Do Not Despair; Do Not Presume
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. 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 God. It evinced, as Thuesen nicely puts it, a "piety … pure and undefiled, monotheism in its most authentic and compelling form."
Having given his definitions, Thuesen recounts what he deems to have been a lamentable "decline" during the 17th century—the period of so-called Protestant scholasticism—into doctrinal squabbles, logic-chopping precision, and, overall, a chilling rationalization that voided predestination of its mystery and grace. Puritans such as William Perkins developed it into a detailed system resting on supralapsarianism: the idea that God decreed election of the saved and damned before (or above, "supra") the Fall ("lapse"), meaning that God controlled every moment of human history from eternity, including the origins of sin itself. When the Dutch divine Jacob Arminius proposed a less severe alternative, that sin was freely chosen and God elected those whom he foresaw would exercise faith, hard-line Calvinists rushed to reassert the absolute sovereignty of God over all things human. In the Netherlands, they opposed so-called Arminianism with the decrees of the Synod of Dort: the affirmation of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints (making the properly Dutch acronym TULIP). Not to be outdone, Puritan divines in England encoded Perkins' supralapsarian thesis into double-predestination clauses—God chose some individuals to be saved and chose others to be damned, possibly including infants—in the Westminster Confession of 1644, a nearly canonical text for later Calvinists.
Thuesen eventually brings the doctrine across the Atlantic, showing how tensions between Augustinian predestination and varieties of Arminianism played themselves out in America. In early New England, spiritual virtuosos sometimes experienced "a kind of ecstatic agony" in the doctrine, but the bulk of lay Puritans found Westminster's creed altogether nerve-wracking. As a result, they embraced religious strategies that offered some measure of personal control over salvation: sacramental and filial piety, ecstatic experience, and a commonsense moral perspective imported through English Anglicans of a liberal or latitudinarian bent. During the 18th century, predestination divided American evangelicals. Calvinists such as Jonathan Edwards argued that teaching the doctrine aided religious revival because it drove people to despair of self-effort and rely on grace; Arminians such as John Wesley maintained that it hindered evangelism because it induced apathy and moral revulsion.
Thuesen's account of the early Republic and antebellum America reveals his sympathies for predestination's detractors. He links the popularity of Wesley's Methodism, the development of a liberal and anti-predestination strain in northern Protestants such as Catherine Beecher, and the creation of new religious communities such as the Stone-Campbell Christians, Adventists, Christian Scientists, and Mormons. They all joined a democratic, rational, and American revolt against the "shackles of old scholasticisms." Free will, free grace, unlimited atonement, and evangelistic calls to choose Christ, according to Thuesen, made more sense to Americans than decrees laid down with cold, inflexible precision.
The rest of Thuesen's book, covering the 19th and 20th centuries, offers vignettes of modern American denominations and their eventual dissociation from predestinarian orthodoxy. In this context he treats Catholic efforts to sidestep debates on predestination and encourage instead a sacramental piety that resonated with laypeople and parish priests. And he recounts the late-19th-century Lutheran contest between predestinarian confessionalists such as Ferdinand Wilhelm Walther, an early leader of the Missouri Synod, and less doctrinaire pietists for whom sacramental sensibilities served as an "antidote to predestinarian angst."
The history of Presbyterians and Baptists, according to Thuesen, also followed their handling of predestination. Presbyterian conservatives tied orthodoxy in general to strict adherence to the Westminster Confession. They defended supralapsarian doctrines as nearly empirical facts, while liberalizing factions attempted to loosen the stranglehold of double-predestination on Reformed theology. As a result, the Presbyterian Church in the United States split into Old School conservatives, led by Charles Hodge at Princeton Seminary, and New School, anti-predestinarian evangelicals. While southern Presbyterians found predestination congenial to racial ideologies, northern evangelicals and liberals emancipated themselves from double predestination, most famously in a 1903 Declaratory Statement that qualified the Westminster confession. Hardened predestinarians subsequently created the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America. Similar divisions, albeit in a less centralized and scholarly fashion, affected Baptist denominations during the same period. Current leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention, such as Albert Mohler, Jr., and Frank Page, have hotly debated the Calvinist inheritance.
In his somewhat perplexing epilogue, Thuesen probes one example of a contemporary megachurch, Rick Warren's Saddleback Church, for evidence of predestination in popular, purpose-driven Protestantism. Finding no more than mere traces of the doctrine, he concludes that modern disregard for the Augustinian tradition represents a larger trajectory. "Predestinarian debates," by Thuesen's reading, "often became sterile exercises" that "made predestination deadly—and sometimes deadly boring," and therefore dispensable. His interpretation thus suggests the need for a recovery of mystery and grace-filled assurance, especially in the form of sacramental devotion.
It is a brave thing to take on an intellectual history of such a complex issue in these days of cultural and social approaches to religion. Thuesen admirably does the job, but his general perspective—conveyed through the book's epigraph from Mark Twain, who ridiculed "creeds mathematically precise, and hairsplitting niceties of doctrine"—prevents a full appreciation for the resilience of technical debates about predestination. Thuesen admittedly hints at the appeal of the doctrine, yet he minimizes what his own evidence shows: that the devotees of Dort and Westminster, quarrelsome evangelicals of the 18th century, Old School Presbyterians, and Missouri Synod Lutherans achieved something akin to the status of public intellectuals. They entered a rancorous but lively and widely consumed debate about being Christian in the American democratic context.
The appeal of predestination clearly diminished in post-Enlightenment America, but I suspect that this decline had more to do with shifting psychologies and moralities than with intellectual abstraction, logic, precision, creedalism, or argument per se. Thuesen sometimes takes Victorian-era critics of doctrinal rigor, such as Beecher or Twain, at face value, while dispensing with the theologians and their many followers who found the logic of predestination to be anything but boring. Calvinists rarely divorced even the most technical doctrines from everyday social concerns. Jonathan Edwards' Freedom of the Will, perhaps one of the most persuasive philosophical defenses of predestination, was embraced by fervent patriots in revolutionary New England. So too, 19th-century predestinarians were doctrinally picky and socially engaged: they participated in the Protestant missionary movement, abolition of slavery, and social reform. Thuesen uncovers little appetite for doctrinal detail at Saddleback, but he might also have considered the neo-Calvinism that attracts thousands to avant-garde urban congregations such as Seattle's Mars Hill Church. Theological precision has its own beauty.
The 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth (on July 10, 1509) has occasioned many conferences devoted to his legacy. I attended one recent gathering in Geneva, where scholars addressed topics such as Calvin and the economy, Calvin and practical piety, Calvin and religious conflict—nearly everything but Calvin and you-know-what. At another recent conference, held at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, the organizers had no such qualms. They opened one session of the conference to the public: an evening roundtable on the meaning of predestination. The event was so popular that it left many of us participants standing in the aisle.
Peter Thuesen's book introduces us to the American historical precedents for such ambiguity. It may cause us to ponder whether disagreements among believers over a sometimes impenetrable doctrine that affronts common sensibilities isolates the Christian message from outsiders. Then again, his interpretation never quite allows us to grasp why all those people in Grand Rapids bothered to show up. The history of the doctrine is as wonderfully complex as the doctrine itself.
Mark Valeri is E.T. Thompson Professor of Church History at Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education.
1. Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography, trans. M. Wallace McDonald (Eerdmans, 1995), p. 323.
2. Thuesen draws from Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (Yale Univ. Press, 1989).
3. Here Thuesen relies on E. Brooks Holifield's Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War (Yale Univ. Press, 2003), an influential survey that connects Reformed theology to factually oriented, empirical theories of knowledge.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culturemagazine.
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