Or, What the Doctrine of Election Says about Your Vote in the Next Election.
One of the lesser splits between Catholic and Protestant doctrine concerns the relation of politics to the fall of man. Would we have presidents and legislatures and kings on earth had there been no fall? Certainly if politics is no more than these, then it is clear that it must be a result of the fall. Human wills in perfect accord with one another and with God don’t need an external will imposed upon them. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” as James Madison put it in Federalist 51. But men are not angels: it is the fallen rapacity of men that leads them to form governments, both to protect themselves against the rapacity of others, and to exercise their own.
But the Catholic tradition regards political power as not wholly fallen, or even a positive good, should other considerations be joined to it. Catholic social doctrine, following Aristotle’s high conception of the political, holds that “the political community and public authority are based on human nature” (Dignitas Humanae 74). Hardly a clearer affirmation of political power could be made. The salient feature of political authority for Catholics, however, is not its coerciveness but its preeminence among the various associations which men form. Perhaps this is because, at various points in its long history, the Catholic Church has itself exercised coercive political authority. Regardless, the purpose of government for Catholics is to foster the common good (Aquinas, 90.2), which includes justice, order, and virtue.
Justice and order are functions of government agreed on by nearly anyone who believes in a role for government at all. Christians in particular have justified these functions as temporary remedies for the fall; to counteract its most obvious outwardly destructive effects by maintaining order and social peace. Virtue on the other hand, as a component of the duty of political authority to its citizens, is enabled by the pre-fall conception of the political order. If virtue cannot be logically or scripturally sustained as a goal, then severe doubt will be cast on the naturalness of politics.
Virtue seems almost obvious as a beneficial goal of political authority, especially in a democracy. Indeed, if our faith informs the ends toward which we aim when participating in democratic decision-making, the spiritual virtues would seem to commend themselves above earthly values. What better end than the salvation of our neighbors, and what better method than the apparatus of government to direct culture thereto?
Virtue politics, however, is not the exclusive domain of the Christian: it takes as many forms as there are people with moral opinions. It is a relatively short leap of logic from personal conviction to institutionalization, so although different forms may indeed vigorously oppose one another, virtue politics as an essential form is omnipresent.
The leap of logic from personal conviction to virtue politics was described well by Milton Friedman, an ardent opponent of virtue politics of any sort, in a 1977 interview with Reason Magazine:
If you really know what sin is, if you could be absolutely certain that you had the revealed truth, then you could not let another man sin. You have to stop him.
For Friedman and others who follow in the vein of liberal thought, the premise of virtue politics is absurd because one cannot know what sin is. One cannot say what the highest ends for all people are – or even if such ends exist at all. The very principle of subjective value, central to so many defenses of human liberty, holds individual values as the ultimate given; not open to outside scrutiny.1 The question of what values should be is nonsensical; we can only speak of what values are.
It should go without saying that for the Christian, this assertion is itself absurd. Where Friedman would assert an agnosticism of ends, the Christian must assert teleological certainty.2 Despite Friedman’s skepticism, the Christian does know what sin is, and is absolutely certain that he has the revealed truth. And of course, love requires him to share this truth with a perishing world.
Must the proper end of earthly authority be therefore, for the Christian, the moral virtue of its citizens?
The discussion thus far has taken for granted the character of sin implicit in Friedman’s statement: an external act; something one does. Otherwise there would be no requisite duty – how could you stop him? It would be more apt for him to say you could not let another man do a sin.
This is, however, far removed from a Christian understanding of virtue and sin. Indeed, so far as virtue is constituted by these things it is completely irrelevant to the Christian. The principal dichotomy in the New Testament is between grace and works, salvation being a result the former, not the latter (Eph. 2:8-9). Virtue defined as action has no power of salvation – it can never be more than “filthy rags” so far as eternal merit is concerned (Isa. 64:6).
But virtue is not a result of certain actions, but rather certain actions are a result of virtue. It is understood not as conformity to a moral code, but as a relationship with God founded upon an understanding of God as the highest good; i.e. faith (Heb. 11:24-26, 39-40; 12:2), from which proceed works. It is an internal quality with external ramifications.
Nevertheless, this does not yet forbid us from adopting a virtue politic that stops short of forcible conversion. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and the wider Christian Right, for example, stand out as exemplars of Christian virtue politics on the modern American Right. The Catholic church likewise has throughout history had very specific social goals for the states and societies of which it has been a part.
