Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Predestined by Beauty

"What the Heart loves, the Will chooses, and the Mind justifies"- Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury

This post will be part biographical and part dogmatic.

Most of my life I highly valued my will and my struggle to be (and remain) incorruptible. There was something that warmed me about Robespierre being nicknamed such. I high valued the stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius for their candid rejection of worldly pomp for the inner-solitude of being right and refusing to be touched by emotion. I was a vain pagan who will-worshiped.

Yet, having become a Christian and reading the Scriptures and many who followed them, I began to struggle with the remnants of my stoicism. Now, granted, Stoicism teaches a compatibility of the will with an already mapped Destiny. As one philosopher put it, "you can follow Fate, or be dragged by her". But I resisted this. I wanted to retain my emphasis on my free-will, unfettered and strong. Christ the Lord is many times merciful in when certain truths seize the mind.

But eventually I cracked as the question "how did I get here?" I could not reconcile the turns and twists of my past with the choices I made. I battled the logic of any kind of 'predestination', but it was futile. I squirmed as God placed this before me, haunting me with the implications. I tried to be an Arminian, I tried to be a Molinist, I tried to do some sort of bamboozled calculus. None of it could get around God as initiator. I was confronted with the simple scene from the Gospel where Christ merely says to Matthew, "Follow Me", and Matthew up and left his booth.

I was still up in the air. My only exposure with predestination was within the world of the Reformation. I was mostly disgusted with Calvin and his offspring. I had accepted their point of contention, that grace alone saved, it was the single-handed work of God from On High who condescended to those below. But it had ruthless implications that I struggled to come to terms with. I was merely exposed to bare-bones decretal theology and the arid rationalism that came with it.

I was aided in this quest by two things: a rejection of rationalism in a more dynamic redemptive-history, and a 'Barthian' redefinition of election. But these both really only spun me in circles. Redemptive-History is a must for approaching the Scriptures, and Barth is a titan, but neither helped me deeply understand predestination.

It took the old African bishop, st. Augustine, to strike me in the deep. I became a predestinarian when I saw Augustine's explication of God's love. The overwhelming love of God, the grace offered and incarnated as Jesus Christ, is what defined and undergirded my election and, despite the appearance, affirmed my freedom. I was freed in my being called. I was in chains and had to be set loose. The initial nagging was both realized and completed. I had wandered through life into Christ's arms, but only at His beckoning.

Now, I understand that the presentations of Reformed theology may seem lopped sided. It is. But I am merely articulating the presentations I received, and this is important. It took Augustine, the theologian of love, to channel the passion and flames and confidence in such a doctrine. He was the one who provided the ideas to retool my imagination. The Holy Spirit used this saint's writings to turn my head upside down.

But here is why I would affirm being an Augustinian without necessarily proceeding to call myself a Calvinist on this issue. Augustine maintained a physicality in his writings, a deep sacramentality in the life of the Church. What I am saying is that Augustine's battles with his own Manichaean learning led him to affirming a Church that existed in material form, not according to magik, but in mystery. Augustine was able to maintain aesthetics in the life of the Church.

Aesthetics becomes a dangerous area to tread. I have since renounced my Puritan instincts, but the initial suspicion is not unwarranted. How are we to know if we are worshiping at God's Temple or at the High Places? I will write on this later, but the answer is that being able to affirm the Beauty of the Creation, especially embedded in the worship of the Church, is not evil but good and necessary.

Thus, thinking about beauty and enrapture is the only way to approach predestination and the call of God. We do not know why the Apostle Matthew got up to follow Jesus. But perhaps, as the crowds were, he was touched by the Holy Spirit. As they were moved to grief, overcome with the glory they had suppressed, perhaps Matthew was moved by joy. He saw a touch of the glory, the glory that exuded from His robe to heal the bleeding woman, the glory which Peter saw on the mount of Transfiguration.

Predestination, the election of the person into Christ, is irresistible. But it is irresistible like a beautiful artwork. It is irresistible like the smell of a delicious meal. It is irresistible like a warm embrace. This beauty is the defining feature of such a call. Salvation comes by our "doors" being covered by the "blood of the Lamb". But such a process touches all parts of us.


  1. When a church member asked me about predestination over lunch a few months ago, my response was simply, "When I look at my own coming to faith, I do not understand it as a choice between options. I could not have done otherwise because my heart was changed." Or, as you put, it is a matter of being overwhelmed by God's love and beauty. The church member was critical of double predestination, and I mostly agreed with his criticisms -- namely because of my understanding of universal atonement -- but I also realize that I do not have an answer to why others do not come to faith, which is why I have been mostly comfortable in Presbyterian churches. Anyway, he seemed to be satisfied with this approach.

    I also like your point about how election needs to be understood in an ecclesial context. I respect a number of Reformed Baptists, but they strike me as often fostering the worst of Calvinistic individualism and self-satisfaction -- and I believe it is because they lack a truly catholic and Reformed ecclesiology, which is also true for many Presbyterians.

    I have been curious about how the Thomists understand election. I've read Thomas' section in the S.Th. where he affirms Augustine's position on double predestination, and I've read Barth's lavish praise for the Thomists during the Molinist controversy. It is in CD II.1 (not II.2, interestingly). I can find the pagination if you want. It's fascinating.

  2. Thanks for commenting. I would appreciate the citation. I won't get around to Barth proper, but I'd like to put it down for further understanding.

    I want to affirm an ecclesial context, yes, but my point was towards a sacramental kind. The reason I distinguish is because the New England Puritans, among others, were ecclesially focused; however I think they denied a certain potency and realism of the sacraments. When I eat the bread, I am tasting my election so to speak.

    This is a rather new turn for me. Like some modern EOs and von Balthasar, I want to take Beauty seriously. I think Cranmer is one who is able to help maintain an orthodox Augustinian approach, and yet remove the question from the realm of mere rational contingency or causation. Ashley Null has written on Cranmer's use of 'allurement'. There's something wonderfully aesthetic about being struck by the 'Uncreated Light'.

    I appreciate I had to go through Puritan-esque skepticism and fear of the 'High-Places'. But it's not a place to stay or remain. The Prophets were not at loggerheads with the Temple, but its evil establishment. Theirs was a renewal of the liturgical worship, including its aesthetical and ethical (which may not be too far apart) demands.

    For this reason I can never accept the regulative principle. I think it turns on a kind of Judaizing of what it means to worship in truth and spirit. I also affirm Nicaea II. Both of these (a rejection and an affirmation) can contour (for the good) understanding Predestination.


  3. "I appreciate I had to go through Puritan-esque skepticism and fear of the 'High-Places'. But it's not a place to stay or remain. The Prophets were not at loggerheads with the Temple, but its evil establishment.." Yep, I went through that as well, though my "skeptical" period was perhaps not as intense. As for the RPW, I have never found it convincing, namely from my exposure to R. Scott Clark's extensive defenses of the RPW at his blog over the years. Clark's exegesis is extraordinarily weak.

    The Barth material on Molinism v. Thomism is pp. 542-607 and especially the excursus on pp. 567-586 -- CD II.1.