More Illogical Doctrine

Well, I’ve come to the part in Symbolism where Johann Adam Möhler deals with John Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Yikes! Are you ready for this?

Calvin lays down the following notion of predestination: “We call predestination that eternal decree of God, whereby He hath determined what the fate of every man should be. For not to the same destiny are all created: for, to some is allotted eternal life; to others eternal damnation. According as a man is made for one or for the other, we call him predestined to life, or to death.” The same idea the Reformer again expresses in the following way: “We assert that, by an eternal and unchangeable decree, God hath determined whom He shall one day permit to have a share in eternal felicity, and whom He shall doom to destruction. In respect to the elect, this decree is founded in his unmerited mercy without any regard to human worthiness; but those whom He delivers up to damnation, are, by a just and irreplaceable judgment, excluded from all access to eternal life.”*

It is scarcely credible to what truly blasphemous evasions Calvin resorts, in order to impart to his doctrine an air of solidity, and to secure it against objections. As faith was considered by Calvin a gift of the Divine mercy, and yet, as he was unable to deny, that many are represented in the Gospel to be believers, in whom Christ found no earnestness, and no perseverance, and whom consequently he did not recognise to be the elect, Calvin asserts, that God intentionally produced within them an apparent faith; that He insinuated himself into the souls of the reprobate, in order to render them more inexcusable. Instead of acknowledging, in the above-stated facts, the readiness of the Almighty to confer His grace on all, who only wish it, he explains them by the supposition of intentional deceit, which he lays to the charge of the Almighty! Equally strange is the reason assigned for the doctrine of predestination—that God wishes to manifest His mercy towards the elect, and His justice towards the condemned; as if the two divine qualities were severed one from the other, and were mutually ignorant of each other’s existence! God will be at once just and merciful to all without exception—not just merely towards these, and merciful only towards those, as the prejudiced judges of this world are wont to be! We must also bear in mind, that the notion of justice, considered in itself, cannot even be upheld, if no fault exists; and no fault can be charged the reprobate, if, without possessing the use of freedom, they are condemned; nay, have been condemned from all eternity! Equally baseless would be the notion of mercy, as it has necessarily for its subject sinners, who, by the freed determination of their will, and not by extraneous compulsion, have transgressed the divine moral law, in order then again to receive pardon; for in this case, the whole process would be a mere absurd farce.

So, according to Calvin’s idea of predestination, man has no choice. He is either saved or condemned, and there is absolutely nothing he can do about it. As Möhler points out above, though, this would mean that man cannot be held responsible for his actions, and the notions of God’s mercy and justice become nonsensical.

How well did Herman Melville understand this? In one of my posts on Moby-Dick, I shared a few paragraphs about the Calvinist themes of the novel from a post by Donald DiMarco titled, “Calvinist America and the Catholic Contribution to Culture.”:

The most powerful, the most imaginative, the most startling, and the most unforgettable refutation of Calvinism in America is found in Herman Melville’s classic, Moby-Dick. Dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorne, who himself has been dubbed Calvin’s ironic stepchild, Melville’s masterpiece is the first American novel to win a place in the literature of the world and has been called the greatest of American novels and the one undoubted classic of American literature. Nobel Laureate William Faulkner called it the book he would have liked to have written.

The substance of the drama emerges in the fierce tension that exists between the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man. Captain Ahab, who commands the whaling vessel, personifies man’s depravity. He considers himself already damned. He is the reprobate, the unelected soul who is forever doomed to perdition by an angry God. He visualizes the white whale as a monster embodying the features of that very God. He is determined not to allow God or fate to rob him of any claim he has to something that is his own. Ahab defies God in order to define himself.

Ahab is a Nietzchean figure who rages against the God who renders him insignificant. He struggles fanatically against the thought that he might be nothing more than an ineffectual trifle. He sees malice in the attack of the whale, the same malice that Calvinism’s God directs against those whom he chooses not to redeem. The fate of the reprobate, in Calvinist teaching, is to suffer a horrible existence both in this life and in the next, one characterized by reciprocal hatred, God hating the sinner as the sinner hates God. Calvin himself referred to this predicament as dreadful. To Ahab, the dreadful situation was intolerable—thus, the ferocity of his rage.

In his probing study, Moby-Dick and Calvinism: A World Dismantled, T. Walter Herbert, Jr. asserts that Melville … uses Ahab to explore the fate of human dignity in a world seemingly controlled by an enraged Calvinist God. The only dignified act of depraved man is to revolt against the misery of life that is preordained by a cruel God. Ahab is desperately seeking dignity by destroying the whale that symbolizes for him the source of all his sufferings.


*In the text, there is no end quote. I’m assuming that Calvin’s words end here.

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