Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination and the Psychology of Destructiveness

predestinationAccording to Erich Fromm, “Destructiveness is the outcome of unlived life.” He and much of the psychoanalytic community have the idea that the amount of destructive tendencies in a person is directly proportionate to the degree to which his or her expansiveness of life is frustrated.

Fromm was of the belief that this frustration is not primarily the curtailing of this or that individual desire, but rather the thwarting of the whole of life, or as he put it, “the blockage of spontaneity of the growth and expression of man’s sensuous, emotional, and intellectual capacities.” When this dynamism of life is blocked the energy that was originally aimed at life becomes “decomposed” and changes into energy aimed at destruction.

Hopefully the reader is already asking, “What does this destructiveness have to do with the Calvinist doctrine of predestination?” Indeed, what link could there possibly be between the two?

I have never personally made the link until reading Erich Fromm’s classic work, “Escape from Freedom.” He spends an incredible amount of effort tracing the historical roots of the Protestant Reformation in terms of why its ideas were so appealing to the masses in the late 16th century. If the reader is at all interested in the subject I recommend a close reading of his text.

In essence, the average person at the time was psychologically overwhelmed with major changes in economic functioning – from that of medieval guilds and feudalism, where everyone had a secure identity and a place within society, to a more capitalistic mode where the average person was freed from his predetermined economic fate, but also pushed into a world where he stood against colossal economic forces beyond his control. These changes created in the populace (primarily the middle class) a deep seated feeling of isolation and powerlessness. The writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin appealed to and epitomized these basic feelings.

Many elements of their writings could be emphasized in this respect, but the most profound is captured in the doctrine of predestination. Both these men taught a version of predestination, but, as is well known, Calvin took the idea to extreme conclusions claiming that God not only predestined some for eternal glory, but predestined others to eternal damnation for no fault of their own.

This new picture of God—that of an arbitrary tyrant—fit the psychological orientation of Calvin’s audience towards extrapersonal powers which they already felt powerless against. As Fromm put it, “This picture of a despotic God, who wants unrestricted power over men and their submission and humiliation, was the projection of the middle class’s own hostility and envy;” hostility and envy of not only the authority of the Roman Church but of the new and growing capitalist mode of production as well.

The ideas of the Protestant Reformation psychologically prepared man for the role he would adopt in modern society: “of feeling his own self to be insignificant and of being ready to subordinate his life exclusively for purposes which were not his own” (E. Fromm).

Has there ever been a more all-encompassing notion of man’s powerlessness than the idea that one’s eternal fate is decided before he is even born, regardless of anything he does or doesn’t do with his life? This is a doctrine ripe for the development of destructive tendencies in its adherents; and not just its adherents but all those who fall within its orbit of psychosocial influence.

And the implications don’t stop there. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination posits man’s basic inequality as well. Since each individual is created unequal concerning the thing that matters most—their eternal standing with God—the equality of mankind is denied in the most psychologically significant way imaginable.

The average person cannot live within this paradigm of personal insignificance, powerlessness, and isolation for very long before anxiety forces him into one of many escape routes. The escape route of concern in this article is destructiveness. The coping mechanism of destructiveness is a well-established one in psychological studies.

Fromm claimed that, “Any threat against vital (material and emotional) interests creates anxiety, and destructive tendencies are the most common reaction to such anxiety.” Once the feeling of powerlessness reaches critical mass in one’s psyche it is not unusual for him or her to attempt to destroy the external threat. And if the threat cannot be destroyed one’s own self often becomes the object of abuse (observe the masochistic tendencies of many today in the form of bodily mutilation, such as “cutting,” as prime evidence of this fact). It is difficult to imagine a society more anxious and destructive, particularly self-destructive, than our own.

Is the attempt of this article to place the blame of all forms of destructiveness on the doctrine of predestination? Of course not. But once all the historical and psychological dots are connected the link becomes clear. For those living in Europe from the late Middle Ages to modern times, and by extension the majority Western civilization, Protestantism, and more specifically Calvinism, has had vast influence over man’s psychology. If the primary entity/reality in a culture’s thinking is tyrannical and arbitrary (i.e., the Reformed idea of God) then the notion cannot help but influence every other aspect of that culture. Today we—the adopted sons and daughters of a society built on principles of classic Protestantism—are still reeling from the aftershock of this idea about God. The attacks on Christianity today by atheist and secular factions should not be surprising. They are merely reacting to the innate feelings of powerlessness and isolation reinforced at every turn in modern society and, unfortunately, still reinforced by a Calvinistic/Reformed view of God, which remains popular with many Christians.

