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God and destinies

17 April 2012

Euan Cameron on a theological poser

Predestination: Biblical and theological paths
Matthew Levering

OUP £60
Church Times Bookshop £54

WHAT does it mean to confess that an eternal, omnipotent, and loving God decrees, outside the limitations of time, to redeem and save humanity from its deadly alienation from God? How does one reconcile the vision of a sacrificially loving Christ, ministering to the people up to and beyond the point of death, with the fact that some seem to live their lives with total disdain for moral or spiritual values?

These and similar questions have led Christian thinkers, ever since Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, to speak of God “predestining” or “fore-ordaining” the destiny of created humanity. Matthew Levering has dedicated a deceptively brief but closely argued monograph to explor­ing predestination as a Christian doctrine, from the antecedents of Paul and the Gospel-writers through the medieval Church and the early modern West, up to a few selected important figures of 20th-century theology.

Broadly speaking, Levering’s book identifies a crucial dilemma, and three typical “wrong” solutions to it. The dilemma is that God is under­stood, in the Christian revelation, to reach out to the entire created order in limitless and unconditional love, willing only what is good. At the same time, God is also so utterly sovereign that nothing that happens — including the eternal loss of some created beings — can happen apart from the ordaining will of God. Levering describes three flawed answers, each of which has dis­tinguished adherents in the theo­logical tradition.

Some, like Origen, argue for universal salvation. They claim that God wills that ultimately all con­scious beings shall be saved. This interpretation concludes that no human being or spirit, however evil, can ultimately be condemned (despite numerous scriptural texts to that effect). Harsher Predestinarians, since Augustine, have argued that God inscrutably decrees that only some shall be saved and allows the remainder to sin and be damned for it. This view makes God, in some sense, at least the permissive author of evil, which is repugnant.

Finally, some theologians, whose views Levering traces to St John Damascene, reason that God loves everyone and desires that everyone be saved; however, they hold that people are free wilfully to reject God’s offer and be lost. This argument appears to deny God’s absolute omnipotence; or it makes God’s decrees only one of a hierarchy of competing causes.

The bulk of the book traces theo­logians’ ever more intricate attempts to steer around the un­acceptable aspects of each option. Levering adopts a consciously selective approach, especially as he reaches the 20th century. Most Protestant theologians in the academic main­stream, in Levering’s view, have tended to advocate universal salva­tion in some form or another.

One might conclude that in philosophical theology there is no absolute solution to the dilemma. Levering argues for re-evaluating and appreciating the mystic Catherine of Siena and the devotional writer François de Sales: these writers, he claims, precisely balanced the love and the sovereignty of God, refusing to fall down on one side or the other. Levering has perhaps slightly cheated here: he is writing a book of academic philo­sophical theology, and yet a mystic and a spiritual writer could refuse to think logically, and so avoid the antinomies that trapped nearly every academic theologian into one of Levering’s unacceptable solutions.

Levering’s prolific output ranges from biblical exegesis to historical theology, and to bridge-building between Evangelical Protestants and traditionalist Catholics. One could quibble with his style, which at times has the flavour of the classroom. He may have short-changed readers slightly by ignoring Martin Luther, more conservative modern Protest­ants, or (at another extreme) process metaphysicians who question the eternity of God. Levering tends to use scripture two-dimensionally, almost proof-texting at times. Never­theless, his book undoubtedly lays out the issues in this most complex of questions with clarity and lucidity. One need not share the author’s devout theological conservatism to benefit from his clear and effective presentation.

Dr Euan Cameron is Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at the Union Theological Seminary, New York.

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