The Catholicity of Reprobation

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Reprobation has come to be one of the most misunderstood and misconstrued doctrines of the Reformed church. This is seen, for example, in the Rt. Rev. John Davenant’s Animadversions, where the constant refrain of his defense of the Reformed view is “well, we agree that what you’re describing is wrong because we do not even affirm that!” 1 This is often experienced by those who follow after the Reformed in their doctrine of Reprobation. They are derided as “Calvinists” and “Predestinarians,” rather than their proper title of “Catholic.”

Two misconceptions lying at the heart of this misconstrual are, first, as it concerns the origin of this doctrine in Dogmatic theology and the scope of its acceptance, and second, the proper distinctions made in the Catholic doctrine of Reprobation as is shared by the Reformed and the Catholic doctors of the Medieval church, most especially St. Thomas Aquinas. On both fronts, the Reformed, in their doctrine of Reprobation, are truly “Catholic.”

Origin and Scope of the Doctrine of Reprobation

First, as regards the origin and scope of this doctrine. It has become popular to label this specific doctrine of Reprobation as “Calvinism” or “Reformed.” While it is true that both of these descriptions are not necessarily false, it is better to call the doctrine “Catholic” to describe the actual origin (which was not in the Reformation) and the true scope (which is not restricted to the children of the Reformation) of this doctrine. The first dogmatic usage of this doctrine can be found in the works of St. Augustine, using such descriptions as those left in a Massa Damnata and an evil city chosen for damnation.2 The disciples of St. Augustine, the Augustinians, such as Prosper and Fulgentius began to employ the descriptor of “predestination to death,” although such a phrase ought not to be used by Catholic theologians today. In the Scholastics, we see a development from the phrases “predestined to destruction” and “foreknown to destruction” to the modern term “reprobate” to make the distinction between Reprobation and election clearer.

In the Scholastic era, St. Thomas becomes an influential expounder of the doctrine, treating it in an article in his magisterial Summa Theologica.3 He writes, “Sicut enim praedestinatio includit voluntatem conferendi gratiam et gloriam, ita reprobatio includit voluntatem permittendi aliquem cadere in culpam, et inferendi damnationis poenam pro culpa,” 4 explaining what is the view of the later Reformed.

The doctrine of reprobation does not die with Thomas or even cease at the Reformation within the Latin church. Domingo Báñez, a counter-Reformation commentator on St. Thomas, comments on this passage, “specifically, [the question of] why God elected these or reprobated those, does not have an adequate cause except for the Divine will...this predestination of some and reprobation of others is the manifestation of the greatest freedom which the Divine will has concerning the administration of supernatural goods; this freedom is a great Divine perfection.” 5

As we have seen off the bat, the origin and scope of the doctrine of Reprobation does not follow the popular narrative. Instead, the Reformed expression of the doctrine is the Catholic expression in two senses. First, it is that ancient teaching of the church, accepted by a litany of Fathers after the Pelagian debate and Pelagianism’s condemnation at regional councils and synods. Second, it is the teaching of the wider Catholic church (at least in the Latin West). This Catholic teaching of Reprobation is shared by many in the Latin and Reformed Catholic church alike.

The Actual Doctrine of Reprobation

Second, it is misunderstood regarding the actual teaching of the Reformed and the Catholics and the distinctions made by them. Following St. Thomas Aquinas, there are two aspects of Reprobation, the positive and the negative.

This distinction between “positive” and “negative” is accepted among the Reformed Orthodox in the same way that it is explicitly expounded in St. Thomas. This is seen in Francis Turretin. He first makes the distinction in what he calls the “twofold act of reprobation.” 6 In making this distinction, he affirms that “on the part of God, it is performed by one most simple act.” 7 This affirmation of the simplicity of the decrees of God on the part of God is classical Thomism, as St. Thomas writes, “sicut intelligere divinum est unum, quia multa non videt nisi in uno; ita velle divinum est unum et simplex, quia multa non vult nisi per unum, quod est bonitas sua.” 8 It is only in our “mode of conception” that we perceive it as two,9 which is affirmed by St. Thomas.10 Turretin continues and writes,

The former refers to preterition; the latter to predamnation. Although each in its own sense is positive on the part of God (as denoting an act of the divine will by which he not only does not will to free them, but wills to leave them in their guilt and misery), yet the former is rightly called negative (with respect to the terms which are not to pity and not to give grace) because it consists in the denying of grace. However the other is positive because it affirms something positive (viz., judgment and punishment) concerning them.11

The distinction made by Turretin and the distinction made in Thomas are slightly different, yet the substance of the doctrine is the same.

