The Scripture says, God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). The Calvinist hermeneutic (acknowledging there are different Calvinisms) is not that God desires that every single man be saved, but that every type of man (rich. poor, kings, slaves, etcetera) to be saved.
This hermeneutic exists because Calvinists sometimes have a one-dimensional view of God’s will. In short, if God wills something, it happens.
However, such an hermeneutic does not always work. Passages such as 2 Pet 3:9 and Ezek 18:32 would mitigate against it. In the end, it is classic eisegesis.
The Two Wills of God. Thankfully for us Christians, Saint John of Damascus already has done the theological heavy lifting for us in answering this supposed conundrum of how God can will all men to be saved, but that somehow it does not happen when all things are possible with God. He rationalized that God has two wills per se, not that He is schizophrenic and changes His mind, but that He has an antecedent and consequent will. He explains:
One should also bear in mind that God antecedently wills all to be saved and to attain to His kingdom. For He did not form us to be chastised, but, because He is good, that we might share in His goodness. Yet, because He is just, He does wish to punish sinners. So, the first is called antecedent will and approval, and it has Him as its cause; the second is called consequent will and permission, and it has ourselves as its cause. This last is twofold: that which is by dispensation and for our instruction and salvation, and that which is abandonment to absolute chastisement [eternal damnation], as we have said. These, however, belong to those things which do not depend upon us (On the Orthodox Faith, Book II, Chapter 29).
We must affirm that God work all things in accordance with His will (Eph 1:11), yet He allows men to fail to repent. This is in spite of the fact that it is within His power to grant repentance (Phil 1:27), which is the greatest miracle of all.
A common Calvinist answer, which is that not all men repent because God does not really desire all men to repent (and thereby predestines them to Hell), does not necessarily make God evil. After all, God does not owe us the miracle of repentance. Its just not in the Scriptures nor ever understood as such by anyone in the Church.
The Orthodox position is clearly different than Calvinism. God really desires all to repent. However, Orthodox are similar to Calvinists in affirming that He does not give an equal grace to all to repent.
Orthodoxy emphasizes that while God gives grace to all men to repent (though not equal), it nevertheless remains with man to repent. In some notable examples (e.g. Pharaoh and those who hear Christ’s parables) God hardens hearts as a matter of punishment so that they will not repent.
Such hardening is not a matter of God forcing man to be more evil than he already is, but rather God hands the wicked “over to the stubbornness of their heart, to walk in their own devices” (Ps 81:12). Saint Irenaeus speculates that this is because such people would have never repented to begin with. Apart from God’s grace, of course, this is true. The saint states:
God, knowing the number of those who will not believe, since He foreknows all things, has given them over to unbelief, and turned away His face from men of this stamp, leaving them in the darkness which they have themselves chosen for themselves, what is there wonderful if He did also at that time give over to their unbelief, Pharaoh, who never would have believed, along with those who were with him? (Against Heresies, Book 4, Chapter 29)
An Example of His Two Wills in the LXX. There was a point in Israel’s history that God warned them, due to their sin, that they were definitely going to face exile. In Hezekiah’s day, God through the prophet Isaiah warned that judgement was coming. This judgement was the result of the sin of King Manasseh and the Israelites. Scripture reads:
Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord” (2 Kings 20:16-17).
Because King Manasseh of Judah has committed these abominations, has done things more wicked than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has caused Judah also to sin with his idols; therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such evil that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line for Samaria, and the plummet for the house of Ahab; I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down (2 Kings 21:11-13).
This judgement for Manasseh’s sin was irrevocable:
Therefore thus says the Lord, “Behold, I will bring calamities on this people from which they cannot escape, and they shall cry out to me, but I will not listen.” (LXX, Jer 11:10).
Yet, at the same time God expresses the possibility that disaster could be avoided if the Israelites repent in the face of “calamities..from which they [allegedly] cannot escape”, saying:
[I]f this nation turns away from all their evils, then I will repent concerning the calamities I considered to do to them (LXX, Jer 18:8).
In fact, according to the Deuterocanonical book of 1 Ezra (Orthodox Canon), God desired that these same Israelites repent because He desired to “spare them”, as the Scriptures say:
Now the God of their fathers sent to call them back [to repentance] through His angel [i.e. “messenger,” Jeremiah the prophet from verse 45] so as to spare them and their dwelling place (LXX, 1 Ezra 1:48).
