John Calvin and predestination

I first need to state something up front. I am starting this thread as a result of a short paper (only a page) that I am doing in conjunction with others to make a presentation in my Christian Though class. I intend neither to copy nor quote any poster, and am doing this solely because I have trouble understanding the theology of John Calvin.

 I am having trouble figuring out what exactly John Calvin believed in. He seems to say both at the same time that God has foreknowledge and elected some to eternal life and others to damnation. Yet to him these are not connected, and nothing you on your own can save you. Nor is predestination subjected to foreknowledge. But I don't understand why he believed this.

 If there is nothing man can do to win God over (realize that Calvin believed, as I do, that God is timeless and therefore knows what you will do and have done), then why elect and damn? What is the point? Calvin says "[He] gives to some what he denies to others." But what is the core of this? Why does God do it one way or the other?

 Predestination previously had referred to God's decision to redeem some, but was not tied to the election of the saved.

Beza, one of Calvin’s followers, states essentially that it was God’s “because I say so”. He chose to elect some from the sinners, while all were otherwise damned. It is not therefore evil, in his view, because of course it is always God’s soverignty to give to anything to anyone he wishes or not.

Yet, I dont see this in Calvin’s writings. Why does God need to show his strength to world? What testimony does He need beyond what He has already given? But mostly, why, then, should mankind love God? It cannot be only because He is poewrful. Calvin himself struck as a man who was awed by Him and loved Him. yet, as it stands, God seems capricious and arbitrary in dispensing His love back.

Well, from his “Institutes of the Christian Religion”

That’s how Calvin would answer…that God’s judgement isn’t capricious and arbitrary…it’s “just and irreprehensible” Howerver, it’s also “incomprehensible”…we’re powerless to understand it.

God doesn’t damn or save based on what we do or fail to do, according to Calvin. We’re entirely unable to contribute at all to our own salvation. He damns or saves based on a model of perfect justice and mercy that we’re just not able, as human beings, to know.

I read an interesting gloss on Calvinism some years ago (sorry–of course I can’t remember who by). He asked whether many people had corrupted Calvin’s theology by arguing that if humans had no control over their own salvation, why not just live it up? The answer was, as Captain Amazing says, we cannot know who belongs to the elect. Moral behavior on earth was merely a sign that one was endowed with divine grace, not that one deserved that grace. I think that, in many ways, sums up Calvinist theology.

I think to fully understand Calvin, though, you have to look at the historical context of his writings. Calvin was writing at a time when Protestantism was very new, and many Protestant writers were struggling with the questions of grace and salvation. Specifically, how could Protestantism combat the Catholic doctrine that salvation was the result of “good works” and human (lay, clerical and Papal) intervention? If Calvin’s doctrine that man is in no way whatsoever responsible for his or her own salvation seems harsh, it has to be seen as a conscious reaction of prevailing orthodox Catholic theology. Calvin wanted to emphasize that God, and God Alone, was the arbiter of salvation.

And God, being omnipotent and all-knowing, must know, from the beginning of time, who is and is not worthy of salvation. Hence the term “predestination.”

The only real explanation I’ve ever seen for the condemnation of some as opposed to the salvation of others is the ubiquitous “mysterious ways” argument. (That is, God is perfect, and God’s creation is perfect, thus all things must be directed toward perfection despite contrary appearances.) I don’t know for sure that Calvin used this particular line of reasoning, but the “incomprehensible” bit quoted seems to point to it. God is basically so good, we just can’t understand.

(FTR, this is not an argument I’d find worthy of defense… too fideistic IMO. YMMV.)

Its still hard to wrap my mind around. but I think I begin to get it. I still don’t agree with Calvin, though, and I probably never will.

Duke is correct in pointing out the importance of context. Calvin was emphasizing that good works do not save, but only the grace of God (“It is by grace you are saved, through faith, and this not of yourselves, so that no man can boast.”)

Calvin is not an easy guy to understand. I grew up in a denomination based on his teaching and we learned about him for years, and some of it still got explained to us as “It’s a paradox.” Predestination and free will are explained as having biblical basis, but, as Captain Amazing pointed out, is “incomprehensible.”

We were told, in a nutshell, God chooses you. You must then choose God (The idea of irresistable grace). But you still have free will. If you don’t choose God it is your own fault. I know, it’s a paradox.

