Predestination and Grace in Catholic Theology

Over at Pontifications, Alvin Kimel has written a lengthy post on the subject of predestination in Catholic theology. I won't spend the time to summarize all of it, nor will I comment on all the interesting things he brings up. What I find fascinating in this post is the way it reveals the contradictions among the various positions on grace and predestination in Catholic doctrine (though this critique applies to Protestants as well, who are usually much worse than this):

Exhibit A: God's "universal salvific will" in Jesus Christ
The Second Vatican Council asserted: “The Word of God, through whom all things were made, was made flesh, so that as perfect man he could save all men and sum up all things in himself” (Gaudium et spes 45). The universal salvific will of the merciful God who has become incarnate in Jesus Christ underlies the documents of Vatican II, the encyclicals of John Paul II, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is true that some Catholic theologians, notably St Augustine, have restricted God’s salvific will to the elect; but the Magisterium of the Catholic Church has achieved dogmatic clarity on this matter and has rejected this thesis.
Exhibit B: God's grace is for all people
In his infinite, comprehensive love, God provides sufficient grace to every human being to turn to him and be saved. The love of God pushes out beyond the bounds of the Church to all of humanity. “For, since Christ died for all men,’ Vatican II declared, “and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery” (Gaudium et spes 22). The universal salvific intent of God is sincere. All sinners are provided the opportunity and power to turn to God in repentance and be incorporated into the divine life of God.
Exhibit C: God's grace is not efficacious, but requires human acceptance to be effectual
Joined to the assertion of God’s provision of sufficient grace to all is the rejection of the thesis of the Jansenists that all grace is divinely efficacious. In 1713 Pope Clement XI condemned the proposition that “Grace is the working of the omnipotent hand of God which nothing can hinder or retard” (Unigenitus Dei Filius). There is an authentic grace that is truly sufficient for salvation but does not necessarily and irresistably realize its salvific end. There is a grace that man may mysteriously and inexplicably reject. Even those who have been born again by water and Holy Spirit may fail to persevere in faith and good works. Or as the Synod of Quiercy taught: “God wishes all men without exception to be saved, although not all will be saved.”
Exhibit D: God alone saves; salvation is solely the work of God
The salvation of particular individuals is the work of God and by grace alone. In my earlier articles on Semi-Pelagianism, we have seen that the Catholic Church, grounding her witness in the dogmatic canons of the Second Council of Orange, insists upon the necessity of grace even for the first step toward faith. ... These canons, which the Catholic Church wholeheartedly affirms, dogmatically commit the Church to the sola gratia: the work of salvation, from beginning to end, is the work of God. ... "Catholic doctrine itself, as defined at Trent, does not admit salvation by faith and works" (Bouyer).
Exhibit E: God does not predestine anyone to hell
Fourth, God does not predestine anyone to evil or Hell; he does not reprobate independently of demerits and sins. The Synod of Orange is clear: “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.”
These five exhibits are sufficient for us to examine the problem at hand. The problem begins with the definition of divine grace. According to the statements in this post, Catholic doctrine believes that grace is (1) necessary for salvation at every step (rejection of semi-Pelagianism) and (2) given to all people unconditionally, yet (3) divine grace is not "divinely efficacious" because it relies upon the acceptance of human persons.

If that is the case, then there two available options. Either (4) the human acceptance of grace is a gift of grace from God — which would follow from Exhibit D — or (5) the acceptance of grace is the one human work necessary for salvation, in which the house of cards collapses and we return to semi-Pelagianism. Now if we accept (4), that the acceptance of grace is a divine gift, we then must conclude that in some fashion, God does in fact predestine people to hell (contra Exhibit E) and God does not give sufficient grace to all people (contra Exhibit B).

I believe the root of this problem rests in the fact that Catholic doctrine has abstracted grace from the incarnation of divine grace in Jesus Christ. In Exhibit C we read, "There is an authentic grace that is truly sufficient for salvation but does not necessarily and irresistably realize its salvific end." Contra this statement, we must define "authentic grace" as that which was revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, who came freely for the express purpose of bringing salvation to the world (John 12:47) and reconciling the world to God (2 Cor. 5:19). When we understand grace out of this divine economy we cannot say that grace lacks efficacy or that divine grace is merely a potentiality awaiting the actualizing in each individual human person.

In other words, any definition of grace that makes the actualization of grace dependent upon human persons either (6) believes in a kind of double predestination in which God determines who, by God's grace, will actualize the salvific grace made available in Christ, or (7) affirms semi-Pelagianism, in which human persons must fulfill the necessary human work of accepting grace, by which means the grace is then actualized and salvation effected for that person. Exhibit E would lead me to believe that Catholic doctrine rejects (6), and Exhibit D leads me to assume Catholic doctrine rejects (7). However, Exhibit D is qualified by Exhibit C, in which the best that the Synod of Quiercy can muster is, “God wishes all men without exception to be saved, although not all will be saved.” One is left wondering: Is wishing the best God can do? Is not God capable of willing and effecting something? Is God like the child who wishes for something on Christmas but ends up disappointed? Or does God truly have a "universal salvific will," and not just potentially salvific (leaving salvation up to us again), but actually and effectively salvific?

