A few weeks ago, in a discussion on Facebook, it was suggested to me that we should have no qualms about killing our enemies if they are God’s enemies, that we cannot wish good upon them if God intends judgment on them. A Calvinist, in short, cannot genuinely love his enemies if they are real bad guys. I have encountered the same argument elsewhere, and certainly, it has some prima facie plausibility. If we believe that God has already pronounced an irreversible verdict of judgment on the wicked, then who are we to second-guess that judgment? Perhaps we are not normally called to be the agents of this judgment, to be Israelite holy warriors (though there is really no reason why the logic should not go in this direction), but if we find ourselves in a legitimate position to enact such judgment—in a courtroom, a situation of war, or a moment of self-defence—we should have no qualms about the death of the wicked, but rather, should rejoice at the opportunity to be co-workers with God, to be the means by which he has enacted his righteous sentence against the wicked.
But doesn’t Jesus lament over Jerusalem? Doesn’t Jesus pray for God to forgive his killers? My interlocutor quoted Calvin to me on this point: “It is probable, however, that Christ did not pray for all indiscriminately, but only for the wretched multitude, who were carried away by inconsiderate zeal, and not by premeditated wickedness. For since the scribes and priests were persons in regard to whom no ground was left for hope, it would have been in vain for him to pray for them.” Well, that cements it then, doesn’t it? Calvin himself says that there’s no reason to pray for those who are damned anyway, and that even Jesus wouldn’t do so. Is it possible then to be a Calvinist and to still take seriously the command to “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse”?
Well, thankfully, Richard Hooker at least thought so (and I’m told that Calvin himself elsewhere speaks more wisely). The Puritans, determined most of the time to be more Calvinist than Calvin himself, had cried foul at the prayer in the Book of Common Prayer that asks that all men may find mercy, and be saved. They argue, he says, “that all men’s salvation and many men’s eternal condemnation or death are things the one repugnant to the other, that both cannot be brought to pass; that we know there are vessels of wrath to whom God will never extend mercy, and therefore that wittingly we ask an impossible thing to be had.” (LEP V.49.1)
Against this Hooker points out that of course, while we know that there are vessels of wrath, we never know who they are:
“Howbeit concerning the state of all men with whom we live (for only of them our prayers are meant) we may till the world’s end, for the present, always presume, that as far as in us there is power to discern what others are, and as far as any duty of ours dependeth upon the notice of their condition in respect of God, the safest axioms for charity to rest itself upon are these: ‘He which believeth already is’ and ‘he which believeth not as yet may be the child of God’ . . . And therefore Charity which ‘hopeth all things’, prayeth also for all men.” (V.49.2)
Hooker goes on to offer further arguments on this point. For one, it is the mark of charity to desire what is good, and to desire it to the largest possible extent. Since the salvation of men is a thing good in itself, charity will desire to see this good extended to all men. Jeremiah, he points out, is not condemned for pleading for mercy toward his countrymen, even when God resolutely denies the plea.
But how can that be according to God’s will which is contrary to it? “Our answer is that such suits God accepteth in that they are conformable unto his general inclination which is that all men might be saved, yet always he granteth them not, forasmuch as there is in God sometimes a more private occasioned will which determineth the contrary.” The former, he says, is to be the rule for our own actions, the latter not so. Thus it happens that for our wills to be conformed to the will of God does not mean “willing always the selfsame thing that God intendeth. For it may chance that his purpose is sometime the speedy death of them whose long continuance in life if we should not wish we were unnatural.” (V.49.4)
“When the object or matter therefore of our desires is (as in this case) a thing both good of itself and not forbidden of God; when the end for which we desire it is virtuous and apparently most holy; when the root from which our affection towards it proceedeth is Charity, Piety that which we do in declaring our desire by prayer . . . surely to that will of God which ought to be and is the known rule of all our actions, we do not herein oppose ourselves, although his secret determination haply be against us, which if we did understand as we do not, yet to rest contented with that which God will have done is as much as he requireth at the hands of men.” (V.49.5)
Hooker’s admirable spirit in this passage may be illuminated by reference to his words in a similar context—whether we should hope that God could show justifying mercy upon papists, even the Pope himself:
“Is it a dangerous thing to imagine that such men may find mercy? The hour may come when we shall think it a blessed thing to hear that if our sins were as the sins of the pope and cardinals the bowels of the mercy of God are larger. . . . Surely, I must confess unto you, if it be an error to think that God may be merciful to save men even when they err, my greatest comfort is my error: were it not for the love I bear unto this error, I would neither wish to speak nor to live.” (From The Learned Sermon on Justification)