From the outset, Protestantism has found itself divided by certain issues—such as the nature of the presence of Christ in the bread and wine. One of the most contentious debates has been centered in the area of theology known as "predestination."25 The question at issue concerns the way in which God and humanity are involved in salvation. Is salvation something that humanity freely chooses? Or is it something that is chosen for humanity by God? The matter was debated extensively in the fifth, ninth, and fourteenth centuries, and it became a topic of fresh disagreement in the early sixteenth century, when a significant division opened up between the Lutheran and Calvinist wings of the Reformation.

We shall explore the nature of this division shortly. It is important to appreciate, however, that the emergence of this serious disagreement coincided with the rise of confessionalism, which put Lutheranism and Calvinism in competition for the loyalty of princes in many regions of Germany. One of the functions of Christian doctrine is to act as a social demarcator—in other words, to distinguish groups that are otherwise very similar.26 Predestination was propelled to the forefront of debate because it became the litmus test that distinguished Lutheranism and Calvinism—two otherwise very similar movements.

So what were these two differing positions? In general terms, the best way of understanding the differences that were so important at this time is to consider doctrines of predestination as falling into two broad categories:

1. Single predestination holds that since all people have sinned on account of the Fall, they are unable to save themselves. In a single act of divine election, God chooses to save some people and to pass over others. Predestination is thus "single" in that there is no deliberate act of rejection, only a single decision to save certain individuals.

2. Double predestination holds that God elects, from all eternity, to save certain individuals and condemn others. Predestination thus involves a double act of election in which God actively chooses to save certain individuals and actively chooses to condemn others.

Although Luther inclined toward the second of these options in his famous debate over free will with Erasmus of Rotterdam in 1525, his successors endorsed the first.27 The "Formula of Concord" sets out this position with admirable clarity:

In his eternal counsel, purpose, and ordinance, God has not only prepared salvation in general, but he has also graciously considered and elected to salvation each and every individual among the elect who are to be saved through Christ God wills by his grace, gifts, and effective working to bring them to salvation, and to help, further, strengthen and preserve them to this end.

For Lutheranism, God chooses to save the elect and foresees—but does not cause—the condemnation of those who are not of the elect. Predestination is single in that there is no negative dimension to God's election. Those who reject the gospel are held to be responsible for their own fate.

Reformed theologians followed the lead of John Calvin, who argued that predestination involves a double decision—a positive decision to election and a negative decision to reprobation. In his brief discussion of the doctrine, Calvin defines predestination as "the eternal decree of God, by which he determined what he wished to make of every man. For he does not create everyone in the same condition, but ordains eternal life for some and eternal damnation for others." God, in a demonstration of his sovereignty and power, determines the eternal destiny of every individual. Calvin is not introducing a hitherto unknown notion into the sphere of Christian theology; similar ideas were propounded by some late medieval writers, such as Gregory of Rimini and Hugolino of Orvieto, who also taught a doctrine of absolute double predestination—that God allocates some to eternal life and others to eternal condemnation without any reference to their merits or demer-its.28 People's fate rests totally upon the will of God rather than on their individuality.

These viewpoints are radically different and involve significantly divergent readings of core biblical texts. Nor has the force of these disagreements diminished over time. If we leave behind sixteenth-century Europe and consider twentieth-century America, we find the same debate being replayed. Consider this discussion of predestination set out in the "Brief Statement" of the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), which was adopted in 1932.29 The statement insists that salvation takes place "by grace alone, for Christ's sake, and by way of the means of grace." Here we have a reaffirmation of some of the great slogans of the Reformation—by grace alone, by Christ alone, by faith alone. But what of those who are not saved? On this point, the Lutheran church makes its opposition to the Reformed doctrine of double predestination unequivocally clear:

There is no election of wrath, or predestination to damnation. Scripture plainly reveals the truth that the love of God for the world of lost sinners is universal, that is, that it embraces all people without exception, that Christ has fully reconciled all people unto God, and that God earnestly desires to bring all people to faith, to preserve them therein, and thus to save them, as Scripture testifies, 1 Timothy 2:4: "God will have all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." No one is lost because God has predestined him or her to eternal damnation.

Once more, this radical divergence points to the genuine difficulties and uncertainties attending the process of biblical interpretation. This is not a recent development, but an issue that emerged as deeply divisive during the emergent phase of Protestantism. On a naive, simplistic understanding of the "clarity of scripture," these two positions cannot both be right: either one is wrong and the other right, or they are both wrong and there exists a third alternative. Yet a more nuanced interpretation of this principle would point to the fundamental truth that both the Lutheran and Reformed communities affirm, despite their differ-ences—namely, that, in the words of the "Brief Statement," "the eternal election of God not only foresees and foreknows the salvation of the elect, but is also, from the gracious will and pleasure of God in Christ Jesus, a cause which procures, works, helps, and promotes our salvation and what pertains thereto; and upon this our salvation is so founded that the gates of hell cannot prevail against it."

