Aquinas: Predestination

As might be evident, I’m back! My Masters went in last Friday – at the time of writing, that is – and I expect the schedule to get back to normal. It’s been over a year since I announced a break, and since then I’ve written, ah, 28 pieces. But as I say, we’re getting back up to speed now: two posts a week, one on video games, and one on theology. My Masters was actually on representations of religion in video games, so it’s been nice being able to bring the interests represented here into one work. Anyway: let’s get back into Thomas Aquinas. When we last talked about Thomas, we were moving towards predestination. In fact, we were right on the precipice of that conversation. Today, we’re gonna get into it. No more delays – predestination is finally here. 

So there’s a full chapter on predestination, and we’re going to jump round a little bit and draw things from different sections. I’ll signpost as best I can. If you’re not familiar with predestination, it’s the idea that God has already selected the people who’re going to heaven and the people who’re going to hell. It seems like a bit of a shit theory – why would you create people who’re already damned to hell? – and today we’re looking a bit more at what Aquinas says about it. This is 1a.23.3:

“Some people God rejects.” 

That’s really where we have to start. We can invoke the basic principles of Christianity: “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Everyone’s going to hell, and so Jesus came and offered himself for our sins and now we can be redeemed. The argument is really about how that process of redemption takes place. On one end, you’ve got the Rob Bell universalism argument, which says that everybody gets saved regardless of belief or goodness or badness or anything. Hitler went to heaven – that’s universalism, when you’re talking about theories of salvation. On the other end, you’ve got predestination, which says that only some people are going to heaven and those people have already been picked out. Similarly, those who are not going to heaven have been picked out. Personally I’m not on board with predestination, but I think it’s a hypnotic idea. Anyway.

In 1a.23.1, Aquinas introduces this idea of human destiny. He talks about things that people can do on their own, and things that they can’t. For example, as a human being, you have a certain range of things that you’re capable of doing. You can probably walk and talk and breathe and so on. Aquinas argues that we’re not capable of getting into heaven by ourselves. It’s similar to an idea we talked about recently with Calvin. For Calvin, you can’t discover God by yourself. You can’t just sit down and think it through and conclude logically that God exists, and then suddenly start up a conversation with Him of your own accord. No: for Calvin, God needs to reveal Himself to us. It happens through preaching the Bible and so on – in those moments, God reveals Himself to us. He brings Himself into our sphere. Aquinas argues the same thing:

“Now when a thing cannot reach an end by its own natural power, then it has to be lifted up and sent there by another, as when an archer flights an arrow to the target. So a creature of intelligence, capable of eternal life, is brought there, properly speaking, as sent by God” (1a.23.1)

We can’t reach heaven ourselves, because if we could, we wouldn’t need Jesus. Therefore those who reach heaven are lifted into heaven by God. Implicitly, then, those who do not reach heaven are those who God chooses to ignore.

This still seems kinda shitty. Why does God choose to ignore some people? Technically, Aquinas points out, everyone fucked themselves. We all went off and sinned, and the fact that God condescends to save anyone is a merciful blessing. So it’s not that God actively damns people, he argues, it’s that they fell and God chose not to pick them back up again. This is 1a.23.3:

“The causality of reprobation [basically damnation] differs from that of predestination… God’s reprobation does not subtract anything from the rejected one’s own ability… Hence although one whom God reprobates cannot gain grace, nevertheless the fact that he flounders in this or that sin happens of his own responsibility, and therefore is rightly imputed to him for blame.” 

So predestination is a gift from God. Everybody’s going to hell, and He reaches in and saves a few people before they go. So it’s not really His fault that you’re going to hell, because you did a bad thing. He just chose not to save you from the consequences of your actions. In that sense, damnation (or reprobation, in Aquinas’s terms) isn’t really something that God does to you. You did it to yourself, and He’s just not saving you from it.

Now, this might all seem harsh, and it’s still not something I personally agree with. But what’s interesting is that of the things that we’ve said so far, they’re not exclusive to Catholic or Calvinist theories of predestination. Really all we’ve done is repeated Romans 3.23. God doesn’t damn people to hell, people commit sins of their own free will and damn themselves to hell. Further, God saved me (a sinner) by sending Christ to die on the cross, thus bringing me under salvation. I did not deserve salvation, and I cannot repay it or earn it; it was given to me as a gift. These are all claims that most Christians will agree with. The thing that gets people antsy is the theory around the actual salvation process. In my old Pentecostal tradition, there was a heavy emphasis on free will. We all live our lives, and at any moment we can welcome Jesus into our hearts and accept salvation. And if you don’t, well, that’s your fault and you had your chance and you’re going to hell. Salvation depends on the choices you personally make. For Aquinas, it’s not actually about your free will – or at least not by itself. Again, you can’t think your way into belief in God, right. You can’t get there by yourself. God has to bring you there. He lifts you into something that you could not achieve in and of your own ability. And if He lifts you in there, it’s not really about your free will, it’s about His grace in lifting you into communion. Your choice doesn’t really matter. And isn’t the emphasis on free will all a bit silly anyway? Do you really think that if God wanted to get your attention, you could just be like ‘nope’ and ignore Him? The tension around predestination ultimately comes down to how we articulate the interplay between free will and God’s grace. An overemphasis on God’s grace might lead people towards predestination. An overemphasis on free will might lead people to attribute too much power to the human being – ultimately even undermining the sacrifice of Christ himself. Stay tuned – more predestination next week.

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