Saturday, 23 February 2013

What do I think about the doctrine of 'election'?


I absolutely loathe it. I shun it. I regard it as poison.


I mean the idea, or set of ideas, that God (because of his abstract, absolute, total omniscience - and that 'because' is loaded with assumptions, many dubious) pre-decided who was to be saved and who was to be damned, that therefore people are created either to be saved or damned - and that any notion I may hold concerning the importance of my own choices, the role of will, the exercise of my free agency, is a delusion; because the outcome is pre-known, pre-decided, pre-destined...


Which is not to say that I deny that many great Christians - and far holier than myself - have 'believed in', given public assent to, election.

But election is still a toxic idea in and of itself at the level of common sense and personal application - and election requires tremendous personal and social countervailing forces to be ranged against it in order that it be not harmful.

In some exceptional persons, and in some situations in the past, such countervailing forces were in operation - and therefore election was not fatal; but when it was not fatal, I believe its implications were downplayed or disregarded or explained away or subsumed under complex qualifications... or something.

Because on the face of things, election is a horrible notion leading to paradox, numbness, nihilism.


Far better to see our mortal life as a real trial, open-ended; where salvation is not wholly done-for-us and something remains for us to do; where personal choices are truly free and have genuinely-divergent spiritual outcomes; and where not just what we think but what we actually do makes a difference in the ultimate scheme of things.

Far better to live like this, on this basis - and this is, I am sure, much closer to the truth of the matter.



George Goerlich said...

It does appear very fundamentally wrong. It seems like the idea of being fated to a certain role or station in life was taken too far so as to alleviate the burden of personal responsibility.

Perhaps some found it too hard to live thinking at any moment, or someday, they could make the wrong choice and lose salvation.

josh said...

Predestination seems like another form of materialism. There is nothing that transcends cause and effect as we observe it. The whole thing is just taken back one level further than materialism. I'm not great on the history of the period, but it strikes me as coming from the same milieux as Newtonian mechanics and the clockwork universe.

It seems to me that predestination (an mechanics) has no real understanding of cause and effect (a cause seems to be that which necessarily preceeds and effect) and misses the, obvious when you think about it, transcendent nature of free will as a *different kind* of causal agent even if its not Aquinas'/Aristotles 'First Cause'.

Predestination is really a form of naturalism.

Sylvie D. Rousseau said...

It seems your view is too much Calvinist. GK Chesterton called it a "bottomless pit" (Orthodoxy). The Catholic view is very different. I found it explained well by Blessed John Paul II in his systematic catechesis done along general audiences ( In this index of links (, you can observe that predestination is under the theme of Divine Providence, and the Pope warns us that the concept cannot be understood properly out of its context.

Wurmbrand said...

Sylvie is right in saying the doctrine of election must be understood in the right (i.e. Biblical) context. She says it must be understood in terms of divine providence. Election really ought to be understood in terms of the Gospel of redemption. It's part of why the Good News is Good News. It is not part of the Law of God's wrath against unrepentant sinners whose final destiny is hell. All who are saved are elect, but all who are lost are lost of their own fault. This isn't perfectly logical but then "When I became a Christian, I crucified my mind" (Seraphim Rose). It's what the Bible says.

You'll never banish it from the Bible, no matter how much you think you dislike it...

Bruce Charlton said...

@SDR and W - To me, the discussions of this matter mean strictly nothing - just a string of statements which, while perhaps individually true, and at least comprehensible - when strung-together are just a sequence of non sequiturs.

I can do nothing with this. It is not so much a matter of denying anything in scripture as finding it incomprehensible and that - since nobody seems able to explain it - I assume that others do not comprehend it either (since if they did they should be able to explain it).

Anybody can say some words and say that believe them - even a tape recorder or a parrot can do that.

Almost anybody can chop things up into little bits and explain the bits.

But making sense of it as a whole? - not so easy: either too difficult for people nowadays, or actually impossible.

Bruce Charlton said...

