"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2


by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.




From what has just been said we see that the first difficulty was always how to reconcile predestination with God's will to save all mankind. On the one hand Scripture declares that God wills all men to be saved; on the other hand, it says that all are not predestined, but that "whom He predestined, them He also called . . . and also justified . . . and glorified." It even says that "He hath mercy on whom He will. And whom He will, He hardeneth." Therefore the predestined will infallibly be saved, and the others not. Hence arises the difficulty. How can predestination, which is infallible in its effect, be reconciled with the will to save all mankind, since the salvation of many will not be realized?

Is it human effort that makes God's help efficacious, or is it the intrinsic efficacy of God's help that prompts human effort? And if grace is of itself efficacious, how is it that God mercifully grants it to the elect and justly refuses it to the rest? We see that this mystery concerns the intimate reconciliation of God's infinite mercy and justice, and the free manifestation of these divine perfections. Philosophy, confronted with a difficulty of the same kind, has to explain how the presence of evil, especially moral evil, can be reconciled with God's infinite goodness and omnipotence.

A second difficulty of this problem is that it is no longer a question of the two groups of human beings, the elect and those not among the elect, but of individuals. The question is this. Why has God placed in the number of the elect this person and not that other? Why has He chosen Peter rather than Judas, and not vice versa? Seemingly unjust is this unequal distribution of such gifts to human beings who are equal both by nature and by reason of original sin.

This is the difficulty that St. Paul expresses when he writes: "What shall we say then? Is there injustice with God? God forbid. For He saith to Moses: I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy. And I will shew mercy to whom I will shew mercy." St. Paul thus answers the difficulty by affirming the principle of predilection, or of the gratuity of grace to which we can have no claim. Further on he states: "O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God! How incomprehensible are His judgments, and how unsearchable His ways!" St. Augustine expresses the mystery in these words: "Why He draweth one and not another, seek not to judge if thou dost not wish to err."

St. Thomas called special attention to these two great difficulties in the mystery of predestination; one difficulty is general in scope, the other of particular interest. He says: "The reason for the predestination of some, and the reprobation of others, must be sought for in the goodness of God. . . . God wills to manifest His goodness in men; in respect to those whom He predestines, by means of His mercy, in sparing them; and in respect of others, whom He reprobates, by means of His justice in punishing them. . . . Yet why He chooses some for glory and reprobates others, has no reason except the divine will. . . . Neither on this account can there be said to be injustice in God, if He prepares unequal lots for not unequal things. . . . In things which are given gratuitously a person can give more or less, just as he pleases (provided he deprives nobody of his due), without any infringement of justice."

The answers given by St. Paul, St. Augustine and St. Thomas show there is no contradiction. But underlying these two aspects there is an inscrutable mystery because it is essentially supernatural and also because the divine intervention is supremely free. This mystery is supernatural not only modally like a miracle that can be known by natural means, but it is supernatural because by its very nature it belongs to that class of mysteries which concerns the intimate life of God, such as the Trinity, and it thus transcends the natural powers of every intellect whether human or angelic, of every created and creatable intellect. Moreover, in this mystery there is the intervention of God's supremely free good pleasure, the divinum beneplacitum which St. Paul speaks of. This good pleasure, which is not at all a caprice - for it is the very essence of wisdom and holiness - is for us, as everything is which concerns God's sovereign liberty, a profound mystery. By this good pleasure God mercifully grants His grace to one of the two thieves crucified with the Savior, whereas in justice He permits the other to resist to the very end, and so lets him remain in sin.

Hence we see in this mystery an intervention of infinite mercy and justice and of sovereign liberty, all of which absolutely transcend the powers of every created and creatable intellect. St. Thomas calls attention to this obscurity, which comes either from the essentially supernatural nature of the object, or from the fact that the truth pertains to the contingent order and as yet is undetermined. He says that there are things far removed from our knowledge, either spatially or because of their supernatural transcendence, such as the mystery of the Trinity, which is absolutely determined and knowable in itself, but not to us. Then there are things which, since they are not of themselves determined, are not knowable in themselves, such as future contingent things, the truth of which can be determined and known by God in His supremely free decree.

Such is the difficulty of the problem, or rather the great obscurity of the mystery and dogma which claims our attention. The theologian, seeking the method to be followed, must bear in mind what St. Thomas said: "In questions of sacred doctrine we may have recourse to philosophy in order to refute what is said against the faith, either by showing it to be false, or of no consequence." Theology thus averts the evident contradiction; but it is not its province to prove philosophically the intrinsic possibility of mysteries. Just as the reality of the mysteries of the Trinity, incarnation, and predestination remains obscure to us in this life, so does their intrinsic possibility. (Cf. Vatican Council; Denz., no. 1795 f.)

Thus we see the whole difficulty of the problem, and consequently how easily we may be deceived unless we follow faithfully the teaching of Holy Scripture, the councils, and the great doctors of the Church. It is easy to favor one or other of the contrary heresies, for instance, by speaking of the will to save mankind in a manner that savors of Semipelagianism, which denies the dogma of predestination; or, on the other hand, we may speak of predestination in a manner and tone that savors of predestinarianism, which denies the will to save mankind. A slight exaggeration, by the addition of some adverb, suffices to incline one toward either of the opposing heresies, just as the introduction of a single note suffices to modify one of Beethoven's symphonies, so as to destroy its harmony. How is the theologian to proceed in the midst of these difficulties?


On this point the theologian must bear in mind what the Vatican Council says: "Reason, indeed, enlightened by faith, when it seeks earnestly, piously, and calmly, attains by a gift from God some, and that a very fruitful, understanding of mysteries; partly from the analogy of those things which it naturally knows, partly from the relations which the mysteries bear to one another and to the last end of man. But reason never becomes capable of apprehending mysteries as it does those truths which constitute its proper object."

