The Psychology of Predestination: Two classes of humanity, and its impact.

The doctrine of predestination for Christians always causes their little antennae’s to shift into hyper-activity. It is a controversial issue, no doubt. And this issue has a long, albeit pretentious pedigree, and sourced, at least in the Latin side of the church, most prominently from that indefatigable saint of the most prodigious sort, St. Augustine. And so we note this reality as we venture into this little sketch of mine, but we note this kind of genetic and historical theological reality only to pass into a psychological and even, theo-anthropological consideration; and apply this toward the real life existential co-habitation of society at large, and culture nearer to home.


What am I talking about? Let’s turn back to Augustine, so that we might move forward.  Augustine articulated his view (and what has served as a categorical/conceptual touchstone for following generations and traditions into the present) on predestination unto Christian salvation in this way, and as described by famed patristic scholar, J.N.D. Kelly:

The problem of predestination has so far only been hinted at. Since grace takes the initiative and apart from it all men form a massa damnata, it is for God to determine which shall receive grace and which shall not. This He has done, Augustine believes on the basis of Scripture, from all eternity. The number of the elect is strictly limited, being neither more nor less than is required to replace the fallen angels. Hence he has to twist the text ‘God wills all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2, 4), making it mean that He wills the salvation of all the elect, among whom men of every race and type are represented. God’s choice of those to whom grace is to be given in no way depends on His foreknowledge of their future merits, for whatever good deeds they will do will themselves be the fruit of grace. In so far as His foreknowledge is involved, what He foreknows is what He Himself is going to do. Then how does God decide to justify this man rather than that? There can in the end be no answer to this agonizing question. God has mercy on those whom He wishes to save, and justifies them; He hardens those upon whom He does not wish to have mercy, not offering them grace in conditions in which they are likely to accept it. If this looks like favouritism, we should remember that all are in any case justly condemned, and that if God makes His decision in the light of ‘a secret and, to human calculation, inscrutable justice’. Augustine is therefore prepared to speak of certain people as being predestined to eternal death and damnation; they may include, apparently, decent Christians who have been called and baptized, but to whom the grace of perseverance has not been given. More often, however, he speaks of the predestination of the saints which consists in ‘God’s foreknowledge and preparation of the benefits by which those who are to be delivered are most assuredly delivered’. These alone have the grace of perseverance, and even before they are born they are sons of God and cannot perish.[1]

This doesn’t sound surprising or shocking to most Western Christians in our day and age; indeed, this is rather common fare among the neo-Reformed (and of course, the classically Reformed), and even contemporary Arminians (I mean in regard to the conceptualization itself, not its affirmation by the Arminian). Evangelical Calvinists, such as myself, repudiate this Augustinian trough; and we do so through a re-casted Christ concentrated or conditioned conception of election (which we have articulated elsewhere). But this isn’t really where I want to continue to reflect; instead I want to engage in a theological thought experiment, presume Augustine’s umbrella (for its various diachronic expressions, and precisions), and act as, indeed, this is actually the case.

The thing that got me thinking this way was as I was at work last night, I was thinking about the sanctity of life, and just the sheer value of each person’s life – like my co-worker’s lives. But it donned on me, if God has predetermined to only salvifically love a portion of my co-workers, or only a portion of the masses of people traveling down the freeways and highways that connect our burgeoning population centers; then, clearly, this implies, in the negative, that God does not value the other people (the reprobate seems appropriate here) all around me. So in a real sense (not just a perceived one), in an ontological sense, some people, some of my co-worker’s are less valuable to God than I am (as I am a Christian, and so presumably one of the elect who God chose for salvation before the foundations of the world).

When I allowed all of this to hit me, psychologically and existentially, last night; what this did to me was rattle me! Not that I haven’t been rattled like this before, but more pointedly, it rattled me to the realization of how perverse of a notion this actually is. And the psychology of it, serving as an undercurrent as it does (for those who actually maintain this position), can be quite insidious. It means that there are actually people who just sub-human (because they will never be able to be at rights with what it really means to be human – which is to be at rights with the God who created them). And so ethically such an undercurrent, such a psychology could help to foster a milieu in which there is an elite class of people over against a poor and popper class of people – the upwardly mobile (in a Western context), and the downwardly desperate.

