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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Jonathan Sheehan, On the Predestination Doctrine of Calvin

Portrait de Jean Calvin jeune
École flamande, huile sur panneau, 15 ou 16ème siècle
Bibliothèque publique et universitaire Genève
(source: wikimedia)
no copyright infringement intended

All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.

I read about Calvin's doctrine of predestination while in school, and naturally I was struck by what I perceived as venomous arrogance and meanness. And later in life I was surprised by the formidable openness I discovered in so many Reformed churches that I had the occasion to visit, in various countries. I tried to clarify this absurd dichotomy, in discussion with friends I made in some Reformed communities, also I tried to get it in some books of history or theology dedicated to the subject. I did not advance too much in my understanding. I knew very little about all this, but I believed that the modern openness of the Reformed religion should have its spring in Calvin's teachings; maybe not in the spirit of the man, rather, against his own ego, in the potentialities of his doctrine. Then, how was it possible that Dieu adopte certains à l'espoir de la vie et adjuge les autres à la mort éternelle?

I found an interesting explanation in an essay written by Jonathan Sheehan and published two days ago in NY Times (Teaching Calvin in California). I will quote from it:

Calvin was the most influential religious reformer of the 16th century. His theological imagination and organizational genius prepared the way for almost all forms of American Protestantism, from the Presbyterians to the Methodists to the Baptists. He was also a severe and uncompromising thinker. “Some are born destined for certain death from the womb, who glorify God’s name by their own destruction.” This is the heart of Calvin’s teaching of predestination, his insistence that God determined each human destiny before the creation of the world. The elect are bound for heaven, the reprobate to hell, and there is absolutely nothing to be done about it, ever. How can so much arrogant misanthropy pass itself off as piety? What kind of God is this, that took pleasure in creating man so that he might be condemned to everlasting damnation? “Follow me,” Christ said, and doesn’t that mean that we are asked to choose, that the choice between death and salvation is a free one?

After all, Calvin anticipated these objections, since they were raised in his day, too. He dedicated a whole chapter to dismissing the “insolence” of the human understanding when it “hears these things.” He knew that our first reactions would be anger and denial, that we would be baffled by predestination. So he demanded that his readers, then and now, think alongside him. His argument goes like this: If God alone created all things, doesn’t that mean that he did so freely? If he is free in his choices, how can it be otherwise than that God himself determines our fates, right to the edges of hell? [interesting: free will of God rather than free will of human - my note] Once you grant the first premise — that there is no God besides God and that he made the universe — reason itself apparently requires we assent to this terrible thought. [the argument is developed also - while from a totally different perspective - in Yuval Noah Harari's Sapience; I should present it in a later post - my note] “Monstrous indeed is the madness of men, who desire to subject the immeasurable to the puny measure of their own reason,” Calvin exclaimed.

Human reason seeks to subject God to itself, but predestination tells us that we cannot. Confronting the doctrine of predestination is a kind of psychological experiment. Nothing else can “suffice to make us as humble as we ought to be” as “a taste of this doctrine” of predestination, as Calvin put it. Exactly here, in this rejection and anger, Calvin insists, you finally feel in your gut the greatness of God. You finally feel the difference between his Majesty and your limitation.

The first lesson that Calvin teaches us is about the power of an idea, uncompromisingly expressed and shrewdly argued. The second lesson Calvin teaches us, secular and religious, is this: Be careful what you believe in. Consider the consequences of your commitments. Investigate what your own views demand. These are lessons neither of secular reason nor of Christian reason. They are lessons about reasoning itself. Do we think that the world has a purpose and an order? If it does, where do they come from? If it doesn’t, what does a meaningful life look like? If we believe in a God, where does that belief drive us? If we don’t, what kinds of commitments do we actually have?

I will come back to this [just one more note: maybe a discussion about prescience versus predestination would be needed - here a short quote from Calvin, ch.21: Certain cavils against the doctrine. Prescience regarded as the cause of predestination. Prescience and predestination explained. Not prescience, but the good pleasure of God the cause of predestination. This apparent from the gratuitous election of the posterity of Abraham and the rejection of all others].

For now, you can read the whole essay at:

(Jonathan Sheehan)



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