Polyander, too makes this distinction in much the same way as Thomas and Turretin, saying, “The first is negative, which is designated by the words preterition and non-election; the other is affirmative, which is designated by the term predamnation.” 12 One may amass a litany of voices among the Reformed, but these two witnesses suffice.

Positive Reprobation

St. Thomas writes concerning the positive, “reprobatio includit voluntatem permittendi aliquem cadere in culpam, et inferendi damnationis poenam pro culpa.” 13 There are, in St. Thomas, two aspects of positive Reprobation, first a will towards their fall in sin “voluntatem permittendi aliquem cadere in culpam,” and second, a will towards their destruction for sin, “voluntatem...inferendi damnationis poenam pro culpa.”

St. Thomas’ is a classic distinction made in Reformed thought between “reprobatio” and “damnatio.” The former and latter are distinguished in much the same way by Richard Muller, who summarizes the teaching of the Reformed Orthodox and writes, “Reprobatio is, therefore, distinct from damnatio: whereas the cause of damnatio is the sin of an individual, the cause of reprobatio is the sovereign will of God.” 14 Notice the parallel language between the two when St. Thomas speaks of the cause of their “inferendi damnationis poenam,” he says that it is “pro culpa,” just as the Reformed Orthodox speak of the cause as “the sin of an individual.” This parallel is retained in Reprobatio, too, rather than saying “pro culpa” as he says in the case of damnatio; in reprobatio, he writes “in culpam.” Reprobatio is not caused by sin; instead, it is the “cause” of sin (in a negative sense, which will be discussed later).

Further, it is interesting to note that St. Thomas writes, “Unde reprobatio non nominat praescientiam tantum, sed aliquid addit secundum rationem, sicut et providentia.” 15 Thus “reprobatio” cannot and is not a mere “praescientiam” as many today would characterize it, i.e., the idea that “God knows who are non-elect, but he does not decree their non-election.” Instead, it is compared to “providentia,” where a positive decree of Reprobation is given. It is not a mere possession of knowledge. This is the same idea seen in the Reformed; it is a species of the genus of providence, not of foreknowledge.

Notice the definition from the Synod of Dort,

Cæterum æternam et gratuitam hanc electionis nostri gratiam eo vel maxime illustrat, nobisque commendat Scriptura Sacra, quod porro testatur non omnes homines esse electos, sed quosdam non electos, sive in æterna Dei electione præteritos, quos scilicet Deus ex liberrimo, justissimo, irreprehensibili, et immutabili beneplacito decrevit in communi miseria, in quam se sua culpa præcipitarunt, relinquere, nec salvifica fide et conversionis gratia donare, sed in viis suis, et sub justo judicio relictos, tandem non tantum propter infidelitatem, sed etiam cætera omnia peccata, ad declarationem justitiæ suæ damnare, et æternum punire. Atque hoc est decretum reprobationis, quod Deum neutiquam peccati authorem (quod cogitatu blasphemum est) sed tremendum, irreprehensibilem, et justum judicem ac vindicem constituit.16

Here we have positive Reprobation outlined in both the aspect of reprobatio and damnatio. The Synod describes this decree as being out of God’s “liberrimo, justissimo, irreprehensibili, et immutabili beneplacito.” This is not on the basis of foreseen (de)merits or conditional in any aspect; instead, it is absolute. The cause for Reprobation can be found nowhere but the will of God. Then, following in suit, the Synod declares that contained in this will is the will “ad declarationem justitiæ suæ damnare, et æternum punire.” Unlike that of reprobatio, this will is not only the basis of God’s “good pleasure,” but is “tandem non tantum propter infidelitatem, sed etiam cætera omnia peccata.”

The Judicium of the Nassau theologians describes Reprobation as “The will of God through which he eternally wisely, freely, and immutably established to not choose some certain people from the whole human race in sin and misery, and to justly damn them on account of their sins—this is the whole decree of reprobation.” The decree of damnatio is “on account of their sins.” They also affirm the positive aspect in that it is the “will of God through which he eternally wisely, freely, and immutably established.” The Leiden Theologians also confirm this in Rivet’s theses.17

In a later thesis, it is affirmed that this Reprobation is solely based on God’s will. Writing, “These things being premised, we say that to that negative act, namely preterition which is properly reprobation, insofar as it is the other side of election, there is need of no cause, which ought to be antecedent.” 18 There is no condition that causes God to reprobate outside of his good pleasure.

