A good (relatively) new book about predestination

A good (relatively) new book about predestination December 12, 2011

From time to time I like to post book reviews here, especially reviews of books that relate to issues of concern to evangelical Arminians. If you persevere to the end (of the review) you’ll find something to chew on.

Review of Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine by Peter J. Thuesen

As an outspoken Arminian I find any book about predestination irresistible. So I had to accept when invited to review Predestination by Thuesen, professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis (Oxford University Press, 2009) for Religious Studies Review. It’s a scholarly work that is accessible to anyone with a college degree. That is to say, it is thoroughly researched and documented, detailed and at times subtle (e.g., the thesis of the book is more than historiography), while non-technical.

An alternative title for Thuesen’s book might be The Predestination Wars (playing off The Jesus Wars by my colleague Philip Jenkins). He recounts in great detail the various episodes of theological and ecclesiastical controversy about God’s sovereignty in salvation especially in the American colonies and the United States. Fortunately, in spite of the (real) title Thuesen does not ignore the backgrounds in ancient theology (e.g., Augustine versus Pelagius and the semi-Pelagians) and Reformation and post-Reformation Europe. For example, he tells the story of John Wesley’s falling out with George Whitefield over the Calvinist interpretation of predestination.

Thuesen leaves almost no stone unturned in his search for narratives about debates over predestination and free will. Among others he recounts the Arminian controversy (for the most part accurately), the controversies between various factions of Presbyterians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and ends with some commentary on the current controversy among Southern Baptists and evangelicals. Unfortunately, he never mentions John Piper. Instead he represents Al Mohler as the main instigator of the contemporary controversy. Just as one example of how detailed the book can be, Thuesen reports on the failed debate over Calvinism that was supposed to happen at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, VA in (he says) 2006 but never did. Referring to a 2006 public debate between Mohler and Paige Patterson that was relatively calm, Thuene says “The Mohler-Patterson colloquy, however, was restrained compared to the all-out brawl that erupted four months later when a planned debate between Calvinist and anti-Calvinist bloggers fell through amid a flurry of recriminations.” (207)

I found reading Predestination interesting and sometimes informative. Most of what I learned were details of controversies I already knew about. So I focused my attention mainly on what the author had to say about Arminians, as so many books get them and us wrong. For the most part, anyway, Thuesen’s description of Jacob Arminius’ theology is correct. The only point about which I would quibble has to do with the “P” of TULIP. Thuene says that Arminius and all of his followers rejected it along with the U, the L and the I. I think that’s wrong. Arminius himself never came to complete or final decision about so-called “eternal security of the believer.” In his Sentiments, one of his last writings, he said scripture wears both aspects (i.e., the possibility of apostasy and the security of the believer) and claims he never did teach that a true believer could fall away from grace totally. The “Remonstrance” of 1611 does not mention it but aims primarily at the middle three points of the TULIP scheme. (By the way, Thuesen seems to think that TULIP is an acronym that dates back to the Synod of Dort; in fact it is relatively recent.)

In a very odd slip, Thuesen says that John Wesley was “the most famous Arminian in U.S. history.” (9) Given the rest of what he says about Wesley, he clearly knows that Wesley never traveled to the U.S. (Watch, now. If I don’t say that Wesley briefly served an Anglican parish in the colony of Georgia before his Aldersgate experience someone will try to correct me with that fact. The point is, of course, that the United States did not exist then.)

One of the most interesting points I found in the book was that the early universalists who influenced the founding of the Universalist denomination in the late 18th century (that merged with the Unitarians in the 1960s) never were Arminians! (108ff.) One calumny against Armianism repeated by many Calvinists is that Arminianism was responsible for the rise of Universalism and Unitarianism in Great Britain and New England. In fact, the first Universalists were Calvinists who simply came to believe in universal salvation without giving up on unconditional election! They all believed in TULIP except the “L” which led them to believe in universal salvation. Arminianism itself was no bridge between strict Calvinism and Universalism.

