The doctrine of double predestination is the hallmark of John Calvin and Reformed theology. (#1) It is the belief that just as God predestined his elect to eternal life in Christ, he likewise predestined (reprobated) the rest to hell.
With blunt frankness Calvin wrote:
We call predestination God’s eternal decree, which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others (Institutes 3.21.5; Calvin 1960:926).
Double predestination was one Calvin’s more controversial teachings and he wrote extensively to defend this belief. In the final edition of his Institutes, Calvin devoted some eighty pages to defending this doctrine. (#2) Despite its controversial nature, double predestination became the official position of the Reformed churches.
This blog posting will provide an Orthodox critique of Reformed theology. More specifically, it will focus on the doctrinal formula TULIP, because TULIP provides a clear and concise summary of Reformed theology. The acronym is a catchy way of conveying the five major points of the Canons of Dort: T = total depravity, U = unconditional election; L = limited atonement, I = irresistible grace, and P = perseverance of the saints.
The Canons of Dort represent the Dutch Reformed Church’s affirmation of predestination in the face of the Remonstrant movement (popularly known as Arminianism) which attempted in the early 1600s to temper the rigor of predestination by allowing for human free will in salvation. (#3) Although the Canons of Dort form the official confession of the Dutch Reformed Church, its affirmation of predestination parallels that found in other major confessions, e.g., the Westminster Confession, the Second Belgic Confession, and the Heidelberg Catechism. (#4)
Calvinism and Eastern Orthodoxy represent two radically different theological traditions. Orthodoxy has its roots in the early Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers, whereas Calvinism emerged as a reaction to medieval Roman Catholicism. Aside from a brief encounter in the early seventeenth century, there has been very little interaction between the two traditions. (#5) This is beginning to change with the growing interest among Evangelicals and mainstream Protestants in Orthodoxy. (#6) This lacuna has often presented a challenge for Protestants in the Reformed tradition who wanted to become Orthodox and Orthodox Christians who want to reach out to their Reformed/Calvinist friends. This is why I created the OrthodoxBridge (see Welcome) and why I am tackling such difficult issues like the doctrine of predestination.
THE ORTHODOX CRITIQUE OF TULIP
This critique will consist of two parts: Part I (this blog posting) will critique the five points of TULIP and Part II (the next blog posting) will discuss Calvinism as an overall theological system.
The critique will proceed along four lines of argument:
(1) Calvinism relies on a faulty reading of Scripture,
(2) it deviates from the historic Christian Faith as defined by the Ecumenical Councils and the Church Fathers,
(3) its understanding of God’s sovereignty leads to the denial of the possibility of love, and
(4) it leads to a defective Christology and a distorted understanding of the Trinity.
T – Total Depravity
Total depravity describes the effect of the Fall of Adam and Eve on humanity. It is an attempt to describe what is otherwise known as “original sin.” Where some theologians believed that man retained some capacity to please God, the Calvinists believe that man was incapable of pleasing God due to the radical effect of the Fall on the totality of human nature. The Scots Confession took the extreme position that the Fall eradicated the divine image from human nature: “By this transgression, generally known as original sin, the image of God was utterly defaced in man, and he and his children became by nature hostile to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin.” (The Book of Confession 3.03; italics added) The Swiss Reformer, Heinrich Bullinger, taught that the image of God in Adam was “extinguished” by the Fall (Pelikan 1984:227).
The Canons of Dort asserted the universality and the totality of the Fall; that is, all of humanity was affected by the Fall and every aspect of human existence was corrupted by the Fall.
Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, or to dispose themselves to reformation (Third and Fourth Head: Article 3).
The Canons of Dort (Third and Fourth Head: Paragraph 4) went so far as to reject the possibility the unregenerate can hunger and thirst after righteousness on their own initiative. It insists this spiritual hunger is indicative of spiritual regeneration and only those who have been predestined for salvation will show spiritual hunger.