The theologian must also bear in mind that just as God permits evil only for the sake of a greater good, so He permits conflicting heresies for the sole reason that thus the sublimity and value of truth may, by way of contrast, stand out more prominently. We must then profit by these opposing heresies, but never at the expense of detracting from the sublimity of the mystery about which we are seeking to acquire some understanding.

A watchful theologian will observe that in this difficult question, as in all the great problems of philosophy and theology, the human mind, inclined to systematize and forgetting that the tendency to synthesize is superior to the tendency to systematize, is at first inclined to posit an extreme thesis, which at times seems to express a profundity of thought, but which in reality is superficial, as in the cases of Pelagianism and Semipelagianism. Then, by way of reaction, the mind inclines to an antithesis just as extreme and superficial, as in the case of predestinarianism and the errors revived by it.

Furthermore, the theologian must take note of the attempts at reconciliation proposed by eclecticism, which, without any guiding principle, selects what appears to it to be the truth from the two opposing camps. By this means it gets the impression that the solution is to be found not only midway between the extreme errors, but that it is far above them, and also above all eclectic reconciliations, and in this respect it is like the culminating point reached by the great doctors of the Church, who derived their spiritual sustenance from the substantial nourishment of Scripture and tradition.

Whereas eclecticism does not go more than halfway, these great doctors reached that higher synthesis in which the various aspects of the real are reconciled by the light of the sublimest and most universal of principles. Was this not what St. Augustine did? St. Thomas did so, too, though with greater precision, when he brought out the full sublimity and universality contained in the principle that the love of God is the cause of all good. Hence it follows that God wills to save all men, by making it really possible for all to keep His commandments, and hence it follows that one would not be better than another, unless he were loved more by God.

We shall insist on these principles when we come to classify the various theological systems, and from this classification the culminating point of the mystery will be more clearly seen. Here we merely say that often, after we have discovered a synthesis of a truly higher order that safeguards in its entirety God's revealed word, the human mind, like one tired out, descends from its halfway post to consider the more or less arbitrary combinations and fluctuations of eclecticism, which substitutes for the divine obscurity of the mystery an apparent clarity that is without any real foundation. Hence the necessity of returning to the teaching of the great doctors of the Church, who were not merely learned historians and capable reasoners, but by the gifts of the Holy Ghost were great contemplatives, with a profound knowledge of God's revelation.

Certainly we would not form a true idea of the mystery of predestination by depreciating God's infinite mercy, either as regards all human beings (the will to save mankind) or as regards the elect (gratuity of election). Nor would we do so by depreciating His justice which gives to all what they absolutely need and which cannot punish anyone for doing what could not be helped, since such acts would not be sins.

In the course of his investigation the theologian must not forget that several great contemplatives, such as St. Theresa, have declared that the greater the obscurity in the mysteries, the greater was their attachment to them, because faith is of things unseen and because this obscurity results not from the absurdity or incoherence of the mysteries, but from the presence of a light too great for our feeble vision. Lastly, the theologian must bear in mind what the great masters of the spiritual life, such as St. John of the Cross, have said about the passive purifications of the soul in which, as a rule, the mystery of predestination appears in all its transcendent obscurity, so that the soul which has gone through this ordeal may feel the necessity of rising above all human conceptions with their apparent clarity, and thus abandon itself completely to God in sentiments of pure faith, filial confidence, and love.

St. Thomas, too, says that the gift of understanding purifies the mind of the believer - and therefore of the theologian - of that too great attachment to sensible images and to those things that tend to lead them into error, thus enabling them to penetrate beyond the meaning of Holy Scripture and enter into the spirit of the mysteries, perceiving them in their supernatural sublimity. Such is the method of procedure not only in speculative theology, but also in contemplation, in which no aspect of the mystery is unduly limited by the restrictions of reasoning. This goes to show, especially in the case of these sublime and difficult questions, the necessity of reading first of all the works of the great theologians who were also great contemplatives. These excelled in both kinds of wisdom spoken of by St. Thomas: acquired wisdom, which is according to the perfect use of reason, and the gift of wisdom, which is the principle of a quasi-experimental knowledge that has its foundation in the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost and in the connatural disposition of charity for the things that pertain to God. Is not this what the Vatican Council alludes to in the words already quoted, when it says: "Reason, indeed, enlightened by faith, when it seeks earnestly, piously, and calmly, attains by a gift from God some, and that a very fruitful, understanding of mysteries"?

In such an atmosphere we no longer feel inclined to say that thinking about these inscrutable mysteries is useless. On the contrary, we see that they constitute the final goal of all things spiritual and that they are increasingly the object of contemplation in proportion as the Lord purifies the soul.

Index Top


1. I Tim. 2: 4.

2. Rom. 8: 29 ff

3. Ibid. 9: 18.

4. Ibid. 9: 14.

5. Ibid. 11: 33.

6. On St. John, hom. 26, the beginning.

7. Summa theol., Ia, q.23, a..5 ad 3um.

8. Loc. cit., Ila Ilae, q. 171, a.3.

9. In Boetium de Trinitate, q.11, a.3.

10. Cf. Ibid., no. 1796.

11. Loc. cit., Ia, q.2o, a.3, 4.

12. Ibid., IIa Ilae, q.8, a.7.

13. Ibid., q.45, a.2.


"Men should often renew their good resolutions, and not lose heart because they are tempted against them."

St Philip Neri

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"What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"The one thing necessary which Jesus spoke of to Martha and Mary consists in hearing the word of God and living by it."

R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP

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