Christian Doctrine (7)

Image - John Calvin
A well-known theologian of double predestination – not the only game in town.

Here are a few notes from Chapter 7 of Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr. Christian Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), “What Does God Want with Us? The Doctrine of Predestination” (118-141).

Guthrie reviews three “classical” doctrines of predestination or election – maybe a stretch, since this includes the Augustine/Calvin version of double predestination, universalism, and Pelagianism in pure and semi- forms, and my guess is that most Pelagians would not consider their way of thinking a way of thinking about predestination, unless you think of “rejection” as a form of thinking about something, which I suppose technically it is. Then, proposes three basic rules for thinking about predestination/election, and draws some conclusions.

Note there’s a distinction between predestination – the idea that people’s eternal condition is determined or at least known with certainty prior to or independent of specific action on their part – and the concept of providence – the idea that the circumstances and events of history and daily life are under the care/control of God. So the joke about the Presbyterian who falls down the church steps on Sunday morning and breaks her leg, and says “thank God that’s over” is a joke about providence, not a joke about predestination.

Double predestination, Calvin’s idea as well as Augustine’s, and embedded in the Westminster Standards, holds that some are elected to everlasting life, while others are predestined to everlasting death. There are some Biblical texts that support or seem to support this idea, it emphasizes the freedom and power of God in determining the fate of humanity, and it is a doctrine of grace alone as the determinant of salvation. Conversely, Universalism – which essentially holds that everyone ends up in heaven – while it has always been considered a heresy by various brands of Christian orthodoxy, does have some Biblical support as well, also emphasizes grace; Guthrie questions whether it does justice to God’s justice.

Pelagianism in its pure form holds that humans are free to choose or to reject God. Does anyone believe this? Semi-Pelagianism is more popular: Roman Catholicism and evangelical Christianity both have the idea that humanity is significantly unfree to choose for God and depends upon God’s grace for salvation, but also holds that we are free to turn towards or away from God for this grace, to seek it, to allow it to work in our lives, and to desire it. By doing this, we travel the path of salvation, as recipients of the grace of God. Guthrie points out that semi-Pelagianism, from a Reformed standpoint, is difficult to accept: the Reformed ask whether our ability to “say yes” to God’s grace isn’t already itself the work of God’s grace; read acceptance as still portrayed essentially as self-salvation; makes salvation uncertain, because contingent on things we ourselves have done or will do, and so leaves itself open to the question of whether we have done enough, or done the right things; and finally, denies both the love and the power of God – because what kind of loving God would refuse to act on behalf of a beloved child until that child acknowledged God’s right to do so? would withhold what you need unless you say “yes, please”?

The three rules for thinking about predestination: (1) whatever we conclude, it should take into account the whole – diverse – Biblical witness; (2) it needs to be good news for everyone; (3) as Christian thinking about predestination, it needs to think about what this means for non-Christians as well as Christians – that is, about God’s just and loving intentions for the world.

On the basis of these three rules, Guthrie formulates these conclusions: (1) we have plenty of experience of our own human unfreedom; whatever freedom we have seems to be a gracious gift; thus, predestination is the foundation of whatever freedom we do experience; (2) when it comes to others, Christians have to know that God wills others’ salvation as well as Christians’ salvation; we understand that opposition to God is connected to God’s judgment, but that God’s judgment is always loving judgment; with this in mind, both double predestination and univeralism seem to draw prematurely certain conclusions about something that is ultimately up to God, not us; we do know, however, that Christians are responsible for proclaiming the good news, and when it comes to accountability, it may come down not to a question addressed to unbelievers – “why didn’t you believe?” – as much as a question addressed to believers: “Why didn’t they believe you?” (As in: what was it about your words, your life, the quality of your relationships, etc., that was unconvincing??)

Finally, Guthrie sums up the meaning of the doctrine of election for Christians this way: (1) God’s grace in Christ is the basis for our “election”; as long as we see that, we won’t imagine it has anything to do with our moral or spiritual superiority; (2) God’s grace in Jesus Christ is the reason, and so also the assurance, of our salvation; the assurance, in particular, allows us to pursue the exercise of the gracious gift of freedom for the new life in Christ with confidence; (3) the context for election is the life of the community; we experience salvation within “a community of people who acknowledge, seek, expect, and gratefully experience the saving grace of God in Christ” (139); (4) election is always both gift AND task: “We are chosen not to escape from a godless and godforsaken world, with all its sinfulness and suffering, but to be sent into it and to live for it” (140). The paradigmatic “elect” in that sense is, of course, Jesus as the “chosen one.” “It is just those who are willing to take up the costly task that goes along with the wonderful gift of being chosen to be God’s elect who really receive the gift itself” (140).

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