In the history of Christianity, few terms have stirred as much controversy and confusion as this one.
Predestination is a bit of a thorny thicket for theologians, perhaps territory some think best avoided for greener pastures. But it is nonetheless worth venturing into that thicket for the beautiful gem of truth to be found within it.
At the outset a clarification is necessary: Predestination, as used here and unless otherwise noted, refers to the God’s plan of salvation for individuals. Double predestination, on the other hand, is the erroneous belief that God also actively chooses people for damnation. Predestination is a doctrine that can be found in the Bible and is an official Church teaching. Double predestination is a condemned heresy.
That’s a fine line between orthodoxy and heresy, but so it goes for many dogmas.
Predestination today doesn’t get talked about much by Catholics. This is probably because it is so closely identified with Calvinism, confused with double predestination, and appears to be at odds with the Church’s heavy emphasis on the freedom of the will.
The truth, of course, is something quite different: predestination was not invented by Calvinism, is not the same thing as double predestination, and does not undermine the freedom of the will. In fact, in order to better appreciate how we are called to exercise our free will, it’s worth understanding what the Church really teaches about predestination.
The Church teaches predestination
■ Scripture: First, there is ample biblical support for predestination. The classic verse is Ephesians 1:4-5, As he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted in his sight in charity. Who hath predestinated us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ unto himself: according to the purpose of his will (all citations Douay-Rheims unless otherwise noted). Notably, such language is repeated later in the same chapter. Romans 8:29-30 is equally clear: For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated… And whom he predestinated, them he also called. And whom he called, them he also justified.
Beyond these, there are numerous other verses that refer to God choosing us for salvation—the very definition of predestination (double predestination would be choosing some for hell). There are too many to list all here. Some notable ones include: John 6:44, John 13:18, Acts 13:48, 1 Thessalonians 1:4, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, and Colossians 3:12.
The language of Revelation 13:8 is particularly striking for our purposes here. In reference to the worship of the end-times beast this verse states: And all that dwell upon the earth adored him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb, which was slain from the beginning of the world. It’s harder to think of a better image of predestination than a book with the names of the elect entered into it—even before they are born. But note there is just one book here. There is a book of life, but not a book of death—there is no complementary book in which the names of those who are damned are written (as would be the case in double predestination).
This is what Scripture has said. How has the Church authoritatively understood and interpreted it?
■ Early Councils: Double predestination, also traditionally called predestinarianism, has been condemned at a number of councils, which, though not full ecumenical councils, still have authority. They are the Council of Arles in 473 and the councils of Quierzy, Valence, Langres, Toul, and Thuzey in the 900s. The Council of Orange in 529 is sometimes also included in this list, though its focus was more on grace and the free will, rather than predestination as such.
■ Council of Trent: Several hundred years later, the ecumenical Council of Trent once again tackled these issues in responding to the Protestant Reformation. When it comes to this issue, Trent said two things. First, we cannot be assured in this life that we are among those who have been predestined, apart from some special revelation from God. This kind of language presumes predestination—that there exist some who are predestined. Here all that is condemned is the notion that we can know we are among the ones chosen, or predestined.
The council also condemned the false teaching that some are predestined to evil. Significantly, however, in this condemnation it also implicitly upheld single (or, what I call positive) predestination, the idea that we are chosen for life. Here’s the full text of this important canon:
If any one saith, that the grace of Justification is only attained to by those who are predestined unto life; but that all others who are called, are called indeed, but receive not grace, as being, by the divine power, predestined unto evil; let him be anathema (CANON XVII). (Click here to read the full context of the canon.)
■ Fathers and Doctors: It’s almost impossible to have an in-depth discussion of the Church’s teaching without mentioning the ecclesiastical elephant in the room—St. Augustine, whose emphasis on divine sovereignty was distorted by the Protestant Reformers into the false doctrine of double predestination.
To be sure, there are some difficult passages in some of Augustine’s writings. The consensus among honest scholars is that Augustine’s views, even thought they could be misconstrued as supporting double predestination, are reconcilable with the tradition and teaching of the Church. (For further reading see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on predestinarianism, Fr. William Most’s analysis, and the summary of theologian Karl Barth, himself a Protestant.)
With that said, it’s equally clear that there are passages—indeed at least one entire text—in which Augustine is completely and unequivocally in line with the Church’s historic position on this question. One such text is On Rebuke and Grace, which really reads like an elaboration of the above canon from Trent. Although the text has its own interpretive difficulties, it is adamant that the divine will by which men are saved—the process of predestination—is not to be equated with the process by which the damned end up in hell.
