Monday, 2 August 2010

Question 23 - Predestination

Why this Question Matters.

The predestination of the elect to glory is one of the great mysteries of the Christian religion. Consideration of predestination in general leads to a range of difficult questions: Why do some go to heaven and some to hell? If God is all-powerful why does He not redeem everybody? How can it be just that the elect are chosen irrespective of their merits? How does predestination differ from predetermination? If predestination is true, why should we not all be fatalists? Aquinas sees predestination as a special case of God’s providence which itself originates in God’s will. In this article he brings all the resources that he has developed in the previous questions concerning God’s will to bear on the question of predestination. In doing so, Aquinas set the parameters for discussion of predestination and the co-operation of primary and secondary causes for the next seven centuries.

The Thread of the Argument

A1: In this introductory article, Aquinas recalls that providence is the ordering by God of created things to their end and that everything falls under His providence. He goes on to identify that the destiny of a creature may simply be proportionate to its created nature or it may exceed its nature. For rational creatures, this latter is eternal life which consists in the vision of God. If the destiny of a creature is to exceed its created nature then it has to be lifted up to such a destiny by God. Such a destiny pre-exists in God and this planned sending of the rational creature to eternal life is called predestination. Therefore predestination is a part of the providence that applies to some humans and angels. Predestination is therefore not predetermination which implies a necessity of the end.

A2: Aquinas has identified that predestination is that part of providence to do with the sending of some rational creatures to eternal life. He now asks whether those predestined to eternal life carry a mark of their destiny within themselves. Here he seems to be thinking in terms of a parallel to the baptismal seal on the soul. Despite this attractive parallel, Aquinas denies that the predestined are identified in such a way. Predestination is part of providence and as such exists in the mind of God. However, recalling the distinction made in Question 22 Article 3 between provenance and governance, Aquinas distinguishes between “active” part of predestination that exists in the mind of God and its “passive” part that exists in the predestined: the predestined carry out the plan of predestination as a “calling” that can be attributed to them.

A3: Predestination is the sending of certain rational creatures to their eternal destiny in the divine vision. If some, but not all, rational creatures are sent to such a destiny, does this not imply that the remainder are sent to a rather less fulfilling destiny in a similar fashion? There are two questions wrapped up together in this article: does God reprobate some rational creatures to eternal damnation and is such reprobation a parallel to predestination so that there is a so-called “double predestination” (to heaven and to hell)? Aquinas’s answer to these troubling theological questions has become the standard account: God does reprobate some rational creatures but their reprobation is not a parallel to predestination. Predestination is a part of providence and, as was pointed out in Question 22 Article 2, the workings of providence may allow for failures. Therefore predestination is to do with those who are destined to eternal glory whereas reprobation pertains to those who will fall short of this goal. Aquinas notes that reprobation is not simply to do with God’s foreknowledge of those who will fail but also involves the intention to permit the reprobate to fall into sin and to impose the consequent punishment. In reply to the objections, Aquinas points out that although God loves all rational creatures and wills certain goods to all of them, He does not thereby will every good to all rational creatures. Dealing directly with the objection that reprobation must be to a person rejected like predestination to a person predestined, Aquinas answers that causality differs between the two cases. Predestination causes both the future gift of glory and the present gift of grace in the predestined. Reprobation does not cause anything in the present; that is, it is not the cause of sin which is to be attributed to the free will of the reprobate. It is the cause of the abandonment of the sinner by God and of the eternal damnation that is the just penalty for the sin freely willed by the reprobate. But if someone is reprobated by God, how can he be held accountable and punished for what he cannot avoid? Aquinas answers that lacking the gift of grace does not take anything away from the rational creature that he previously had; he remains responsible for his inability to avoid sin and is therefore justly punished.

A4: The fourth article asks what may seem to be a curious question: are the predestined elected (that is, chosen) by God? At first it may seem unclear what the question even means! A guide to what is going on in the article is found in the answer that Aquinas gives: predestination logically presupposes election, and election logically presupposes love. He wants to make a contrast between election (or choice) and love in us with that in God. We are spurred to love someone by a pre-existing good in that person; we choose that person because of that good and then we love them. So in us, a good precedes election which precedes love. The important point is that this order is reversed when it comes to God. God’s love for someone creates the good in them; so that God’s love for that person singles them out (or elects them) and creates the good (predestining them to glory). From Question 20 Article 3, we know that although God loves all of creation, he also loves some more than others. This inequality implies choice of some over others.