Predestination is not just a history book; Thuesen has a thesis and much of the narrative as he recounts it is aimed at proving or at least justifying it. His thesis, which he mentions near the book’s beginning and at the end, is that the rise of what he calls “double covenant federal Calvinism” after Calvin and the contemporary decline in interest in such theological debates is indirectly related to the “decline of mystery” among Protestants. “The modern tyranny of ‘proof’ in religion made predestination deadly—and sometimes deadly boring.” (217) He sees the real divide between Protestants (and perhaps Christians in general) as lying between a kind of rationalistic, dogmatic religious faith (e.g., Charles Hodge) and the sense of the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans” in especially high church, sacramental religious faith. “A high-church critic might well conclude that in the predestination progression from the Reformation to the megachurch, the sacramental substance of Christianity attenuated to almost nothing.” (217)

Historically, Thuesen lays much of the blame for this “modern attenuation” at the feet of Zwingli who was, of course, pre-modern but nevertheless had a profound impact on early modernity among especially Reformed Protestants. Zwingli took the mystery out of Christianity by rejecting sacramentalism. That is what led to the usually sterile, dogmatic debates over predestination and the Bible (among other things) that ensued. His argument seems to be that insofar as Christianity retains a strong sense of mystery these kinds of debates over doctrine are at least not as volatile.

All that is not to say Thuesen thinks dogmas are unimportant and should fade away in the face of mystical spirituality. Rather, he argues for what he calls “dogmatic mystery.” (217) That’s what has gone missing in modern Protestantism on both sides of the Calvinist-Arminian divide as well as both sides of the conservative-liberal divide. He says that instead of preserving the mysteriousness of grace, modern Protestants “turned predestination into something logical and rational, unwittingly depriving grace of the miraculous all-sufficiency they were trying to preserve.” (217) Thuesen lays much of the blame on Hodge who, he says, epitomized this method whose idea of theology as a science of facts “led many Protestants to conclude that the debate between Calvinists and Arminians could be settled through the collation of sufficient biblical evidence.” (217)

All I can say to that is “Amen!” I have been arguing for a long time now, much to the chagrin of both conservative Calvinists and Arminians, that the debate over God’s sovereignty in salvation cannot be settled merely or simply by collection of biblical evidence. Both sides can marshal a great deal of biblical evidence. Debating passages of the Bible rarely, if ever, solves anything in this particular controversy. It is settled in people’s minds otherwise—in terms of what I have earlier called “blik”—perspective. Both sides are looking at the same data when they study the Bible but “seeing as” differently. I am gratified to have Thuesen agree with me. However, I’m not at all sure about his thesis regarding mystery and sacramentalism. It seems to me possible to be a high Calvinist, embracing all of TULIP, and be a mystical sacramentalist. This has happened repeatedly throughout Protestant history and before the Reformation (except for the “L” which I judge was almost entirely unheard of before Theodore Beza. (The only exception I’m aware of being the medieval monk Gottschalk whose defense of limited atonement was deemed heresy by the church.) It is also obviously possible to be a strong Arminian and be a mystical sacramentalist as is evident in much of Anglican and Episcopal history.

One point where I agree entirely with Thuesen is his observations about the contemporary mega-church, seeker-sensitive church phenomenon. He uses Saddleback Church as his test case. He attended services and newcomers’ class there and interviewed one of its pastors—a brother-in-law of Rick Warren. (He was not granted an interview with Warren himself.) Thuesen argues that these churches and those influenced by them tend to downplay controversial doctrines and even refuse to take sides at all with the result that robust theological belief takes a backseat (if not put in the trunk!). I’m sure that’s not true of all mega-churches or seeker-sensitive churches, but it is a trend that many have noted. I have been teaching theology to students at three Christian universities for almost thirty years and I can say with confidence that there is a notable decline in their awareness of doctrines as they leave home and home church and come to college, university or seminary. The one benefit of the current phenomenon of the “young, restless, Reformed” generation is the raising of awareness about and interest in doctrine. That does not seem to have penetrated the numerous seeker-sensitive churches, both large and small.

I want to belong to and attend a church that is robustly, openly Arminian. They’re hard to find. By that I do not mean I want to exclude Calvinists from my church. If a Calvinist can stand the cognitive dissonance, fine. I have no problem with him or her attending, becoming a member and even participating (except at the highest levels). However, I want a basically Arminian view of God preached and taught. I want my church to be confessionally Protestant, evangelical and Arminian. Such churches are hard to find outside of fundamentalism. And there, among fundamentalists, in general, either Calvinism or a kind of paradoxical “Calminianism” seem to prevail. There are fundamentalist Arminian churches, of course, but I wouldn’t be able to attend one. What’s largely missing from American church life is a robust, non-fundamentalist but confessional Arminianism. (By “confessional” I don’t mean necessarily creedal; for me “confessional” can mean simply consensual.)

The only way to avoid being openly, robustly either Calvinist or Arminian (as a church) is to avoid public preaching and teaching on the subject of God’s sovereignty in salvation. Unfortunately, that is all too common these days.

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