The Justice Game: A Patristic Critique of the Reformed Tradition

Predestination was the topic of a fierce debate between the Catholic humanist Desiderius Erasmus and the Protestant reformer Martin Luther. The historian Roland Bainton expressed the debate as Erasmus’ plaintive cry, “Let God be good!” and Luther’s resolute reply, “Let God be God!” Both theologians were much more nuanced in their arguments, but Bainton captured a valid insight. Advocates of predestination, when pressed, tend to emphasize God’s rights over his creatures.

The Reformed tradition, which issued out of the theological insights of Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and others, has integrated this stress on God’s sovereignty into all aspects of its theological system. The Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance, immediately after defining God, discusses God’s eternal decree, by which he “freely, and unchangeably ordain[ed] whatsoever comes to pass.” The Confession then treats creation, and then defines providence: “God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least.” In each case, the Confession mentions God’s power as coordinate with his wisdom and goodness, but the first impression of God gleaned from the Confession is his awesome power and absolutely strict control over creation.

Likewise, God’s rights over creation are expressed in the Reformed theology of worship. Calvin’s Institutes reserves its harshest criticism for idolatry, the hubris that humans exhibit when they seek to worship God on their own terms. From that premise, the Puritans developed the regulative principle of worship, which states that whatever God has not commanded is forbidden in public worship. Human invention in worship is wholly negative. A similar logic governs the Confession’s treatment of good works: “Good works are only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as, without the warrant thereof, are devised by men, out of blind zeal, or upon any pretense of good intention.” Ironically enough for an anti-Catholic document, doing good seems to be mostly a matter of learning the rules well and following them to the letter. Neither virtue nor discernment receives a mention.

Predestination, of course, is the issue that demonstrates most brusquely the Reformed appeal to God’s untrammeled rights over creation. Calvin himself, it is true, approached the subject with a pastoral humility, and never reveled in the “horrible decree” of reprobation. And, it must also be admitted that the appeal to God’s rights has at least some scriptural foundation. In Romans 9, Paul answers the objection of the vessels of dishonor not by explaining God’s logic, but by denying their right to object. Yet, one wonders whether the appeal to Romans 9 doesn’t come a bit too quickly and glibly from the mouths of Reformed theologians, who perhaps have responded to concerns about God’s justice and goodness merely by reaffirming his sovereignty.

The Church Fathers may offer a helpful insight. Their discussions of Christ’s atonement wrestled with God’s power and justice. When the Fathers explain the meaning of Christ’s death, they employ a panorama of metaphors that cannot easily be condensed into a single logically consistent theory, but two major themes stand out. First, the Christus Victor leitmotif represents Jesus’ death as a cosmic triumph, liberating humanity from the dominion of dark spiritual forces. Second, the ransom idea envisions Jesus as in some way buying back humanity from the Devil, who as a consequence of the Fall came to have certain powers and rights over people, including the power of death. The ransom idea was always a bit murky, as it is not clear whether the ransom is paid to God or to the Devil, or whether Jesus in some way tricked the Devil into this arrangement. Often the Christus Victor and the ransom concepts are found mixed together in the same Father.

The looming question regarding these two presentations is why the death of Christ is necessary. If the purpose of Christ’s death is to free humanity, couldn’t that be achieved much more easily by raw divine power? Surely God could at any point snuff out the existence of the Devil and his minions. The Fathers unanimously affirm God’s capacity to overpower the Devil, but they assert that Christ’s death is a more fitting way for God to conquer him. The Devil gained his power over humanity illegitimately, by deceiving Eve. By contrast, Christ played entirely fair. He was born under the law and kept it perfectly. In the wilderness, he overcame the Devil’s temptations. As Jesus was flawlessly filling the role of God’s Messiah, the Devil decided to win at any cost. He possessed Judas, prompting him to deliver Jesus into the hands of a crucifying mob. But the Devil miscalculated. In taking the life of a sinless person, he overstepped his bounds and was thus deprived of his earlier prize, humanity. Surely some of the details are a bit strange, and one would not be blamed for choosing to explain the atonement through other metaphors and theories. Yet, a striking insight remains.

The cross, according to the Fathers, is a demonstration arranged by God to show how he is different from the Devil. God’s superiority is not merely overwhelming power, but more significantly, unimpeachable righteousness. Whereas the Devil uses his superior power over humans to deceive and kill them, God restrains his power to win humanity back in a way that respects the rules of fair play, even  when playing against the Cheater himself. In so doing, God sets an example for humanity, that justice is more desirable than power. Augustine explains it in a beautiful passage:

The devil would have to be overcome not by God’s power, but by his justice. What, after all, could be more powerful than the all-powerful, or what creature’s power could compare with the creator’s? The essential flaw of the devil’s perversion made him a lover of power and a deserter and assailant of justice, which means that human beings imitate him all the more thoroughly the more they neglect or even detest justice and studiously devote themselves to power, rejoicing at the  possession of it or inflamed with the desire of it. So it pleased God to deliver man from the devil’s authority by beating him at the justice game, not the power game, so that humans too might imitate Christ by seeking to beat the devil at the justice game, not the power game (On the Trinity 13.17).

Reformed theology has not been wholly insensitive to concerns about God’s goodness and justice, but a prevalent style of rhetoric and the general cast of the theological system can serve to negate this crucial patristic insight, that God is most fully recognized for who he is, not when he is praised for his excellent power and minute control, but when he restricts his infinity and his sovereignty to make room for finite, rational creatures. May God teach us to play and win at the justice game.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Someone you and I both know denies predestination. What resources can you recommend to show that predestination is not just a Reformed doctrine, but a biblical one? (other than the above Erasmus/Luther debate, obviously).

  2. Well, what resources I would recommend depends on what he would be willing to accept. If he says that he will read only the Bible and not consider any “man-made” writings, I would find that naive and unreasonable, but I would tell him to read the book of John. John is thoroughly predestinarian.

    I recommend people take a historical view of the matter. Go back to Augustine and Pelagius. After all, they were arguing mostly from the Bible, although Augustine has no problem making inferences from universal Christian practices, such as baptism and prayer.

    It might be helpful to point out that many Christian figures who are in no way dependent on Calvin believed in a strong doctrine of predestination. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Wyclif, Gregory of Rimini, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli…

    Even today Lutherans have a doctrine of predestination in many ways similar to Calvinists. Some Catholics have a stronger doctrine of predestination than others. A very interesting recent book from a Catholic perspective is Predestination: Biblical and Theological Paths by Matthew Levering. http://www.amazon.com/Predestination-Biblical-Theological-Matthew-Levering/dp/0199604525

    Then there are popular-level Reformed explanations of the doctrine. Chosen by God by R. C. Sproul. The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination by Loraine Boettner. Stuff by James White.

  3. I think you are letting the Puritans on one hand, and immature teachers on the other, stand for the whole of Reformed theology, and thus doing it a (slight?) disservice by means of your comparison. Solid Reformed teachers consistently explain the gospel (and predestination) by appealing to God’s righteous justice and his mercy (“just and justifier”). So all your positive exposition is good and was helpful to me; the negative comparisons felt like you were dueling with a straw man. My humble opinion.


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