Saturday, July 10, 2010

Peter Lombard vs. John of Damascus: Round 2: Predestination!

Now, I found a spot where the Master of Sentences is better than the Damascene: the doctrine of predestination.

Remember that 90% of Peter's Patristic quotations are from Augustine.  So, more or less, he takes over Augustine's position on predestination as well as other things.  For Peter, there is a distinction between predestination and foreknowledge.  Augustine talked a little bit about this, but mainly this distinction was more strongly developed by his student Prosper of Acquitaine.  Prosper's position was that God merely foreknew those who were going to be damned by their own efforts, whereas he actively predestined the redeemed.  This is also Peter's position and Aquinas' also, though Aquinas is a bit more hardcore in thinking that God really, really does intend certain people to be damned.

Now, this isn't from a biblical Lutheran perspective the absolute best position one can have, since there is no explanation of God's firm intention that all be saved, even if for whatever reason he chooses not to predestine everyone (for some reason).  Nevertheless, it's better than John's view, which is that predestination is merely foreknowledge of who will use their free will to accept God's offer of redemption.

For the most part this was the Patristic position prior to Augustine.  In the west, it was also a live option after John Cassian's Institutes, which poplularized semi-Pelagianism and also monasticism.  In fact, if you read Anselm's book about predestination, that's pretty much his position as well.  It also didn't help that some of Pelagius' books floated around under the name of Jerome.

Two main factors play into the weakness of eastern theology on this point.  First, is the early Patristic struggle with Gnosticism and later Manichean dualism.  In both systems, creation and human responsibility are denigrated.  Hence they had a violent reaction to this and countered it with a strong claim of human free will and the rejection of the doctrine of predestination.  The second factor was the lack of a Pelagian controversy in the east, which led to not much thinking on the topic.  

If you talk with EO people they have all kinds of sophisticated ideas about the divine Trinity, attributes, and the Incarnation, but basically very little to say about human sin.  To this day this is a fairly banefully underdeveloped aspect of EO theology.  I remember talking in class with an EO student when I was in my doctoral program and I outlined their view of free will to her- saying I didn't agree with the eastern view.  She was somewhat surprised and said "oh, I didn't realize there was a difference between us and the west- so what's the western view of free will and predestination?"  The classroom erupted into laugher.  Of course we weren't denigrating her (she didn't take it that way either), rather it was funny because it was a such a strong point of controversy. 

Of course, the answer that predestination is merely foreknowledge is not very helpful.  First, even if there weren't a ton of biblical statements that clearly teach predestination, there's the problem of logic.  So, if it's all about your free will, why doesn't God give everyone the same opportunities to exercise it?  The ancient Jews yes- the ancient Aztecs not so much.  Secondly, how is it possible for God to simply passively foreknow a thing in the first place?  In other words, if God is the antecedent cause of every cause and the determiner of time, how could he just passively know something that he had no causal relationship to?

This last point is a problem for those who reject double predestination- I being one of them.  How is it the case that God doesn't cause the sin of sinners, when he is their antecedent cause?

The answer is: who knows.  Scripture is quite clear that God is not the cause of sin, he only foreknows it.  How this can be the case, is beyond our comprehension.  We must simply trust that this is the case.


  1. This is a very helpful post. - Pr. Hoese

  2. I've gotten the impression from my reading of Peter (this bolsters it) that he is a humble theologian, mindful to not say more than he ought, and comfortable leaving the occasional paradox in tension or inscrutable mystery shrouded. I've mentioned the fact that he isn't as rigorously systematic and organized as his heirs as a possible shortcoming, but this is, I think, Peter's companion virtue.

    This may have been part of why Peter's Sentences was the primary Theology text in University curricula for centuries: it's good theological exercise to 1)figure out what Peter is saying, and 2)connect the dots where Peter is ambiguous.

  3. Mike-The translator suggests that the Sentences are best understood as being the theological equivalent of a case law book. I believe that validates what you're saying.

    I made similar remarks about paradox and not put theology into systematic straitjackets when we talked about the loci method in Lutheran scholasticism.

  4. Eastern Orthodoxy doesn't have a developed view of sin? All the Eastern Orthodox people I've talked to seem to have a pretty good grasp on sin. And they've showed me their theological sources to assure me it isn't their opinions.

  5. I mean Tim that they have very little understanding of original sin. It would be wrong to say that they don't have the concept (though they don't use the term). They have some sense that the human will was weakened by the fall, but they have very little to say about the extent of this or how it relates to divine agency in salvation. Some Roman Catholic and Lutheran dialogers that I've talked to have had the experience of explaining what Pelagius taught to EO theologians and then having them turn around and say "wow, so what's wrong with that?"

    From the EO perspective, the main problem is death and finitude, not so much sin.