What is vital is that Christians know that they really do choose, themselves; that free will and agency are absolutely essential to Christianity.

We simply *have to* see our future as open and divergent, as a real adventure or quest; and ourselves as free agents making choices - else moral life is drained of significance.

Anything which confuses this is bad. Any notion that we have somehow *already* chosen, or been chosen, or that we are not really choosing, or that God knows in advance how we will choose... these are dangerous ideas, lethal to Christianity.

There is a (Platonic) metaphysical view that God lives outside of time and in eternity, that therefore he sees everything (past present and future) all at once (ie as articulated by Boethius in Consolation of Philosophy) - and can theefore forsee how we have aready behaved (CS Lewis describes this in Mere Christianity)


I do not know of any way that we can actually make sense of this - no way of coherently describing how we move between time and eternity.

AND - In this Platonic view of God he is not a personal God, because he is changeless and unbounded - we must thus construct from the Platonic God a living God who is a subdivision of that God out of time - an aspect of eternal unchanging God that lives in time, and changes in our relationship with him (one cannot 'relate' to an unchaging entity! - an unchanging entity cannot 'love' us).

That works - but why impose this extra complexity and background incomprehensibility upon a perfectly clear and simple understanding of God as a personage living in time; the God about which we read in most of the Bible?

The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was not a Platonic (eternal, unchanging) God, and I see no compelling reason why the Christian God should be a Platonic God (he can be, sort of - but why?); but many reasons why such an abstract absolute infinite concept of God might cripple or destroy faith - especially among the simple, but also among intellectuals thus deflected into intellectualism.

Our speculative metaphysical/ philosophical theories about the neature and origin of God's foreknowledge must therefore be built *around* the FACT of free agency - which entails that the linearity of time and the reality of change applies to God (as far as we can understand Him) as well as to ourselves.

(I tried to write about the Platonic/ Boethius God in several previous blog posts, to explain the relation between time and eternity, but I now think I was just hypnotizing myself with words!)

Anonymous said...

The knowledge that I was predestined to salvation (assuming I have that knowledge for the moment) far from inducing pride humbles deeply. I am speaking of the Biblical doctrine of Rom.9; Eph.1 etc. not of the mischaracterisations of Arminians etc...
Why? Because I know that nothing in me, not works, not intelligence, not faith (a gift of God) contributed to my salvation - it is all of God, all of His undeserved kindness.
I am no better than the worst 'reprobate' on death row in a cell for murder. My heart is no better than Anders Breivik or Ghengis Khan etc.
I am a testimony to the immeasurable goodness of God in Christ to miserable wretches like me. Therefore I now what to respond in gratefulness to Him and serve others.
That is good news.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jim - but is it good news? This perspective has (common sense) consequences with which I am sure you would not agree.

For example it implies that humans are worthless, which means we cannot trust ourselves or our feelings or our intelligence - which means that we cannot be confident we are correct in our faith, but are almost certain to be deluded.

(And we are also almost certain to be deluded about the above reasoning as well - in other words the doctrine becomes paradoxical and self-refuting.)

And it implies that - since there is no difference between anyone - then there is no reason to strive to be better.

In other words, this view leads to nihilism tempered by a faith which is acknowledged to be arbitrary; and morality becomes no more that a futile attempt to be better than we possibly can be, doomed to failure.

I know that sophisticated reasoning can elude these consequences, and I know that people who profess a belief in predistined salvation very seldom draw such consequences - but these are the consequences implied by simple commonsense reasoning.

Arakawa said...

Generally, what must be done (in the here and now, the individual life) is mostly obvious. Our duty is not dependent on the precise scope and nature of salvation; it is based on the objective moral law of the universe.

The purpose of intellectual doctrines is to provide motivation for doing what must be done. 'Motivation' is really a weak word for this, since the quantity in question resides in the soul, specifically the part of our soul which is directly accessible neither to the intellect, nor the sentiments.

Intellectual assent to certain doctrines, in and of itself, is worthless. It does not necessarily reflect the belief of the soul; but the belief of the soul is what is revealed in the actions of a person.

