The doctrine of predestination is at the heart of the Reformed message, but almost every tradition has to wrestle with the thorny questions of divine and human agency, as have home-grown religious movements like Mormonism and Christian Science. In this history of the doctrine in America, Peter Thuesen argues in his new book Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine that it has been a crucial but generally unacknowledged source of conflict in and between many American religious bodies, shaping American religious history, and that while predestination usually is contrasted with free will, a more telling contrast is with sacramentalism.
Thuesen, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, begins by establishing the historical background. Augustine broke with much of the early church in stressing God’s unconditional election of the saved and the human inability to choose God, and in its repeated condemnations of Pelagianism the Church endorsed his position.
The rise of sacramentalism in the medieval era provided a counterweight to predestination, as the Church increasingly affirmed the sacraments as channels of grace. Luther and Calvin objected to sacramental abuses that lined the Church’s coffers and provided believers with false assurance. The major reformers’ vigorous emphasis on predestination highlighted the primary relationship of the believer to God through Christ, thus limiting the power of the Church to function as an intermediary of grace between God and man through the sacraments.
In 1610 Jacob Arminius argued in favor of God’s conditional election of those he foreknew would respond to Christ in faith. The Synod of Dort of 1618-19 reacted by articulating the famous five points of Calvinism, including unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace, all of which pointed to God’s sole agency and the complete absence of human merit in the process of salvation.
Puritan theology in America reflected Dort’s strident Calvinism. Thuesen suggests that New England Puritanism’s “rigorous spiritual regimen . . . pursued an elusive balance of anxiety and assurance,” as Puritan theologians wrestled with the tensions inherent in the combination of unconditional election and a covenant theology built on the conditionality of human responses to God. The resulting paradoxes safeguarded against the fatalism that unconditional election might have engendered and induced an intense dialectical piety of “ecstatic agony,” which in turn provoked recurrent challenges from those who advocated open communion and some measure of assurance through the sacraments; antinomians like Anne Hutchinson who preached the direct leading and assurance of the Holy Spirit to the individual believer; and Arminians who looked to free will for affirmative responses to the gospel.
The astounding growth in America of John Wesley’s Arminian stress on human potential presaged a host of anti-Calvinist new religious movements. Universalism, for example, was a backcountry popular revolt against New England Calvinists who claimed that all humanity would be saved in Christ. With Joseph Smith’s revelations, new scriptures, denial of original sin, and doctrines of God and man, Mormonism completely rejected predestination in favor of human aggrandizement and divine diminishment. The Restorationist movement reflected the heady optimism and democratic ethos of the new nation in its claim that believers could jump back over history and reestablish the early church through a common sense reading of the Bible alone.
William Miller (whose heirs include the Seventh Day Adventists) also extolled free will and a common sense reading of Scripture, an approach that led him to the uncommon conclusion that the second coming of Christ would occur in 1843. Christian Science’s founder Mary Baker Eddy fled the doctrine’s heavy hand by concocting a system that eliminated all evil, sin, and suffering through the recognition that matter itself is an illusion.
Meanwhile, Catholics and Lutherans “both attempted to domesticate the undomesticated God of predestination in sacramental as well as scholastic ways.” The Catholic Church held that human beings cooperated with the actualization of God’s grace to the elect through adherence to the sacraments. Lutherans have differentiated themselves from Calvinists by insisting that predestination applies only to the elect and not the damned, whose sin alone condemns them, as well as by rejecting irresistible grace and holding a higher view of baptism and its salvific efficacy. Thuesen suggests Catholics and Lutherans “are temperamentally similar on predestination,” both trying “to banish the specter of arbitrary predestination” and insisting that “the best antidotes to predestinarian angst are sacramental.”
For the Presbyterians, the thoroughly predestinarian Westminster Confession presented an ongoing source of disagreement. Liberal Presbyterians sought to modify its predestinarian language while conservatives held fast to it. Figures like Philip Schaff thought Westminster needlessly specific in its description of God’s active damning or preterition of the lost, while B.B. Warfield worried about doctrinal erosion. Presbyterians adopted a Declaratory Statement in 1903 affirming Westminster but insisting that its predestinarian position fully accorded with God’s love for all mankind and the salvation of all who respond in faith, as well as of deceased infants. This and subsequent Presbyterian disputes around the turn of the century “highlighted the awkward disjunction between the era’s increasingly benevolent view of God and the less sentimental outlook of the Westminster divines.”
Battles over predestination and free will have raged among the Baptists. The latter position generally has won out, but the recent success in the Southern Baptist Convention of an educated and motivated Calvinist minority indicates that these issues remain pertinent and divisive.
In his epilogue, Thuessen reports on a visit to Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, where he finds much evidence of providential conviction but not a delineated theology of predestination. Without endorsing its brand of evangelicalism, he appreciates its theological capaciousness—its “yes” to both divine sovereignty and human agency, faith and works infused by grace. He closes Predestination with a plea for appreciating and retaining mystery in our Christian framework through “flashes of divine intuition” and “mystical apprehension.”
Divorced from sound theology, such intuitions and apprehensions have been the source of much evil—one thinks of such figures as Jim Jones—but theology that eliminates or immobilizes them risks flattening the wonder and mystery of the gospel. We must wrestle with questions of predestination and human agency, but we also must embrace with awe the mysteries of a God whose ways are beyond our ways.
In Predestination, Thuesen has written a sparkling book on a perennially important topic. While he focuses on predestination as it relates to individual salvation, it would have been useful to connect the doctrine to the collective claims of chosenness of various American communities, from the Puritans and the Mormons to more civil religious and providentialist claims of manifest destiny and the divine mission to spread democracy abroad. Still, at a time when American religious historians have focused so much on issues of race, class, gender, and identity politics, with some fruitful but also politicized results, Thuesen’s work is a model of the historical study of theology and a clarion call to reinvigorate the field.
Jonathan R. Baer is associate professor of religion at Wabash College.