Thanks for reading.

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9 thoughts on “Calvin’s Doctrine of Predestination and the Psychology of Destructiveness

  1. Naturally one would like to destroy everything unfair. There surely needs to be a will to really want to change this view of an unfair God for any reasonings to take root and survive. That’s impossible to pass onto another, isn’t it?

  2. But even if you deny predestination which is a biblical teaching, you still have a problem because of the diabolical doctrine of eternal hell.

    The problem arises from the Omniscience and Omnipotence of God. Since God knew that Adam would sin and since all Adams actions flowed from God’s original choices of creation then, since no person had yet made any choices, and since God already knew who would be going to hell, the very act of creation was a decree of eternal suffering for the lost.

    The only alternative is to say that God did not know that Adam would sin and then you have the problem of a God that doesn’t know what he’s doing.

    The basic problem is this:

    If God CAN save everyone and CHOOSES not to then he is cruel.
    If God WANTS to save everyone and CAN’T then he is weak and foolish for creating a situation where he has no control.

    Predestination is biblical and if you remove the false doctrine of eternal punishment then the fact that God actively chooses some and not others based on his good will is not a problem.

  3. Welcome back Fowler. Well for once you don’t seem to disagree with the main premise of the article. I take this to mean that we are agreed that the doctrine of predestination is a major player in the psychology of Western society leaving them fraught with anxiety, isolation, powerlessness, and destructive escape mechanisms.

    Moving on to some of your points:

    Much of your post contains material I’ve answered many times and I’m not inclined to repeat them. In order for you to understand where Reformed theology goes wrong with its idea of God’s sovereignty and predestination you would first have to understand from historic Orthodoxy what the fall is, what sin is, what salvation is, what the atonement is really about, what grace really is, and what eternal life and eternal death really are, for starters. Reformist get all of these wrong, hence they get “election” wrong. Also, to posit that Calvin’s doctrines are Biblical and beyond dispute (never mind that literally nobody taught his tragicomedy for the 1600 years prior to his “inspiration”) is whistling in the dark. One can make the same “biblical” argument for snake-handling Pentecostal churches, or any number of Protestant schisms.

    What does you last line mean? Do I understand you to be saying that you do not believe in eternal punishment?

  4. Intriguing article, Eric.

    Resonated with me William Blake’s

    In every cry of every man,
    In every Infant’s cry of fear,
    In every voice, in every ban,
    The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

    Mind-forged manacles. Not a dude overly enamored with the Estate of Reason in his day. His solution to problems some may find in predestination was comical and of course (as always) irreverently rebellious: He outright and rather acrimoniously Married Them. Of course, he was also preoccupied with the dead ends of mind/body dualism and Milton’s “creation myth,” another colossally loud adjudicator (in the scholarly imagination, at any rate) of predestination. As much as one would at times like to ride to the sea bareback with Blake’s flights, I often can’t help but notice how fraught the vehicle is with the peril of getting bogged down in a certain distinctively Gnostic stench. And of course, perhaps an even graver reverse dilemma, which I think your article speaks rather well to, namely coming to think: “I am my own god.” A tale that’s told, of course, all too well these days.

    One question it raises for me is how much did the Reformation coat or cloak itself with gnosticism to get off the ground at certain points? If at all, that is. Perhaps that’s a little off-topic…

    Another horrid thing I’m struck by, quite is how liable we are these days to hear of a vague all-pervading Elite somewhere above us, deciding things, making our better decisions. Especially in the political and academic spheres these things really take shape. The Capitalist Elite. The Liberal Elite. The Conservative Elite. The Socialist Elite. My head starts to turn after a while wondering who exactly is this elite? Famous American X has his statement to make about how not all Islam is created peaceful–er, I mean equal or whatever… Like we should care? …because?

    I don’t know Elect/Elite…I’d say there’s a certain smugness there which can’t help but betray itself in the end.

  5. Perhaps I will triply chime in here because I’m interested: How do you imagine that solves the problem? I really don’t get it.

    To confess, I really don’t quite get the problem maybe. Maybe I don’t want to know.

    Perhaps the good Lord created me dumb as a brick enough not to lose my soul scavenging these questions.

  6. Paul, I don’t know why it took me this long to realize you have a blog but I am now an official follower. Excellent posts, my friend. Can’t wait to read more of your stuff.

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