Because of the certainty that Christians possess over the Good, any concept of the relationship between the Christian and earthly authority must be informed by the doctrine of salvation – that is, how the Christian obtains that Good – and in particular the doctrine of election. If salvation can in any way be aided or impeded by political action, then the Christian has a duty of love to support policies with the potential to save the maximum number of people.
Virtue politics for the Christian are thus justified, and even required, by any sort of concept of conditional election – that is, salvation which in some way depends on the saved. There are several variants, which differ based on the amount of agency they offer to the human. Starting with the most generous:
1) Pelagianism and Semipelagianism
Pelagian thought places all agency toward salvation on the human will. Salvation is entirely an act of the will; of man accepting or rejecting the gift of God. In so asserting, they reject the concept of a sin nature, something that prevents our coming to God of our own accord. Adam’s sin did not condemn the entire human race, they would say, but rather set a bad example for everyone who followed. Though little of the writings of Pelagius himself survives, references to his assertion that “the sin of Adam affected him alone” survive in the canons of the Council of Orange (529) and in the writings of Augustine.
Part of the “foolishness” of the Gospel to the gentiles is the very idea of a sin nature that subjugates our will (cf. 1 Cor. 1:23); the real desperation of the human condition. This posture of desperation is what separates theology from mere philosophy. Election is a difficult concept to come to terms with by human wisdom, so Pelagianism essentially ignores it. Though their ideas continue to dominate folk theology, even among the nominally Christian, Pelagianism and Semipelagianism have been roundly condemned by all major Christian traditions.
Yet there are theologies which attempt to wed human agency as we perceive it to the distinctive desperation of the Christian faith. Among these include:
2) Corporate Election
Corporate election, held to by Catholics and a minority of Protestants, takes the choice of God in election to refer to the Church as a whole – generally the invisible Church, though in the past it has been taken to mean the institutional church – without respect to any particular individual. Individuals are thus saved by joining themselves to this mystical body, and may forfeit salvation by apostasy – by severing themselves from that body.3 The grace of God for salvation and sanctification is then mediated through the Church. In Catholic doctrine, this idea is also joined with the idea of synergism, in which the cooperation of man’s will is necessary for the grace of God to be effectual to salvation. The important feature is that joining to the Church is an act of the will; that God has not preordained the salvation of any particular person.
3) Individual Conditional Election
Individual conditional election, which along with several related doctrines constitutes Arminianism, has become the dominant strain of Protestant thought. It goes significantly farther than the previous ideas in admitting the helplessness of man. Indeed, the impetus for its development was the reconciliation of human agency with sola gratia – salvation by grace alone – which stands opposed to the idea of synergism.
In Arminian thought, man is totally depraved and unable to come to God of his own will. However, God intervenes with prevenient grace, which allows a decision of the will toward salvation as if it were free. God therefore elects individuals to salvation based on foreknowledge of their response to his prevenient grace.
Pelagianism holds the will to be the decisive act of salvation. Corporatists hold that salvation is a gift to be partaken of rather than received. And Arminianism, though admitting the helplessness even of the will of man without the grace of God, nevertheless asserts that God graciously allows and then effectualizes our own choice in the matter. Each of these as a soteriology of the will depends crucially on the related idea of Unlimited Atonement: salvation in general may remain the sole gift of God, but offered to all indiscriminately or mediated through the church, the salvation of any particular person depends on an act of the will. It is this feature that unites them in requiring a methodology of virtue politics.
To give humans metaphysical agency apart from the sovereign choice of God also necessarily severs the operation of the natural world from the direct, meticulous will of God. To the degree that God leaves specific outcomes in the world to human choice, the salvation of any particular person is subject to at least a degree of chance and historical accident.
Humans do not live in a vacuum of circumstance. Any choice, moral, immoral, or amoral, is arrived at based to a large degree on circumstances: not only so far as they shape each decision individually, but especially so far as they shape the perspectives and values from which we make decisions. You can no doubt recall a tipping point in your life which profoundly affected your worldview. Imagine then all the previous choices by other people which, cascading through your own choices, could have prevented that tipping point from occurring. As various fields of science have demonstrated, often with unnerving ease, the will is remarkably easy to manipulate.
