Sweet, Pleasant, and Unspeakable Comfort: The Anglican View of Predestination (Part II)

In the first post in this series, I established that the Calvinist view of the doctrine of election, sometimes referred to as double predestination, is not biblical. In this post, I will attempt to establish that this view is also not Anglican. In the posts that follow, I will focus on what the Bible actually does teach about election and predestination, which also happens to be what Anglicanism teaches about election and predestination.

Some people may wonder why I am taking so much time at the outset to show that the classical Calvinist position is wrong. It is not because I want to bash Calvinism. At the risk of sounding condescending (“Some of my best friends are Calvinists!”), I have a great deal of respect for Calvin and for what Calvin gets right. He had a keen mind which was a gift to the Church, and much of what he wrote and taught complements Anglicanism fairly well. Moreover, his work had a huge impact on the Anglican Reformers, and it would be ludicrous for anyone to claim otherwise. Hooker in particular speaks highly of Calvin and praises him for his many theological achievements. Yet Hooker was also willing to point out where Calvinism had it wrong. Often Hooker was generous to Calvin, blaming the problems he saw in Calvinism on Calvin’s followers and successors rather than on Calvin himself. There is probably some truth to the notion that later generations of Calvinists have not always properly understood what Calvin was doing. Nevertheless, while Calvin is not personally responsible for coming up with the TULIP language, Calvin’s teaching in the Institutes certainly supports the notion of double predestination.

The reason why I choose to begin this series by pointing out the flaws in Calvinist predestination is because it is a crude version of the Calvinist understanding of predestination that most people have in mind when they hear the word predestination. Moreover, in recent times, Anglo-Calvinists have argued that the Calvinist view of predestination is not only compatible with Anglican teaching but is actually explicitly mandated by the formularies. As we shall see, nothing could be further from the case. Anglicanism definitely has a teaching on election which includes predestination, but it is not the double predestination of Calvinism. Classical Anglicanism’s rejection of Calvinist predestination must be understood if we are to come to know what Anglicanism actually teaches on this important subject.

An Explanation of Terms

Before going any further, it would probably be worth our while to stop for a moment and give definition to some of these theological words that I am bandying about. Both election and predestination have to do with salvation. Sometimes it is assumed that predestination is a word that refers to every aspect of our lives, that if you say that you believe in predestination it means that you do not believe in any kind of free will. This is not a view held by Christians. Even Calvinism affirms that individuals have a kind of limited free will when it comes to the every day decisions of our lives, where we work, who we marry, how we style our hair, whether we get pizza or caviar for dinner, etc. The question under consideration is not whether we have any kind of free will but specifically whether or not we have free will when it comes to God. Can we as fallen human beings seek out and find God or is this impossible for us? Or to put it another way, do we have a role in saving ourselves or is it all done on God’s end?

In the context of that conversation, election refers to God’s action towards the faithful, God’s choosing of those who will be saved. We use elect here in the same way it is used when you take an elective course in college. It is not something you have to do. It is something you elect to do, something you choose. The elect are those whom God has chosen. And predestination refers to how that choosing takes place. It’s a bit crude, but if we think of heaven and hell as destinations, then predestination would be a decision that God makes about which destination you will arrive at before you even begin your journey. Predestination means that God’s election takes place before you were ever born, before even the world began.

Election in the Anglican Formularies

It is sometimes assumed that the only place where Anglicanism teaches anything about Predestination is in the 39 Articles. Though Article XVII is certainly the most direct source of Anglican teaching on predestination and election, there is also significant teaching to be found in the Catechism and in the classical Baptism rite in the BCP. We will explore the latter in a future post.

Article XVII is labeled “Of Predestination and Election” and it is one of the longest articles. It tells us that God predestined to eternal life those whom He chose out of mankind before the world began, so that they would be delivered from sin and death through faith in Christ, and that the knowledge of their election should be a comfort and joy. It also tells us that “for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the devil doth thrust them either into desperation or into wretchlessness of most unclean living no less perilous than desperation.” It is here that modern Anglo-Calvinists sometimes assert that an argument for double predestination is being made. However, nothing in the language about “curious and carnal persons” indicates that they have become “curious and carnal” because God willed it to be so from the beginning. Certainly we do not see any of the typical Calvinist language here, referring to irresistible grace or to Christ’s saving work being for the elect alone. Rather, the article asserts that the devil will use “the sentence of God’s Predestination” to provoke those who have not received Christ into a state of panic, out of which they will accomplish their own downfall through sinful living.

Article XVII does not tell us whether or not Christ’s atonement is for all, but the Catechism does. The English priest and scholar Henry Hammond makes note of this in his treatise On Fundamentals in a Notion Referring to Practice which first appeared in 1654. At the time, Hammond was in exile for having supported the monarchy and thus the Anglican cause during the English Civil War. Much of what he writes in the Fundamentals is aimed at the Puritans who had taken the reigns of both the English government and the English Church, and so he spends a considerable amount of time attacking Calvinist ideas about election, which the Puritans held, making clear that traditional Anglicanism teaches something else:

The Catechism of the Church of England established by law, and preserved in our Liturgy as a special part of it, expounds the Creed in this sense, “I believe in God the Father which made me and all the world; 2. In God the Son who redeemed me and all mankind; 3. In God the Holy Ghost who sanctifieth me and all the elect people of God;” where, as creation is common to more creatures than redemption, and redemption than sanctification, so mankind, to which redemption belongs, as it is far narrower than the world, or the works of God’s creation, so it is far wider than the catalogue of “all the elect people of God,” to whom sanctification belongs.

Thus, Hammond establishes that the Catechism teaches that Jesus died for all people, to take away the sins of the whole world, not just the elect. He goes on to add numerous examples from the liturgy, including the statement in the Eucharistic prayer that Christ’s sacrifice is “sufficient” to deal with “the sins of the whole world.” Hammond also notes that this understanding of Christ’s death as being for all people is spelled out in Articles II, VII, XV, and particularly in Article XXXI which says that “The oblation of Christ once made is a perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction or all the sins of the whole world.”

This clear teaching that Jesus’ death is for all people, to take away the sins of all, for the forgiveness of all, is reflected throughout the scriptures. Calvinist double predestination relies in part upon the idea of a limited atonement. If God knows from all eternity who He is to save and who He wishes to damn, then it follows that He would not want to give Himself for the damned as well as the saved, or else He would be working against His own purposes. Therefore, Jesus must have only died for the elect. Except that the Bible says otherwise in many, many places, John 3:16 being only the most popular example, and thus Anglican theology reflects the truth of the scripture, that Jesus died for the sins of all.

The Anglican Divines and Double Predestination

In Hammond’s estimation, double predestination is a particularly cruel teaching, for many of the reasons outlined in the previous post, that it makes God into an evil and unloving figure, that it puts great doubts into the hearts of the faithful as to God’s intentions towards them, and even that it creates a situation in which those who are secure in their sense of their own election may become brazen and cruel in their treatment of others. We will return to Hammond in the next part of our series to see how he understands God’s election in a more positive, scriptural way, but it is worth noting before passing on from here that Hammond’s view was typical of his Anglican contemporaries. While not much ink was spilled on the subject by the Reformers at the time of the Elizabethan Settlement, the growing discontent of Puritans in the seventeenth century led to a much wider set of writings defending the Anglican teaching and condemning the Calvinist teaching. George Bull, William Beveridge, Peter Heylyn, and Richard Montague wrote similar anti-Calvinist treatises, to name just a few. Each grounded his arguments not only in Scripture and the Fathers, but also in the Anglican formularies.

For many of these seventeenth century fathers, the issue is not simply the interpretation of Calvin’s work but Calvin himself. “I must go back again to Calvin, whom I left under a suspicion of making God the author of sin,” wrote Peter Heylyn. He acknowledges that the great conciliar Anglican Richard Field, among others, had tried to “absolve and free” Calvin of this charge by re-interpreting Calvin’s work in a more Anglican light, but Heylyn does not buy it. “By [Calvin's] doctrine of Predestination, he hath laid such grounds as have involved his followers in the same guilt also.”

Heylyn is less generous with Calvin than I would be, but his sentiment is essentially correct. Calvinist double predestination is incompatible with Scripture, incompatible with the God revealed in Scripture, and finally incompatible with the teaching of Anglicanism. This does not mean that Calvin is somehow useless or that all things Calvinist are bad, but it certainly means that on this particular point, either Calvinism is mistaken or Anglicanism is. There is no way of melding the two together, nor is there any reason to have to do so. Anglicanism provides an elegant and beautiful theology of election that accords with Scripture and that is meant to inspire joy rather than terror.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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12 Responses to Sweet, Pleasant, and Unspeakable Comfort: The Anglican View of Predestination (Part II)

  1. Peter Carrell says:

    Very helpful clarification of some things that have puzzled me!

    Clearly Anglicans do not subscribe to Limited Atonement but to Limited Calvinism instead :)

    • Cadog says:

      Peter – I have not had time to absorb Fr. Jonathan’s latest post (still wrestling with the prior post and thread that really has me thinking, still!) … but your quip is spot on!

      Thanksgiving greetings to all!

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Great line, Peter. I’m going to have to remember that.

  2. Robert F says:

    If the atonement is limited, then it is untruthful to witness to an unbeliever that Christ has died for their sins and they should put their faith in him for salvation, because we do not in fact know that Christ died for this particular individual and consequently we do not know that salvation is available to them. The best we could truthfully witness to such an individual is that they MIGHT be among those who Christ died to save, and so they may be saved by believing in him, but if he did not die for them then they can neither believe in him or be saved. Good news?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Yep. You’ve got it. Now, a Calvinist response to that would be that we need to preach to them anyway because we do not know who has been chosen and who has not, and furthermore that it is through our preaching of the Word that God gives the gift of faith to His elect. And there is some truth to that, but only in so much as it acknowledges that God works through His Word. If the Gospel is only for some and not for all, then when I preach to all, I’m really involved in a task of excavation rather than preaching salvation. I’m trying to find the elect with the Word, rather than trying to reach the lost with the Gospel.

      • Whit says:

        In other words, Calvinists are not apostates, or even heretics, simply wrong on a particular question.

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        Yes, I would generally agree with that. There are many virtues to Calvinism and many places where Calvinism and Anglicanism do overlap. I hope to be able to point to as much in some future series.

  3. Charles says:

    I’m still wondering what extent formulae comprehend infralapsarian calvinism, amyraldism, and/or arminianism? What is the Anglican answer to these categories?

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Can you clarify your question a bit? I’m having trouble understanding. Are you asking whether the Anglican formularies support any of those things or are you asking what it is that the Anglican formularies come up with that makes them different from these other theories?

      • Charles says:

        Hello Fr. Johnathan,

        my understanding is the 39 comprehends the categories above, allowing a range of opinion on both the persuasive power of preventing grace as well as opinions on the order of salvation. I guess I’m asking the latter question, “how are the Anglican formularies different from these other catergories”?

      • Fr. Jonathan says:

        I don’t plan to do in depth comparison of every schema, but I think that the next couple posts in this series will help to answer your question.

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