To answer the aporia in Catholic doctrine, I argue that we must reject (3) and affirm that divine grace is indeed efficacious. God truly actualizes the "universal salvific will" (Exhibit A) which was made incarnate in Jesus Christ. By locating divine grace in the person of Jesus, we are able to affirm the efficacy of grace without running into the problem of denying humans their rightful and divinely granted freedom vis-à-vis God. Human persons are free to accept or reject God, but all such finite decisions have their proper place within the sphere of God's covenantal relations with humankind. That is, human decisions cannot be projected upon the sphere of God's eternal will, whose scope is cosmic and whose telos is determined by God and God alone. Human decisions are circumscribed within the finite realm of creaturely relations, that is, within the grander, overarching will to reconcile all things to Godself—a will that was actualized proleptically in the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus Christ, we are given a foretaste of what God will do in the eschatological future of all creation. It is the hubris of humans to think that our decisions for or against God are capable of determining God's ultimate, eschatological will for us and for the world. Our decisions have their place, but it is a place circumscribed by the greater reality of God's grace.

Finally, Jesus came as the Judge judged in our place, as the one human in the place of all others, and in his substitutionary role, Jesus bore all of our sins on the cross—including the sin of rejecting God's grace. The grace of God not only means that God pursues us despite our rejection of divine grace, but even more so, that God assumed in the incarnation our rejection and bore the punishment of this rejection to its bitterest end—death, Sheol, the descent into hell. God's love is such that our rejection is never ultimate, nor is our acceptance salvific. God alone saves, and God alone rejects. But the one God rejected was God's only Son, and the ones God saves are us wretched sinners. Salvation, lest we forget, is by grace alone.


Strider said…
Thank you, David, for responding to my post. I appreciate the Barthian-like construal of predestination that you propose. A couple of comments:

First, in the paragraph following exhibit E you write: "(3) divine grace is not 'divinely efficacious' because it relies upon the acceptance of human persons." Perhaps I was not clear, but this does not accurately represent Catholic doctrine. In fact there are many different Catholic views on sufficient and efficacious grace. Molinists would tend to say that God provides sufficient grace to every person, this grace becoming efficacious when the human agent freely turns to God in persevering faith. Thomists tend to say that God efficaciously graces the elect, who therefore "necessarily" but freely perseveringly turn to God. The diversity of views within the Catholic Church should be acknowledged. I daresay there are many who advance Barthian-like interpretations along the lines that you suggest.

Second, you may be right that much Catholic reflection on predestination has "abstracted grace from the incarnation of divine grace in Jesus Christ," but this is true for all of Western Christianity since Augustine.

Third, I suggest that your use of the term "Semi-Pelagian" is inaccurate. To believe that the regenerate can turn away from God and fail to persevere in faith is not Semi-Pelagianism. This is simply catholic belief, shared by virtually everyone, including St Augustine, until Calvin.

Fourth, every theological interpretation of predestination must account for mortal sin and apostasy. Barth's christological reformulation of election cannot and does not evade this problem. How is it possible for those who have been born again in Christ by the Spirit to turn away from him and finally reject him? Unless one is willing to advance a theory of apokatastasis, we are simply stuck with the mystery. The Catholic Church has wisely refused (wisely, in my opinion) to explain away the mystery.

Thanks again.
Pontificator: Thanks for your response. First, I am one of the few brave (or foolish) enough to subscribe to a belief in apokatastasis. I do not believe in any sort of necessary universalism, but rather one that is rooted and revealed in God's salvific will actualized in the person of Jesus Christ. I follow Barth on most things, while supplementing his Reformed theology with the Lutheran theology of justification (a la Jüngel) and von Balthasar's insistence upon Christ as our full and true representative who takes upon himself the fullness of divine rejection to the extent of hell itself.

Now let me say a few things about semi-Pelagianism. Technically, as you know, semi-Pelagianism simply asserts that if a person reaches out for God, then God will reach out to that person. It's the "you-have-to-meet-God-halfway" doctrine. The Catholic-Arminian position that one can refuse and lose one's salvation is simply the other side of the coin. Semi-Pelagianism states that you are able to step towards God on your own power. Catholic-Arminian doctrine states that you can step away from God's grace on your own power. The two positions are different, but only insofar as they speak about the same kind of action (human decisions for or against God) in different stations of life.

I happen to feel like that Catholic-Arminian position is the more dangerous of the two. Even if semi-Pelagianism neglects the ramifications of our fallenness, Catholicism-Arminianism neglects the power of God's grace and the reality of our new personhood in Jesus Christ. Once again, it is an abstraction of grace from the concrete reality of Jesus Christ. Essentially, the Catholic-Arminian position states that one can make it so that Jesus did not die for him or her. At least semi-Pelagianism is the more appropriate, albeit still wrong, in that it believes we can make it so that Christ did die for us.