One profound thing, in the dominical (Jesus’) teaching that thoroughly marginalizes this calcification of two classes of people is that Jesus inverts the whole paradigm. For Jesus the ‘elect’ are in fact the downwardly desperate, not the upwardly mobile. For Jesus, there is no privileging of an ‘elite elect’ caste of people for whom he came to purchase and die. If this is so, this is just one of many problems that undercuts any psychology or ontology of humanity wherein there is an elite elect class of people from the very beginning. God’s category starts with the poor and destitute, the reprobate among us; and the exaltation and ‘wonderful exchange’ starts there, not in an elect class of people that works into and out of the mass of Augustine’s perdition. The mass of humanity, the mass of perdition is God’s elect. And the particular in this mass is Jesus’ universal humanity for all, not for some.

In the end, I am thankful that I can look at all of the people I work with and know that each of them has equal value to God; and that I am not any more of a person than they are. I might be saved, and they might not be (at the moment); but their value comes from the same ground that all of our value comes from – from the vicarious humanity of Christ, which is for all of us (we are all destitute, except for the grace of Christ).

[1] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, Revised Edition (New York: Harper Collins, 1978), 368-69.

This entry was posted in Augustine, J. N. D. Kelly, Predestination, Salvation, Soteriology, Vicarious Humanity. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Psychology of Predestination: Two classes of humanity, and its impact.

  1. Juan Carlos Torres says:

    It’s a horrible, horrible, horrible doctrine.


  2. Kevin Davis says:

    I recently re-read Augustine’s Enchiridion (“Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love”), which is a great one-stop-shop for Augustine’s system of theology, and I had actually forgotten how traditionally “Calvinist” are his presentation and arguments for double predestination. Combined with his lengthy presentation on Adam and original sin, which is really the starting point for his theology, the contrast with Barth and Torrance was indeed striking — especially since I have also recently read Barth’s little book, Christ and Adam.

    I am very interested to read Piper’s latest book, Does God Desire All to be Saved?, which appears to be an expansion of an article on his Desiring God website about God’s “two wills.” He actually does try to salvage an understanding that God desires all to be saved (whereas Augustine is more straightforward and says, “nope”). I would love to see you do a review of it, Bobby. I admire Piper for tackling this, clearly the most difficult challenge to 5-pt Calvinism, but I am afraid that it only exposes the severe weaknesses of the system.


  3. Josh pound says:

    Great post – I appreciated that


  4. Bobby Grow says:




    I’ve read excerpts, of course, from the Enchiridion, but not large sections or its whole. Yeah, Augustine is quite clear about his intentions here.

    Thanks for bringing up Piper’s new book Does God Desire All to be Saved?, I am definitely going to have to read that at some point. I have interacted with that article you mention on ‘Two Wills’ here on the blog, so it would be interesting to see how he expands on that! You’ll have to write your own review, I’ll look forward to that!




  5. Eric says:

    Great post, Bobby. For me to “swallow” the doctrine of election as explained by such Calvinists as Piper and Sproul, I would have to suppress so many conflicting ideas in my mind and heart. No disrespect is intended toward either man. The idea of deliberately passing over part of His creation, of people made in His image, speaks so much to His character (in my opinion) – and not in a good way. If I was forced to accept that view of election, it would be very difficult to get excited about God or be convinced that He really loved me with an everlasting love. I would always be wondering if He could one day decide to turn off His love for me and treat me like the unelect. Eric


  6. Bobby Grow says:


    Yeah, this is the deepest weakness, I think, for classical Calvinism. I have a good quote on how they try to appeal to mystery on this in regard to a logic of God’s sovereignty; but how this appeal fails in the view of the authors I will quote at a later date.

    God is Love!


  7. Heather says:

    Wow. Reading the quote about Augustine’s belief felt like a bit like falling headfirst into a deep pit.


  8. Bobby Grow says:

    Hi Heather,

    Great to hear from you! Say hi to Craig for me.

    Yeah, it is a deep pit, but as Corrie Ten Boom has said: Christ is deeper still :-)!


Comments are closed.