Aquinas: Predestination and Merit

This is the last post on predestination in Aquinas, I think, so we’ll make it a banger. We’ve introduced the idea, and talked about how it relates to free will, but there’s still kinda this key issue – what makes one person predestined and another person not? And this is the main issue that people have with predestination – it just doesn’t seem fair. Aquinas touches on the issue at a number of points, but ultimately can’t really explain it. He does, however, take the time to knock down a bunch of possible explanations. That’s what we’re talking about today. 

In 1a.23.5, Aquinas takes a moment to float the idea that people get predestined based on their merits. This theory still seems a bit shit, but let’s follow the argument. The most compelling argument in favour of merit-based salvation is based on the idea of injustice. Aquinas points out that “to grant equals unequal rewards seems unjust, which, yes, is basically why we’re having this conversation. Merit-based salvation seems to offer a solution to that problem. If you’re a shit person, you’re going to hell because God knew you were going to be shit, and you’re going to be punished for it. Furthermore, if you’re shit, it’s your fault – you chose to be shit with your own free will. Merit-based salvation solves the free will problem too. It’s not perfect, but it seems to hit most of the major issues we’ve raised so far.

But nope, it’s not good enough for Aquinas, who argues that merit-based salvation is a bad theory: “No one has been so mad as to hold that our merits were the cause of God’s predestining.” He suggests that the real question being asked is whether or not predestination has a cause. That is, if good behaviour makes you go to heaven, then we can say that in a sense good behaviour (or rather God’s foreknowledge of our future good behaviour) causes predestination. But Aquinas doesn’t like that idea: “The effect of predestination in its completeness cannot have any cause on our part.” It’s all God, and nothing to do with us – we’re getting back to the free will conversation again.

So what then? If it’s not based on merits, what’s the logic, the rationale? Why the fuck is it happening? Aquinas has possibly the most unsatisfying answer ever: “Why does he choose some to glory while others he rejects? His so willing is the sole ground.” There’s really nothing to say. On some levels I respect that conclusion – if the available and logical arguments are unsatisfying, ultimately you need to be honest about it. At the same time, if it doesn’t make sense, you also wonder whether it’s even worth believing in. That’s not to say that you have to understand everything you believe in perfectly in order to believe in it – personally I’m big on ideas around mysticism in religion. But at the same time, if a doctrine seems screamingly incoherent, maybe it is actually screamingly incoherent. You can’t use the mysticism defense to provide a blanket cover for everything.

So merit-based salvation is abandoned by Aquinas, because he doesn’t like the idea that our actions somehow earn salvation or damnation. He wants to have God more strongly established as the key player. And in Aquinas’s defense, it’s clear that he’s touching on some of the implicit issues around that emphasis. For example, in 1a.23.4, he notes that if God really does choose people to go to heaven, “choice implies a certain discrimination,” which doesn’t seem fair. Similarly in 1a.23.7, he says “You cannot give a reason why God ordains to salvation this number rather than that. Yet without a reason God arranges nothing.” I’m not convinced that his responses to these questions are always satisfying, but at least he raises them as questions.

Aquinas ends with a reference to a particular parable, which I think accidentally serves to illustrate the issue people have with this theory. It’s a story in Matthew 20, where there’s a dude running a farm and hiring daily workers. He hires people at 9am, at lunchtime, and at 5pm, and when it comes time for pay, everybody gets a full day’s wage, even the people who only came in to start work at 5pm. The 9am kids start complaining, because they’ve had to work the whole day and they aren’t getting proportionally more money, and the landowner basically says ‘Look, I offered you a day’s wage for a day’s work, and I’ve decided to be generous to these latecomers and give them a full day’s wage too. It’s my money, so fuck off.’ For Aquinas, this is illustrative of the principle of predestination, which, he reminds us, is a favour, not a right. We all fell on our own, and if God freely chooses to be generous by redeeming some people, then that’s His right. He doesn’t owe us anything, so there’s no injustice going on.

But really, if we spin the situation out, it’s more like this. Imagine a landowner who creates a workforce of day labourers out of the dust. He sets them all off to live their own lives. If they come to work for him, he pays them a full day’s wage, no matter how long they’ve been working for. That’s really quite nice, when you get down to it. However, if they don’t come to work for him, they spend eternity burning in hell. And the landowner has already decided before creating the workforce who’s going to work for him and who’s not, and it’s not based on merit or work ethic but on the sheer arbitrary will of the landowner. And then the landowner has the nerve to suggest that he doesn’t owe the labourers anything and they all chose not to work for him of their own free will and so really it’s their own fault if they don’t get paid at the end of the day and spend eternity burning in hell. Yeah, I think we’re about done with predestination.

In closing, the only thing I want to insist on is that salvation generally within the Christian tradition is a troubled concept. It’s not simple and easy, and I dislike the evangelical ‘free will’ attitude as much as Aquinas’s predestination. I suggested last week that the free will approach probably has more in common with predestination than it likes to think. For myself, I don’t really have a lot of useful things to say about theories of salvation. They’re weird and unsatisfying, and they often just don’t feel fair. Next week, something else.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s