Wednesday, October 26, 2011

30th Wednesday in Ordinary Time, Cycle I: The predestination problem

Ordinarily, in working with the daily Mass readings, I present the texts as part of the post. Today, however, I want to save some extra space for the discussion. The first reading is from Romans 8:26-30, the psalm is from Psalms 13:4-6, and the gospel is from Luke 13:22-30.

Let’s say your brother wants to buy a new Mustang convertible, and has asked your advice on the matter. You know his particular financial situation, so you know it’s a very bad idea. But you also know that when he wants to do something, opposing his will is likely to get his back up: “You’re not the boss of me!” Nevertheless, you can’t in good conscience advise him to do whatever he wishes.

Now here’s the question: Supposing you told him in the strongest terms possible, “Don’t buy that car,” and he reacts precisely as you suspected and buys the car anyway. Did you take away his free will? Or did he have free will to begin with?

This is as close a hypothetical as I can create for the conundrum that our Scripture passages hand us today. For while Jesus tells us to try to enter through the narrow gate (Lk 13:24; cf. Mt 7:13-14), Saint Paul tells us that some people God has “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom 8:29). So how does free will work in light of predestination?


 “There is, to begin with, the fact that God’s precepts themselves would be of no use to a man unless he had free choice of will, so that by performing them he might obtain the promised rewards.”[1] With these words, St. Augustine begins his main argument in his work On Grace and Free Will, and dissociates himself from those who would deny the operation of human free will in the work of salvation (and, not incidentally, those Reformers and Jansenists who would later attempt to draft him into their camps).

The denial of free will was formally anathematized in 853 at the Council of Qiercy, and again in 855 at the third Council of Valence;[2] it was later more ecumenically condemned at the Council of Trent’s sixth session (Jan. 13, 1547), in Canon 4: “If anyone shall say that man’s free will moved and aroused by God does not cooperate by assenting to God who rouses and calls, whereby it disposes and prepares itself to obtain the grace of justification, and that it cannot dissent, if it wishes, but that like something inanimate it does nothing at all and is merely in a passive state: let him be anathema.”[3]

All people are granted sufficient grace to certain ends: the just for observation of the Divine Command,[4] the sinner for conversion,[5] and the innocent unbeliever for the achievement of eternal salvation.[6] Having been granted sufficient grace, it doesn’t follow that we all make full use of it: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how many times I yearned to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her young under her wings, but you were unwilling” (Mt 23:37; see also Dt 30:19, Sir 15:18, 31:10, Ac 7:51)! By his free will, Man makes the difference between mere sufficient grace and efficacious grace.[*]

Predestination, as taught by the Catholic Church, is not all that much different from the Calvinist conception save in a couple of particulars. It’s predicated on God’s positive (or active) Will: God wants a particular outcome; therefore He sets the conditions by which that outcome will be achieved. Between God’s foreknowledge and the positive operation of His grace, certain people will achieve not only salvation but eternal glory. At the same time, His permissive (or passive) Will allows other people to reject His grace through sin.

“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.”[7] We have a hard time conceptualizing how God can see all moments in time without importing a mechanistic view of human behavior. If God knows all of our choices from all time, we wonder, then how can we not make those choices?

The answer is, pretty much the same way we could have not made our past choices. God’s foreknowledge doesn’t make the optional inevitable, merely foreseen. You can’t get determinism out of predestination without first baking determinism into it.

Yesterday we discussed the image St. Paul gave us of all creation as an expectant mother in labor. Jesus uses this image as well, telling us that “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be famines and earthquakes from place to place. All these are the beginning of the labor pains.”

Then they will hand you over to persecution, and they will kill you. You will be hated by all nations because of my name. And then many will be led into sin; they will betray and hate one another. Many false prophets will arise and deceive many; and because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who perseveres to the end will be saved (Mt 24:7-13).

That, in the end, is the difference between the elect and the damned: Final perseverance. Predestination doesn’t mean that God’s mercy is arbitrary but rather that He has given us and our salvation His most careful attention since before Time began. We still have a choice — to participate in the triumph of His kingdom or to let ourselves be locked out at the gates.

Look upon me, answer me, LORD, my God!
Give light to my eyes lest I sleep in death,
Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed,”
lest my foes rejoice at my downfall.
I trust in your faithfulness.
Grant my heart joy in your help,
That I may sing of the LORD,
“How good our God has been to me!”
Psalm 13:4-6


[*] This is to take the position held by most Molinists and St. Francis de Sales in a conditioned predestination. Thomists plunk for absolute predestination, which argues that God makes his election without regard to supernatural merit, and that efficacious grace allows the cooperation of the elect. A Catholic can hold either position because the scriptural proof-texts are equivocal; I take the Molinist position.