Are we born damned or merely damnable? Did God choose a predetermined number of human beings to bring to ultimate bliss, and alternatively select a predetermined and far more numerous group of humans on whom to inflict incalculable eternal suffering, before the world was even made, before a fall from grace, before anyone could in fact do anything—just to increase his “glory”? Or is election to salvation based on foreseen merit or faith—or both? Damned if I know—but don’t miss Jonathan’s Baer’s excellent review of Peter Thuesen’s equally excellent Predestination: The American Career of a Christian Doctrine. You may not get the answers you want, but you’ll know all the right questions to ask.
For many onlookers, to parse the grammar of predestination is akin to calculating the age of the earth from Genesis 1-3—it’s to read poetry through prose-colored glasses. But for others, namely theo-geeks like me, who remain entangled in this theological hairsplitting, much is at stake—namely, what kind of God is it that we worship? How can we relate honestly his intentions to unbelievers if we don’t know whether the deck has been stacked against us? And are we free in any meaningful sense—or are we trapped in a play in which by the final act, as in Hamlet, almost all are doomed?
If Calvinism, especially in its supralapsarian form—which argues that God foreordained the eternal fates of humans not yet created in a world not yet created, never mind fallen—is true, then most of us are lost, and not just because, in the words of Dirty Harry, we don’t feel particularly lucky, but because we are asked to love a monster. A deity who out Hitler’s Hitler in a blood-thirsty self-preening is too repellant to contemplate, never mind adore. Especially one whose obsession with his own glory reduces every person to nothing more than an adornment. If this is true, let’s please stop talking about the sanctity of human life. In this horrific scheme, there is nothing more expendable than a human being. “I need more glory—throw another baby on the barby!” (Whether non-elect infants go to hell has been a long-fought controversy within the Reformed world, admittedly, but there’s nothing it its confessions or theology that seriously argues against it.)
Reformed folk for whom Jonathan Edwards and Cornelius Van Til are theological mainstays should take a step back, attempt some objectivity, and ask themselves, “Were I presented with this scheme in the name of another religion, wouldn’t I run screaming, like Brooke Shields from Tom Cruise waving a copy of Dianetics in her face?” To those of us not in the Reformed camp (or no longer in this camp), unconditional election and double predestination—both to heaven and to hell—appear that ludicrous.
So why has Calvinism proved so durable—to the point where even in this pluralistic kumbaya age it is showing such vibrancy, especially among young evangelical Christians? Thuesen notes the growing Calvinist-Arminian debate within the Southern Baptist Convention and the online blogger battles, say, between James White of Alpha and Omega Ministries and Ergun Caner of the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. Are some of us just hardwired to embrace weird or noxious ideas, like those convinced they’ve been kidnapped by aliens or that if they kill the right people for the right cause they’ll fly straight into the arms of 72 virgins? Or were some of us raised in a milieu in which this notion was ground so deeply into our psyches that it’s simply too scary to move away from it, for fear of divine retribution, which itself would prove we were not of the elect—and never had been, and never could be. (Think about that for a while.)
Or perhaps the whole “I’m in, 95 percent of humanity is out” is just fine. As long as I’m in—right? I mean, I am in, yes? Because, if I’m in, then I can’t get out. Which is nice.
Or could it be that a God this horrible just happens to explain why the world looks the way it does? “Ah, now I understand childhood leukemia and Auschwitz and tsunamis—there is a god. And he’s quite mad.”
One of Calvin’s biographers posited that the Reformer’s notion of grace was of an almost quantifiable substance, as if God might actually run out of the stuff were he too liberal in its dispersal. Does universal atonement dilute the power of the Cross? If non-Reformed, even non-Christians (whoa!) were recipients of God’s grace—even his saving grace—would that make it less, I don’t know, desirable? Potent? Gracious?
It was not so much questions like these that drove me out of the Reformed camp, as it was the answers provided by same. It was after reading Van Til and Edwards and some of the Puritans, all of whom were plentiful on the book tables of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, that I realized how easily those 17th- and 18th-century New Englanders could find themselves scrutinizing every errant thought, searching for signs of election, like a working-class mom scratching off the magic number on her Lotto ticket to see if she’d hit the jackpot and could finally be free of her anxieties. But unlike with a lottery ticket, figuring out your election status left you with nothing to cling to but a purely subjective notion of the operation of the Holy Spirit within your life—which could be, as Calvin wrote, “inferior,” and intended by God all along merely to con you into believing you were elect when in fact he had always intended you for hell, and would ensure that you’d would lose your faith before you shook off this mortal coil—just so there was no one to blame but you.
This understanding of election presents problems other than the moral and psychological ones. For Protestants of the evangelical and Lutheran stripe, justification by faith alone is a theological nonnegotiable. The dark irony of Calvinism in its starker lineaments—and even Luther in his Bondage of the Will—is that, for all the talk of preaching Christ alone and justification by faith alone, Jesus is virtually irrelevant. When you get down to it, according to this scheme, we are not saved by Christ; we are saved by a roll of the election dice. If the economy of salvation were a Hitchcock film, the Cross would be the MacGuffin. God could just as easily have dropped a magic black bag from heaven that would travel from elect hand to elect hand, with the anxious believer chasing after it, being hounded by Satan, who looks a lot like James Mason. Or God could have replaced the Cross with a military victory that true believers were meant to eternally memorialize or a mere idea that instantaneously popped into the head of each elect person—thereby denying any “means” of grace or claims to good works.
So does all the theological wrangling finally come down to whatever individual Christians find most convincing or comforting? A belief in the freedom of the will has the longest claim to Christian truth, although, ironically, it is the Catholic saint and doctor Augustine who first spells out the double-predestinarian idea, with Thomas Aquinas parking right up next to it. Yet it was never accepted as dogma until the Reformation, and then in the context of the Reformers’ breaking the back of a sacramental/sacerdotal system, which is also what made for such problems within Lutheranism (with Melanchthon having to modify Luther’s ultra-Augustinianism in order to preserve the means of grace as taught by Lutheran theology).
The Eastern Orthodox, who are barely if at all mentioned in Thuesen’s book, and all too often left out of these discussions, have their own time-tested answer to this question. For what it’s worth, I found Robert Shanks’ Elect in the Son and Life in the Son extremely persuasive (if not his view of the sacraments, although the two may not be separable), not to mention John Wesley’s retort to his Calvinist antagonists.
Perhaps all we can do in the end is admit that the construction of economies of salvation and “golden chains” out of the hidden will of a hidden God who is outside of time can only and always be provisional. Or perhaps the Arminians and Orthodox are correct—we are free, right now, to choose—which is the only way love can be called love. (But wouldn’t Calvinists agree, only adding that we are not capable of loving the Cross until our eyes are opened and our hearts softened, and that by an act of the Holy Spirit?) Perhaps this is all meant to drive us to focus on Jesus and not our ideas about how it all works in the time-eternity matrix. (But doesn’t the significance of the Cross as the means of our salvation inevitably present questions about the extent of its effect and how that effect is appropriated by individual believers?)
Thuesen has managed to collate and arrange a broad range of historical data and present them in an accessible and coherent fashion, making his Predestination the perfect introduction to the subject, and popular American religion. But if you’re looking for an answer as to who’s right—the Calvinists, the Arminians, the Lutherans, the Orthodox, or the universalists (never mind the Mormons or the Molinists)—you will be sorely disappointed. Reconciling authentic human freedom, and therefore honest responsibility, with a sovereign God’s ultimate freedom is not something to be accomplished in this space/time dimension—at least not to the satisfaction of most Christians.
But that was a foregone conclusion.