Against this, it may be objected that a choice is only free and meaningful so far as it is free from such manipulations and inducements as virtue politics would entail – indeed, only if the will is perfectly indifferent between these two choices. Prevenient grace is supposed to bring people into this state, at least with respect to the question of salvation. But this is no solution. Stripped of the circumstances that shape the values and perspectives from which we choose, choice has nowhere from which to flow but innate temperament, which if given by God, is tantamount to unconditional election anyway. And if the choice is truly unconditioned, even by temperament, the self is negated and moral responsibility is overthrown: only a perfectly random event – i.e. one that could come out differently should it be repeated under exactly the same circumstances – can be called truly unconditioned. There is no neutral, unconditioned, or indifferent state which could make any choice more free or meaningful. Should the will indeed be decisive in salvation, the duty to virtue politics is avoided only by falling into nonsense.
This is the uncomfortable and inevitable consequence of will soteriology: our salvation is still no more in our ultimate control than if we were simply chosen without regard to personal characteristics. Nonetheless, believers in such soteriologies testify to their belief by acting in the political realm as if the salvation of others depended on them.
This is the link to Friedman’s virtue politic and Christianity: so far as the essential difference between a believer and a nonbeliever consists in an act of the will – as far as any individual’s salvation is dependent on circumstance – every Christian has a duty of love to do everything in his power to bring about circumstances most conducive to salvation for the most possible people.
Naturally, in order to execute this duty, the most potent way to control circumstances is the power vested in government.4 This was the logic behind St. Augustine’s change of heart regarding forcible conversion (Bigongiari, p. 355). Augustine conceived of the will as an uncaused cause; the decisive factor both in the initial turning from God and in the subsequent return (City of God 12.6). He developed the doctrine of compelle intrare – compel [unbelievers] to enter [the church] – not because belief could be forced, but because he believed the will was subject to the force of habit. External force could break the bad habits which bind the will, thus bringing people to salvation (Wills, p. 103f). This same conception of the relationship between the individual will and earthly authority was later systematized by Thomas Aquinas, who quotes Aristotle saying that “lawmakers make men good by habituating them to good works” (Aquinas, 2.92.1).5
The early and medieval Church fathers were not so naïve as to think that a forced belief could bring salvation. But the loophole of habit allowed for a praxis which was essentially no different than if they had believed so, and any scruples Augustine and Aquinas might have personally had about compelle intrare in practice were quickly swept away under the command of more practical consensus-builders. Built on a foundation of Thomist and Augustinian thought and supported by a synergistic soteriology, the Catholic church had a strong theological basis for the political expansion of Christendom.
The Augustinian and Thomist conceptions of the will live on today, hardly modified but usually implicit, in arguments from the Christian Right for “family values” and from Catholics for “Christian institutions”, for example in Leo XIII (1891, 27). Each focuses on making Christianity the path of least resistance in society, the better to instill Christian habits, and therefore, the reasoning goes, eternal virtue. Carl F.H. Henry (1947, p. 71), in his seminal Evangelical social manifesto, wrote,
[T]he unregenerate [who] are moved by Christian standards . . . are more easily reached for Christ than those who have made a deliberate break with Christian standards . . . To the extent that any society is leavened with Christian conviction, it becomes a more hospitable environment for Christian expansion.
This cultural engineering extends far beyond current hot-button issues like the definition of marriage. The Christian Right focuses heavily on children, in whom Christian habits are presumably most easily established. This focus can be seen clearly in the 2010 Texas Board of Education controversy over alleged pro-Islamic bias in textbooks. In March of that year, the Texas Board of Education made sweeping changes to history and social studies curricula in the state adopting history books presenting a more Christian narrative (though, unsurprisingly, a distinctly state-centered narrative, among whose notable changes was a marked de-emphasis on the American legal doctrine of the separation of church and state).
The Papacy too has concerned itself with the establishment of Christian habits, focusing in particular on the working class. Its concern for workers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was partly a response to the rise of Marxism6 (simultaneously condemning it as a philosophical system yet admitting the failure of the church in addressing its grievances). This concern was manifested in an assertion of the responsibility of employers to encourage Christian habits in their employees7 – as if the salvation of workers could be (and indeed was being8) thwarted by their employers! Even if the conscience cannot be coerced into belief, Catholic soteriology clearly allows it to be manipulated there. It should come as no surprise that Pope Leo XIII, the architect of Catholic social doctrine, would be the pope to write a paean to the influence of Aquinas (Aeterni Patris – see especially paragraphs 17-18).
