I was raised a Presbyterian, and I think that debating predestination with my Sunday School teachers was one of the main things that pushed me towards an interest–and finally a career–in philosophy. However, there are still many things about the doctrine that I do not understand. I am presently teaching a graduate-level survey of the history of ideas and we are covering the Reformation, with readings from Luther and Calvin. Below is a portion of some notes I plan to post for my students:
The greatest emphasis of Calvin’s theology is the majesty of God. God’s sovereignty is absolute. The universe and everything in it reflect the glory of God, and everything that happens occurs to serve the glory of God. Even the most atrocious actions of the wicked serve the will and purpose of God in the long run. Indeed, God is constantly active in the world to the extent that everything can be seen as an instrument of God’s activity and a product of his will. Even Satan and his devils acted upon God’s command. However, does this not implicate God in the occurrence of evil, since no evil thing can happen without his active involvement?
The problem of God’s responsibility for evil becomes particularly acute when we consider the famous (or infamous) doctrine of predestination. Calvin held that God has foreordained some for salvation and others for damnation. Since God is all-powerful, whatever he ordains must take place. Nothing any human can do can alter God’s eternal decrees. Those who are saved are saved by the irresistible action of the Holy Spirit. Free will has nothing to do with it. The spirit moves those elected for salvation and they must believe the Gospel, and so will be saved. However, if the lost can do nothing to alter their fate, does this not imply that it is God, not the sinner, who is responsible for the sinner’s terrible fate?
One possible way of avoiding blaming God for the fate of the lost is to say that God has foreordained their damnation but not predetermined it. God grants free will to all human beings, but, left to their own devices, all will fall into sin. All humans are therefore corrupt and deserving of hell, but God mercifully chooses to save some. Those he chooses to save are no more deserving than those not chosen. God’s reasons for choosing some and not others are wholly mysterious and unknowable. As for the unsaved, God does not force them to sin, but he leaves them in the state of sinfulness and disobedience which they have chosen for themselves. Therefore, God is not to blame for the fate of sinners, but is to be praised for his mercy in saving some.
First, are these points accurate, so far as they go? Second, according to Calvin, are humans individually responsible for their own corruption, or is corruption the condition into which we are all born, consequent upon the fall of Adam and Eve? Frankly, I find Calvin somewhat confusing on this point. Finally, Calvin says that God shows his mercy by saving some and not others. Some of my students are sure to object as follows: If ten people are drowning and I can easily save them all but only save four, would I not rightly be blamed for not saving all rather than praised for saving four? Would not the same blame attach to a God who only saves some when he could just as easily save all? I have read Calvin’s answers to questions like these, but I am still not completely clear on his responses. Any elaboration or clarification would be appreciated by me and by my students.