Dan Matthewson is a member of Woodbridge Presbyterian Church, Woodbridge, Ontario, currently completing an MTS degree at Duke University School, North Carolina.
In a day and age when the lines of demarcation between denominations seem increasingly blurred, and when distinctive denominational theology seems increasingly suppressed (theology builds walls between Christians, so the argument goes) it will perhaps be both instructive and beneficial to pause and briefly examine one notably Reformed doctrine, the elusive and sometimes abstruse doctrine of predestination.
For many Presbyterians and members of other Reformed congregations, predestination is a source of confusion on the one hand, and an embarrassment on the other. The confusion stems from an ill-formed understanding of what predestination entails: Does it mean that every event, no matter how big or how small — whether the outcome of the recent Federal election or your decision to read this article — happens by the will of God who predetermines what will and will not take place? Or, more narrowly, does predestination mean that God predetermines who will go to heaven and who will go to hell, choosing the former to be "The Elect" and the latter to be "The Damned?"
Fortunately predestination has little to do with the first of these alternatives. Predestination is not the belief that God controls all events of life, acting on a cosmic level the way a young child does when he or she plays with Star Wars action figures, determining every event and action of Han Solo's rescue of Princess Leah from the evil Darth Vader. If this were the case, God would not only be responsible for all good that occurs in life but all death, violence, war, sickness and systems of oppression. In short, if predestination means that God is in charge of the outcome of all events, God would stand accused as the source of all malevolence and evil.
Predestination, though, has a marginal correspondence to the second of the above alternatives, namely, that God chooses some people to go to heaven and others to go to hell. This position is correct in asserting that predestination has to do with salvation (or soteriology, in theological terms), but it is wrong in that it paints a picture of a God who stands as a despot, capriciously assigning one innocent person to heaven and another equally innocent person to hell. Certainly the justness of such a God must be called into question.
When predestination is construed as either of the above options it is rightfully the source of much embarrassment for many conscientious Christians of the Reformed tradition. For if predestination really means that God is the cause of all evil in the world or that God is capricious and unjust why does the Presbyterian church and other Reformed churches so stringently affirm this doctrine? Would it not be better for Reformed congregations to allow this doctrine to silently fall by the wayside and concentrate on more important matters?
The answer to this last question is a resounding NO! There are compelling historical and theological arguments for the necessity of the defense of predestination. Rather than being embarrassed by predestination and silently ignoring its place in Reformed theology, Christians of the Reformed tradition should be inspired by this doctrine and emboldened in its articulation and defense. I wish to briefly outline these historical and theological arguments below.
A common assumption among Protestants today is that Presbyterians and members of Reformed congregations are unique among denominations in that they hold to predestination — most assuredly a doctrine concocted by their founder, John Calvin. While there is at least some accuracy in this assumption, most of it is mistaken. The assumption is accurate in that it associates predestination with modern day churches of the Reformed tradition over and against most other modern day denominations which do not hold to this doctrine. This does not mean, however, that predestination should be considered a "minority" doctrine, subscribed to only by one tradition, the Reformed tradition, amid a legion of other denominations which reject the doctrine. For although in modern day Protestant churches predestination is perhaps a "minority" doctrine, if the whole sweep of Christian history is considered, predestination is, in fact, a dominant "majority" doctrine, being held by nearly all of the great theologians of antiquity, from Augustine of Hipo to Thomas Aquinas, to Martin Luther and John Calvin, to George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards.
It is quite erroneous to assume that Calvin invented the doctrine of predestination amid a sea of opposition, making this doctrine a distinguishing feature of the churches that would follow after him. In actuality, Calvin had little new to say about predestination; rather, he simply inherited a doctrine — a doctrine resoundingly accepted throughout the annals of church history — and passed it on to future generations of Christians, of which the Reformed tradition comprise.
Obviously, though, none of this proves that predestination is a "correct" doctrine. Indeed, most denominations today would deny this. And to be sure, all throughout history predestination had its detractors — Pelagius wrote against Augustine (but was soon branded as heretic); Arminius wrote against Calvin (but was soon denounced by the Synod of Dordt); the Anabaptists argued against the other reformers, as did John Smyth of the "General" Baptists, and also the Wesleys, to some extent. However, what this lesson from the annals of church history does teach is that the Reformed tradition is not unique in its support of predestination, but rather modern day churches that argue against predestination are unique in their opposition to the doctrine. When viewed this way, the Reformed tradition stands in a long unbroken line of orthodox Christian teaching that stretches far back into antiquity, to the very formative centuries and decades of the Christian church. The Reformed churches of today are not defenders of predestination, the minority doctrine, but preservers of predestination, an ascendant doctrine of church history.