How Does This All Work? God always gives men the opportunity to repent, even when He knows they will not. It is an open and sincere offer–God just has the foreknowledge to anticipate that some of those whom He extends the offer to will not take Him up on it.
Though God graciously gives the opportunity of repentance to all, He does not equally give all men the same nudge. For some, He knocks them of their proverbial horses and shows them the light (Acts 9:3-5). Others simply benefit from the testimony of God’s goodness in creation (Matt 5:45, Rom 1:20). To those who reject His grace, being knocked off a horse or something perhaps less substantial, He deliberately hands over such unrepentant men to the wickedness in their hearts as punishment. The result is that their lack of repentance would be made more deliberate on the part of the sinner (see John 12:40, but note that they were never going to repent anyway.)
Is God Being “Fair?” Saint Chrysostom comments on John 12:40:
Thus, in the case of Pharaoh, He is said to have hardened his heart, and so it is with those who are at all contentious against the words of God. This is a peculiar mode of speech in Scripture, as also the,
He gave them over unto a reprobate mind Romans 1:28…For the writer does not here introduce God as Himself working these things, but shows that they took place through the wickedness of others. For, when we are abandoned by God, we are given up to the devil, and when so given up, we suffer ten thousand dreadful things. To terrify the hearer, therefore, the writer says,
He hardened, and
gave over….These things He says, showing that we begin the desertion, and become the causes of our perdition; for God not only desires not to leave or to punish us, but even when He punishes, does it unwillingly;
I will not, He says,
the death of a sinner, so much as that he should turn and live. Ezekiel 18:32
To sum up Chrysostom, God judicially abandons men, handing them over to the devil so that they may do the wickedness they intended to do anyway. This is a punishment for their sin! God desires repentance and He also desires justice.
He desires our salvation, but when we desire otherwise, God is just and He permits us to reap what we sow. Those of us in unrepentant sin, not desiring communion with God for eternity (i.e. our salvation), reap judgement upon ourselves by getting exactly what we want. God accordingly hands us over to our own sin, which results in us abandoning God of our own accord–the end result being an eternity apart from Him (i.e. damnation).
Is God Able To Always Act Upon His Antecedent Will? Some people, like Saint Paul, are given the grace to repent even though apart from this grace they would have never repented. But, can any sinner repent like Saint Paul was able to do?
Saint Irenaeus asserts the negative, using Pharaoh as his example–there are some men, no matter the graces given to them, that will never repent and believe. God’s will, when the preceding in the circumstance, is to hand over such men to their sin. As a consequence, these men are completely abandoned by God, because they have completely abandoned God of their own accord and would, no matter the grace given, change their minds.
Other saints, like Augustine, disagree. He believes that the wicked “are so entirely at the disposal of God, that He turns them wherever He wills, and whenever He wills–to bestow kindness on some, and to heap punishment on others, as He Himself judges right by a counsel most secret to Himself, indeed, but beyond all doubt most righteous” (On Grace and Free Will, Chapter 41). A little later Augustine writes, “God works in the hearts of men to incline their wills wherever He wills, whether to good deeds according to His mercy, or to evil after their own deserts” (Chapter 43).
Augustine’s assertion is that God, being the divine Physician, can heal the heart of the most wicked sinner causing Him to will his own repentance–yet God, for mysterious reasons, simply does not do this for all men.
Most Fathers have not supported Augustine’s perspective.
Conclusion. No matter whether Irenaeus or Augustine is correct in their contentions, we may conclude the following:
- God does indeed will that all men repent. He also gives sufficient grace to all men to repent.
- This grace is not given equally to all.
- Whether God, who can “turn” the will of a king “as a flow of water” (Prov 21:1), could have turned the will of even Pharaoh, the Fathers do not agree.
- Nevertheless, there is a sense where God’s antecedently wills the repentance of Pharaoh, but also consequently wills that Pharaoh will be allowed what he desires–eternal separation from God.
In light of the preceding, we can see this particular Calvinist hermeneutic does not account for the Church Fathers nor the Scriptures (as we can see from how the issue is treated in Jeremiah and 1 Ezra.) If we appreciate Saint John of Damascus’ elucidation of God’s antecedent and consequent wills, this Calvinist hermeneutic becomes unnecessary.