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Mark Valeri


Do Not Despair; Do Not Presume

Predestination in America.

As one of John Calvin's biographers has put it, predestination became the "werewolf of Reformed theology": an often dormant doctrine that periodically awoke with frightening ferocity.[1] Peter Thuesen, a historian of American religion at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, has attempted to describe the story of the beast in America. In his account, nearly the whole of American religious history can be seen as a confrontation between proponents and critics of varieties of the doctrine of predestination, which he defines as the assertion that God determined the spiritual fate of "individuals—and even the Fall of humans into original sin—without regard to their foreseen conduct." Switching the animal metaphor, he posits predestination as "the proverbial elephant in the living room of American denominationalism."

In this short book, Thuesen can offer only a selective but nonetheless suggestive account. Retracing the origins of the doctrine, he focuses first on Augustine, who argued that every person was born in original sin and that God bestowed saving grace only on some, apart from any choice of theirs. This position, though never uncontested, became official orthodoxy in the West through the medieval period; even Thomas Aquinas defended it. Late medieval Christians, however, tacitly bypassed the Augustinian position when they developed a sacramental piety—a combination of mystical experience and voluntary participation in sacred ritual—that invested believers with power to choose at least the quotient of grace to assist them on the path to salvation. Luther and Calvin reasserted predestination to be a crucial element in Christian teaching. Calvin especially emphasized God's sovereignty, a consoling belief for the displaced Protestants suffering under Catholic persecution. He maintained that the Fall (into original sin) itself effected God's will. For the Reformers, belief in predestination implied utter confidence in a sometimes inscrutable ...

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