The historical argument is heavily balanced in favour of predestination. However, as the Reformers taught us, history does not validate theology, or stated differently, not all doctrines inherited from the past should be blindly and benignly accepted; rather they should be carefully examined for their biblical and theological worth.
It is for this reason that the theological argument for predestination is of extreme importance. If predestination fails the scrutiny of careful theological articulation, then certainly the Menno Simons, John Smyths, and Wesleys from antiquity and the Anabaptist and Mennonite, Baptist and Methodist related groups from today stand correct in their denial of predestination. However, if predestination can be shown to contain lasting theological value, as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther and Calvin and the Reformed tradition as well as the sweep of church history maintains, then predestination certainly should be considered, analyzed and given due attention by Reformed Christians also.
As I mentioned earlier, the doctrine of predestination is a soteriological doctrine — that is, it deals with the issue of salvation, and more specifically, it answers the question, "How are humans saved?" The prevailing notion of our modern Western society is to answer that humans, being autonomous individuals, make a choice to be saved; they choose to believe in Jesus and follow him. As attractive as this answer sounds to our collective North American ears, this is precisely the answer that Augustine, Luther and Calvin, and a vast number of other predestinarians have argued against. The answer that predestinarians give to the question is that it is God who saves us — even in the midst of our rebellion against God.
The definitive statement of this predestinarian soteriological argument (at least for members of Reformed churches) comes from the Synod of Dordt, from which comes the famous TULIP theology with which most Reformed church members are at least vaguely familiar. TULIP is an acronym which was later assigned to the decisions of this synod, held in Holland, to mediate between Calvin's support of predestination and Arminius' alternative.
The "T" in TULIP stands for total depravity, and total depravity is the starting point of the doctrine of predestination. When we speak of humans at totally depraved, we are essentially agreeing with the apostle Paul who wrote that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23) and that "all … are under the power of sin, as it is written: 'There is no one who is righteous, not even one'" (Romans 3:9-10). Total depravity, in effect, means that unredeemed humans are under the power of sin. Or, as Paul writes, "Therefore, just as sin came in to he world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned…" (Romans 5:12). The starting point of predestination, then, is what is known as humanity's "sin nature."
Sin, then, is what characterizes unredeemed humanity, and the effect of sin is alienation from God. My professor, Dr. David Steinmetz, was fond of saying that total depravity does not mean that humans are "as bad as they can be" — as if all humans are always utterly base and degenerate, always bent on doing the most hideous and unfathomable of acts — rather, total depravity means that unredeemed humans are "alienated from God at every level of their existence." Or, as Martin Luther wrote, humans are alienated from God both in their vices and in their virtues, such that even when humans do good or virtuous deeds, they remain utterly alienated from God due to their sin nature. These virtuous deeds, in effect, are not able to "bridge the gap" between God and humans, for even at their best and most virtuous level of existence, humans are alienated from God, absolutely incapable of doing what is necessary to overcome this alienation and be saved.
This situation is what Augustine called "The Human Predicament." Humans have a sin nature so deeply rooted that they cannot vanquish it and this sin nature, as Paul wrote, leads to death. What is the solution to this dire situation? It is that "while we were still sinners, Christ died for us… While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son." (Romans 5:8,10). It is God, then, who reaches out to us in the midst of our sin, rebellion and alienation, and provides the solution to our "Human Predicament" — Christ.
God's reach to us, then is the fundamental saving act of predestination. For whereas the majority of modern denominations would insist that it is we who, in the midst of our sin and alienation, choose to accept Christ and be saved, the Reformed denominations together with the overwhelming majority of Christians from antiquity say the opposite is true: it is God who chooses to reach out to us to save us from our own sin. Furthermore, predestinarians maintain that it necessarily must be this way, for unredeemed humans, due to their alienation — their total depravity — are absolutely incapable of reaching out to and choosing God. If God left the choice up to unredeemed humans, the choice would always be "no," for this is the only response possible by sinful, alienated humans.
David Steinmetz describes this situation using a train analogy. Most modern denominations would argue that humans are at a train station deciding between which of two trains to board: the one headed for heaven — The Christ train, or the one headed for death — the Sin train. Predestinarians, on the other hand, argue that humans are not at a train station; rather, humans, due to their sin nature, are already aboard a train, the Sin train. Having been born on this train (i.e., having been born with a sin nature), and having lived their whole life aboard the Sin train, humans are neither aware that they are on a train headed for death, nor are they able to do anything about it. Humans, though, are completely free to hop between the various cars of the train (i.e., humans are free to make various choices — which clothes to wear in the morning, what food to eat for dinner, which job to apply for, which person to marry), but in reality, the ultimate fate of the train is already determined.