Can workers be nudged toward salvation by their employers? Are children threatened with eternal harm when Islam is presented as a legitimate alternative to Christianity? The core question here is, can salvation be effected by the formation of virtuous habit? The answer, from both Catholics and Evangelicals, is yes, and they take their consequent moral duty very seriously. The subtle and not-so-subtle cultural engineering favored by today’s Evangelicals and Catholics is simply an adaptation of compelle intrare to a pluralist culture whose people will no longer bear the sword directly over their souls.
But, as Bonhoeffer (1955) urged, the Church needs not “wear [itself] out in impotent zeal against all the wrong and all the misery that is in the world” as a will-based soteriology would require. Against the three discussed above, we can contrast a fourth:
4) Unconditional Election
Unconditional election asserts that God has elected individuals to salvation based solely on his sovereign choice. Our will is not uninvolved, nor contravened, but rather than God responding to our will by election, our will responds to God’s electing initiative (cf. John 6:44, 65). Salvation is not the result of faith, but rather the cause of faith.9
Where will-based soteriologies attest to unlimited atonement and avoid universal election by making it conditional (i.e., individual election is dependent on an act of will), unconditional election (also called Monergism because of the sole initiative of God in regeneration) avoids it by way of limited atonement. That is, the blood of Christ was not applied to all mankind and then made effectual in individual cases by an act of acceptance; rather, the blood of Christ is itself effectual. It is not the blood of Christ plus an act of the will that commends a man to salvation; no one to whom the blood of Christ is applied will fail to be saved.
While at first glance such a doctrine might seem harsh or unfair, in light of the premises and logical conclusions of will-based soteriologies, it is neither more nor less “fair” than these. Our ultimate control over our own destiny is the same. It is, however, a much more secure object of faith: one’s salvation can be reckoned much more surely in the hands of God than in one’s own hands, or in the hands of history. “God will save his elect, overcoming every obstacle in his way, including us.” (Horton, p. 182)
The doctrine of unconditional election effectively decouples salvation from circumstance, and therefore the Christian faith from Friedman’s moral imperative. The great sociologist Max Weber (ch.4 fn. 28) noted “the fundamentally anti-authoritarian tendency of the doctrine, which at bottom undermined every responsibility for ethical conduct or spiritual salvation on the part of [the institutional] Church or State as useless.” Church discipline and evangelism are no longer a Christian’s duty to his neighbor, but his duty to God. The evangelist is a participant rather than an agent, his obligation strengthened by the fact that in failure he forfeits primarily his own communion with God. People and circumstances can be proximate helps and hindrances to salvation, but its cause-in-fact cannot be other than the immutable will and irresistible grace of God.
It was this epiphany which allowed Martin Luther to break with centuries of compelle intrare and advocate so strongly for freedom of conscience. Because faith is a gift from God, not even the establishment of virtuous habit can justify forcing belief on anyone.
However much they rage, they cannot force people to do more than obey by word and deed; they cannot compel the heart even if they were to tear themselves apart trying . . . it would be much easier, although it may mean allowing their subjects to fall into error, just to let them err.10
Luther clearly saw through the loophole of habit. If the Law of the Lord, which is perfect (Ps. 19:7), is nonetheless powerless to effect virtue (Rom. 8:3), how much less is imperfect human law able to harness habit to bring forth virtue? The impotence of law toward virtue is the very reason the Spirit of God came to dwell in Christians. It is hardly surprising then that the article of the Summa Theologica (Aquinas, 2.92.1) which asserts that law makes men good11 cites Aristotle six times, Augustine one time, and scripture no times.
The idea that salvation lies within the power of the will binds people with so many chains; the Christian with chains of duty, and if successful, everyone else with chains of law. Soteriologies of the will require that Christians hold earthly authority in order to work for the virtue of their neighbors; they require Christians to require Christian habits even of nonbelievers. And in a democratic society, that responsibility extends to all Christians who can vote. The stakes are so high as to push Christian duty to the apex of earthly power – not only taking control of the state, but expanding the power thereof indefinitely to serve their purposes.
On the other hand, the transformation of evangelism from a duty of agency to one of participation – from working for the salvation of a neighbor as such to working simply for the glory of God – is freeing, both morally to Christians and politically to nonbelievers. The doctrine of unconditional election removes the pressure which pushes Christians to exercise earthly authority, and renders social engineering for the purpose of moral virtue ultimately pointless. Because no metaphysical agency at all is left to humans, Christians are free to perform their duty to God and man without an open-ended responsibility to the habits of nonbelievers. And without this responsibility, political authority becomes entirely unrelated to Christian ministry in the world; a distracting and ultimately counterproductive goal for the Church to pursue. “All reformations that propose to stop short of a full surrender of the soul, mind, and body up to God, are of the devil” (Lipscomb, p. 145).
