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Free will & Predestination

Ralph Blumenau argues that there is more to the doctrine of predestination than we might think. To support his theory he looks back to the teaching of Original Sinner St. Augustine.

Martin Tyrrell has written an interesting and entertaining article (Issue 19) on the wager element in religion; but I believe that in the course of it he shows that he shares a widespread misunderstanding of the doctrine of Predestination. Although I have no religious beliefs of Predestination myself, I would like to show that there is more to this doctrine than many people think.

We have to go back to the teaching of St Augustine. He was keenly aware of the burden of Original Sin. A secularist will not believe that there is such an inheritance from Adam and Eve, or that it is associated so heavily with disobedience or with sex; nor may he accept that the consequences of Original Sin imperil the salvation of our souls. But even when we look at the issue in purely secular terms, did not Augustine have a point in thinking that humans are innately flawed from a moral point of view? That even the best of us, capable as we are of moral reflection, often have to struggle against the nature that we were born with, which some call our animal nature and others describe as our baser nature? And that in that struggle we have often been defeated – in some areas (like lust) perhaps most powerfully when we were young, in other areas (like pride) possibly more frequently when we were older and successful?

St Augustine did believe that Original Sin imperils the salvation of our souls. How, then, can the Soul achieve Salvation? Augustine, following St Paul, believed that this was possible only through the Grace of God. Because Man is so sinful, nobody deserves this Grace; it is therefore unmerited. But God had offered it to all mankind when He sent Jesus to take upon himself the sins of the world. It was an offer which, because men had free will, they could reject; and if they did so, they lost the chance of Salvation. The Latin word for loss is damnum; Damnation originally meant simply the loss of Salvation. That loss was terrible enough even if it was not accompanied by the eternal pains of hellfire. Salvation was impossible without the Grace of God: mired as he was in sin, Man could not achieve it by his own efforts.

But St Augustine went further than this: some men are predestined to exercise their Will to accept the offer of Grace and others are predestined to reject it. God, being omniscient, foresees, but does not determine who will accept His Grace and who will not.

Augustine had developed a theory about Time which, strictly speaking, makes the use of the word “foresee” inappropriate. He believed that sequential Time as we experience it operates in the world only after God has created it. It does not exist outside the created world, which is literally time-less (eternal), and in which there is no Past, Present or Future – concepts which are dissolved in Eternity. (He would never have agreed with the crude suggestions of the later Catholic Church that you could shorten the time spent by the dead in Purgatory by praying for them or by endowing Masses for the Dead. That is a sequential idea. Time in the beyond, in the ‘next’ world, cannot be shortened.) The whole vexed question “when did eternity begin and when will it end?” is a false question. Augustine had to address himself to this problem because people asked themselves what there was “before the beginning of time” when God created world ex nihilo. But it is interesting that, on theological grounds and in theological terms, he came to a conclusion not unlike that which Kant was to reach on rational and Einstein on scientific grounds: that in ‘Reality’ Time and Space as we experience them cannot exist.

Those who accept the help of Grace are helped in their struggle against Sin; those who decline it reject it and are enslaved by Sin.

Now why would anyone exercise his Free Will to reject Grace? The implication of Augustine’s teaching is that the capacity to use our Free Will to choose or to reject the offer of Grace, though very small in all of us, is smaller in some people than it is in others. He seems to suggest that some people are constitutionally capable of using the little Will they have to accept the Grace which then strengthens that Will further. The Will of others is so weak that they cannot even take that step.

An analogy would be of men in danger of drowning in the middle of the ocean. They can all swim a little; but none of them have the capacity to reach the far-off land by swimming. They see the captain of a distant liner launch a lifeboat which can take them to salvation. The current flows strongly in the opposite direction; even so, there are some swimmers who are constitutionally capable of reaching the lifeboat, whose crew will then help them to reach the liner. But there are some who, though they do try, are just too weak: the current sweeps them away. (Even the suggestion that constitutional strength or weakness are involved may sometimes be inappropriate: the strong swimmer may be strong because he has freely chosen to take a lot of exercise in the swimming pool; the weak swimmer may be weak because he has freely chosen to be a couch-potato instead.)