This is precisely the situation that Augustine argued for when he distinguished the "spontaneity of the will" versus the "deep will." Augustine said that on the superficial level, humans have free choice. We decide what television programs to watch, which sports teams to root for and what colour to paint the bathroom. However, at the deep level, our wills are not free; in fact, they are determined and predisposed toward that which they love. In the case of unredeemed humans the "deep will" is predisposed toward the self, for due to our sin nature we have placed ourselves, rather than God at the center of our existence. Because our "deep wills" are predisposed to that which is not-God, we are on a course to death and destruction. Furthermore, because our "deep wills" are so intimately a part of us, we are absolutely unable in and of ourselves to free ourselves from self love, to choose to place God at the center of our existence and to alter our course to destruction. We are completely "under the power of sin" (Romans 8:9).
Yet it is precisely in these hopeless circumstances that "God proves his love for us [because] while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). God, seeing us on our path to perdition and realizing that we are unable to alter our course, mercifully reaches out to us to bring us to salvation. The situation is analogous to a ship sinking in the ocean, dooming all aboard to death by drowning unless God brings some to safety. Predestination tells us that yes, God indeed does bring some to safety; if God did not, all would die. God would be a monster if God left it up to those aboard to choose whether to be saved, for those aboard a sinking ship are absolutely unable to make such a decision — the ship is going down regardless. It is only when God reaches out with a lifeboat that humans are able to be saved.
This is what the "U" in the acronym "TULIP" expresses: unconditional election. God's election — the salvation of humans — is not contingent upon our prior choice of salvation; God does not save us only if we first choose to have faith in Jesus. Election — salvation — has no conditions, for the condition, faith, is something that alienated, sinful humans are incapable of producing in the same way that apple trees are incapable of producing oranges. Only God can create faith where faith does not exist; only God can create oranges on apple trees. "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — not the result of works, so that no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
(The LIP of TULIP stand for "limited atonement," "irresistible grace," and "perseverance of the saints," all of which factor into a discussion of predestination. However, in an effort to keep this article short, I will forgo such discussions.)
Predestination, then, is cause for celebration among the saints — celebration of the joyous truth that God has not left us to wallow in our sins, but has given us the gift of faith and created in us life where there previously had only been death. Predestination is not a doctrine about a capricious despot randomly assigning some innocent humans to heaven and other innocents to hell; rather, predestination is about a gracious God whose infinite love for humans does not falter in the midst of human rebellion and alienation, but mercifully rescues some humans in their willful march to perdition, creating faith where faith does not exist, and bringing undeserving sinners to paradise. Indeed, this "is not [our] own doing!" Indeed "no one may boast" (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Predestination, then, is far from being a doctrine about a capricious despot; rather it attests to the radical graciousness of a loving God. For, as Barth said, God's election is God's gracious "Yes" to humanity, when God had every right and reason to say "No."
The message of predestination certainly is a message ill-formed to the contours of our society. The very values we hold dear — autonomy, absolute freedom of choice, innate goodness of everyone — are challenged by a predestinarian account. Clearly the message that everyone has the option to choose whether to be saved or not is a message more at ease in our society, for we desire to be the agents, in some small way, of our own salvation; yet such a message fails to account for the power and effect of sin — for total depravity and alienation.
It is not the role of the church to accommodate itself to the values society holds dear; rather the church ought to be "the salt of the earth," "the light of the world," and "a city built on a hill," testifying to and modeling the biblical witness in a world gone astray. Surely such a witness includes our theology, especially our soteriology — what it means to be saved. The church ought not to accommodate its soteriology to societal values but to the biblical witness. Insofar as the biblical witness accounts for sin and alienation — for total depravity — God's gracious predestination is the only solution to this "human predicament."
Indeed, predestination is a doctrine which, more so than any other doctrine, bespeaks the radical graciousness of God. Above I used the analogy of a boat sinking in the ocean to illustrate the absolute dependency of humans upon God for salvation. This analogy, however, falls glaringly short at one major point: it portrays humans as innocent victims of some catastrophic disaster aboard their ship which has caused its sinking. In a predestinarian account, however, humans are not innocent victims out on the ocean. Instead, humans are the agents of their own destruction; they are willful and contented participants in open rebellion against God. It is only when Christians can examine themselves and see their previous willful march to perdition, and when they acknowledge that they were rescued by Christ through no work of their own, that Christians will respond with the profound words of Isaiah, "Surely God is my salvation." Predestination attests to "Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me [for] I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see." Praise be to God.