Friday, July 27, 2012

The Concept of Predestination in the Christian Tradition

From the book Gratia et Certamen:The Relationship Between Grace and Free Will in the Discussion of Augustine with the So-Called Semipelagians

The Greek tradition, with its cosmic vision of salvation and its defence of human freedom against the different forms of gnosticism and fatalism, was rather homogeneous in offering an optimistic solution with regard to the problem of election/predestination. A peaceful coexistence of the belief in the universal salvation, and the seemingly impelling demands laid on man in order to partake of it, was taken for granted. If God, the Greek theologians would argue, has really saved the world in Christ, and if man, despite the fall, has really maintained the efficiency of his freedom in accord with the activity of grace, then salvation must depend on God and man alike. Damnation, by contrast, depends only on man's refusal of the offer of salvation.

From the point of view of the Eastern theological tradition, the problem at stake hinges essentially upon a twofold possibility: the decision of co-operating with God's saving activity, on one side, or the attachment to evil and the choice of siding with it, on the other. What stands out as an ultimately decisive element, is the role of man's free will. In fact, although in his bounty God has given to everyone the means to choose the good and obtain salvation, at the same time He has not deprived man of the possibility of choosing evil and becoming liable to punishment by his own accord. Rather than speculating about God's inscrutable intentions and decrees, the Greek theologians considered divine justice on the basis of its effects, or put another way, in strict connection with the divine foreknowledge of man's behavior. Their preoccupation to defend both the justice of God and the freedom of man brought them to an implicit agreement about the "condiitonal" character of predestination and grace as well as about the universality of God's salvific will. A few examples, however incomplete, will suffice to illustrate their general trend.

According to Justin, God would reward men on the basis of their good and virtuous lives which are foreseen by his prescience. Irenaeus echoes this view, affirming that through his foreknowledge, God is able to judge justly every man's future choices, abandoning to their unbelief all those He foreknows will not believe in him. Clement of Alexandria also speaks of those who are predestined as people whose justice has been foreknown by God since the beginning of the world. Likewise, commenting on Rom 8:28-30, Oreigen afforms that God predestines all those whom He foresees will lead a religious and pius existence (  ), giving themselves entirely to a life of virtue, to share in the image of his Son and in his knowledge. Divine predestination is, as it were, the effect of divine foreknowledge, whereas the latter is, in its turn, caused by man's freedom of behavior. Similarly, in John Chrysostom's commentary on the same passage (Rom 8:28-30), the gift of divine sonship (and man's predestination to it) is understood to depend upon God's foreknowledge of man's obediance. Even more boldly, Chrysostom interprets the expression secundum propostum ( ) of Rom 8:28 as relating not only to God's decree but also to man's will. Finally, while asking himself why not everyone will be saved, despite the fact that it is God's wish that all men be saved, he answers by pointing to man's personal responsibility. Since God does not impose his will on man, the latter can also decide, if he wishes, not to conform to it. God offers to all the necessary means to obtain salvation, and if some are not saved it is because they have not made proper use of such means. Worth noting also is Chrysostom's introduction of the twofold notion of God's "preceding" and "successive" will: whereas his preceding or first () will is concerned with the salvation of all men, his sucessive or second () will deals with those who have become bad and deserves death.  


There are some instances of this optimistic view being shared also in the Latin Church before Augustine. Hilary of Poitiers, for example, commenting on Ps 64:5 (Beatus quem elegisti et assumpsisti) affirms that, according to the gospel, the elect are not chosen arbitrarily, but upon the discernment of their merits. Ambrose, in his turn, while commenting on Mt 20:23 (Sedere autem ad dexteram meam uel sinistram non est meum dare uobis, sed quibus paratum est a Patre meo) asserts that God does not choose some people in preference to others, but simply rewards all men according to the foreknowledge of their merits. Ambrosiater speaks of two groups of people, respectively foreknown for their faith and for their unbelief or temporary belief. Jerome, opposing the uasa irae(Israel) to the uasa misericordiae (the new Israel, the Christians, issued from both the Jews and the Gentiles) says that the latter are saved on account of antecedent causes, viz. their having welcomed the Son of God, whereas the former, who have refused to recognize him, are destined to perish. Finally, Pelagius insists that God will never hinder the salvation of every person, because salvation is precisely what He himself wills for everybody. He clearly affirms that predestination is the same as foreknowledge, in that God already knows those who will believe and from whom his call will elicit a free and positive answer. In this sense, God does not make any distinction with regard to persons, and He offers his salvation to everybody. If there is a difference at all, it is only in the time in which the encounter between God's will and man's will happens.

Rather than looking for a solution to the problem of salvation in the sphere of divine decrees, the Greek and Latin theologians did not hesitate to express their conviction that the election or non-election of men is subordinated to God's foreknowledge with regard to either their meritorious act of faith, or their demerit. In other words, for both the Greek and Latin theologians, the key to interpret it, and the way to explain the Scriptural evidences that speak of both life and death, salvation and damnation in relation to God's agency as well as man's.


Pages 305 to 309 from the book Gratia et Certamen: The Relationship Between Grace and Free Will in the Discussion of Augustine with the So-Called Semipelagians by D. Ogliari, Leuven University Press 2003


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