It may be objected that God may nevertheless use habit and the particular circumstances of state force to bring some to salvation. No doubt any number of people could be found to give testimony that some particular moral policy held them back from some evil.
It is true that every form in which state force exists does so “for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). However, the doctrine of providence is not a doctrine of excuses. When Joseph tells his brothers “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result” (Gen. 50:20), it does not change the fact that the brothers are culpable before God for that evil. To justify virtue politics by the contingent good which God worked from it is to justify all evil everywhere.
The Word of God is not a handbook by which to maximize the number of the saved, nor are we to speculate on such methods. The scriptures are clear that this number has been fixed, and the responsibility is God’s to bring it about (cf. Acts 13:48). It is not the responsibility of the Christian to pry into the secret will of God hidden, and it confers no merit to try.
Certainly evil will not thwart the plans of God, even when committed by Christians. The deeds we commit, whether good or evil, cannot add to or subtract from the glory of God or the salvation of any person one iota. Our sole responsibility is our own character before God.12 It is not without reason that we are exhorted to consider our own souls before busying ourselves with others’ (Matt. 7:3-5).
On the other hand, it may also be objected that this doctrine proves too much; that as Weber claims above (fn. 19), it removes the responsibility for mens’ souls and character from the Church as well as the state. This is the reverse of the first objection. Both characterize actions primarily by their results, and can be dealt with along much the same lines.
First, the proscription against virtue politics is a proscription not against an entity acting (the state), but against a mode of acting (moral coercion), which is now usually done through the state.13 Needless to say it is as inappropriate for a church to act itself as a state as for a church to co-opt the power of the state, as was the situation for many centuries when church discipline involved varying degrees of real coercion, up to execution for the heretic.
However the scope of the argument has still not been explicitly circumscribed to allow any sort of moral suasion, including church discipline of an apparently benign and scriptural form. If the salvation of a man – even the virtue of a wayward Christian – is solely in the hands of God, what good does it do for the Church to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5)?
The answer again involves the aim of our duties. Church discipline, exhortation, encouragement, and all the other means by which we attempt in the context of the Church to keep one another focused on Christ, like evangelism, are duties to God rather than duties to men. And as with evangelism this fact does not lessen the brotherly love in which they are to be done. Discipline, encouragement, and evangelism all hope for a result – the winning and strengthening of a brother – but none of these takes it upon itself to see the result come to pass. We must content ourselves merely to participate in the purposes of God.
If this were not true – if we were in fact responsible for others – Paul would have every reason to boast in his ministry. Instead he rebukes the impulse in 1 Corinthians 3:
What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.
We are rewarded according to our performance of the duties set forth in the Word of God, not according to their results. Isaiah never saw any fruit from his ministry. Are we to count him less faithful for this fact?
The intended beneficiary of encouragement and discipline on the one hand, and virtue politics on the other, will be benefited according to the secret will of God hidden, regardless of whether we choose to encourage him, discipline him, or impose a morality upon him, for our very choosing is a part of that secret will. In this sense – in view of the ultimate purposes of God – there is no difference between discipline and virtue politics. But then in this sense there is no difference between any action and another, and for the purposes of choosing between one action and another this sense is totally irrelevant. The relevant difference between discipline and virtue politics concerns the actor: encouragement and discipline build up not only the person on the receiving end, but also the person on the giving end when it is done in the right spirit.14 Our reward is for duty executed, not for results realized.
We do have a scriptural duty to encourage and discipline our brothers in Christ. There is no such duty to the forcible imposition of morality. God is not glorified by the external conformity of pagans to Christian mores. And though God will work good from all circumstances, a passionate member of the Christian Right will not be blessed in the same measure as a passionate member of a Christian church. While the latter fights with the armor of God against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places, the former struggles against windmills of flesh and blood.
Again justice demands that, in dealing with the working man, religion and the good of his soul must be kept in mind. Hence, the employer is bound to see that the worker has time for his religious duties; that he be not exposed to corrupting influences and dangerous occasions; and that he be not led away to neglect his home and family, or to squander his earnings.