No, it’s an inability to understand atemporality and the nature of causality.

But, of course, the doctrine it was made to contradict is also due to an inability to understand atemporality and the nature of causality.

So it goes. . .

I wrote my master’s thesis on Calvin’s economic doctrine, so forgive me if I ramble. :wink: Also, beware of my bias: I’m an atheist and not a fan of Calvin.

A few points then: Calvin was a bit obscure about why God predestined some to heaven and some to hell. So were all the other Protestant reformers: Luther answered the question with something like “It is entirely unlawful to ask, or to wish to know; we may only fear and adore!”

As best I can understand it, Calvin considered predestination as simply showing the great glory of God. God was a being both infinitely just and infinitely merciful. Justly, everyone should go to Hell: we all deserve it because we are all sinful. But God is even more glorious if he shows mercy too and saves some people. The damned are damned to glorify God’s justice; the saved are saved to glorify God’s mercy. I can’t explain it any better than that, for which I apologize.

Note that Calvin did not consider predestination to be simply God’s foreknowledge of who would merit salvation and who would merit damantion. Nobody merits salvation. Those who are saved are saved entirely by God’s choice.

Finally, whatever may be taught in the Presbyterian Church today, Calvin did not believe that the saved had free will. As long as your will was free, you were damned. Those whom God predestined for salvation lost their free will when they received God’s grace; their will thereby became bound to God.

I’m going to guess that Calvin and his followers all knew which side of the equation they were on…

smiling bandit sets it up beautifully: the obligatory citation by a Scot of Robert Burns’ Holy Willie’s Prayer.

Well, not exactly. Later Calvinists spent much time trying to discover “signs” of one’s election, like acceptance of Christ, the fruits of the spirit, and material blessings. For Clavin, however, no one could ever judge someone else’s election, because God may have predestined the worst sinner to accept Christ tomorrow, and the most righteous person might be mearly acting out of pride. Salvation was still determined by whether one accepted Christ, but that descision itself was determined in advance by God.Calvin was ambivalent about whether anyone could even really know for themselves. He wrote about God sometimes imprinting on our hearts the knowledge of our own salvation, but he also wrote that the reprobate sometimes feel the same way, so that they believe themselves to be elect.

It is worth noting that predestination was not a central tenent of Calvin’s theology. It was a late addition that came from following certain other ideas. Calvin was a rigorous thinker, who was willing to follow the path logic took him, regardless of the outcome. The central axiom of Calvin’s theology was that God is all-powerful. Nothing can happen apart from God’s will. Since it seemed clear from scripture and experiece that some people were saved through there faith in Christ and others never obtained such faith, the question arose of why. Calvin’s axiom about God’s power forced his answer. It had to be because God willed it to be so.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always figured Calvin’s reasoning went like this.

We do decide whether we are damned or saved by the way we choose to behave in life. It’s entirely up to us.

BUT as God is omniscient, this implies He has exact knowledge of the future. This would include how souls who he has not even created yet will behave while on Earth, and so save or damn themselves. Thus He knows all along who belongs to the elect and to the reprobate, but it is still decided by the individual’s choice of behaviour.

Which begs the question “Why would God create people who He knows will misbehave and so damn themselves?” To which Calvin would say, “He’s God, dammit, and He knows what He’s doing. Stop asking questions.”

Well, no, I don’t think Calvin would agree with that. According to Calvin, nothing we do, or can do, is sufficient to save us from hell. It’s only divine mercy that prevents us from the punishment that we all deserve.

Calvin says God’s omniscience has nothing to do with predestination.

In any event, I guess what bothers me most of all about it is that i seems to put the blame for sin in God’s lap. calvin says that we have free will only if we are apart from God. But since God is the only one who can choose us (we cannot choose him), and since we WILL sin apart from God…

I never was a fan of Calvin. Anyone who wrote “a pregnant woman is an abomination in the sight of God” had serious problems. Now Hobbes, on the other hand…

I felt that Calvin had formed a theology and Philosophy around the metaphysical structure of the future…and predestination is the result.

Just as one has only one possible past, there is also one possible future. You don’t know this future, but God does.

He knows since the beginning of time who committed what sins, and who died without repenting those sins.

Why in Calvin’s theology did Jesus come to the Earth?

I believe its because we needed Him to be redeemed. Basically, it is only through Christ that one can find peace.