Calvinism/Presbyterianism – Predestination & Divine Sovereignty, Part 1 of 4

-John Calvin (1509-1564)

-by Br Elijah Dubek, OP

““Excuse me, Brother. Are you a Thomist?” Pausing my scan of the dense column of marchers, I found two gentlemen approaching me. Of course, I answered in the affirmative. We exchanged introductions, and then Michael and Gabriel (as we’ll call them) continued, “Can you explain to us Saint Thomas’s teaching on predestination?” I took the bait, and we had a pleasant, enthusiastic, thirty-five minute conversation right there in front of the Supreme Court building.

Michael and Gabriel, as Calvinists, hold what we might call a “strong view” of God’s sovereignty over creation. Because of this, they found St. Thomas’s view quite refreshing.

Divine sovereignty refers to the extent of God’s control and authority over the creatures he has made. The question of sovereignty follows immediately from the doctrine of creation. Saint Thomas calls this notion “governance,” and he treats it quite thoroughly in his Summa Theologiae. After affirming the universal scope of divine governance (ST I, q. 103, a. 5), the Angelic Doctor considers two categories of effects of God’s governance: the conservation of creatures in existence and the movement of creatures to their proper actions. The former is much easier to explain and accept than the latter, but both are conclusions that flow from biblical and philosophical considerations of creation.

To explain conservation, Aquinas makes an important distinction between the “cause of being” and the “cause of becoming” (ST I, q. 104, a. 1, co.). A builder is a cause of the becoming of the house but not of the being of the house. If the builder stops building (for whatever reason), the house stops coming to be. Once the house has come to be, though, the builder’s role is done. He can go home and the house doesn’t collapse. The house still has ongoing causes holding it together, though. The nature of the brick and mortar, the drywall, the wood, the nails and screws, and the rest… the house does continue to depend on these. The materials’ natural sturdiness, adhesiveness, tensile strength, and other characteristics operate continuously in order for the house to remain a house and not fall apart. If the wood rots, if the foundation cracks, or if someone or something destroys one of these materials, the very existence of the house as a house is threatened because these are causes of the being of the house.

God’s conservation of creatures is even more profound. His activity produces the being and nature of everything. There was no pre-existent stuff out of which God fashioned the world. He had to produce the whole of it, and none of it can hold on to this existence without His conservation. The bricks and mortar of the house just need to be put in place by the builder and then their natural properties hold the house together without any further help from the builder. Created existence cannot maintain itself like this, because existence is not something we have by ourselves—it’s not a natural property. As Aquinas says, “Only God is being by his own essence, since his essence is his existence; every creature, however, is a being by participation” (ST I, q. 104, a. 1, co.). Because creatures exist by participating in existence, not by independently possessing it, they need God to keep them around.

If we were to stop here, neither Saint Thomas nor my Calvinist interlocutors would be satisfied. God is not merely an existential battery. Creatures aren’t just “plugged in,” but otherwise outside the scope of God’s governance. Saint Thomas tells us that we need God not only for our continued existence but also for the production of every one of our actions (ST I, q. 105, a. 5). Saint Paul affirms this when he preached in Athens, saying, “In him [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The prophet Isaiah likewise wrote, “You have wrought for us all our works” (Isa 26:12). Agere sequitur esse, the scholastics said. Action follows being. The kind of being a thing is determines the kind of action it can perform. Every creature’s being is absolutely dependent on God; therefore, every creature’s action is as well. Later in this four-part series, we’ll consider this doctrine in relation to the freedom of man’s will.

Everything and every detail within creation falls in the scope of God’s providence and governance because without Him, no creature could exist or act. That, fundamentally, is God’s sovereignty, and this doctrine looms in the background of any discussion of predestination. So far, in my conversation with Michael and Gabriel, we are in agreement. Next time, though, we’ll see how a few important distinctions set the Catholic thought of St. Thomas apart from Calvin’s teaching.”

Love, & His mercy,

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