DialoguesReformedRoman CatholicTheology & Spirituality

The Problem of Predestination: Reformed and Catholic Theology in Dialogue

“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace”-Ephesians 1:4-7

What beautiful good news. God, before all of creation, has decided to give grace and the status of adopted son to me, chief of sinners. Though I am not “holy and blameless,” God’s righteous son Jesus surely is, and I have been predestined to be united with his riches. What a glorious gospel Christians share.

I write this introductory paragraph of worship because there is an awful misconception that Calvinists and Reformed theology are about “predestination,” whereas other Christians are about “free will.” Battle lines are drawn and weapons are forged in a war that largely misrepresents the other side’s position (see Catholics massacre some Calvinists in the above image of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, I’m only being tongue-in-cheek of course). In what follows, I hope to faithfully elucidate where the real war is and should be waged, for both believe in some form of predestination and free will. Further, I will argue that what many non-Calvinists believe as the problem of the Calvinist understanding of predestination, namely that God arbitrarily elects a chosen people for no reason and leaves the rest for damnation, is a burden that is actually shouldered by both sides of the debate. To do this, I will be utilizing the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church and the 17th century Reformed confessional document Canons of Dort.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church1 reads in the scriptures a God who wills the salvation of every individual human being, God in Christ “tak[ing] the initiative of universal redeeming love.”2 The Catechism cites in evidence 2 Peter 3:9, in which God does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” God thus wills that each would freely respond to his drawing, as “all mankind” is “called by God’s grace to salvation.”3 Probably the most direct statement concerning predestination within the Catechism is found within statement 600, “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.”4

Predestination, within this plan, is thus conditional upon the faith of the individual. God in eternity looks down the halls of history, knowing that a certain person will exhibit saving faith in response to God’s universal redeeming love, and incorporates that person into the elect, the predestined. This understanding of a predestination predicated on foreseen faith has the priest to recite this Eucharistic prayer, “Father, accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen.”(my emphasis)5

Contrary to the Catechism’s understanding of conditional predestination based on foreseen faith, the Reformed understanding of predestination is unconditional, not predicated on anything God sees (faith or otherwise) in the creature. Also contrary to the Catechism’s reading of the scriptures that understands God to long for the salvation of every individual, the Reformed understand God to effectually will the salvation of the elect. Based upon readings of Ephesians 2, in which humanity is declared “dead” in our sins, in order to freely respond to God’s grace, we must be “made alive” in Christ. Freedom, then, is only found when God’s spirit releases one from enslavement to sin, bringing one from death to life. Further, the Reformed do not view the faith of a Christian as incorporating one into the predestined (see “count us among those you have chosen” above). Rather, the faith of a Christian is a result of God’s having predestined them. The Reformed place heavy emphasis on Romans 8:30 which reads, “Those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified.” The Canons of Dort summarize this Reformed logic:

“Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, God chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. Those chosen were neither better nor more deserving than the others, but lay with them in the common misery. God did this in Christ, whom he also appointed from eternity to be the mediator, the head of all those chosen, and the foundation of their salvation.”6

In response to the idea of predestination predicated on foreseen faith, explained above within the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Canons of Dort criticize,

“This same election took place, not on the basis of foreseen faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, or of any other good quality and disposition, as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen, but rather for the purpose of faith, of the obedience of faith, of holiness, and so on. Accordingly, election is the source of every saving good. Faith, holiness, and the other saving gifts, and at last eternal life itself, flow forth from election as its fruits and effects. As the apostle says, “He chose us” (not because we were, but) “so that we should be holy and blameless before him in love” (Eph. 1:4).”7

Rather than making this article an argument of exegesis as to which document has the scriptures right concerning predestination (personally, I find Romans 8:30, among other passages and arguments, very persuasive in favor of the Reformed view), I want to clear up a common misconception concerning the Reformed view of predestination. This misconception runs something like this, “The Reformed view of predestination is arbitrary. In this view, God elects some and not others and therefore God would have to be unjust for sending the non-elect to hell and the elect to heaven. The true God is not arbitrary, therefore the Reformed understanding of predestination is wrong.” In the following, I want to argue that the Catechism’s (and other Protestant) views of predestination predicated on foreseen faith fall into this same criticism of arbitrariness.

Again, just to reiterate: the Catechism’s view of predestination understands that God, prior to creating the world, looked down the halls of history, as it were, to see those humans that would freely choose saving faith. Those humans are therefore incorporated into God’s plan of predestination. Faith, on this view, is a free decision of the human being in response to God’s initial drawing by his grace. Now, let’s assume two basic propositions that shouldn’t be very controversial across Christian traditions. First, some people in this world, as a result of their sin and rejection of their creator, will be separated from God in hell. That is, salvation is not universal. Second, God could’ve created a world other than this world. That is, God is free to create various colors, animals, elements, laws of physics, and human beings as he pleases.

Stay with me. Within the Catechism’s view, 1) God predestines people based on their foreseen faith, 2) some humans that are created are eternally separated from God, and 3) God could’ve created a different world other than this one. Sixteenth century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina argued, utilizing these presuppositions, that God knows what would be the case if God were to place human beings in different circumstances than they have been placed.8 God utilizes what molinist philosopher William Lane Craig describes as “counterfactuals of creaturely freedom,” in order to place human beings into circumstances in which they, on their own free will, will respond to God’s saving grace.9 In this understanding of divine foreknowledge, God creates a world in which x person exhibits saving faith as a result of his own free decision, and y person does not respond to God’s extended arm of grace. Molina then recognizes, if God were to create a different world, then different people could be saved or damned. Person x could be given different parents, exposure to persuasive humanist literature, an early death, and on and on, such that he would be damned. Person y, on the other hand, could be born in other circumstances to bring her to faith. Thus, it seems to me, if we grant the three propositions laid out earlier, 1) God predestines based on foreseen faith, 2) Universal salvation is not true, and 3) God could’ve created a different world than this one, then those who follow the Catechism ought to agree with Molina that God predestines persons to salvation or damnation as a result of the circumstances God places them in.

Now, if this is true, then the criticism of Calvinists that God arbitrarily elects some to salvation and leaves others to damnation is true of both sides of the debate. Catholics (and it seems to me, all, if not most non-Calvinist Christians)10 are not immune to this critique, for God could have created the world in circumstances that predestine x person to foreseen faith or to foreseen eternal separation. God, within both understandings of predestination, falls into the same critique of arbitrariness in his predestination of individuals. Thus, this argument of arbitrariness is not a good argument against the Reformed view of predestination.

Some may say this debate is useless, that I am splitting useless theological hairs. To the contrary, this analysis should pull all believers into worship of the God who has chosen to bestow the riches of his grace upon us, his predestined elect. Though I was dead in my sin and undeserving of grace, God has called me into fellowship with the Trinity and union with his Son. Though God could’ve created a world in which sin reigned until death swallowed us whole, Christ has swallowed up death in his resurrection, reigning victorious for those who trust in him.

View Sources

George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

Previous post

Weekly Reads (January 3)

Next post

The Future of Christianity in America, Part I