Ross’s Theory of Omnipotence Entails Double Predestination
January 27, 2012 — 0:56

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Concept of God Divine Providence  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 9

Let E (for ‘election’) be the proposition which says de re of each person who will in fact be saved that he or she will be saved. That is, E is the longest conjunction of the form ‘John will be saved, and Mary will be saved, and Lois will be saved…’ which is true. Let R (for ‘reprobation’) be the proposition which says de re of each person who will in fact be damned that he or she will be damned.
The doctrine of predestination is the doctrine that God, from eternity, has issued an efficacious decree of election – that is, God, from eternity, effectively chose that E should be true. The doctrine of double predestination states that in addition to the decree of election, God also issued a decree of reprobation – that is, in addition to effectively choosing that E should be true, God effectively chose that R should be true.
Double predestination is much more contentious among Christians than predestination (although predestination is not entirely uncontroversial – for instance, open theists will have to deny it). Many Christians would rather have single predestination, holding that all people are, on their own, bound for hell, and God intervenes to save those he wishes to save, and just leaves the rest alone.
In his Philosophical Theology (1969), James F. Ross proposes the following analysis of omnipotence:

S is omnipotent if and only if for every logically contingent state of affairs, p, whether p or ~p is the case is logically equivalent to the effective choice, by S, that p or that ~p (respectively). (p. 211)

This analysis appears to have the consequence that, if God is omnipotent, then double predestination is true. Both E and R are true contingent propositions, so if God is omnipotent then God effectively chooses that the corresponding states of affairs should be the case.

What could someone who accepted Ross’s theory say about this consequence? Well, first, of course, one could just accept the consequence. There certainly are theologians who advocate double predestination on independent grounds, so maybe this isn’t so bad. A second response would go like this: the doctrine of double predestination is supposed to be stronger than the doctrine of predestination, and this strengthening comes about by means of the ‘in addition to’ clause. But does it even make sense to speak of God’s willing p in addition to q? There are reasons for doubting that it does. Leibniz argues at length in the Theodicy that God has a single simple act of will. Leibniz’s argument, as I understand it, is an argument from divine rationality. However, the argument could also be made from immutability, atemporality, or simplicity. Furthermore, the argument could be made directly from Ross’s theory of omnipotence: God decrees that E should be true, and that no one not listed in E should be saved, and that such and such collection of people should exist. These jointly entail R and so, together with Ross’s theory of omnipotence, entail that God effectively chooses that R. In other words, given Ross’s theory of omnipotence, the proponent of double predestination is faced with a dilemma: either the view is not genuinely stronger than mere predestination, or it is incoherent. (This response is parallel to the response Ross gave to worries about the consequences of his view for human freedom in his 1980 article “Creation”.) A third option would be to distinguish between two ways in which God might choose things, and put E and R in opposite categories. For instance, one might distinguish between God’s ‘antecedent’ and ‘consequent’ wills, as Leibniz does, and claim that God wills E antecedently and R consequently. Double predestination could then be defined as the view that God wills both E and R antecedently, and would thus be a genuine strengthening of predestination.
(cross-posted at

  • Chris Menzel

    Having a very hard time seeing how God’s choosing that E should be true doesn’t entail his choosing that R should be true. How can God’s choosing to intervene in the case of the elect not simultaneously be a choice that the non-elect be damned?

    January 27, 2012 — 9:37
  • Kenny Pearce

    Hi Chris,
    Yes, that is one of the responses I was considering. I think most proponents of single predestination want to make some kind of distinction between God’s actively and efficaciously willing that the elect be saved, and then sort of knowingly accepting the consequence that the reprobate be damned. So their big point is that there is not a second decree, the decree of reprobation. There is just one decree, the decree of election, which has as a consequence (a consequence of which God is, of course, aware) that the reprobate will be damned.

    January 27, 2012 — 11:33
  • Keith DeRose

    There’s been noises about Calvinism not requiring double, but only single, predestination. I addressed that a bit in this old post:
    What I argued/explained there is that if we mean by “single predestination” what it sounds, at least to me, that we should mean by it (God only predestines the eternal fate of the elect, not of the reprobate), there is no room for it on a Calvinist picture–as Calvin himself realized.
    But if you just mean that there are significant differences in just how God predestines the fates of the two types, there’s plenty of room in a Calvinist picture for it. For example, as came up in the comments (Jon Kvanvig), God can predestine the fate of damned in such a way that they are damned by their own (compatibilistically) free actions, while the elect are predestined to be saved in such a way that the actions of theirs by which they come to be saved are not free.

    January 28, 2012 — 2:24
  • Jeremy Pierce

    The expression ‘double predestination’ has been used for both of those things, Keith. Classically, it meant the second, and it was considered heresy to adopt double predestination. More recently, it has meant the first, and it is still considered heresy by many Calvinists, but that view is just plain classical Calvinism.

    January 28, 2012 — 11:00
  • Chris:
    Choice is tied to intentions, and intentions aren’t just a matter of foreseen consequences. When I type this message, I can foresee that I will be displacing air molecules by the movements of my hands, but I need have no intention of so doing, and certainly I am not choosing to do it (even if I could prevent it, say by encasing the computer and my hands in a vacuum).

    January 29, 2012 — 10:04
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Isn’t Ross’s definition of omnipotence incompatible with free will? After all if God has given me the power to choose between p and ~p then it is no longer in God’s power to actualize p or ~p.
    Incidentally, I don’t understand why people should suggest new definitions of omnipotence when St. Augustine’s simple one (namely that God does what God wants) works so well.

    January 30, 2012 — 20:27
  • Kenny Pearce

    Danielos – William Mann has raised just this objection to Ross’s theory, and Ross responds in “Creation,” but most people will not, I think, find his response very satisfying. I discuss this in section 3 of my IEP article.

    January 31, 2012 — 1:04
  • Jarrett Cooper

    Isn’t it the case when one has knowledge of the consequences of one’s action(s), then it becomes the case that you do, indeed, intend those consequences to reach your objective?
    For example, when I drive my car I intend to get to the location I’m trying to reach. However, I know as a foreseen consequence that my tires will be slightly worn down as I drive. Most would say it’s not my intent to wear down my tires. But strictly speaking given my knowledge of the physical sciences and how a car moves by friction, then it is the case that I do intend my tires to by slightly worn down for me to get to my location. So, at the least, I think we can say
    when foreseen consequences follows necessarily from one’s intent, then we are in fact intending those consequences. Do you think this is right?
    With regards to you saying you’re certainly not choosing to displace air molecules. How is that so? If you knowingly have another option at your disposal and you don’t take it, then you are choosing.

    January 31, 2012 — 10:16
  • Jarrett:
    Intention is a matter of will. Mere belief or knowledge does not produce new intentions.
    Another line of thought: Intention is *explanatory* of the action done with that intention. But the belief that the tires will be worn down is not explanatory of one’s action of driving. Hence it is not intended that the tires will be worn down.

    February 5, 2012 — 13:57