Apparently there’s election going on somewhere. Maybe you’ve heard?
But I think the less said about that terrifying political train wreck, the better.
The other kind of election is far more interesting and, whatever else anyone else tells you, this election actually matters. It’s the election unto eternal life.
What is Election?
Catholics, it seems, are a bit scared of the word “election” in relation to grace. (We’re terrified of the other election too but that’s another story.)
Election simply describes God’s action in choosing us to be saved. Before the foundation of the world, from all eternity, God knew us and predestined us to be saved by His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who have been elected or chosen are called the Elect. This is a super Catholic doctrine. We believe, as the Scriptures testify, that God foreknows and chooses those who are His own. It’s another way of describing predestination.
He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. He destined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will. (Eph 1:3-4)
God chose you from the beginning to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. (2 Tim 1:9)
Maybe that’s why election gets us nervous. It’s intimately entwined with the question of predestination. It raises all sorts of tricky questions about who is elect or chosen and, even more controversially, how God chooses the elect.
Who Does God Elect?
Here’s what you need to know.
All Christians agree that God predestines the elect to salvation. St Paul’s letter to the Romans explain:
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Rom 8:28-29)
We see here God’s action in eternity: He foreknew us and predestined us to become His children, conformed to the image of His Son. We also see how this election plays out in time: we are called, we are justified and we are glorified. St Paul speaks of all this steps in past tense because, in Christ, they have already happen.
We also know as Catholics that God does not predestine anyone to hell. God desires that all men be saved. (1 Tim 2:4) Some Calvinists do believe that God predestines the reprobate (i.e. actively decides and damns some people to hell) in the same way that He predestines the elect to salvation. This is a particularly cruel and distorting heresy because it denies God’s goodness and makes Him the author of evil.
We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema. (Council of Orange, Conclusion, 529AD)
God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, §1037)
Then we’re left with the hardest and most troubling question.
How Does God Choose Who is Elect?
Christians tend to hold one of two views:
1. Election ante praevisa merita: God chooses those who will be saved without foreseeing their own merits and thus, they later confess faith in Christ because they have been predestined. Basically, predestination → foreknowledge. This is also known as Unconditional Election because it is not conditional on our foreseen response to grace. It is ante (before) praevisa (foreseen) merita (merits).
2. Election post praevisa merita: God chooses those whom He foresees will, by their own free will, have faith in Christ. Basically, foreknowledge → foreknowledge. This is also known as Conditional Election because election is conditional on our foreseen response to grace. It is post (after) praevisa (foreseen) merita (merits).
It might surprise you to learn that Catholics can believe either view. We believe that God predestines the elect to salvation and that they are chosen by Him before the foundation of the world — but the Church hasn’t declared exactly how this happens.
In fact, there was a massive debate about this within the Catholic Church between the Thomists and Molinists back in the 16th Century. While Protestants were arguing over Calvinism, we had our own debates on predestination and election.
Thomists held to unconditional election, emphasising God’s sovereignty and His freely given, undeserved grace. In this, they followed St Thomas Aquinas and St Augustine.
Molinists, meanwhile, held to conditional election. They followed the thought of a 16th Century Jesuit theologian, Luis de Molina. His insight was that God doesn’t just know what will happen, He knows everything that could happen in every possible world. These are called counterfactuals. God’s knowledge of these counterfactuals is referred to as His middle knowledge (scientia media). By knowing what free human beings will chose to do in all possible worlds, God then decides what will happen and thus, in sense, predestines our decisions (particularly our response to grace) — even while our true freedom remains in tact.
An Election Mystery
Both sides have their strengths and weaknesses. Thomists are right to emphasise the sovereignity of God and that His grace is always freely given and undeserved. If election is simply God foreseeing our response to grace, then in what sense is salvation gratuitous or undeserved? Molinists are equally right to emphasise God’s desire for all to be saved. If God predestines the elect, then how can we say He doesn’t, at some in some sense, predestine the non-elect to hell?
The arguments got so bitter that in 1607, Pope Paul V forbade both sides to accuse each other of heresy. He basically allowed both views to co-exist. That’s remained the same until today — and the Dominicans (Thomists) and Jesuits (Molinists) are still feuding in good Christian love. ;)
It’s a tricky business, with no obvious answers. That’s what makes a useful distraction to that other election. (Puts it all in perspective, doesn’t it? Not even a presidential candidate can frustrate God’s good purposes. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.)
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.