Sunday 2 April 2006

Predestination: Thomas Aquinas and Calvin

In popular books, and even in some theological text books, it is sometimes said that the idea of predestination was invented by John Calvin. Anyone who can say such a thing must never have read Augustine, or Anselm, or Duns Scotus, or Luther—or even Calvin himself (since part of Calvin’s aim is to prove that his doctrine of predestination was also the teaching of the Fathers).

In fact, even Thomas Aquinas has a detailed doctrine of predestination, which is, in many material respects, nearly identical to that of Calvin.

Here’s one quote from Thomas’s Summa theologiae (1a.23.5):

“The reason for the predestination of some and reprobation of others (praedestinationis aliquorum, et reprobationis aliorum) must be sought for in the divine goodness.... God wills to manifest his goodness in those whom he predestines, by means of the mercy with which he spares them; and in respect of others whom he reprobates, by means of the justice with which he punishes them. This is the reason why God chooses some (quosdam eligit) and reprobates others (quosdam reprobat).... Yet why he chooses some for glory and reprobates others has no reason except the divine will (non habet rationem nisi divinam voluntatem).”

Certainly I think the notion of double predestination should be subjected to theological criticism. But let’s not pretend that the idea was invented by Calvin!


Lucy Stern said...

I agree with the above statement. We all have our free will and if we use is properly we will do good.

The story of David in the Scriptures is an example of this. I think he was predestined of God. He did good and followed God
s will until Basheba came along. There is made some bad choices and the rest is history.

Rory Shiner said...

Interesting find.
By the way, I finally got to read your article in the Scottish Journal on Milton's predestinarian doctrine. Great work! It was very interesting and a very well written peice. Thanks for you labours.

Ap said...


You said, "Thus, predestination is contingent upon free-will. In other words our actions direct the course of providence which is nothing more than an all-knowing God foreseeing all things that were, are and will be."

I'm afraid that is not the position of St. Thomas. According to him, predestination is not contingent at all. A nice non-Banez interpretation of Aquinas is presented by Fr. Most:

Fr. Most seems to have a Scotist view on predestination. More on this below.

And of course, one can also see Garrigou-Lagrange's work Predestination.

You cited 1a.23.6. But that must be read in the context of 1a.23.5. He said,

"Thus, it is impossible that the whole of the effect of predestination in general should have any cause as coming from us; because whatsoever is in man disposing him towards salvation, is all included under the effect of predestination; even the preparation for grace."


"Let us then consider the whole of the human race, as we consider the whole universe. God wills to manifest His goodness in men; in respect to those whom He predestines, by means of His mercy, as sparing them; and in respect of others, whom he reprobates, by means of His justice, in punishing them. This is the reason why God elects some and rejects others...Yet why He chooses some for glory, and reprobates others, has no reason, except the divine will." (response to obj. 3).

At the same time, this is not double predestination. He says elsewhere:

"To solve this doubt, we must observe that though one can neither merit divine grace beforehand, nor acquire it by movement of his free will, **still he can hinder himself from receiving it**: for it is said of some: They have said unto God, 'Depart from us, we will not have the knowledge of thy ways' (Job xxi, 14). And since it is in the power of free will to hinder the reception of divine grace or not to hinder it, not undeservedly may it be reckoned a man's own fault, if he puts an obstacle in the way of the reception of grace. For God on His part is ready to give grace to all men: He wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. ii, 4). But they alone are deprived of grace, who in themselves raise an obstacle to grace. So when the sun lights up the world, any evil that comes to a man who shuts his eyes is counted his own fault, although he could not see unless the sunlight first came in upon him." (SCG III 160)

This is why I find Most's interpretation better than others. In one place, Aquinas has put his trust in the Will of God. Yet, at the same time, he seems to be saying that demerit or rejection of grace can cause reprobation. This is similar to Scotus' view:

"It seems to me that a different answer can be given to the question (although God alone knows the truth concerning it), namely that there is no merit of election, but that something does constitute the merit of reprobation." (Lectura I 41 in A. Hos et al, Duns Scotus on Divine Love, Ashgate Pub. Co. 2003, pg. 153)

The passage you cited 1s.23.6 is referring to the contingency of the effects of predestination. Aquinas follows Boethius' understanding that the infallibility of predestination does not take away the contingency of things. Just because the First Cause is necessary, in doesn't follow that the secondary causes are necessary: "Although the supreme cause is necessary, the effect may be contingent by reason of the proximate contingent cause; just as the germination of a plant is contingent by reason of the proximate contingent cause, although the movement of the sun which is the first cause, is necessary. So likewise things known by God are contingent on account of their proximate causes, while the knowledge of God, which is the first cause, is necessary" (ST I q.14. a. 13 reply to obj. 1). Hence the when we see the sentence you quoted in context, we read:

"So also the order of predestination is certain; yet free-will is not destroyed; whence the effect of predestination has its contingency. **Moreover all that has been said about the divine knowledge and will (14, 13; 19, 4)** must also be taken into consideration; since they do not destroy contingency in things, although they themselves are most certain and infallible."

Guy Davies said...

Quite right, Ben.

Calvin did not invent predestination. He saw further into the divine decrees because he stood on the shoulders of giants.

What of Gottschalk (805-69)?