This same distinction between damnation and Reprobation is highlighted by the Sammur theologians who write,

damnation itself is one thing, Reprobation another, and the decree of damnation is still another, and the decree of Reprobation likewise. And there is a cause for both decrees. Damnation is the most-just infliction itself for the justly deserved punishment. Reprobation is the exclusion, or a denial of the saving grace by which a person believes and is truly led to penitence.19

They make a distinction between reprobatio and damnatio. While there is a “cause for both decrees,” the latter is a “most-just infliction itself for the justly deserved punishment.” It is made based on sin.

Polanus, in his Syntagma Theologiae, writes, “The efficient impelling cause on account of which the decree of reprobation was made, whether affirmative or negative reprobation, is not sin to which also pertains the evil use of free choice.” 20 Unlike damnatio, the foundation for reprobatio, including positive reprobatio, is not any foreseen demerit but is the will of God.

Negative Reprobation

St. Thomas writes concerning the negative,

Deus aliquos reprobat...Ad providentiam autem pertinet permittere aliquem defectum in rebus quae providentiae subduntur...pertinet etiam ad divinam providentiam, ut permittat aliquos ab isto fine deficere. Et hoc dicitur reprobare...ita reprobatio est pars providentiae respectu illorum qui ab hoc fine decidunt.21

The positive aspect is removed when it comes to the effect of the decree and its carrying out. It is God “permittere aliquem defectum,” rather than God creating or causing defects in the reprobated person. Further, it is God “permittat aliquos ab isto fine deficere,” by their power.

Ursinus speaks much in the same way when he says, “the rest are left in sin and death.” 22 Notice that Ursinus is speaking negatively here when it comes to the action of God towards man. It is “the rest,” i.e., those who are not elected, and the action that God is taking towards them is “le[aving] them in sin and death.” This “action” is non-action on God’s part. He is strictly not giving grace to the non-elect, i.e., the reprobate.

Notice the definition from the Synod of Dort quoted earlier. When speaking of the nature of God’s positive decree of Reprobation, it states that God “has decreed to leave certain people in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and conversion; but leaving them in his just judgment to follow their own ways.” This is not a tyrannical decree in which God is “making” people evil and wicked so that he may damn them; instead it is a negative decree wherein God decrees (positive) two things. First, God decrees to “let go” wherein the wicked reprobate themselves as the instrument of the decree. Second, God decrees to “let go” by not giving grace. This is a complete description of God’s negative action in Reprobation, a refusal of grace, and a letting go into one’s wickedness.

In another place, the Synod writes, “Quod autem aliqui in tempore fide a Deo donantur, aliqui non donantur, id ab æterno ipsius decreto provenit...non electos autem justo judicio suæ malitiæ et duritiæ relinquit.23 Reprobation is described as not receiving the gift of faith and “leav[ing]” them in their sin.

In his Summa Praelectionum, Zanchi takes up the same mantle when he writes, “But to be left in perpetual sins, to be blind, to be hardened, and finally to be damned, are the proper effects of the reprobation of the impious.” 24 The non-positive effects are described in purely negative terms, whereas they are not “caused to sin” in a positive sense but are “left in perpetual sins.”

Going back to the Judicium of the Nassau theologians, they remove Reprobation even further from God and push it in a negative direction to a greater decree. They describe it as “The will of not choose some certain people from the whole human race in sin and misery.” The decree of Reprobation is one “to not choose.” The Nassau theologians did this to highlight to the frequent dissenters from the Catholic doctrine of Reprobation that while it is positive, the decree is carried out negatively. While, on the surface, it seems that the Nassau theologians go further than most of the reformed Divines, this decree “to not choose” seems to be in line with St. Thomas’ voluntatem permittendi.

This same line of thought is taken in the British delegation’s Judicium when they write, “Reprobation properly called, or not-electing, is the eternal decree of God, by which out of his most free will he has decreed, not so far to take pity of some persons fallen in Adam, as to rescue them effectually, through Christ, out of the state of misery, and without fail to bring them to bliss.” 25 Notice, they use the same language of “non-election” in order to describe to us the ineffable decree of Reprobation. It is spoken of in strictly non-positive language in the carrying out of the positive decree, that it is a decree to “not so far to take pity of some persons fallen in Adam.”

Common Objections

Now that we have expounded Predestination's positive and negative aspects, two questions often arise that are treated and answered in common by the Reformed Orthodox and St. Thomas Aquinas. The first is the question of necessity, and the second is the question of equality between Reprobation and Election.

The first objection that both St. Thomas and the Reformed encounter and answer after the same manner is that of the “absolute necessity” of Reprobation. It is objected to St. Thomas that “nulli debet imputari quod vitare non potest.