannot wrap my head around a damnation that is not conditioned at rock bottom on our sins. I know I can't deserve my salvation, but, if I'm going to be damned, at rock bottom I damn well want to deserve it.

Second, I am not a disinterested party. Granted, I am confident in my own election (looking at the testimonies the Scriptures, the sacraments, and covenant give and my subjective experience of God's grace to me, I have assurance of God's favor-this is a whole other issue, can Christians know for sure if they are "saved"?), but, as a human being, I find disconcerting the notion that at bottom God does not have loving intentions for all of his human creatures. Though I trust that God has saved me, is saving me, and shall save me, I still have an interest in the existential plight of fellow human beings. There's that whole, "Love your neighbor as yourself" thing, you know.

Intellectually, the above is a strike against my ability to make an objective decision regarding the actual teaching of Scripture on this matter. Hopefully, the fact that I am aware of my a priori prejudices can help even this out.

Finally, even if I do not come to accept double predestination as objectively, propositionally true, if one believes, for whatever reason, that he or she is elect, I agree with Calvin that this doctrine should produce humility and gratitude toward God rather than presumption. If it results in presumption, on the other hand, I guess the good circular Calvinist answer would be that it proves the reprobation of the ungrateful sinner who uses it to presume upon God's grace.

At any rate, certain biblical passages do seem to teach at face value unconditional reprobation. Even if the explicit words of such passages are not literally word-for-word true, these passages can still be useful not as timeless, propositional truths but as inducements to bow in humility and gratitude before God that He has chosen to show such mercy to pitiful creatures he could just as easily have chosen to damn. Still, if this scenario were the case, I would worry that it would still paint God to be unjust and amoral and induce us to worship Him just for His benefits to us and not for His intrinsic nature. We shall see.


Dustin said...

I'm not sure you can believe in "God's free, unmerited mercy without reference to anything" you do, and not believe "that our damnation is purely by God's eternal decree and is without reference to the sins that the damned" commit. It seems they are two sides of the same coin, and if you possess a coin, you have both it's sides.

Of course you know that Eastern Orthodox teach that salvation isn't necessarily based on merits, but it does require one's participation (assuming a mentally healthy individual). God moved toward man, and now man must move toward God. In other words, if one doesn't accept God's gift (this is our participation) then God's gift is not received. Thus there is reference to what you do.

I also wanted to comment on this quote, "Granted, I am confident in my own election." It's interesting that if this statement were made in the Orthodox Church, it would be proof that one isn't "saved" because it would be proof of hubris and thus sin. In the Orthodox tradition the great saints never knew they reached salvation (or theosis or deification, as it's called in the Orthodox Church), for the minute they realized it or proclaimed it, they had another sin to cleanse themselves of. I thought I would throw that in as an interesting comparison.

Finally, one question: If salvation is "without reference to anything I can do, have done, or will do," then how do you explain Matthew 25:31-46? Here is seems pretty clear that salvation is based on one's own actions...

Jamie Stober said...

In reference to your first point, it does seem as if the default alternative to being predestined to glory is be predestined to destruction, unless of course those not predestined to one end or the other have the outcome of their future in their own hands. The problem with that is that the biblical data do not seem to leave that option open.

From a Calvinistic perspective, participation in grace by the sinner is necessary as well but such participation is itself viewed as a gift from God. God must not only move toward man but move man toward Himself. This is because man is too enslaved to his perverse sinful nature to respond affirmatively to God's offer of grace.

On the issue of assurance of salvation, we are coming from differing perspectives, as you noted, but we're also speaking different language. When evangelicals, particularly Calvinistic ones, speak of being "elect" or already "saved," they do not mean that they have arrived at sinlessness or perfection but that God has begun the work of redeeming them completely from the Fall, that God has united them to Christ and thus given them the status of sons and daughters of God. This is the "already" of salvation. They now have a status that God will take the rest of their lives to conform them to. The fullness of union with Christ, or, if I were to borrow the terms from Orthodoxy, theosis or deification, is the "not yet" of salvation and will only occur after their earthly lives are over. From a Calvinistic perspective, then, it would also be the height of hubris to claim that one is confident that he has arrived at perfection, which is the last thing I would claim.

Still, is it hubristic of me to claim confidence in my salvation? I've thought a lot about this. That I have current faith in Christ is a good indicator, but I don't want to place too much stress on something that seems intrinsic to myself. I'll just say that I have come to pay more attention to external factors, such as baptism and inclusion in the new covenant, testifying to me that I am a child of God. However, I do not categorically know what God's eternal decree in regard to my destiny is. I must simply trust that God is favorable to me for no cause other than that He wills to be, all the while guarding myself against the apostasy which I must regard as still possible for me.

If this sounds rather a fearful and uncomfortable position to put Christians in in regard to their salvation, it is dreadful if you are one of those Gnostic Puritan types who have spiritualized the Church and the sacraments away so that they are no help at all in discerning whether or not one is "in Christ." What makes it even worse is that these types hold the salvation of anyone who is not 100% certain that they are "saved" to be very much in doubt. From what I've come to understand, though, God gives objective witnesses to people that they are His but that does not mean that people should not keep themselves in line with the threat of apostasy. Hebrews 6 comes to mind.

The good stock Calvinist answer to the sheep and the goats is to place the cause of the good works the sheep did for "the least of these" in the grace that enabled them to perform such actions. They are viewed as evidences rather than as being in any way the cause of salvation. Still, in as much in my mind as the eternal decrees are fully known only to God and that we experience the things we do as our own decisions, I will not stop short of saying that we must do good works if we wish to be saved, provided of course that we understand that without God's grace enabling us to do good and covering all the impurities of our works, even our best efforts could not be regarded by God as anything but sins.