Calvin InstitutesThe Doctrine of Double Predestination: A Summary

It has become a commonplace of Reformation historiography to decenter the doctrine of predestination in the theology of John Calvin. Not predestination but justification was the fulcrum of his theology, combined with a strong sense of wonder and awe at the sovereign power of God; as William J. Bouwsma emphasizes, Calvin admired Luther highly and saw himself as fulfilling what the latter had begun. By the same token, predestination was the logical consequence of any doctrine based on salvation by grace alone -- which included the doctrines of both Luther and Zwingli. Finally, Calvin was not, strictly speaking, a “Calvinist,” in the sense that predestination came to occupy an ever more central theological role only after the Genevan reformer's death, when theological debate among Protestants became more polarized and doctrinaire. As Alister McGrath puts it, Calvin's religious ideas may have been systematically arranged; those of his successors were “systematically derived on the basis of a leading speculative principle,” that of predestination. And yet this is precisely the issue: as with Luther on secular power, the historical importance of Calvin's theology transcends the emphasis he placed on this element or that. In this sense, the strong “popular” association between Calvin's thought and predestination is not misguided at all.

Image: Titlepage of Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion (1556).

Predestination ChartThis is how Calvin summarizes the core of this doctrine:
[W]e say that God once established by His eternal and unchangeable plan those whom He long before determined once and for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, He would devote to destruction. We assert that, with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon His freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by His just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment He has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation. Now among the elect we regard the call as a testimony of election. Then we hold justification another sign of its manifestation, until they come into the glory in which the fulfilment of that election lies. But as the Lord seals His elect by call and justification, so, by shutting of the reprobate from knowledge of His name or from the sanctification of His spirit, He, as it were, reveals by these marks what sort of judgment awaits them (Institutes of Christian Religion (1559), book III,  ch. xxi).

Calvin's point of departure is the sovereign will of God. His will is absolute; He exists beyond time and space, His creations; all eternity is to Him like a single point and moment. Necessarily, God has foreknowledge of all things. This idea, pursued through Scripture with humanist rigor, leads Calvin to the conclusion that God not only choses some for salvation, he also “devotes” others to damnation. This is the doctrine of “double predestination”: the idea that God does not merely chose some for salvation, and omits to save the rest (as St. Augustine would argued), but that the “eternal decree” both saves and damns.

How do we know that some are saved and some are not? Calvin begins with the observable fact that some believe while others do not. Why not? Are not “all are called to faith and repentance by preaching” (Institutes III.xxii.10)? If all are called but not all are saved, doesn't that make God partial and unjust? How is a person to know whether she is among is one of the elect? Does this mean that election is arbitrary? Later generations of Calvinist theologians would develop these ideas and complicate them further. Calvin's successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, sought to expound the relationship between the divine decrees concerning original sin and individual election. To that end he devised the concept of supralapsarian predestination, that is, the idea that God chose some for salvation and others for damnation before he decreed Adam's fall from grace and the taint of original sin that it produced in all humans. His famous flow chart was meant to explain these stages in the process of divine decision-making.

Image right: Theodore Beza's Table of Predestination, from The Treasure of Trueth (London, 1576). Source: Philip Benedict, Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calivinism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), 106.