Nature, Grace and Predestination in the 9th Century

A preliminary to any discussion of predestination in the 9th century has to be the concepts of nature and grace. As I mentioned in a previous post, the distinction between nature and grace basically ran like this (the references here will all come from Pelikans’s ‘The Growth of Medieval Theology’):

Augustine: nature = supported by grace, after the fall, grace is taken away. Nature without grace can only do evil.
Pelagius = nature is grace – righteousness is part of the original nature of man. Grace is immutable in the person.

It was the Augustinian viewpoint that dominated the medieval tradition – free will, for example, was seen to only be free in any meaningful sense if it was supported by grace. Bear this in mind as the background and underlying presuppositions of this entire debate, even though it’s not directly referenced.

Now, generally, there are two main ways of thinking about predestination: either God picks by means of decree some to be saved, or God picks based on His foreknowledge of what people would freely do. A key point in Augustine, who was basically the ender of disputes in the medieval period, was this, that God acted…

‘…for the damnation of those whom he had justly predestined to punishment and for the salvation of those whom he had kindly predestined to grace.’ (p. 81

The latter originated with a guy named Hincmar, who turns out to be another guy named Gottschalks arch enemy. Hincmar said that God foreknew that…

‘…some, through the freedom of the will assisted by grace, would be good…’ (86)

…and these were the people he predestined to salvation. This is single predestination. God predestines based on foreknowledge who goes to heaven, passing over the reprobate.

Gottschalk based his double predestination heavily on his idea of God’s impassibility:

‘”I believe and confess that God, omnipotent and unchangeable, has foreknown and predestined”: so Gottschalk opened a confession of his faith. The conclusion of another statement of faith was an apostrophe extolling the transcendence of God beyond time and beyond change. If God had not foreordained the damnation of the devils and the wicked, they could not be damned; for “if he does something which he has not done by predestination, he will simply have to change,” which was blasphemous.’ (p. 85)

An area of dispute was the distinction between God’s foreknowledge and predestination – did the one impose necessity on the other? Did it even make sense to talk of ‘fore’ knowledge in God? This was an area of intense discussion – but for the sake of brevity I’ll pass over it, noting the two obvious answers: either (a) it did impose necessity, or (b) it didn’t, for one reason or another.

To breeze through a pretty lengthy and subtle debate: both sides believed that they were teaching the correct doctrine, and each believed the other to be a heretic. Both were able to find support in Augustine, and both had patristic support as well as contemporary followers. The most pertinent for modern discussions is the emergence of this viewpoint:

‘This statement of Paul’s, (that God desired all men to be saved), the predestinarians had to admit, was “extremely perplexing and  much discussed in the writings of the holy fathers and explained in many different ways”. Therefore its interpretation was “not to be settled precipitately, but very cautiously”. They rehearsed Augustine’s various attempts to circumvent the text’s affirmation of the universal salvific will of God. From the use of the identical word ‘desires’ in 1 Timothy 2:4. “who desires all to be saved”, and in Romans 9:18, “He has mercy upon whoever he desires,” Gottschalk strove to demonstrate that “truly God has not in way desired to save with eternal salvation those whom, as Scripture testifies, he hardens.” The “all men” in the text must mean “all men who are saved” rather than “all men” in general.’ (p. 90)

This viewpoint opened up all kinds of other questions: how effective was the death of Christ in securing redemption? We have as responses some now classic answers: on the one side, God could be accused of injustice if his son died for only for some and not others. On the other side, the blood of Christ would be seen as being wasted if it was shed for those who were not saved. Both of these were developed in intricate detail by their supporters.

To sum up: the contemporary debate, usually had between Calvinists and Arminians, over the scope of redemption, predestination and God’s foreknowledge, can be seen reaching all the way back to the 9th century – and, oddly enough, it seems that the answers have basically remained the same ever since.

As a postscript: the real issue here is the idea of externalism in regards to salvation, which Barth/Torrance subjected to pretty withering criticism in their writings.

Bottom up or Top Down?

Predestination is a fairly big topic with Christianity. Part of what makes it so interesting, I think, is that so many other things come into play – anthropology, sotieriology, christology, metaphysics, philosophy, etc – predestination really is one of the broadest things to talk about in Christianity. There’s a lot of differing views about this issue but generally it can be boiled down to a manageable number. But before you talk about predestination as such, I think there’s a pretty important contextual issue lurking in the background: is predestination bottom-up or top down?

To break that down a bit: how does predestination work? What are the mechanics of it? Does God select people who will be saved from all eternity (this would be the bottom up approach)? Most in the Reformed tradition would agree with this. The rest are either positively damned by God (this is not as common a position within the Reformed tradition) or passed over by God (this is a bit more common). In a nutshell, God chooses whom He will save.

The other approach is the top-down approach, and it’s a position most commonly associated with Karl Barth, though this idea can be found in somewhat different forms (but the overall spirit is the same) in some of the Fathers – Athanasius comes to mind. Basically on this approach, Jesus is the elect (and the reprobate, but that’s something I’m not quite familiar enough to explain that well) humanity. In Jesus, humanity has been elected. On this view, all humanity is elected in God’s election of Christ. This is a very, very, very rough breakdown – Barth really developed the snot out of this idea and it takes up about a billion pages in the Church Dogmatics.

The bottom up approach is, like I said, often associated with Reformed theology and specifically Calvinism – though I would argue that Calvin did not embrace such a version of predestination – I’d argue that Calvin held to a universal atonement, though not necessarily of the kind Barth held to. The classical Reformed position of limited atonement developed later than Calvin and is not the way he would have gone with the doctrine (all of this is in my humble opinion, of course). There’s some metaphysics behind limited atonement that I don’t think jive with Christianity – but that’s a discussion for another time.

The point of this is that I hold to the top-down approach – that in Christ God has elected humanity to be joined to Himself. All humanity has been elected in Christ by virtue of Christs election by God.