A5: One of the most puzzling questions about predestination is this: why are some predestined to glory and others not? An obvious answer might seem to be that God has foreknowledge of those who would be meritorious in response to the gift of grace and of those who would not be, and restricts the gift of grace to those who will. So, if we put it formally we might ask: is foreknowledge of merit a cause of predestination? This might appear a very appealing position to take, not least because it avoids the awkward conclusion that God would otherwise appear to be arbitrary and unjust. However, it must be pointed out that this solution has it own problems. After all, God creates the beings whose reactions He foresees, so it would seem that the problem of arbitrariness is simply pushed back to His creative decisions: why would God create some who would react well to grace and others who wouldn’t?

Aquinas starts his considerations of this question with a reminder of the conclusion of Question 19 Article 5 that it impossible to assign a cause of God’s act of will from the point of view of the act of willing itself. All we can do is to explain those relationships between acts of will where God wills one thing to exist for the sake of another. Aquinas is usually respectful of opinion with which he disagrees, but here he is willing to describe as “crazy” those who might be foolish enough to consider merit to be a cause of the very act of predestining. The questions that are valid concern whether there can be any relationship between merit and predestination and if so, what? The idea that those meritorious in a previous life are predestined in this life is rapidly dismissed. Similarly dismissed is the Pelagian argument that the first movement towards God in a human is made by the human themselves.

Aquinas now turns to the question of God’s foresight of the merits of those predestined. He immediately points out a central weakness in the thinking of those who propose this position: there is an incorrect separation between God acting as first cause and human free will acting as secondary cause, as if they were two independent modes of causality. The correct position is that secondary causes act concomitantly with the first cause; if we grasp this then we realize that human acts of freewill are themselves part of predestination. “God’s providence produces effects through the operation of secondary causes, so what comes from freewill comes from predestination.”

However, instead of finishing there and dismissing the question with a firm “no”, Aquinas goes on to make a subtle distinction. If we look at the predestination of an individual as a whole process, then we simply cannot assign a cause to it other that God’s particular act of goodness. However if we look at the internal structure of predestination (again following the lead of Question 19 article 5) we can see that we can attribute causal relationships between the components of predestination. A later effect of predestination may be considered a final cause of an earlier effect, for example. In this restricted sense, we can say that God preordains glory to someone because of his merits, but we must simultaneously say that He preordained that He would give him the grace required for him to merit that glory.

The third objection to this question is based on the argument from injustice: if God arbitrarily chooses some for predestination to glory (not based on any feature of those chosen or not chosen), then this is fundamentally unjust and so cannot be said of God. Aquinas’s reply to this objection is a long reflection on God’s goodness, which essentially concedes that we have reached the point where rational explanation gives way to mystery. God’s predestination is based on God’s goodness and Aquinas argues that the fact that some are chosen for glory whereas others are reprobated for punishment simply reflects that we have to consider the common good of creation as a whole: “God permits certain evils to be effected lest many goods should be impeded”. It appears that it has to be so for the greatest good of creation as a whole. However, when we turn to the question of why any particular individuals are predestined or reprobated, explanation runs out. Aquinas makes an interesting parallel concerning the composition of natural objects: why does God choose this particular bit of prime matter rather than any other bit of prime matter to be informed to become this particular rock? The reason lies in God’s will and is not open to our view. As to whether this is unjust, Aquinas points out that the gift of grace is exactly that: a gift that is owed to no-one. It cannot be considered unjust that God chooses to give a gift to some but not to others.

A6: Predestination, emanating from God’s will, might seem to be infallible. But equally, one might imagine circumstances where one of the elect happens to die suddenly whilst not in a state of grace. Aquinas reiterates that the order of providence and therefore that of predestination is infallible. However, this does not impose necessity on the course of events. As was argued before (Question 22 Article 4), God arranges contingent causes to bring about effects contingently and necessary causes to bring about necessary things. If someone is predestined, then in a hypothetical sense they could lose that predestination, but actually they cannot.

