by Fr. Patrick Henry Reardon
Over the past few weeks I have devoted these Ponderings to reflection on the necessity of the Passion, laying particular stress on the fact that we know of this necessity only because Jesus spoke of it. That is to say, we pursue no metaphysical apriori to explain it; this necessity of the Cross is revealed to us solely on the word of Jesus. For this reason we refrain from speaking about it except as Jesus did.
In the course of these reflections I have likened Jesus’ sense of this necessity to the experience of personal destiny. Unlike most perceptions of destiny, however, the Savior’s discernment was not vague. It was utterly—almost unbearably—clear and intelligible. It was inscribed (katuv) in Sacred Letters, Jesus’ understanding of which left no room for mistake or evasion: Bimgallat-sepher katuv ‘alai—
“In the scroll of the book it is written of me.”
Before I leave these reflections, let me comment on the difference between destiny and predestination. The latter refers to a necessity predicated from above the events that take place in this world, whereas destiny is perceived as an influence operating within the events of history. Whereas the concept of predestination has to do with foreknowledge and prior determination, destiny is an experienced assertion of truth, organic with the concrete continuum of history, perceived within the restricting circumstances of time and place, and discerned as a matter of vocation. Predestination pertains to theodicy; it is usually expressed in a thesis, whereas destiny is perceived in a morally enlightened sensus, a revelation akin to prophecy itself.
This difference is recognized in the two ways medieval readers of the Latin Bible translated the Greek expression tou horisthentos Huiou Theou en dynamei in Romans 1:4. St. Jerome’s Vulgate rendered it
“predestined to be Son of God in power” (praedestinatus est Filius Dei in virtute).
Others, however, with a closer attention to the Greek vocabulary, translated it as
“destined (destinatus) to be Son of God in power.”
Among the latter was William of St. Thierry, who, in his commentary on Romans, remarked that this reading was
“according to the truth of the Greek version” (secundum graecae translationis veritatem).
Predestination, in short, is a concept or theory; personal destiny is an existential experience.
While I am on this point, let me mention my persuasion that speculative conjectures—nay, fantasies—about eternal predestination, for which there is scant warrant in Holy Scripture, represent one of the deepest tragedies in the history of Christian theology. There is not the faintest hint in Holy Scripture that God, by an eternal decree logically prior to Creation itself, determined some men for eternal life and others for eternal damnation. On the contrary, in the New Testament the noun “predestination” never appears. As for the verbal cognate (proorizo), it is found only in connection with the life of divine grace; Christians are said to be prooristhentes (“first marked off”) by God for the sake of Christ (Ephesians 1:11; cf. 1:5; Romans 8:29-30). This Pauline expression refers simply to the priority of God’s grace, as Christians experience that grace. Apart from the life we have in Christ, the New Testament knows nothing of predestination.
I argue, then, that when Jesus asserted,
“This command I have from my Father,”
he was not affirming a metaphysical thesis but his reflective analysis of God’s will and intent as revealed to him in prophecy, through prayer, and within the contingent and dramatic circumstances that led to the Cross. He knew what God wanted of him in the existential context of that exact time in Israel’s history—sub Pontio Pilato.
Jesus’ vocation was inseparable from the ongoing tragedy revealed in that history; even the details of his death were points of destiny:
“He began to teach them that the Son of Man must (dei) suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Mark 8:31).
“Pilate said to them, ‘You take him and judge him according to your law.’ Therefore the Jews said to him, ‘It is not legal for us to execute anyone,’ that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled which he spoke, signifying what manner of death he would die” (John 18:31-32).
Was there some other way, in those concrete—geographical, historical, political—circumstances, for the Atonement to be accomplished? No, as far as the Scriptures tell us, there wasn’t. All we know is: “In the scroll of the book it is written of me.” This was the hour, and he was the man.
The cup had to be drunk . . . freely.