According to the Catholic faith, almighty God - even before the foundation the word, and before he created anything - from the very beginning predestined certain souls into his kingdom, by his own free ove, according to the sure, righteous, unchangeable motives of his own eternal purpose. None of these souls will perish, for His mercy protects them. Others He predestined by His righteousn judgement to death, because of their blameworthy ungodliness, which he foresaw...Nothing remains for us but to renounce anything we may have tasted contary to God's revelation to us and faithfully to embrace the truth which is becoming clearer to us. (From Reply to the Three Letters cited in 2000 Years of Christ's Power by N. R. Needham, Grace Publications).

Gottschalk was flogged and imprisoned for his views after being condemned by the Council of Mainz in 848.


Guy Davies

Chris Petersen said...

Good post, Ben. But perhaps we should go further back than Augustine. The doctrine of predestination was very strong in the Qumran community. This is especially so in IQH in its discussion concerning the "sons of light" and the "sons of darkness." Here's a passage from that scroll:

"I know that the inclination of every spirit is in Thy hand;
Thou didst establish all its ways before ever creating it, and how can any man change Thy words?"

"But the wicked Thou didst create for the time of Thy wrath, Thou didst vow them from the womb for the Day of Massacre, for they walk in the way which is not good."(1QH 15:13-15, 19-20)

What is all the more striking is that not only did they hold to a strong doctrine of predestination, but to a doctrine of (active) double predestination.

Anonymous said...

All very interesting - really - but whether or not you agree with his own doctrine of election, surely the one thing Karl Barth has taught us is that the theological discussion about predestination - for all the impressive philosophical pyrotechnics about foreknowledge/decision, permission/will, primary/secondary causality, and so on - my poor head spins! - is it not a barren discussion apart from - in Christo?

Perhaps it takes an Orthodox theologian like the rising star David Bentley Hart - who admits his own bête noire is Calvin, yet who is no facile follower of the Angelic Doctor either - to remind us "that this is the world God creates because it is the world of Jesus, and that there is nothing 'arbitrary' - there cannot be - in any act of God".

Hart comments (all too briefly) on predestination in The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005). In this little diamond on theodicy - which is where the issue has its real purchase - Hart wisely warns us that "words we would not utter to ease another's grief we ought not to speak to satisfy our own sense of piety" - or, for that matter, our own sense of intellectual rigour.

That's my tuppence. I now retire from the fray!

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for all these excellent comments. I was especially interested in the parallel of the Qumran community. Whereas the Pauline dualism of election and rejection (in Rom. 9-11) is subsumed within an overarching soteriological unity ("... that he might have mercy on them all"), Qumran's dualism seems to be much more closely related to the traditional doctrine of double predestination, which posits an absolute soteriological dualism.

Anonymous said...

I've always considered John 3:16-21 as a hint at predestination. Especially verse 18... That might be a newbies opinion, though.

Cynthia R. Nielsen said...

Great post, Ben! It's also interesting that contrary to popular anti-Calvin lore, the topic of predestination is not an over-arching theme in Calvin, nor something that he begins with or continues to "harp" on in the Institutes. In fact, for Calvin it was a deeply pastoral issue and of the four books that make up the Institutes, Calvin devotes only 4 chapters to the topic (in book III). Book II on the other hand is almost entirely devoted to Christ the Redeemer. Unfortunately, many Calvin-ists have promoted the view that soteriology is the lens through which Calvin is to be understood--something that Calvin himself would detest.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Cynthia.

As a supplement, it is well known that Calvin's doctrine of predestination was constantly on the move through the various editions of his Institutes: from its initial context in the appropriation of grace, through its juxtaposition with providence, to its final - and fitting - soteriological-ecclesilogical-pastoral resting-place.

For Barth, of course, election is "the sum of the gospel" and materially (assuming its trinitarian infrastructure) stands at the beginning of his dogmatics.

Clearly predestination is a doctrine that can float!

Anonymous said...

Well, if Gottschalk was condemned for his doctrine, than it stands to reasons that the Church ought to reject this kind of "predestination". Show us where in

1) the Magisteruim,

2) the unamimous conest of the Fathers (to which we alone our bound, as opposed to the opinions of certain Fathers- like Augustine; c.f. Pope Leo XIII, in Providentissimus Deus, 14; Council of Trent, Session IV; also Vatican I, Session III),

3) and Scripture

teach a doctrine of "predestination", wherein God selects a few individuals to be saved [with the rest being damned]- or even if He somehow foreknows not only who they are, but also where they will end up, before He even created the world! Either God predestined me to either one or the other "fate" [and, if so, I would be comeplled to suggest that such a god is not really just- and being 'merciful' is completely robbed of its meaning], or I am actually free. There is no other alternative: its 'either' "predestination" 'or' evangelism, not 'and'.

The doctrine of "predestination" is ardently opposed to evangelism, which is rooted in Scripture (Mt. 28:19-20; Jn. 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:4; 1 Jn. 2:2; Jn. 12:32). Salvation must be chosen (Deut. 30:19; Josh. 24:15; Ecclus. 15:11-17, 20). Except Mary, it is never "predestined" to an individual or even a group of individuals.

Morevoer, both prayer and repentance are rendered utterly meaningless and completely absurd in EITHER view- whether Augustinian, Thomistic or Calvinisitc, it absolutely does not matter.

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