Predestination, Policy and Polemic

I have just finished reading Peter White’s book, Predestination, Policy and Polemic, Conflict and consensus in the English Church from the Reformation to the Civil War. It is a masterful summary of the topic throughout a varied landscape of Church politics, belief systems, and changing theologies.

…the model of a theological dichotomy between ‘Calvinism’ and ‘Arminianism’ is simply inadequate for understanding either the overall development of doctrine in the Reformation period, or of personal allegiances within it. This is by no means to deny the existence of polarities, but rather to suggest that they were concurrent and evolutionary rather than abruptly linear, that there was development within a continuing spectrum, a development to which theologians of contrasting churchmanship contributed, in spite of their indulgence from time to time in the language of polemic against each other.

White gives us an interesting quote from Arminius himself on his view of Calvin:

…after the reading of Scripture, which I strenuously inculcate, and more than any other (as the whole Academy, yea the conscience of my colleagues will testify) I recommend that the Commentaries of Calvin be read, whom I extol in higher terms than Helmichius himself, as he owned to me, ever did. For I affirm that in the interpretation of the Scriptures Calvin is incomparable, and that his Commentaries are more to be valued than anything that is handed down to us in the Bibliotheca of the Fathers; so much so, that I concede to him a certain spirit of prophecy in which he stands distinguished above all others, above most, yea above all. His Institutes, so far as respects Commonplaces, I give out to be read after the Catechism, as a more extended explanation. But here I add – with , as the writing of all men ought to be read.

Bishop John Hooper summarized early Anglican beliefs on the subject by saying:

It is not a christian man’s part to attribute his salvation to his own free-will, with the Pelagian, and extenuate original sin; nor to make God the author of ill and our damnation, with the Manichee; nor yet to say, God hath written fatal laws, as the Stoic, and with necessity of destiny violently pulleth one by the hair into heaven, and thrusteth the other headlong into hell.

Bishop Latimer outlined what was to become a common theme within Anglicanism regarding predestination – that discussing the subject outside learned circles would only produce chaos and division:

Latimer warned his hearers not to trouble themselves with ‘curious questions of the predestination of God’. In particular, he condemned a ‘lewd opinion of predestination’ based on Acts xiii (‘as many as were ordained to life everlasting believed’) that ‘therefore it is no matter whatsoever we do; for if we be chosen to everlasting life, we shall have it’.

The common target in injunctions like Latimer’s is antinomianism, which was a very legitimate problem in the Church (and still is). White’s book traces the influences of Bucer and Peter Martyr on the emerging Anglican consensus:

Although Bucer and Martyr have much in common which provides an obvious contrast with Hooper and Latimer, there were significant differences between them. There was a spectrum of opinion on the doctrine of predestination in the Edwardian Church which cannot be neatly categorized into indigenous and continental, or ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Lutheran’ influences.

White discusses the view of Cranmer and the early divines as expressed in the Articles of Religion and the Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum on the subjects of free will and grace. White says that “There is compelling evidence of a consensus among Edwardian Protestants that divine grace may be spurned and rejected, that it is not irresistible; human free will must play its part, first to accept or reject, to obey or not to obey, and having obeyed, then to co-operate. The concern of the Reformatio was to refute those who placed such confidence in human free will that they believed that ‘by it alone, without any special grace of Christ’, man could live uprightly.” This view was in synch with that of Erasmus, and indeed his Paraphrases were ordered by the King to be “provided in every parish.”

White discusses John Jewel and highlights his belief that Christ died for all men. White says:

The reprobate for Jewel are those ‘who have refused the word of reconciliation’, for ‘though God be patient and long-suffering, because he would have all men come to repentance; yet, in whom his mercy taketh no place to work their amendment, upon themĀ  he poureth out his wrath and indignation to the utmost’.

White’s contention throughout is that the early Anglicans represented an early Reformed consensus that was not equal to later hardening of doctrine (double decrees, one to life, one to damnation) on the part of Beza and others who responded to Arminius. When various factions would veer, some to the side of totalizing free will, others to the side of a decree to damnation from before the world’s creation, the Crown and Bishops would reel them in to the teaching of the Articles or Religion, which are essentially a Bucerian, early Reformed consensus. Davenant again reflects this consensus in a letter he prepared at the Synod of Dort:

…we do hold that our blessed Saviour by God’s appointment did offer himself up to the Blessed Trinity for the redemption of mankind, and by this oblation once made, did found, confirm and ratify the Evangelical Covenant, which may and ought seriously to be preached to all mankind without exception…consequently we hold, that the whole merit of Christ is not confined to the Elect only, as some here do hold…

I will not weary you with the writings of Richard Hooker, King James I and others. White is very exhaustive in covering this ground, and unless you are into Anglican history, this book may weary you with several very obtuse points of doctrine finely argued. One common refrain throughout the book is the ultimate inability to know with finality about the doctrines discussed. Many of the best divines offered up an argument, but rested on the fact that they could not know. Bishop Laud put it this way: “somewhat about these controversies is unmasterable in this life.”

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