This is an intellectually subtle ‘squaring of the circle’, allowing, as it does, validity to each of the two concepts of Free Will and Predestination, which at first sight would appear to be incompatible with each other. The theology takes account of our experience in life and corresponds with what we feel about ourselves and indeed about others: we feel that in many situations we are free to make our own choices; but we are also conscious of the number of occasions when, “with the best will in the world”, we are too weak to do what we know we ought to do. We feel there are some occasions when we are entitled to expect of a miscreant that he should “pull himself together”; but there are also times when we recognize that the miscreant is not fully responsible for what he has done wrong. Those who accept the Grace are by that acceptance chosen for Salvation – though perhaps it would be more accurate to say that by the choice which they (not God) have made, they are destined for Salvation. They are the Elect – the word comes from the Latin eligere, which means to select, though the Latin word itself comes from legere, meaning to choose. Once they have used their Free Will to accept the offer of Grace, that Grace helps them to strengthen their Will yet further. It helps the Will to make continuing choices between good and evil, so that, by making the right choice, the Elect can avoid being totally enslaved to Sin in this world and can achieve Salvation in the next.

This I take to be the Augustinian doctrine of Predestination. Many people, wrongly in my view, believe the doctrine to be that God decides in advance that only a few individuals can accept Grace and so will be chosen for Salvation, while the great majority cannot accept it and so will be condemned at the very outset of their lives to the opposite of Salvation. Nor did the medieval church generally take what would have been the line of Plotinus had Plotinus been a Christian: that the opposite of Salvation would be the absence of God – painful enough for those who had some glimmering of the joys of rejoining Him when the Soul reascended to be in the presence of God. Instead, the medieval church taught that Damnation (which, as we have seen above, originally meant the loss of Salvation) meant being cast into Hell and there suffering dreadful torments for all Eternity. Understood in this way, the doctrine of Predestination is seen as so harsh and so cruel that it seems difficult to reconcile with the idea of a God of Love, or of a God whom Jesus asked to forgive those who know not what they do.

The idea of eternal hellfire is as primitive as it is barbaric. It is understandable that someone whose nature is such that he cannot receive the Grace of God might suffer the fate of being without God’s presence; but it is a dreadful notion that this fate should be a punishment when the ‘sin’ is not the result of choice but, as it were, of a psychic constitution.

The idea that only a small minority are worthy enough to be chosen for Salvation is certainly very rigorist, assuming as it does that most people are not capable of accepting the Grace of Christ’s sacrifice.

However, the concept of predestination as such, properly understood, is perhaps not as harsh and intolerant as it may appear.

Let us take as an example the teacher or the social worker who might look at a young man and say, “I can see what is going to happen to him. He comes from an utterly deprived background. His father is a bully who sets a terrible example of violence; his mother is totally neglectful; in addition the boy is of sub-normal intelligence and is easily led by gangleaders. I am afraid he is likely to end up in prison, and that will only make him still worse. I would like to save him from this fate. I try to do my best to show him a better way; I do actually show him affection because I feel so sorry for him; but I know that this is all quite unavailing.” The teacher or social worker foresees what will happen, but he does not determine it. He may of course make a mistake: he may overlook the young delinquent’s capacity to respond to a really inspired individual or his inner determination to make something better of himself which needs maturity to develop. If the young man turns out in the end to be a success in life after all, the teacher may well say, “Well, I am surprised: I obviously didn’t know him as well as I thought I did.”

If God is omniscient, however, He would know the young man through and through, and there are no surprises. In that sense He, too, foresees, but does not determine what will happen to him.

Unfortunately, Luther and Calvin were so seized of the omnipotence and inscrutibility of God that they did teach that he not only foresees but also preordains the fate of individuals.

The doctrine of Predestination, both in its theological form and in the secular form given above, is a bleak one. Most of us do not like the idea that we are so tightly programmed, either by God or by our individual make-up. Quite apart from the difficulty we may have in accepting a God who at best seems to write off so much of humanity as irredeemably lost and at worst inflicts dreadful punishments on it into the bargain, we like to think that we have at least some choice, and at least some Free Will. It is true that many times in our lives we have had the experience which St Paul described as being driven to do that which the ‘I’ did not want to do; but at least as often we have felt that the ‘I’, sometimes by a personal effort of Will, has managed to do the right thing rather than yielded to the temptations of doing the wrong thing. When it has been the result of a struggle, we would like to take some credit for our decision. Likewise, we hesitate to accept as a general rule that anyone yielding to temptation could not help it and therefore does not deserve blame.

