Calvinism/Presbyterianism – Predestination & Divine Sovereignty, Part 2 of 4

-John Calvin (1509-1564)

-by Br Elijah Dubek, OP

“As my two Calvinist interlocutors and I stood outside the Supreme Court, our conversation shifted from divine sovereignty to the topic of grace. Michael, who did more of the talking, mentioned what his tradition calls “sovereign grace.” By his explanation, this sovereign grace inescapably draws certain, chosen men to salvation. Because God’s sovereignty is absolute and not dependent on creatures for efficacy, those who are given this sovereign grace are called the predestined.

When I questioned Michael and Gabriel, each affirmed that they hold man’s will to be free. At least popularly, however, Calvinists are not known as champions of the freedom of the will. In fact, because of their emphasis on the sovereignty of God, Calvinists call grace irresistible. This explanation of grace paints a dreary, coercive picture of God’s saving work in us. Michael mentioned that there are diverse schools of thought regarding the meaning of “irresistible grace,” but after he and Gabriel agreed so thoroughly with Saint Thomas on divine sovereignty, we returned to the Angelic Doctor for some clarifications.

God’s plan is to give us supernatural, eternal happiness with him. As its name implies, supernatural happiness exceeds the power of our nature (ST I-II, q. 109, a. 2, co.). Further, the wounds of original sin render us incapable of achieving the complete set of goods otherwise within the reach of our nature. Yet, because God has not abandoned us to our sins, he bestows on us gifts we call grace. These gifts interiorly heal and elevate our nature so that we become capable of living supernaturally, of participating in the divine life. Apart from these gifts bestowed on us in Jesus, that life is impossible (John 15:5).

Here is the tricky part. In the context of these graces, we are still real agents, exhorted to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). While God indeed does many things for us without us, grace also operates to transform and elevate our free actions, without rendering that freedom null and void. Somehow, theology has to cope with this apparent tension: an absolute dependence on God’s help and the freedom of man’s will.

For St. Thomas, the gift of grace does not present any new problem for freedom. As we learned last time, God’s assistance is precisely what enables a creature to act. In other words, God’s governance and a creature’s action are non-competitive (ST I, q. 105, a. 5, co.). The creature’s dependence on God does not deprive the creature of its agency, nor of the contingency or freedom of that agency. Instead, without God’s help, there simply is no creaturely agency, whether free or not. Because St. Thomas understands divine governance this way, he can apply it to both the natural and supernatural helps that God provides. He says,

However perfect some nature is, corporal or spiritual, it is not able to proceed to its own act unless it is moved by God… So the act of the intellect, and of any created being, depends on God in two ways: in one way, inasmuch as from him it has the nature by which it acts; and in another way, inasmuch as it is moved by him to act (ST I-II, q. 109, a. 1, co.).

Saint Paul also taught this complementarity between God’s action in us and our agency. “For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13). Saint Thomas finds this verse especially illuminating for our question. Man is truly willing and working in his own proper activity, but this derives from and is dependent on God’s work in man. We need God’s help, his work in us, from the beginning to the end of salvation (Comm. on Philippians, c. 2, lect. 3, n. 77). God’s work in us enables us to will and to work freely. It is metaphysically and theologically silly to suppose that man’s freedom has to be uncaused in order to be genuinely free.

Because God’s governance works inside our nature, inside our freedom, God’s salvific power can really transform us and enable us to participate in his divine life. Grace is not relegated to some external covering but renovates the whole person, so that even the most hardened heart may be converted unto Jesus Christ.”

Love & His mercy,

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