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godWelcome back to Gabbin’ About God, in which Mallory uses her religious background to explain Christian-y things to Nicole. Most recently: the devil.

Hi Mallory! Can you drop another knowledge bomb on me? Which Christian denominations believe in predestination, and which believe in free will? And, as a Protestant atheist who was raised Catholic (I know Catholics do the free will thing), how is predestination supposed to work? Why does anyone bother to do anything? Also, is predestination the reason that people in Lucy Maud Montgomery books were always saying “Providential!” about stuff? Thank you.

Mallory: I can tell you this much — LMM actually turned down one of her beaux for talking too much about predestination, so it’s unlikely that she was a proponent of the doctrine, despite being a Presbyterian.

The early 1890s brought unwelcome advances from Mr. John A. Mustard and Will Pritchard. Mr. Mustard, her teacher, quickly became her suitor who tried to impress her with his knowledge of religious matters. His best topics of conversation were his thoughts on Predestination and “other dry points of theology.” He held little appeal for Montgomery.

There are (there always are) different views about predestination among Presbyterians, of course:

So predestination is an act of God’s will through which God elects or chooses those whom God calls to faith and thus to eternal life, and through which God chooses those who will not receive faith. Other theologians have seen in predestination only a positive calling to eternal life. Still others have seen it as God’s foreknowledge of who would choose faith.

God’s grace transforms the will so that it can freely obey God’s will, though not perfectly.

Which is to say, of course, that Presbyterians can agree on very little, may God bless them and keep them. The idea of Providence (or of something being providential) is a rather lovely attribute of God that I’m afraid has become outdated. It’s one of the classic attributes of God, along with eternity and graciousness and immutability, and it can be understood in one of several ways. There’s general providence — the idea that God was present in the act of creation and continues to be present in the development of the world and of humanity — and special providence, God’s loving care and intervention for people in particular. So it’s not necessarily as thorny and complicated as the doctrine of predestination, although they are connected on several levels.

Here is my understanding of the development of predestination, sketchy though it may be: Augustine proposed it, a handful of theologians kept it alive through the Middle Ages, Luther and Calvin re-popularized it in order to more fully emphasize the doctrine of justification through faith alone. Their goal, I think, was to remove both the idea that human activity or will could lead to salvation or closeness to God, as well as any shred of pride in having been saved; counter-Reformationists, of course, worried that it was a doctrine that could lead to spiritual despair. So there we are!

As for the rest of it, I’m afraid it is a little bit above my pay grade, so I am roping in John Ortberg (pater of self) to tag-team this answer with me.

John: First—feel better! Take good care of yourself! I love you. (Ed. note — I have been gravely ill for coming on two days now, with the sorest throat to ever plague the inside of a neck; he is right to be concerned for my health, as I may die at any minute.)

Second, here are my scattered thoughts—I have to go teach and then get on a flight to St Louis so this was my only chance to get something to you today. Feel free to use any stuff that works, or none at all, no need to cite me, and thanks for asking. It’s a little tricky for me because I’m not a hyper-Reformed predestination guy at all, but I don’t want to ridicule it in unsympathetic ways…

For people who think about God, the question of predestination is at least as old as Watergate: What did the deity know, and when did he know it? Is God a ‘J’ on the Meyers-Brigg, or is he more a fly-by-the-seat-of-his pants guy, like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman?

One of the classic ways of thinking about theology is called the via negativa. The basic idea is that it’s easiest to start with what you know could not be true and work from there. On the one hand, any God worth the name has to be more knowledgeable about how things are going to turn out than your average bookie looking at an NFL weekend. On the other hand, if all reality is running on a predetermined script, then we’re all Stepford Wives, so notions like responsibility and moral agency wouldn’t make any sense. So somewhere in between these wrong paths must be how things are.

Some people believe that God has predestined how everything will turn out, including the eternal destinies of each human being. This is particularly associated with a French-speaking Swiss Reformer named John Calvin, who is often understood to have believed that God basically causes everything. John Wesley, on the other hand, tended to emphasize free will. But Calvin always felt it wasn’t Wesley’s fault. (Actually, Calvin lived way before Wesley, but this is a mandatory example of ‘predestination humor’). (Ed. note — excellent predestination joke, Dad.)

In the Protestant world, Presbyterians and denominations with the word “Reformed” in them tend to lean toward a strong view of predestination. Methodists and Wesleyans believe that God has plans, but makes them to incorporate human freedom. Episcopalians here, as elsewhere, take what they call ‘the middle way.’ (Ed. note — EPISCOPALIANS.) Unitarians believe that there is, at most, one God. (Ed. note — These denominational jokes are as a balm to my soul.)

Catholic doctrine tends to favor free will; though there is a branch of Catholicism called Jansenism that leans the other way.   It may have been named for David Jansen, the actor who played THE FUGITIVE on the 1960s TV series, but this is disputed, particularly by David Jansen himself, who died some time ago.

What is sometimes called ‘double predestination’ is the notion that God knew ahead of time both what people will end up in being saved and which people will not. No one has yet invented ‘triple predestination’, so there’s room for innovation.

Supralapsarianism (do you give up yet?) is the notion that God predestined all individual fates before the fall of Adam; infralapsarianism asserts that this happened after the fall.   Its hard to find a good old-fashioned plain lapsarian anywhere.

You may like a piece that was in the Wittenburg Door years ago about John Calvin’s 4 Spiritual Laws for the Reprobate: Law #1: “God hates you and has a horrible plan for your life”. (Ed. note — The Wittenburg Door, a religious satire magazine, was the first place that ever published my writing for money; it no longer exists, which is a damnable shame, because my “Worship Mad Libs” was a thing of beauty and a joy forever.)

Ironically (but less humorously), folks who are into scientism tend to fall into the same category as the hyper-Reformed in asserting that there is no such thing as free will; both groups are drawn to determinism. But they couldn’t help themselves. (BTW, there is an old argument against determinism called the self-stutilfication argument; if every aspect of our behavior/beliefs are determined, then the belief that determinism is true is ALSO determined, therefore if it is true we could never know it. Sadly this is not funny either.)

Mallory: Should you desire further reading on the subject (really, this seems like more than enough for the average citizen, but who am I to question your hobbies?), might I recommend Lew Smedes’ My God and I. “This leaves me with a still tougher question: How can kind and gentle Christians actually believe that God would do such a horrible thing as damn people before they have a chance to earn their damnation? The only way to explain how good people could keep swallowing such bad doctrine is to link it to what they think was God’s reason for creating the world in the first place.

John Calvin and all his successors have agreed that God created a world so that he could get glory and honor for creating it. It was as if God looked at his own perfection and, wonderful as it was, he was sorry that there was no one besides himself to admire it and praise him for it. So he created a beautiful world and then created people who could praise him for creating it…

It seems to me that we make God out to be an absolute narcissist — someone who loves only himself — when we say that his main motive for creating the world was to get glory and honor for himself. It simply must be that he created us in order to love us, all of us, and all of us with the same love.”

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