Calvin: Predestination

Right! Let’s get back on track with Calvin. After our brief moment of happiness the other week, we’re straight back to the grim shit. You’re all awful, and you’re going to hell, and there’s nothing you can do about it, fuckers. Let’s chat predestination.

We’ve previously dealt with predestination in Aquinas (here, for instance). The basic idea is that everybody’s fucked themselves up and we’re all going to hell, but that God kinda reaches in and scoops some people to safety. Calvin runs the same line, although his focus on original sin means that you’re not fucked by your own decision, you’re really ultimately fucked because of Adam, who was a real person and whose sin you’ve inherited. You were going to hell from the moment you were born. Cheers.

And most theologians agree with these kinda foundational theological maneuvers. Everyone agrees that we’re all fucked and going to hell, and everyone agrees that Jesus gives us an avenue of escape as a free gift for all people. Those are all the bits everyone agrees on. But, as I said in that previous Aquinas article, the big question is around the mechanism by which salvation gets activated in the individual. It’s there, it’s accessible, but most people agree that not everyone will have it activated. For Calvin, as for Aquinas, salvation is activated in the individual by divine intervention:

“It thus appears that none can enter the kingdom of God save those whose minds have been renewed by the enlightening of the Holy Spirit.”

That’s Book 2, Ch 2, section 21. Sometimes you’ll get the free will camp kinda trying to twist this, being all like ‘oh, yes, well, obviously God has to enlighten us, but He’s put the opportunity there for all of us to be enlightened, and we just have to reach out and take it’ – and that’s pretty clearly not what Calvin has in mind. Either God reached out to you specifically and you’re set, or He didn’t, and you’re fucked. At the end of the chapter (section 25), Calvin is quoting Augustine, who compares “the grace of illumination” to “the light of the sun.” In Calvin’s paraphrase, the difference is that “we open our eyes to behold the light, whereas the mental eye remains shut until it is opened by the Lord.” It’s not an ambiguous distinction: in one we can act ourselves, and in the other we can’t. Salvation is a free gift, offered to all, but you can only get it if God actually turns up in your life and opens your mind to it – and if He doesn’t, you’re off to hell.

But wait, it gets worse. You might look at that and think, well, it’s hardly fair that we don’t at least get a chance to go to heaven. It seems like Calvin is denying that we have free will, that we have the free and open opportunity to choose our fate. And Calvin rubs his hands together, and cranks out some of his best theology so far. We’ve talked before about Aquinas’s theory on divine omnipotence – basically, in Aquinas’s perspective, God can’t do evil, because evil is like an inferior or lesser form of some other activity, and God’s just too great at everything to do any of that inferior shit. Calvin seems to draw on that argument, or at least some variant of it, by pointing out that God’s goodness is not at odds with God’s free will. God isn’t able to do evil, but that doesn’t mean He’s not omnipotent. It just means that He’s way too skilled at everything to act in a less than perfect way. Crucially, though, the range of choices available to God doesn’t stop Him from having free will. So, reasons Calvin, if God has free will, even though He can only do good things, then it stands to reason that we also have free will even though we can only do bad things. The range of choices available to us shouldn’t impinge on our free will. I mean, you’re not currently able to scratch your face with the third arm growing out of your chest, because you don’t have a third arm growing out of your chest, but you still have free will. Not having this one random option available to you doesn’t mean that your free will just magically stops existing. In that sense, Calvin says, humans are so incredibly depraved that none of us have the ability to choose to accept the gift of salvation through our own free will, but we still technically have free will. It’s just such a shriveled, impotent little shit-ribbon that it’s barely worth the name:

“Man, since he was corrupted by the fall, sins not forced or unwillingly, but voluntarily, by a most forward bias of the mind; not by violent compulsion or external force, but by the movement of his own passion; and yet such is the depravity of his nature that he cannot move and act except in the direction of evil.”

That’s Book 2, Chapter 3, Section 5. We have free will, technically, in that we’re able to make decisions about what we say and do, but we’re so corrupt and depraved and generally just so fucking awful that the only decisions we’re able to make are, in the broader analysis, shitty ones. And we might say, well, what about all the saints in the world? What about Greta Thunberg? Calvin would reply that our depravity is so deep that anyone who’s even marginally a little bit less shit than everybody else seems astronomically fantastic, even though they’re still objectively speaking quite shitty. Grim, huh.

