Matthew 23:37 and Calvinism, Revisited

Fr. William Most has some great commentaries from Grace, Predestination, and the Salvific Will of God on the issues I was discussing last week: namely, that Matthew 23:37 only makes sense if there’s some sort of real ability to accept or reject Christ at some point in the salvation process. Well, Fr. Most addresses this in-depth, and provides a wealth of other Scriptural passages and Early Church Father testimonies to support this view. First, in Chapter 7 of the book, he establishes first man’s total dependence upon God. But then he says,

But equally, Sacred Scripture always takes it for granted, as something beyond doubt, that man can really decide whether and when he will sin or not sin. Hence, for example, the prophets frequently exhort the peoples e.g., Zechariah says [Zechariah 1:3]: “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you. . . .” Or, in Malachi [Malachi 3:7]:”Return to me, and I will return to you. . . .” And similarly in the New Testament, Christ Himself says, with many tears [Matthew 23:37]: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! . . . How often would I have gathered your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.” The Epistle to the Romans represents the Lord as saying [Romans 10:21]: “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people.” And St. Paul begs the Corinthians [2 Corinthians 6:1]: “. . . we entreat you not to accept the grace of God in vain.”

In all these passages it is most clearly implied that man can in some way determine when and whether he will sin or not. For a condition is supposed: “If you return . . . I will return to you.” But if the determination did not basically depend on man, God would not exhort men but would merely determine the outcome Himself. Similarly, Christ would not shed tears over the hardness of Jerusalem nor would He stretch out His hands to an unbelieving people, nor would St. Paul exhort his sons not to receive the grace of God in vain, if the decision and determination were not really made basically by man whether he would receive grace in vain or not.

In addition to this wealth from Scripture, he points to the Fathers in Chapter 5. While his point is to establish God’s universal Salvific Will (that is, that God wants all men to be saved), it has the side-effect of disproving the Calvinist case (both limited atonement, obviously, but also irresistable Grace and the lack of free will). The only Father to explicitly bring up Matthew 23:37 in this series of quotations is St. John Chrysostom, but the collection was such an insightful list I felt like I should re-post it in full. I left the Church Fathers’ words in black, and Most’s in green, to distinguish them from one another:

The passages of the Fathers of the Church are extremely numerous. C. Passaglia [De partitione divinae voluntatis, Romae, 1851.] gathered two hundred Patristic texts. We shall cite only selected passages, from both eastern and western Fathers. (Cf. also the Patristic texts on predestination in chapter 13.)

1) The Eastern Fathers: St. Hippolytus clearly teaches that God [De Antichristo 3. PG 10.731]: “Casts aside . . . no one of His servants, loathes no one as unworthy of His divine mysteries . . . having mercy on all, and desiring to save all, wanting to make all sons of God and calling all saints into one perfect man.” Still more eloquent are the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa [Adv. Apollinarium 29. PG 45.1187 ]: “‘The Father raises the dead and gives them life, and the Son gives life to whom He will.’-We do not conclude from this that some are cast out from the lifegiving will. . . . If then, the Father’s will (attitude) is in the Son, and the Father, as the Apostle says ‘wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ it is plain that He who has everything that is the Father’s and has the whole Father in Him, along with other good things of the Father has fully also the salvific will. . . . For not because of the Lord’s will are some saved, but others are lost: for then the cause of their ruin would come from that will. But by the choice of those who receive the word, it happens that some are saved or lost.” St. John Chrysostom expresses the same teaching in many places. Especially does he speak clearly in his Homily on enduring criticisms [Homilia de ferendis reprehensionibus 6. PG 51.144]: “God never compels anyone by necessity and force, but He wills that all be saved, yet does not force
anyone. . . .
How then are not all saved if He wills all to be saved? Because not everyone’s will follows His will. He compels no one. But even to Jerusalem He says [In Ephesios, cap. 1. Hom. 1, n. 2. PG 62.13]: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How often would I have gathered your children together, but you were unwilling.'” And again in his homilies on the Epistle to the Ephesians: “. . . he greatly longs after, greatly desires our salvation.” [The Greek: sphodra ephietai, sphodra epithymei.] St. John Damascene speaks similarly [De fide orthodoxa 2.29. PG 94.970]: “It is necessary to know that God antecedently wills all to be saved and to reach His kingdom. For He did not make us to punish, but to share in His goodness, because He is good. But He wills that sinners be punished, because He is just. Now the first [will] is called antecedent will and will of good pleasure [and] it is from Him. But the second [will is called] consequent will and a giving way [and it comes] from our fault. . . .” [Cf. other passages in § 202 below]