In taking this stance, the Canons of Dort reflected faithfully Calvin and the other Reformers’ understanding of the Fall. Calvin believed the Fall affected human nature to the point that man was even incapable of faith which is so necessary for salvation. He wrote:
Here I only want to suggest briefly that the whole man is overwhelmed–as by a deluge–from head to foot, so that no part is immune from sin and all that proceeds from him is to be imputed to sin (Institutes 2.1.9, Calvin 1960:253).
Martin Luther held to a similar radical understanding of original sin. At the Heidelberg Disputations, Luther asserted:
‘Free will’ after the fall is nothing but a word, and so long as it does what is within it, it is committing deadly sin (in Kittelson 1986:111; emphasis added).
The Reformed understanding of the Fall derives from Augustine’s interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Augustine assumed that Adam and Eve were mature adults when they sinned. This assumption led to a more catastrophic understanding of the Fall. However, Augustine’s understanding represented only one reading of Genesis and was not reflective of the patristic consensus. Another reading of Genesis can be found in Irenaeus of Lyons, widely regarded as the leading Church Father of the second century. Irenaeus believed Adam and Eve were not created as fully mature beings, but as infants or children who would grow into perfection (Against the Heretics 4.38.1-2; ANF Vol. 1 p. 521). This foundational assumption leads to radically different theological paradigm. John Hick, in his comparison of Irenaeus’ theodicy against that of Augustine, notes:
Instead of the fall of Adam being presented, as in the Augustinian tradition, as an utterly malignant and catastrophic event, completely disrupting God’s plan, Irenaeus pictures it as something that occurred in the childhood of the race, an understandable lapse due to weakness and immaturity rather than an adult crime full of malice and pregnant with perpetual guilt. And instead of the Augustinian view of life’s trials as a divine punishment for Adam’s sin, Irenaeus sees our world of mingled good and evil as a divinely appointed environment for man’s development towards perfection that represents the fulfilment of God’s good purpose for him (1968:220-221).
Many Calvinists may find Irenaeus’ understanding of the Fall bizarre. This is because Reformed theology, like much of Western Christianity, has become so dependent on Augustine that it has become provincial and isolated in its theology.
One of the key aspects of the doctrine of total depravity is the belief that the Fall deprived humanity of any capacity for free will rendering them incapable of desiring to do good or to believe in God. Yet a study of the early Church shows a broad theological consensus existed that affirmed belief in free will. J.N.D. Kelly in his Early Christian Doctrine notes that the second century Apologists unanimously believed in human free will (1960:166). Justin Martyr wrote:
For the coming into being at first was not in our own power; and in order that we may follow those things which please Him, choosing them by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with, He both persuades us and leads us to faith (First Apology 10; ANF Vol. I, p. 165).
Irenaeus of Lyons affirmed humanity’s capacity for faith:
Now all such expression demonstrate that man is in his own power with respect to faith (Against the Heretics 4.37.2; ANF Vol. I p. 520).
Another significant witness to free will is Cyril of Jerusalem, Patriarch of Jerusalem in the fourth century. In his famous catechetical lectures, Cyril repeatedly affirmed human free-will (Lectures 2.1-2 and 4.18, 21; NPNF Second Series Vol. VII, pp. 8-9, 23-24). Likewise, Gregory of Nyssa, in his catechetical lectures, taught:
For He who holds sovereignty over the universe permitted something to be subject to our own control, over which each of us alone is master. Now this is the will: a thing that cannot be enslaved, being the power of self-determination (Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, MPG 47, 77A; in Gabriel 2000:27).
Another patristic witness against total depravity can be found in John of Damascus, an eighth century Church Father famous for his Exposition of the Catholic Faith, the closest thing to a systematic theology in the early Church. John of Damascus explained that God made man a rational being endowed with free-will and as a result of the Fall man’s free-will was corrupted (NPNF Series 2 Vol. IX p. 58-60). Saint John of the Ladder, a sixth century Desert Father, in his spiritual classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, wrote:
Of the rational beings created by Him and honoured with the dignity of free-will, some are His friends, others are His true servants, some are worthless, some are completely estranged from God, and others, though feeble creatures, are His opponents (1991:3).