Special mention must be made of St. Thomas Aquinas. With Aquinas we do not face the nagging difficulties that we do with St. Augustine, but he is nonetheless clear in his support for the doctrine of single predestination. The word predestination itself (or variants of it) appears hundreds of times in the Summa Theologica—approximately 430 including the table of contents—and the topic is addressed in discussions of the doctrine of God, the Incarnation, and the doctrines of grace and free will.
■ The Church today: Predestination remains a part and parcel of Church teaching today. The current catechism of the Church, promulgated in the 1990s under Pope John Paul II, gives clear expression to this teaching:
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: “In this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” [Acts 4:27-28]. For the sake of accomplishing his plan of salvation, God permitted the acts that flowed from their blindness.
In affirming predestination, the catechism does two other things at the same time: it also affirms the freedom of the will and clarifies that sin is permitted, not predestined, by God.
How can predestination be reconciled with freedom?
The above makes it clear that predestination is a Church teaching. Next comes the obvious question: How is free will possible if God has chosen some people for salvation?
Divine knowledge seems to foreclose the possibility of human freedom: How do I really have a choice if that choice was known before the foundation of the world? Since divine knowledge is infallible, it seems to follow that my apparent choice is inevitable. It seems that I must act in a certain way—and have little actual choice in the matter.
Ultimately, of course, this must be accepted as one of the great mysteries of faith. But we can attain to some limited understanding first by remembering that knowledge of the future before it has happened is incredible to us only because we are time-bound creatures who live in a world where cause chronologically precedes effect.
God, of course, stands not only outside of the limitations of space but also those of time. Past, present, and future are present to Him all at once in their immediacy, as the catechism teaches. But the question still stands: How can God’s plan for us include our free response (as the catechism explicitly affirms)? If we truly have free will, is there not the possibility that that plan might be rejected? In what sense, then, can there really be a plan?
The answer, I believe, rests in God’s infinity. Only infinite being itself—which is God—can not only foresee the future and plan for the many billions or more who are saved, but also can have a kind of plan that includes the genuinely free response of His creatures. Before this mystery we can only humble ourselves in pious reflection.
Another question that haunts many of us: If God chooses to save some doesn’t that de facto mean that He is effectively condemning others?
The answer here rests in the distinction between God’s ordaining or active will and his permissive will. (For more on this distinction, read here.) It is within his permissive will that those who are damned are allowed to sin, what is called reprobation. Predestination belongs to his active will; reprobation to His permissive will. As Aquinas wrote, “Therefore, as predestination includes the will to confer grace and glory; so also reprobation includes the will to permit a person to fall into sin, and to impose the punishment of damnation on account of that sin.”
For some, perhaps many or most of us, this sometimes may seem too neat and tidy an explanation, one that glosses over what remains a paradox. But this is a much better paradox than the alternative: the hardline Calvinist belief that an all-good God actively chooses some for damnation. I’ll take the first paradox over the second any day.
There are other probably many other questions that follow too. But, rather than exhausting ourselves in trying to wrap our minds around this great mystery in all its cosmic dimensions, a better response is to understand its implications for us.
The beauty of this teaching
To restate predestination in more personal terms: this doctrine means that God has a plan for each one of us who is open to such a possibility and willing to accept it. This means that each of us who intends on following the will of God has a destiny laid out before us. This divine plan was not something God made up as he went along. It isn’t something he drafted and amended as we grew into adulthood. Rather, as Ephesians tells us, this destiny was set before the foundations of the world. Wow.
Here’s where predestination and free will meet: God has a plan for us, but we must cooperate in that plan. We must choose to accept a destiny that God has set out for us. The fact that we retain freedom in the face of such destiny is one marked difference between the Christian worldview and that of the ancient Romans and Greeks, who grimly resigned themselves to what they saw as the crushing inevitability of an impersonal fate.
In Christianity, destiny is not something that weighs upon us because we retain free will. With free will, then, destiny instead becomes something that lifts us up. Destiny gives us something to choose. It points the way forward to what we are called to do in our freedom.
In this aspect, Christianity is also at odds with the modern view of freedom as an end in itself. Our culture tends to idolize freedom. What matters is not so much what one chooses as the fact that one is allowed to choose. Our society celebrates the right to choose without offering any moral framework in which to guide those choices. (Think I’m exaggerating or over-generalizing? This recent op-ed shows just how far we’ve gone.) With little outside guidance and no absolute standards of behavior, freedom falls back on itself. Perhaps this is what Soren Kirkegaard meant when he spoke of the ‘dizziness’ of freedom.
Christianity, then, avoids the defeatism of destiny without freedom and the dizziness of freedom without destiny. The thrill of the Christian is that he is called, in his freedom, to discover his destiny. This is the beauty of the doctrine of predestination.