Was Thomas Merton a determinist?

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Last November, some of you may recall, I wrote about my involvement in a “Reformed” Baptist church in Bardstown and the questions it raised for me about some tenets of Calvinist theology, particularly predestination and determinism.

As I understand it, predestination is the belief that God, before the beginning of the world, chose some for salvation and others for damnation. Determinism is the related idea that God has determined everything that will ever happen.

As someone who came to faith late in life through mainline Protestant traditions, I was taught that God invites everyone into a saving relationship with him, and it’s up to us to accept or reject his call. I also believe God creates men and angels with free will, that evil is a result of wrong choices, and that in the fullness of time, evil will be defeated, God will renew the earth, and righteousness will reign forever.

Finally, I’ve believed natural disasters occurred because God chose to create a world in which he does not micromanage everything, but allows it to operate according to natural laws, although he sometimes intervenes.

Those beliefs are consistent with Arminianism, which differs from Calvinism on those fundamental questions.

At the time that I wrote “We See Through a Glass, Darkly,” I was reading defenses of Calvinist doctrine others shared with me, as well as a book by two Asbury Theological Seminary professors, Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell, “Why I Am Not a Calvinist.”

It seemed to me Dongell and Walls had the better argument, based on Scripture, tradition and reason, the three criteria we Anglicans have used for centuries to verify beliefs. I mentioned to some Calvinist acquaintances that I would also like to read a companion volume, “Why I Am Not an Arminian,” by Robert Peterson and Michael Williams, both of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis. Last week, I found a copy of it in a secondhand bookstore and have added it to my reading list.

Also while I was pondering these questions, I read “The Seven Storey Mountain” by Thomas Merton, about his coming to faith and becoming a Trappist at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Nelson County.

I thought Catholics believed in free will, although I knew some teachings of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas were similar to Calvinism. I was surprised, therefore, when I got to the end of the book and read Merton’s words describing his apparent belief that God had led him irresistibly on the path from youthful hedonism to the cloistered life, as God had led Merton’s fellow monks on their journeys.

Here is what Merton wrote: “Before we were born, God knew us. He knew some of us would rebel against His love and His mercy, and that others would love Him from the moment they could love anything, and never change that love. He knew there would be joy in heaven among the angels of His house for the conversion of some of us, and He knew that He would bring us all here to Gethsemani together, one day, for His own purpose, for the praise of His love.”

Imagine, a man who devoted most of his life to prayer, saying that his prayers, his own will, did not lead him to become a monk, but that he was led by an Author, who had written him into the script before his birth.

If there’s anything I’ve learned about faith in recent months, it’s that it’s important to keep an open mind.


In another column last fall, I told of how I had met Anna Burd and Lambert Boone on one of my day hikes at Gethsemani, and Lambert had recalled his boyhood encounters with Merton. Recently, I received a letter from one of their cousins, Ed Cecil of Owensboro, who also said he knew Merton. As a boy, he said, he would catch goldfish in the monks’ ponds and take them back to the Boones’ farm.

“Father Louis, Thomas Merton, would come by and talk to us while we fished. We were a little nervous at first, because we knew we weren’t supposed to talk to the monks,” he wrote, but he was friendly and the children became familiar with him.

“People are a little skeptical when I tell them I knew Thomas Merton growing up, but when I tell them how I knew him, they come around,” he concluded.

One Response to “Was Thomas Merton a determinist?”

  • I’m a little suspicious, Randy. Did Merton truly write that his own prayers and/or his own will did not lead him to be a monk? Really? That would be a strange concept for even the staunchest of “calvinists” to write. As I understand classic calvinism, it’s not so much about “determinism” as it is enabling or empowering or liberating. It’s not force; it’s grace. It’s giving life to a dead, incapable spirit so that a newly born-again creation (in Christ) is free to be and pursue what God intended all along. I would be surprised if Merton didn’t see him life in similar terms.

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