So we’re all going to hell, and the only people who are going to be saved are people whose minds are opened by God. None of us can get our minds open on our own, because we’re all too depraved, and even though we still technically have free will, it’s really shitty awful free will where we only get to choose between ‘totally shit’ and ‘mostly shit’. Oh – and by the way, whatever shade of shit we choose, we make the choice of our own free will; and then, because we freely and willingly choose to sin in one shade or another, we’re further entrenched in our own sweaty damnation. We’d be going to hell irrespective of any of Adam’s previous hijinks. Welcome to Calvin on predestination.

We’re closing up now, so this is where I’ll actually go into bat for Calvin a little. The whole predestination thing seems overwhelmingly unfair, and Calvin is undoubtedly a grumpy, misanthropic shithead. We feel like we all deserve a chance, and it would be shit if we were all damned for the sins of our ancestors. It’d be shit if there was no possibility for us to win. But having said all of that, I guess the first thing to note here is how that attitude to salvation might relate to certain economic attitudes that we also hold. For instance, it’s a pretty common belief that we all have a chance to succeed in life, that if you just put your head down and work hard enough, you’ll be able to make a living. You’ll be able to achieve some sort of stability in the world. And we know that some people are disadvantaged, and that they might start in rough circumstances, but we’ve all seen the rags-to-riches stories. We’ve all heard the one about the homeless crack addict who ended up CEO of a tech company or something. We all kinda believe that disadvantaged people can Make It If They Just Try Hard Enough – and if they don’t make it, nobody says it, but we all kinda think that on some level it’s their own fault. There’s a parallel there with our common free-will understanding of salvation – even if you’re a bad person, you can still be saved if you choose to be good, if you reach out and accept the salvation that’s freely available at any given time – and if you don’t, and you end up in hell, you’re the only person responsible. It’s curious to me that such a comfortable view of salvation aligns so neatly with this dominant attitude towards poor people. If they don’t make it, they didn’t take the opportunity that was freely available, right in front of them. It’s their own fault for being shit.

This isn’t a defence of Calvin per se, I guess – it’s more using his idea to pry open some of these basic attitudes towards poverty and responsibility. Under Calvin’s system we don’t get a chance to succeed by the merits or failings of our own decisions. You might not like that idea, but in social or economic terms, doesn’t Calvin’s system much more accurately describe the experience of some impoverished people? Are there really realistic pathways to success in all cases? Should we be so comfortable assigning the responsibility for failure to people who maybe never had any sort of chance to begin with? Are we as a society living in a cycle of socio-economic predestination?

The second point I’d raise here is a bit less sociological, a bit more straight theology. I’ve always kinda liked predestination, purely on an intellectual level. I don’t believe it at all, but it grabs my attention. I can’t get away from it. I guess what I like about predestination is sort of its stark position on the radical sovereignty of God. Here’s the thing: God doesn’t care about our theories of salvation. Our theories have zero bearing on the truth of how salvation actually works, however that turns out to be. We can hate predestination all we like, but if it turns out that it’s true, we’re gonna have to learn to deal. You might think it’s impossible for it to be true, because it’s so unfair, but who says you even understand what true fairness is? God is sovereign. He is good, and He is sovereign, and whatever He’s laid down will be good and holy and perfect. It might seem repugnant, and it might seem awful, and it might even seem unfair, but at some point that’s more of a comment on us than on God. At some point, we either have to reject Him or submit ourselves to whoever He reveals Himself to be.

I’ve had a few Christians react quite violently when I’ve talked to them about predestination. The reactions usually don’t stem from some deeply considered theological argumentation. They’re instinctive, they’re reactions from the gut. It is unfair – God is not unfair – therefore it must be wrong. I can’t help but wonder, though – what if it’s not wrong? What would that mean for our moral compasses? How would it affect our reliance on our consciences as our Key Infallible Truth-Telling Gauges? How are we equipped to cope with a God who violates our sense of who He should be? It’s telling that Calvin never tries to justify predestination. He just shrugs and points to God’s sovereignty. You probably won’t like predestination, he says, but you’re weak, shitty, and small-minded, and God’s goodness in this matter is not dependent on your approval or understanding. You don’t have to believe in predestination to appreciate the significance of that challenge. It’s the assertion of God’s radical sovereignty over and against our consciences. It’s the suggestion that maybe we’re not smart enough to be calling the shots on right and wrong. I don’t believe in predestination, but I like having it looming over us, a threatening reminder of the absolute sovereignty of God. It’s gross, but it also might be true – and if it is, there will be fucking nothing you can do about it. Don’t get comfortable. Calvin might be right.

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