On God’s Predestination

The text below is taken from the Daily Reflections of Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon. See here (for Sunday, February 8.)

“Romans 9:14-24: God’s “predestinations,” His predetermined adjustments to the unfolding of history, are not arbitrary. They are founded on divine foreknowledge. “Predetermination is the work of the divine command based on foreknowledge,” wrote John of Damascus in the eighth century (De Fide Orthodoxa 2.30). God’s sovereignty over history, then, is no detriment to man’s ability to make moral choices. That divine sovereignty is chiefly manifest, rather, in God’s ability to bring good results out of man’s bad choices. God’s sovereignty is in no way challenged by man’s decisions.

For this reason, God’s election frees no man from his moral obligations. God’s ability to bring good out of evil does not warrant anyone to do evil. Nor should it lessen any man’s efforts to do good. “Now if men in their choices choose what is best,” said John Chrysostom, “much more does God. Moreover, the fact of their being chosen is both a sign of the loving kindness of God and of their own moral goodness. . . . God Himself has rendered us holy, but we must continue to be holy. A holy man is someone who partakes of the faith; a blameless man is someone who leads an irreproachable life” (Homilies on Ephesians 1).

The man whom God rejects, therefore, has no just case against God. God causes no man’s failure. Even though the Scriptures speak of God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (verses 17-18; Exodus 4:21; 7:3; 9:12), this is a metaphor describing God’s providential use of Pharaoh’s hardened heart. Pharaoh himself is the only one responsible for his hard heart (Exodus 7:14,22; 8:5,19,32). Pharaoh’s sin cannot be ascribed to God, as though God had decreed that sin. God foreknew that sin and determined ahead of time—predestined—how to employ that sin to bring about His own deliverance of Israel from Egypt. There is no unrighteousness in God (verse 14).

Like Esau’s, Pharaoh’s role or place in salvation history is negative. It represents a resistance to grace that God employs to show even more grace. The resistance to grace, on the part of Esau and Pharaoh, is providentially subsumed into God’s plan of deliverance, being used as the opposing force (the “push backwards”) in a process of historical dialectic, much as when a man steps on a rock, the friction and resistance from it enable him to go forward. This is what Paul sees happening among the greater part of the Jewish people of his own day. Their resistance to God’s mercy has served only to enhance and extend that mercy, for God does nothing except in mercy.

It is fallacious, therefore, to argue that God’s ability to bring good out of evil should oblige Him not to blame those who do evil (verse 19). Paul had earlier refuted that line of argument (6:1,15).

To someone who would argue this way, Paul responds, “So who put you in charge of history?” God takes into His hands the raw material of history, “the same lump” (verse 21), and shapes it as He wills. He forces no one to be evil; He compels no man to be a vessel of wrath and dishonor, but God does have His uses for vessels of wrath and dishonor.

On this image of God as a ceramic potter, cf. Isaiah 14:9; 29:16; 45:9; 64:8; Wisdom 15:7; Sirach 38:39-40; Theophilus of Antioch, Ad Autolycum 2:26. God is fashioning His purpose from the common clay of human history. The prophet Jeremiah, far from regarding this image as an excuse for human failure, employs it as a summons to repentance: “Behold, I am fashioning a disaster and devising a plan against you. Return now every one from his evil ways, and make your ways and your doings good” (18:11).

“Prepared for destruction” (verse 22) means “ready for the dump.” Some vessels, after all, are not worth keeping. After they have served their purpose, they are no longer part of the process of salvation history. Such were Esau and Pharaoh, who serve no other purpose in Holy Scripture than as examples of men who resisted God. Doing evil, they thus served their purpose in God’s redemptive interventions of grace, and now they have been tossed out on the ashbin. This lot they brought upon themselves, as is clear in the biblical accounts of them.

The vessels of honor, on the other hand, the “vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory” (verse 23), share in the everlasting exaltation that marks God’s work of deliverance. These are taken from among Jews and Gentiles (verse 24).”

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