This historic debate of the sixteenth century was deeply divisive. It is perhaps little wonder that the Anglican "Thirty-nine Articles of Reli gion" chose to speak of the topic in such Delphic and opaque terms, avoiding taking sides in such a contentious debate. Yet the debate continued still further as a major split developed within the Reformed camp over the matter. The debate is especially associated with Calvinism in the Lowlands and is often referred to as the "Arminian" controversy, after Arminius (1560-1609).

To understand the debate, we must introduce a further set of divisions into Protestant thinking on predestination. Earlier, we explored the importance of the categories of "single" and "double" predestination; now we must consider an additional question. Is predestination about God's election of a people or election of individuals? At first sight, the question is impossible to answer on its own terms, as the obvious answer is "both." Did not God call the people of Israel? And then the church? And did not God also call individuals, such as Abraham, the prophets, and Paul? While this may indeed be the case, this distinction is essential to appreciate the difference between Calvinism and Armin-ianism, and we must therefore explain the two options.

1. An individualist approach to predestination holds that God's decision concerns a single, named person. God may make many decisions to elect—but each of these decisions concerns a single individual. Calvin's definition of election, provided earlier, clearly belongs to this category.

2. A corporate approach to predestination holds that God elects a group of people to salvation. Arminius held that God predetermines that the people who have been elected in this way are those who have faith. Therefore, Arminius argued, in order to be saved, it is necessary to join this group of people—in other words, to have faith.

Arminius held that humanity has the capacity to respond to God's grace or to resist it. God has made salvation possible, as an act of total grace. Yet the decision as to whether to accept that salvation lies with the individual. Calvinism taught that divine grace is irresistible; whoever is elected by God cannot resist the transformative work of grace. Arminius insisted that God offers grace but does not impose it. Christ made salvation possible for all people. It is up to them whether they respond to it or not.30

The Synod of Dort (Dordrecht), meeting in 1618-19 in the Lowlands, set out the definitive Calvinist response to Arminianism. As a result, many Calvinists regarded Arminianism as a heresy. The basic teachings of the Synod of Dort are often referred to as the "Five Points," and they are often memorized using the acronym TULIP— highly appropriate for English-language Calvinism, given the longstanding association between the Netherlands and tulips.

T Total depravity of sinful human nature U Unconditional election (humans are not predestined on the basis of any foreseen merit, quality, or achievement) L Limited atonement (Christ died only for the elect) I Irresistible grace (by which the elect are infallibly called and redeemed)

P Perseverance of the saints (those who are truly predestined by God cannot in any way defect from that calling)

Yet Arminianism reappeared in the English-speaking world, in a new, reinvigorated form, through the preaching of John Wesley. Wesley's "optimism of grace" proved highly effective when wedded to his theology of evangelism.31 God has done everything possible to make salvation possible, as a gracious gift; all people need to do is to respond to it—to accept God's gift. This theology played an important role in the Second Great Awakening in the United States and probably lies behind the "altar call" practice that became such a distinctive feature of American revivalism.

In this section, we have noted three major positions on the question of predestination within historic and contemporary Protestantism: Lu-theranism, Calvinism, and Arminianism. All three remain significant options for Protestants today, and the passage of time has eroded neither the credibility of any one of them nor the tensions they generate within the wider Protestant movement. All affirm central biblical themes—yet in different ways, and with different outcomes.

This could easily lead to tensions, not to mention crude theological vilification, particularly between Calvinists and the followers of John

Wesley, who took an Arminian view on this matter. Yet it is possible for Protestants to reflect graciously on these differences, respecting the personal integrity of those who hold different views. The greatest English Calvinist writer of the nineteenth century was the famous Baptist Victorian preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who commented thus on his attitude toward John Wesley:

Most atrocious things have been spoken about the character and spiritual condition of John Wesley, the modern prince of Armin-ians. I can only say concerning him that, while I detest many of the doctrines which he preached, yet for the man himself I have a reverence second to no Wesleyan; and if there were wanted two apostles to be added to the number of the twelve, I do not believe that there could be found two men more fit to be so added than George Whitefield and John Wesley.32

As the famous "Down-Grade" controversy of the 1890s makes clear, Spurgeon was prepared to dissociate himself from individuals or organizations—such as the Baptist Union—if he believed they were heretical or unorthodox. He did not see this debate as touching upon such matters.

Each of the approaches noted here has significant consequences for the shaping of Protestant thought, expectations, and aspirations. One may be singled out for mention—the Calvinist belief that, like Israel, they were a "chosen people" who had been called by God to be a light to the nations. This strong sense of divine calling and commission gave direction and motivation to the Puritans then leaving England to settle in the New World. England was their Egypt, and America their promised land.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment