Monday, April 23, 2007

Predestination in Anglican & Reformed (Calvinist) Formularies

( a short essay addressed to various enquirers concerning the place of Predestination in The Anglican Way, by Peter Toon )

In a period of human history when much is made of the personal autonomy of the human being, his right to choose and his possession of basic human rights, the teaching of predestination unto everlasting life by the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit does not immediately appeal to many western Christians. It seems to exalt God too much as it humbles man excessively.

On the other hand, there are today a few who feel so weak, helpless, alienated and hopeless in the context of modern western life and before God, that for them only the message of sovereign choice and action by the Holy Trinity in mercy on their behalf seem to meet their helpless state and condition.

Looking back through time, one reason why divine predestination seemed to obvious and true to many Christians in the sixteenth century was that they strongly believed that such was the nature of their sinfulness and separation from God the Father, and so powerless were they to do anything in and of themselves to make themselves acceptable to the holy Lord God, that they surely knew that only the sovereign grace of God through Christ and by the Holy Spirit could save them. And to believe this was to believe that God, the eternal and omniscient LORD, must have planned all this before he made the world. As they read the Bible with its narrative of the election of Abraham, Israel, and Jesus, and then meditated upon teaching in places like Romans 8-11 and Ephesians 1 concerning God's eternal purpose in Christ Jesus, they followed Augustine of Hippo and other theologians of the Church in believing that the only real and valid reason that they became recipients of the saving grace of God was that they were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. Their choice of God was in fact God's choice of them.

This doctrine of predestination to life is most clearly taught in Article XVII of The Church of England's "Thirty-Nine Articles" of 1571 and it is assumed in various places in The Book of Common Prayer (editions of 1549, 1552, 1559 & 1662). See the end of this piece for Article XVII in a form of modern English.

Within the Anglican Standards of Faith (Formularies) the doctrine of divine election is kept within the context of worship and doctrine, especially as a means of giving all praise for salvation to the Holy Trinity. It is an absolutely necessary doctrine for without it the Church loses the ability to confess in gratitude and awe the relation of God's activity in space and time for our redemption to His eternal being and nature as a Trinity of Persons and the One God who is omnipotent, omniscient, righteous and holy.

However, the human mind possesses by divine creation the capacity of logic and often seeks to be logical in certain areas of thought, action and experience. If logic is applied to the evidence in Scripture of divine election, then it is easily possible to use this logic to deduce that if God chose millions to be the recipients of his saving grace then he also (in his inscrutable sovereign wisdom) also chose millions not to be the recipients of his saving grace. Here the logical emphasis is not upon the failure of the millions to receive the Gospel with obedient faith but on God's sovereign choice not to act in them to cause them to believe.

This negative side to divine election was resisted in the Reformed Catholicism of the Church of England, even though exiles who had been in Switzerland and who returned in the reign of Elizabeth I pressed for double predestination to be included in the Confession of Faith of the reformed Church of England—as also did Puritans in the latter part of Elizabeth's reign and when James I came to the throne in 1604. These exiles and Puritans had been influenced by the Reformed Churches in Switzerland, especially by the teaching of John Calvin and Theodore Beza, major reformers who felt obliged through their scriptural studies to admit to the reality of divine election not only for those who believed the gospel but also for those who did not believe it.

What is called double predestination entered the mind-set of the Reformed (Presbyterian) Churches in the mid-sixteenth century and is found in their Confessions of Faith, although the specific place where it is stated in the Confessions is not uniform. Perhaps the clearest, and the most accessible, logical statement, of the twofold nature of divine predestination is found a century later in The Westminster Confession of Faith and The Larger Catechism (which were put together by English Presbyterian-minded Puritans at Westminster Abbey in the mid 1640s in the period when the Anglican Liturgy and Articles of Religion were prohibited in the English Church; later they became the Standards of the Presbyterian National Church of Scotland). [In the W. Confession, chapter 3 is "Of God's Eternal Decree" (following chapter one on Scripture and two on The Holy Trinity) and in it we read that God "ordained them (those not elected to life) to dishonour and wrath for their sin".

There is no doubt that when held within a warm biblical piety, in awe and reverence before God, and with great humility (as it seems to me it was by Calvin himself) the full doctrine of double predestination has and does make strong Christians, in the sense that they believe that God is everything and they are nothing and what they are is by the grace of God alone. This doctrine has given and can put iron in the blood, as it were—as the history of "Calvinist people" demonstrates. The danger with it—as I demonstrated in my first book, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism (1967)—is that as a doctrine within a logical system it can so easily become cerebral and ideological and thereby take away all desire to proclaim the Gospel, to evangelize and to do good to all men, for in the end, it is held, God will bring his elect to himself in his own sovereign way. (See also my book, Puritans and Calvinism of 1973).

In contrast, the Anglican doctrine as set out in Article XVII recognizes what is abundantly clear in the Scriptures and presents it in a careful, non speculative way, so that the doctrine makes most sense not in rational debate but as we bow before God in worship, thanking him for his saving mercy and grace, and meditating upon the atoning work of Christ for us. So while a good Anglican clergyman is required to believe in Divine election in the sense of election unto everlasting life, he is not required to believe, teach and confess the seeming logical corollary, that God specifically ordained many to wrath and condemnation. In fact, in public teaching he ought to avoid this—even if he may personally believe it. One final word, the supposed excesses of "Calvinism" (by which is usually meant high or hyper Calvinism), of which not a few "anglo-catholic" Anglicans complain, is no excuse for rejecting the important place of Divine Election in the Anglican Formularies and thus in Reformed Catholicism.

17 Predestination and election

Predestination to life belongs to God's everlasting purpose. By this is meant that before the foundation of the world, it is his unchangeable decree, in accordance with his secret counsel to deliver from the curse and damnation those who he has chosen in Christ, and to bring them by him to everlasting salvation, as vessels of his mercy (Rom. 9:21ff). Therefore, those on whom such an excellent blessing of God is bestowed are called according to God's purpose by the Holy Spirit working in them in God's good time; through grace they obey this calling and are freely justified by God; they become the sons of God by adoption (Rom 3:24; 8:15f); they are conformed to the image of his only Son Jesus Christ; they lead holy lives that are given to good works to the glory of God; and at last, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting bliss (Rom. 8:29f; Eph. 2:8-10).

The reverent consideration of our predestination and election in Christ is full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable strength and comfort to godly persons, who feel the working in themselves of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh and their earthly passions and drawing their thoughts upward to high and heavenly realities. This teaching is welcome to us both because it strongly establishes and confirms our assurance of eternal salvation to be enjoyed through Christ and also because it kindles in us a fervent love to God. For unregenerate persons, however, who are moved by idle curiosity and who do not have the Spirit of Christ, to be constantly confronted with the doctrine of God's predestination is dangerous and disastrous, since the devil uses it to drive them either to despair or to abandon themselves to immoral and ungodly living, which is no less perilous than despair.

Furthermore, we must accept God's promises in the way in which they are ordinarily presented to us in Holy Scripture, and in all that we do the will of God is to be followed precisely as it is revealed to us in the Word of God. April 22, 2007

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