Has God Already Fixed Our Destiny?
“SO MANY imaginary problems would be avoided if the often-misunderstood term predestination were not used at all.” You may wonder why, if you have used the word “predestination” or heard it used.
According to the recent French Catholic encyclopedia Théo, we do well not to use the word “predestination.” Another book states: “Today, predestination is no longer at the heart of theological debates, even for most Protestants, it seems.”
Nevertheless, the question of predestination has disturbed many people throughout history. It was at the heart of the controversy that brought about the Reformation, and even within the Catholic Church, it was a subject of heated discussion for centuries. Although less debated today, it still remains a problem. Who would not want to know whether his destiny was fixed in advance?
Predestination—Meaning of the Word
What does the word “predestination” mean in the churches? The Dictionnaire de théologie catholique considers it to be “the divine intention to bring certain ones, who are designated by name, to everlasting life.” It is generally thought that the chosen ones, “designated by name,” are the ones referred to by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, in the following terms: “God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son . . . And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.”—Romans 8:28-30, Revised Standard Version.
Even before their birth, some people were supposedly chosen by God with a view to sharing Christ’s glory in the heavens. This leads to the long-debated question: Does God arbitrarily choose whom he wants to save, or do men have free will and a part to play in obtaining and retaining God’s favor?
Augustine, the Father of Predestination
Although other Church Fathers had previously written about predestination, Augustine (354-430 C.E.) is generally considered to have laid the foundations of the doctrine for both Catholic and Protestant churches. According to Augustine, the righteous have from eternity been predestined by God to receive eternal blessings. On the other hand, the unrighteous, although not predestined by God in the strict sense of the word, are to receive the merited punishment for their sins, condemnation. Augustine’s explanation left little place for free will, thus opening the way for many a controversy.
The debate regarding predestination and free will surfaced regularly during the Middle Ages, and it came to a head during the Reformation. Luther saw individual predestination as a free choice on God’s part, without His foreseeing the future merits or good works of the chosen ones. Calvin came to a more radical conclusion with his concept of twofold predestination: Some are predestined to eternal salvation, and others to eternal condemnation. However, Calvin too considered God’s choice to be arbitrary, even incomprehensible.
The issue of predestination and the closely related question of “grace”—a word used by the churches to designate the act by which God saves and declares men righteous—took on such proportions that in 1611 the Catholic Holy See forbade anything to be published on the subject without its consent. Within the Catholic Church, Augustine’s teachings received strong support from the French Jansenists of the 17th and 18th centuries. They advocated a very austere and elite form of Christianity and even had followers among the aristocracy. Yet, the controversy over the matter did not calm down. King Louis XIV ordered the destruction of the abbey of Port-Royal, the cradle of Jansenist thought.
Within the Protestant Reformed churches, the discussion was far from closed. Along with others, the Remonstrants, who followed Jacobus Arminius, believed that man has a role to play in his own salvation. The Protestant Synod of Dordrecht (1618-19) temporarily settled the question when it adopted a strict form of Calvinist orthodoxy. According to the book L’Aventure de la Réforme—Le monde de Jean Calvin, in Germany this quarrel on predestination and free will gave birth to a long period of “unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation, as well as abuses, imprisonments, and banishments of theologians.”
Predestination or Free Will?
From the beginning, these two diametrically opposed ideas, predestination and free will, aroused many heated conflicts. Augustine for his part had been unable to explain this incompatibility. Calvin too saw it as an expression of God’s sovereign will and hence inexplicable.
But does the Bible’s revelation of God’s qualities and personality help us to understand these questions more clearly? The following article will examine these points in detail.
[Pictures on page 4]
Pictures: Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris