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Difficult Theology and the Goodness of God

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Sep 20, 2011

It is amazing, sometimes, the corners into which religious thinkers can paint themselves as they strive to unravel the mind of an infinite God. This can be true of any of us meditating on an aspect of God’s plan, and perhaps placing it somewhat askew in our own catalogue of truth. It can be true in seriously unfortunate ways for heretics, and in significantly vexing ways even for faithful theologians.

Let us take the theologians first. It is obvious that a completely fresh analysis of a difficult problem, as if nothing has been established as a foundation, can lead to all the errors associated with getting in over our heads. But the rigorous adherence to particular schools of thought can also lead to trouble. In the development of theological schools, positions can harden as the followers of a school logically work out answers to theological questions based on the guiding principles of their school, or their school’s master.

This can happen in almost any school, including the most privileged (Thomism) both because the school’s leading light (in this case, St. Thomas) may be wrong about some things and, even more frequently, because most academic theologians (like most academic philosophers) are primarily professors of an existing discipline rather than seminal thinkers in their own right. Therefore, they can display a tendency to insist on working things out within the parameters of a given school of thought rather than keeping the history and gains of the school in mind while engaging a problem more directly, returning to the sources of Revelation partially outside the box, as it were, and with an alert eye for anything that may have been missed.

The Controversy over Grace and Predestination

A classic case of this was the quarrel between the Thomists and the Molinists over the question of predestination. Theologians over the centuries have wondered about the point at which God makes a decision to save or damn a soul, and some passages in Scripture have led many theologians to suggest that God must save some and desert, or fail to save, others without reference to their moral merits. Most exegetes now agree that these problematic passages refer not to eternal salvation but to membership in the Church (see my earlier essay What Does it Mean to Be Saved?), but for a long time it was difficult to see a way to avoid a hint of Calvinism in certain theological principles, when carried to their logical conclusions. Regardless of two different efforts to get around this, neither the Thomists nor the Molinists traditionally avoided the problem completely.

Many of the potential errors in studying this particular question are what we might call “system” errors, or errors in the effort to work out a perfectly consistent theological framework for the entire system of God and His creation. For example, is justice such an important manifestation of God’s glory that—for His glory to be fully revealed—He requires, as a matter of cosmic principle, some souls to consign to hell? Since a creature can have no right to salvation, is it a defect or a manifestation of God’s justice to offer salvation only to some? But if it is necessary to God’s glory that He display His justice, what happens if nobody sins? Would His system require that he create some persons for the purpose of sinning, or at least of being abandoned?

We simpler souls may smile at this, but it would be a mistake. When we take Revelation seriously, and probe it as deeply as possible with our reason (which, after all, is the task of theology), it is difficult to avoid touchy questions, and very difficult indeed to balance all the evidence in a way that makes perfect sense across the board. Recall again the disturbing passage in St. Paul, which I explained in the essay cited above, to the effect that “those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30). It took nearly two thousand years for theologians to figure out how that fits with everything else. Remember too that, despite the full Revelation of Jesus Christ, facts about God and His plan take residence in our finite minds only piecemeal. It is theological systems which connect the dots, and it is never easy.

The Danger of Heresy

Connecting the dots properly is how doctrine develops, and we may be thankful that we have a Magisterium to distinguish legitimate developments from errors and contradictions. With those who do not accept the Magisterium, of course, things get far more messy. Instead of entertaining a dubious proposition somewhere in the depths of their discussion of a difficult question, necessarily expressing it in a provisional manner and subject to correction, heretics will turn an incautious reflection into the linchpin of a new religion. This is why the word “heresy” is derived from the Greek haeresis which means “a taking or a choosing”. A heretic chooses a pet idea out of many propositions and makes it a guiding principle, refusing to accept the myriad propositional tensions which finite minds must endure to plumb infinite truths.

Thus did Pelagius, early on, teach that we earned our salvation through good works. Much later, Calvin concluded from his reading of Scripture that God actively predestined some persons to eternal happiness and actively predestined others to eternal loss, without any prevision of their merits—the notorious double predestination which makes God a monster. And in exactly the same haphazard way, Luther concluded that all persons are fundamentally corrupt, but those who accept Christ will be saved, because Christ covers our corruption like a white cloak, and the Father will not look beneath it. Thus Luther could repeatedly advise Melanchthon and others that they should feel free to sin boldly:

[Y]ou must bear a true and not a fictitious sin. God does not save people who are only fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly…. [A]s long as we are here [in this world] we have to sin. No sin will separate us from the Lamb, even though we commit fornication and murder a thousand times a day. (Luther’s Works, American Edition, 48, 181-82)

It is one thing to paint yourself into a corner, and quite another to lock yourself into a cell and throw away the key! But sometimes our theological speculations, especially concerning tough questions like grace and predestination, can give us fits.

In any case, on the matter at hand, it was not until the mid-twentieth century that all the relevant dots were connected in a way that one could continue to reason about the thorny problem of grace, free will, predestination and salvation without running into trouble by pushing something too far. While several scholars around the world began arriving at a better understanding around the same time (theological exchange and the shifting interests, strengths and weaknesses of each age and culture tend to produce this sort of confluence on various questions over time), the most complete and decisive study was done by my late friend Fr. William Most, in his masterwork, Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God.

A New Solution

I don’t mean to claim any credit by calling Fr. Most a friend, though it certainly was a blessing to me. I was very late to the party. Fr. Most worked out the solution in the 1950s before I had reached the age of 10 (though my oldest son, while a student, helped him prepare the final edition of the book for publication in the 1990s). Nor can I provide the details of the solution here, as it took Fr. Most himself nearly 700 pages to review all the evidence, arguments and counter-arguments in order to thoroughly ground his important contribution. But in the interest of providing an overview of grace, free will, predestination and salvation, I might express things simply as follows:

All talk of predestination in Revelation applies only to the external economy, the order of our unique gifts, roles and positions in this life. It does not at all apply to the internal economy of sanctifying grace and eternal happiness. Thus, some are predestined for full membership in the Church, just as some are born in this era and others in that, some are born wealthy and others poor, some have great intellectual gifts and others great artistic gifts, some are unusually strong and some are weak or handicapped, some lives are long while others are brief. These things God determines according to his good pleasure, remembering literally that His pleasure is always good. (For more on the salvific implications of predestination to the Church, see my previous essay.)

But as to the internal economy, God wills that all men be saved, as Paul says in his letter to Timothy (1 Tim 2:4), and He makes His salvific grace freely available to all, in whatsoever external condition they find themselves. We cannot and do not earn salvation through our own merits, any more than children merit an inheritance from their parents; it is rather through the merits of the most perfect of fathers that we possess such an inheritance. But in order to love we must be free, and so we can use our freedom to reject His gift, to turn away from His grace and deny His goodness. In so doing, we “merit” negatively, so to speak. We merit the loss of the inheritance by our steadfast refusal to honor our Father, by our rejection of the gift of Himself. We cannot earn salvation, but we can turn our backs on it. It could then be justly said of us, without any slight to the goodness of God, that we had our opportunity, and we blew it.

This does not prevent us (or even great theologians) from talking about positive merit in a secondary sense. For in addition to offering ample salvific grace to all souls, in accordance with His salvific will, God has established a covenant and a certain path or procedure, as it were, for pleasing Him, and He has promised to reward those who, by these means, conform themselves to Christ. So insofar as we do the things that God asks of us, He owes it not to us but to His promise, that is, to Himself, to provide additional grace or reward. But the fundamental gift of salvation is completely unmerited, unearned. We cannot seize it for ourselves, but we can lose our grip on it, and fall away.

It might have been helpful if this complete understanding had been as easy to articulate, and as easy to square with a proper understanding of Scripture, in the sixteenth century. But even then the Magisterium of the Church was available to prevent grave errors on the part of those who were willing to listen. In any case, this explanation has by now passed into common theological understanding; it is consistent with everything the Magisterium has taught, and Fr. Most’s detailed thesis was extremely well-received (and, indeed, widely hailed) when it was first published. Nearly everybody explains the matter along these general lines today.

Personal Spiritual Insight

One of the most interesting points to me about how Fr. Most worked out his solution to this problem of salvation is that he began by establishing a proper understanding of God’s purpose in creation. This is a stellar example of the magnificent cohesiveness of Catholic doctrine. When the different points of doctrine are all properly understood and fit together, one sees that things could not have been otherwise if they were to be consistent, and of course God cannot be inconsistent. It is highly relevant to this end-game discussion of grace and predestination, therefore, that the purpose of creation in the first place is to manifest God’s glory in a very particular way. God’s decision from the first (a decision consistent with and possibly even required by His very goodness) was that in His plan for creation He would manifest His glory precisely through the communication of His goodness to His creatures.

This insight, which Fr. Most establishes conclusively from all the relevant sources (including the Magisterium at Vatican I) in the third chapter of his book, establishes a ground rule which assists in the answering of many complex questions about God and his dealings with men. Think about it: The manifestation of God’s glory and His communication of good to creatures are inseparable. This is also one of those seminal personal religious insights to which sound Catholic theology always leads, the double insight that God always does good to His creatures and that our obligation to glorify God in return does not arise because it adds anything to His glory, but because it is good for us. In fact, it is the supreme good for us, the one thing we cannot do without if we are to be perfected as persons, transformed by goodness, filled with love, and exalted in happiness.

It may appear to be an odd way around, I suppose, for an abstruse, difficult, dry and dusty theological question to lead to a deeper understanding of human perfection. But in fact this is precisely what all sound theology does when it helps us to understand God. The great twentieth century Thomist, the Dominican Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, while not working out the entire solution to the problem of grace and predestination, had already expressed something of this preliminary insight in 1923, when he wrote:

God cannot will His external glory without willing thereby our good, and likewise, we cannot will our true happiness without seeking to glorify God.

All true theology leads us at one and the same time not only to God’s goodness but also to our own good.

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