A7: Are there a fixed number of the predestined? Aquinas answers that there are and that this fixed number is made up of specific elect individuals rather than simply being a fixed number of vacancies to be filled up by unspecified individuals. This follows simply from what he has said in the previous article. As so often when there is a straightforward answer to the question, Aquinas probes deeper. He points out that it is not simply the case that God knows how many of the elect there are, but that His knowledge of this number is (through His determination) creative of that number. To illustrate this, Aquinas points out that in construction projects there are certain elements that are essential to the construction (knowing how many rooms there are to be, for example) and there are certain elements (the exact number of bricks, for example) that are incidental to the project. Something analogous pertains to the universe: there are elements within creation, the exact details of which don’t really matter; there are also other elements that do matter. One of those things that matters for the purpose of the universe is those rational souls that attain the beatific vision; hence God has planned their exact number and their identity in creating the universe. Aquinas will not speculate as to the number of the elect.

A8: Finally, Aquinas asks whether the prayers of the holy can contribute to predestination. The answer might seem to be an obvious “no” because whether or not someone is elect is determined in God’s will. However, Aquinas’s answer is much more subtle than that and gives us an important insight into how Aquinas regarded prayer. We can generalize from the context of predestination: what effect can prayer have on God’s will? Aquinas deals first with the simplistic approach that prayer is simply superfluous by observing that scripture admonishes us to pray, therefore it cannot be entirely irrelevant. He goes on to dismiss the contrary position that God’s predestination is changed by prayer again by appeal to scripture. To answer the question, Aquinas observes that as far as the very act of predestining itself is concerned, prayer has no effect. But if we consider the internal structure of predestination (following the lead of Question 19 Article 5 yet again) then we can see that God provides secondary causes that work together to effect the fulfilment of God’s primary-causal act of predestining. Prayer is one of these secondary causes; therefore it is quite appropriate to pray that someone may be predestined and that the predestined pray for themselves, for these prayers are all part of the matrix of secondary causes that God has ordained to bring about the purpose of the first cause.

Handy Concepts

  • Article 1 provides some of the material concerning the effect of grace in elevating rational creatures beyond their natural powers that became so important in the twentieth century arguments over the supernatural.
  • Aquinas makes extensive use of the argument in Question 19 Article 5 concerning the attribution of causes to God’s will. The act of willing itself is beyond causal analysis, but the internal structure of the effect of the act of will may be so amenable.
  • Despite Aquinas demolishing the idea that predestination may be associated with God’s foreknowledge of merit in the elect (Article 5), the idea came back in the form of the scientia media of Molinism. A good punch-up was had at the end of the sixteenth and into the start of the seventeenth century between the Jesuit supporters of Molinism and the Thomists concerning such relationships between grace and freewill in general. The Congregatio de Auxiliis was formed by the pope in order to decide between the warring factions, but no conclusion was reached save for an order to the parties to stop accusing each other of heresy. The decision was reserved to the Holy Office and we are still awaiting their decision today.
  • In the reply to Objection 3 in Article 4, Aquinas revisits the notion of God’s antecedent will and His consequent will (which we saw in the reply to the first objection in Article 6 Question 19). Antecedently and relatively speaking, God wills all to be saved; according to His consequent will and simply speaking, it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. Later in the summa, when Aquinas comes to the topic of grace, he will discuss how this works in more detail and he will lay the foundations for the doctrines of efficacious grace and sufficient grace that follow from these aspects of God’s will.


  • Article 3’s distinction between predestination and reprobation may seem an artificial construct to avoid the notion of double predestination. Indeed, Calvinists rejected this distinction and affirm that God does predestine the elect to glory and the rest to hell.
  • In article 5, Aquinas concedes that we cannot know why God elects some but not others. He makes a strong argument that such election is not unjust, but perhaps the flavour of unfairness remains. The nature of God’s love for the reprobated remains one of the great mysteries.
  • The argument of Article 7 depends on some elements of the creation being so key to the good of creation that God specifies them exactly and that other elements are not so important. For these latter, God knows them but his knowledge does not specify them exactly. For example, God specifies that there are enough of a species of animal for that species to flourish, but he does not specify the exact number of that species, leaving the latter to the playing out of secondary causes. This is another example of God creating necessary causes for some things and contingent causes for others.

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