Either way, both are wrong, as I see it. But I am also a Protestant, and my Reformed tendencies are rather strong.
dante35633 said…
D.W., Could you defend the claim that stepping toward and away from God by one's own power are the same thing? I just don't think that is right; and, interestingly enough, I think it may have to do with a kind of residue of natural theology in your position; that is, conceiving of the freedom of the will in purely causal terms.

Also, I think there is another difficulty in the way you tie God's grace so seamlessly and objectivley to Jesus Christ. I, of course, have no problem with this in the sense that that Jesus Christ is, literally, the Redeemer; but, insofar as you position has no eternal conseqences for rejecting Jesus Christ, doesn't that reveal a residual Idealism for which History is ultimately utterly insignificant for salvation and thereby serve to render the concrete particular history, which is supposed to be salvific, basically unnecessary in and of itself?
dante35633 said…
Sorry, that should read: "...render the concrete particular history of Jesus, which is supposed to be salvific, basically unnecessary in and of itself?

First, check out the recent comments on Pontifications re: the difference between semi-Pelagianism and the Catholic-Arminian positions.

Second, you'll have to explain yourself more fully on the issue of free will in causal terms. After our last conversation, I know from experience that we may very well be working with completely different definitions of such concepts. (Case in point: if my ideas seem bogus, it is most definitely not because of some resident natural theology. I am the last person to have vestiges of natural theology lurking around, unless you have a different definition of that as well, which is quite possible.)

Third, my account does not render history insignificant. I simply refuse to give history any ultimate or eternal status, such that the world is self-determining on par with God. I much more prefer a model in which the world is active and self-determining in a finite sense, coram mundo so to speak. But coram Deo, the world is passive and dependent upon God. We are ultimately dependent upon God, while presently we are (at least seemingly) independent, though of course dependent on others.

Fourth, I am most definitely not rendering the lived history of Jesus insignificant in relation to some external, eternal decree. That would be precisely to abstract God's will from the concrete focal point in Christ. No, what I argue for is the redefinition and resituation of all history out of the concrete center in the history of Jesus. This one particular history is so exclusive and unique that it is simultaneously inclusive and all-encompassing. The particularity of Jesus, as the self-determination of the triune God, is what gathers together all the rest of history. In this intersection of the transcendent and immanent we see both the origin and telos of all creation. God determined to give life to what is not-God, and in Jesus Christ, God determined to bring what is not-God into participation with God as redeemed creation.
Halden said…
It is von Balthasar that really gets at the contours of a Christological appraoch to history in his book A Theology of History. As von Balthasar shows, it is through understanding Christ as the concrete universal. He explores how Christ enters into, and yet contains history, being both the center and the circumference, to speak in Barthian terms.
MarkC said…

It appears to me that you perceive three possibilities for belief about grace and predestination:

(1) Semi-pelagianism
(2) Double-predestinarianism
(3) Universalism

Would that be an accurate statement?

Yes, that is indeed accurate. I plan to devote a full post to that very argument soon, though I have stated that position a number of times already. And really the only two orthodox positions are double predestination and double election (i.e., universalism). The former divides between the saved and the reprobate based on some abstract divine decree. The latter locates the distinction between saved and reprobate in the person of Jesus Christ alone.

Semi-Pelagianism is the faith of most Christians, though they do not realize it. If there is one thing I hope to do, it is to exorcize the demon of Pelagianism from evangelical Christianity.
MarkC said…

Thanks... This brings a number of previous conversations we've had into better focus. I appreciate it!

Anonymous said…
Hey my apologies if this is redundant, I have not read all the comments, and am sort of pressed for time (but not pressed enough to keep me from commenting, evidentally). You made the comment that you believe God's Will to be something completely unalterable.
You said "Human persons are free to accept or reject God, but all such finite decisions have their proper place within the sphere of God's covenantal relations with humankind. That is, human decisions cannot be projected upon the sphere of God's eternal will, whose scope is cosmic and whose telos is determined by God and God alone."
There are annotated cases of God's Will being changed through the prayers of people throughout the bible. It must be noted that while, yes admittingly we do not have power /over/ Him, we must see that we have the power to constrain God to change His Will. A common misconception is what people think His "Will" actually means... It is not how He deems the world shall be, but rather how He plans it. We can constrain God to change His Will by arguing His Purpose. Forgive my short comment, and lack of details- I will return at a later date to expound upon this (within the next couple of days).
I am not defending a position, or attacking your position, rather I am seeking for a universal 'truth' in all things; that is what debate should be- not the defending of a position, but the supplying of information and ideas of each side to open each of us up to a wider reality, and ultimately determine the closest we can to "truth"
(That, was my disclaimer, I suppose...)