For any doctrine, I think the primary test, then, is whether it ultimately aids our soul in doing God's will, or constricts it from doing so.

Any doctrine of the intellect can be made harmless if the soul refuses to assent to it. However, there are (in retrospect) obvious tendencies to how a doctrine affects the will of people of a certain type to follow God's commandments.

(I write 'a certain type' because a doctrine may have different effects on people of an intellectual tendency, for instance, compared to people in general.)

The two highest commandments are to love God and to love our enemies and neighbours.

So if a doctrine hardens hearts against God (by making His Creation seem an absurd and cruel joke, for instance), then it is detrimental.

If a doctrine hardens hearts against neighbours and enemies (by giving some standard that tempts us to judge the worth of their souls, for instance), then it is detrimental.

'Election' probably does the former (implying that God created people explicitly and irrevocably destined for eternal torment), has the potential to do the latter, at least when we combine it with doctrines setting out explicit sacramental requirements for salvation which the vast majority of people in modern society necessarily will not adhere to.

It is surely a dangerous thing to walk around with beliefs in your head telling you that, as a matter of logical consequence, the majority of the people you meet, and the vast majority of people who have ever lived, will be damned.

If you hold such doctrines, but your motives and actions nevertheless are righteous, then your soul is thankfully ignoring the logical consequences of your intellectual beliefs.

Thus I was struck by the fact that some Orthodox holy men, explicitly or implicitly, practiced a sort of qualified Universalism: everyone is saved; I alone am guilty before God. This is an apparent logical impossibility.

(Universalism here refers to a promise of universal salvation to all people, not the belief in universality of all doctrines. Taken in unqualified form, needless to say, this results in deadly complacency.)

But, if this is a logical impossibility and therefore false, why does it have the nourishing power of the Truth?

And if it is a Truth, why do the doctrines deceive us that people other than ourselves are damned; that indeed, some person we know may yet be damned such that nothing we sacrifice could ransom them?

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - very helpful - thanks.

Derek Shaw said...

Whatever our attitude to the doctrine of election, we have to admit that it is taught in the Bible clearly, unambiguously and repeatedly (Matt 24:31, Mark 13:27, Luke 18:7, Rom 8:33, Rom 9:11, Tit 1:1, 2 Pet 1:10).

In particular, Rom 9:6-18 gives us a textbook style explanation of the doctrine itself: what election is, when it happens, on what basis God elects some and not others, and so on.

So, whether we like it or not, we have to face the fact that the doctrine of election is Biblical.

What if I still can’t agree with it?

Then we are down to Prov 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.”

What if I find it distasteful/harmful?

Nobody likes every part of the Bible. The most sanctified saints among us still find many Biblical concepts hard to swallow.

How can anybody NOT dislike it?

Many Christians find joy in the doctrine of election. They believe that their fall from grace was so deep and so thorough that clawing their way out was impossible. If it was not for an indiscriminate election of God, they would have stayed in the pit forever.

Bruce Charlton said...

@DS - "it is taught in the Bible clearly, unambiguously and repeatedly"

Not so, because behind that statement lies a raft of assumptions about how the Bible is to be read an interpreted.

For instance, assumption that all the Bible (as we currently have it; including all the New Testament, and all the Gospels) is to be read as having equal and entire authority, coherent at a sentence by sentence basis, and that there are no contradictions between parts of the Bible.

I deny all of these (necessarily) extra-Biblical assumptions, and consequently I understand the Bible in a very different way.

I add a belief that “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” is (as you intend it to mean) the basis of Islam, not Christianity. Pure monotheism has a very different relationship with God than does real Christianity: Jesus made and makes a qualitative difference. The difference between submission to an incomprehensible and alien omnipotent unity; and relationships within a family of free persons.

Christianity is about God as our Father, we (and Jesus Christ) are his children - we are of the 'same kind' - and there is a basis of mutual understanding such as we know in the best human families.