2) The Western Fathers: St. Ambrose in a beautiful passage in which he speaks of Christ as a Levite, brings out the salvific love of God for all and for individuals [De Cain et Abel 2.3.11. PL 14.364-65]: “‘Levite’ means ‘undertaken for me’. . . . He therefore who was expected and came for the salvation of all, for me was born of the virginal womb, for me was offered, for me He tasted death, for me He rose. In Him the redemption of all men was undertaken. . . . The Redeemer is the Levite, for the wise man is the redemption of the unwise man. He, like a physician, cherishes the
sick soul of the unwise man. . . . For He saw that those who suffered could not be saved without a remedy, and so He provided medicine for the sick. He gave the means of health to all precisely in order that whosoever perishes should attribute the causes of his death to himself, he who was unwilling to be cured although he had the remedy by which he could escape. Let the manifest mercy of Christ to all be proclaimed: for those who perish, perish by their own negligence; but those who are saved, are delivered according to the sentence of Christ, ‘who wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.'”
Several things are to be noted in this excellent passage: First, as we have said, he stresses the love of God for all and for individuals. Then, he distinguishes between the cause of ruin and the cause of salvation. The cause of salvation is in God; but the cause of ruin is in man alone “who was unwilling to be cured.” It is obvious that St. Ambrose would never say that God deserts many before consideration of demerits. The same teaching stands out forcefully in the commentary of St. Ambrose on Psalm 39 [In Ps. 39, n. 20. PL 14.1117]: “He wants all whom He has made and created to be His; would that you, O man, would not flee and . . . hide yourself; for He seeks even those who flee.”
St. Ambrose, of course, is merely saying the same things that Christ said about
the lost sheep. Again, we are far from a theory of desertion before prevision of
any fault.

St. Jerome, like St. Ambrose stresses the fact that although God wills to save all, yet some are lost through their own fault [In Ephes. 1.1.11. PL 26.485]: “‘. . . He wills all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.’ But, because no one is saved without his own will (for we have free will), He wants us to will good, so that when we do, He may will to fulfil in us His plan.” St. Augustine in some passages 27 seems to flatly deny that the salvific will of God is universal. However, in still other passages, he at least seems to speak in the same way as the other Fathers.28 He too explains that the difference between the elect and the reprobate depends on the human will [De spiritu et littera 33.58. PL 44.238]: “‘God wills all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth;’ but He does not [will it] in such a way
as to take free will from them, by the good or bad use of which they may be
judged most justly.”
In his Confessions he brings out beautifully the care of
God for individuals [Confessions 3.11.19. PL 32.692]:
“. . . you care for each and every one as if you were caring for him alone, and you [care] in such a way for all, as if [you were caring for them] individually.”

St. Prosper, who defended the teaching of St. Augustine after the latter’s death, and answered objections for him, wrote [Resp. ad capit. Galiorzum 8. PL 51.172]: “Likewise, he who says that God does not will all men to be saved, but [only] a certain number who are predestined, speaks more harshly than one should speak about the loftiness of the inscrutable grace of God, ‘who wills all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth’ and [who] fulfils the design of His will in those whom He predestined after foreknowing, called after predestining, justified after
calling, glorified after justifying . . . so that those who are saved are saved for the reason that God wanted them to be saved, and those who perish, perish for the reason that they merited to perish.”
We note that St. Prosper repeats a distinction we have seen in other places: Salvation comes from the salvific will of God, which wills the salvation of all; but ruin comes from the wicked will of man.

Ambrosiaster expresses the same distinction [In 1 Tm. 2.4. PL 17.492. ]: “‘For God wills all men to be saved’ but if they draw near to Him; for He does not wish [them to be saved] in such a way that those who are unwilling would be saved. But He wills them to be saved if they also will it. For surely He who gave the law to all, excepted no one from [His desire for their] salvation. Does not a physician make a public proclamation [of his profession] so that he may show he wants to heal all, on condition, however, that he is sought out by the sick? For there is no true health if it is given to one who is unwilling.”

The testimony of the Church Fathers is important on this point because Calvin viewed himself as re-establishing the Patristic faith. In the Preface to his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he dedicated to King Francis I of France, he says of his Catholic opponents:

Moreover, they unjustly set the ancient fathers against us (I mean the ancient writers of a better age of the church ) as if in them they had supporters of their own impiety. If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory – to put it very modestly – would turn to our side.

He covers his bases by then attacking the Fathers for their occassional individual failings, but it’s clear that the above point — that the testimony of the Fathers supports the Calvinist, and not the Catholic, position — is plainly false, when it comes to the core doctrines of the Calvinist faith.

Did I mention that not only this book, but every book ever written by Fr. William Most is available online for free from Catholic Culture?

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