Thus, Calvin’s belief in total depravity was based upon a narrow theological perspective. His failure to draw upon the patristic consensus and his almost exclusive reliance on Augustine resulted in a soteriology peculiar to Protestantism. However great a theologian Augustine may have been, he was just one among many others.
An important aspect of Orthodox theology is the patristic consensus. Doing theology based upon the consensus of the Church Fathers and the seven Ecumenical Councils reflects the understanding among the early Christians that they shared a common corporate faith. This approach is best summed up by Vincent of Lerins: “Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” (A Commonitory 2.6; NPNF Second Series, Volume XI, p. 132). See also, Irenaeus of Lyons’ boast to the Gnostics: “…the Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered through the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it (Against the Heretics 1.10.2, ANF Volume I, p. 331).
Thus, when the Orthodox Church confronted Calvinism in the 1600s, it already had a rich theological legacy to draw upon. Decree XIV of Dositheus’ Confession rejects the Calvinist belief in total depravity, affirming the Fall and humanity’s sinful nature, but stops short of total depravity.
We believe man in falling by the [original] transgression to have become comparable and like unto the beasts, that is, to have been utterly undone, and to have fallen from his perfection and impassibility, yet not to have lost the nature and power which he had received from the supremely good God. For otherwise he would not be rational, and consequently not man; but to have the same nature, in which he was created and the same power of his nature, that is free-will, living and operating (Leith 1963:496; emphasis added).
The Orthodox Memorial Service has a line that sums up the Orthodox Church’s understanding of the Fall: “I am an image of Your indescribable glory, though I bear the scars of my sins” (Kezios 1993:46). In summary, the Orthodox Church’s position is that human nature still retains some degree of free will even though subject to corruption by sin.
Biblical support for the Orthodox understanding of fallen human nature can be found in Paul’s speech to the Athenians. He commends the Athenians for their piety, noting they even had an altar dedicated to an unknown deity. Although their fallen nature prevented them from making full contact with the one true God, they nonetheless retained a longing for communion with God. Paul takes note of the spiritual longing that underlay the Athenians’ religiosity using it as a launching point for the proclamation of the Gospel:
From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us (Acts 17:26-27; emphasis added).
What Paul says here flies in the face of the Canons of Dort’s assertion that the unregenerate were incapable of spiritual hunger. Peter took a similar approach in his speech to Cornelius the Gentile centurion notes:
I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right (Acts 10:34-5).
Peter and Paul’s belief in God’s love for the nations is not a new idea. The Gentiles’ capacity to respond to God’s grace is a recurring motif in the Old Testament. Alongside Israel’s divine election was the theme of Yahweh as Lord of the nations in the Old Testament (see Verkuyl 1981:37 ff.)
It is important to keep in mind that the doctrine of election — the elect status of the Jewish people — is key to understanding Jesus’ messianic mission and much of Paul’s letters. Contrary to the expectations of many of the Jews of the time, Jesus’ messianic calling involved his bringing the Gentiles into the kingdom of God. This was a revolutionary doctrine — that the Gentiles could become saved through faith in the Messiah apart from becoming Jewish. This precipitated a theological crisis over the doctrine of election that underlie Paul’s reasoning in Romans and Galatians. In Romans 9-11, Paul had to explain and uphold God’s calling of Israel in the face of the fact that Israel had rejected the promised Messiah. To read the Calvinist understanding of double predestination into Romans 9 constitutes a colossal misreading of what Paul was attempting to do. Furthermore, it overlooks the great reversal of election that took place in the former Pharisee Paul’s thinking: the non-elect — the Gentiles — receive the grace of God and the elect — the nation of Israel — are rejected (Romans 10:19-21).
U – Unconditional Election
Whereas the first article of TULIP describes our fallen state, the second article describes God, the author of our salvation. The emphasis here is on the transcendent sovereignty of God whose work of redemption is totally independent of human will.
That some receive the gift of faith from God, and other do not receive it, proceeds f