We have seen that Augustine, with some difficulty, kept Free Will and Predestination in a theoretical balance; and the official teaching of the Catholic Church has done the same. But Augustine became involved in a bitter controversy with Pelagius, who totally rejected the idea of Predestination; and in the heat of the battle, Augustine came to lay more and more stress on the Predestinarian and less and less on the Free Will aspect of his earlier teaching. As a result he has generally been particularly associated with that side of the balance. The official teaching of the Catholic Church maintained the original balance; but in practice it came to lay more stress on Free Will than on Predestination: perhaps because it felt that the idea of predestination as commonly understood might discourage Christians from making the effort to achieve Salvation by ‘works’. (Dr Tyrrell also makes this point.) Over the centuries the concept of ‘works’ became increasingly coarse. Initially the word had meant not only good works which one performed towards one’s neighbour or towards supporting the Church, but perhaps more importantly also the work one did on oneself: the attempt, for example, to overcome the Seven Deadly Sins within oneself. But eventually there was too much emphasis on ‘works’ which helped the Church in cash terms. Already by the time of Chaucer the donation of money to the Church was counted as good works that would contribute towards Salvation or towards shortening the time that the donors or their loved ones would have to spend in Purgatory. A decadent Papacy itself sold Indulgences in those terms.

In reaction against such abuses some Christians went back to Augustine and stressed what he had had to say about the connection between Predestination and Salvation by Grace: namely that ‘works’ by themselves, even when interpreted in the original way, were not sufficient for Salvation; that, however freely undertaken, they could never by themselves remove the burden of Original Sin; that the help of Grace was needed; and that God knew that most people, thinking that they could gain and indeed merit Salvation by their good works alone, did not know that they lacked the necessary humility to accept the unmerited Grace which alone made Salvation possible. The Calvinists were the most famous but not the only group of these Augustinian Christians; and as the Catholic Church by that time was putting excessive emphasis on Salvation by Works and on Free Will, so the Calvinists for their part tended to put excessive weight on Salvation by Grace and on Predestination. Nevertheless the Calvinists would demonstrate by their own lifestyle that the idea of Salvation by Grace in no way discouraged them from making the most strenuous efforts to do good works and to live Christian lives. They did not use the doctrine of Predestination to excuse themselves from any effort to struggle with their fallen nature, and I suggest that that is a sensible secular view too. Most of us are aware of our imperfect nature; most of us do our best to overcome it; and the more understanding among us know that not only we but also our fellow human beings often struggle in vain. If we are lucky, we are strong enough to succeed in that struggle more often than not. Where, hopefully, some of us differ from the Calvinists is that we are not so judgmental and realize that our compassionate understanding should go out to those who are doomed to fail. We need not be religious to realize that many of those unfortunates live – in this world – in a hell of their own.

© Ralph Blumenau 1998

Ralph Blumenau teaches philosophy at the University of the Third Age in London.

Free Will?

Is everything we do in principle foreseeable? If so, are we really acting freely? If we aren’t free, are we still responsible for our actions? The debate has rumbled on for centuries, and still has important consequences for ethics, religion, education and political philosophy.

St Augustine (354-430 AD)

St Augustine was Bishop of Hippo, a town in North Africa, and was also the leading theologian of his day. In his youth he was by turns a Manichaean, a Sceptic, and a Neo-Platonist before finally converting to Christianity at the age of 31. His best known books are the Confessions and the City of God. The latter, which was inspired by the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410AD, stayed on the bestseller lists for around a thousand years, and was for centuries the most widely read book after the Bible. The most important of the many controversies in which Augustine took part was his dispute with the Welsh theologian Pelagius, who argued that men can earn their salvation through their own efforts without the aid of divine grace. Augustine responded that the sin of Adam and Eve – the Original Sin – is inherited by all of their descendants, and is a burden that none of us can remove unassisted, so that our salvation depends totally on the Grace of God. Augustine succeeded in having Pelagianism declared a heresy in 416, though it wasn’t stamped out entirely for another fifty years.

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