The Predestination Controversy

Stavanger Lutheran Church in Ossian Iowa.

Norwegian Lutheran immigrants to the United States created several different denominations over the years, but the most prominent during the 19th century was the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church known as The Norwegian Synod. The Synod was organized in 1853. In later decades the Synod was rocked by several theological controversies, including fights over absolution, justification, and eventually election/predestination.

    Reading literature from that time you quickly realize that the Predestination Controversy (naadevalgsstriden) was not confined to seminaries but divided entire Norwegian communities in the Midwest. Jon Gjerde puts it this way:

The controversy began among the clergy but quickly spread to the laity. Church members passionately discussed the theological questions, according to one participant, “on the streets and in the alleys, in stores and in saloons, and through a continuous flow of agitating articles [in newspapers and periodicals].” words occasionally led to fights. “They argued predestination in the saloons, with their tongues,” said one, “and settled it in the alley with their fists.” Although fisticuffs were rare, certain Norwegian congregations suffered wrenching internal strife. “The ties of old friendship broke,” remembered one man. “Neighbor did not speak to neighbor. The daughter who was married to a member of the other party became a stranger in her father’s house. Man and wife turned into dog and cat. Brothers and sisters were sundered from one  another.” (Gjerde 1997 page 118)


Gjerde, Jon. 1997. The Minds of the West Ethnocultural Evolution in the Rural Middle West, 1830-1917. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Good Stuff

Here are links to some good audio and text:

Borges lectures from the Sixties.

James Jordan lectures on six days of creation as the basis of Christian belief.

Rich Bledsoe lectures on living as the Church.

James Jordan thoughts, which I will steal here:

  • We want as many instruments in church as possible
  • The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is the theology of music
  • If our theology and liturgy is worth anything, it must be conversational – like God in Trinity
  • Theologians: Can’t we have a conversation?
  • If it has breath, it’s music. And the Holy Spirit is breath.
  • When the Kingdom comes, music comes
  • Would you ever sing a sermon?
  • When the Spirit is released, music is released. Reformation Europe.
  • Don’t let music flow from the world into the church. That’s the wrong direction.
  • The church must have her own musical style, for the Tabernacle and Temple had their own distinctive smell.
  • Ask yourself what you want your kids to learn by the time they are 18, then you know what to do in your liturgy
  • Musical instruments are an extension of the human body, which is itself an instrument
  • People want Natural Law as an alternative to Scripture, or a “parallel stream”, because what the Bible actually says is obnoxious to modern man. People want to fit in with the world.
  • The biblical chronology question is the camel’s nose in the tent, the first domino to fall.
  • The Bible is stuffed full of history. Anti-gnosticism.
  • Conservative evangelical kids go off to college,  and they become liberal once they start having sex (NTW)
  • The more prosperous a nation is, the more the Christians want to talk about the imminent end of the world and how everything is all about suffering.
  • Often a Prophet predicts the destruction of a city, and the fulfillment of that prophecy establishes the truthfulness of his predictions of the longer-term future.
  • Christian political engagement runs the risk of being ideas devoid of personhood, a Christian moral framework without a personal God.

Rahner on the Trinity

Peter Leithart quotes Karl Rahner on the Trinity:

Nowadays when we speak of God’s incarnation, the theological and religious emphasis lies on the fact that ‘God’ became man, that ‘one’ of the divine persons (of the Trinity) took on the flesh, and not on the fact that this person is precisely the person of the Logos. One has the feeling that, for the catechism of head and heart (as contrasted with the printed catechism), the Christian’s idea of the incarnation would still not have to change at all if there were no Trinity. For God would still, as (the one) person, have become man, which is in fact all the average Christian explicitly grasps when he confesses the incarnation.

How true this is! Do we reflect on God (unitive) becoming man, or on the Second Person of the Trinity (in unity) becoming man?

Rudolph Refutes Donlon

The Rev. Mark Rudolph, a Rwandan priest serving in Philadelphia, has offered a paper that interacts with Canon Kevin Donlon’s paper of last year. The situation has moved so far down the road from that point that these issues are becoming more historic than current, but it is worth reading Rudolph’s interactions. Remember that the first Washington Statement had appeared, followed by Donlon’s document. Rudolph’s paper is then a third work of substance, dealing with theological issues from a classical Anglican perspective. I wish that there had been more of this sort of thing, conducted in the open, rather than the murky situation that we encountered. It is worth noting that the AMiA’s foundational documents are thoroughly Reformed in their nature, while its practice, most notably at the Winter Conferences, has been indistinguishable from the wider evangelical world, by which I mean a-theological and lacking discernment.
Rudolph’s closing summary follows, and the entire paper can be downloaded here.

We are grateful that Donlon wants “to assist in widening the scope of understanding,” but his good intentions still leave many readers of his document unsatisfied. This is true for two reasons.
a. First, Donlon has demonstrated that he must reach quite deeply into his bag of canonical history and language – and that largely outside of common Anglican usage – to come up with an apologetic for the proposal that is coming from Pawleys.
b. Second, even if I grant that Donlon has entirely succeeded in making his argument, his response is irrelevant. Why? Because Donlon has purported to respond to the DC paper to make his case. Instead, we find that the most fundamental questions raised by the DC paper remain unanswered.
Does Pawleys have the moral right to drastically change the trajectory of AMiA(s) from that which a large majority of AMiA(s) clergy and churches and many in Rwanda thought it was?

I hope to have a paper out at some point that looks into Donlon’s theology as embodied in some of his presentations and papers from over the years, but that project is dragging on and on, so I thank Rev. Rudolph for filling this gap!

The Sociology of the Church

Some unrelated quotes from the book:

…the reasons for denominational diversity are deep-seated, complex, and cannot be removed by a wave of a magic wand or anathema. The problem can only be effectively resolved by local communication, cooperation, and prayer. It must be recognized by all parties that there are legitimate strengths and weaknesses in all the branches of the church.

The very best, and indeed only way to overcome disunity is to take as much of the truth as possible, make it as visible as possible through life and proclamation, and suffuse one’s life with as much communion with God as possible. These radical steps may seem calculated to separate the church further from itself, and they are indeed the opposite of the worldly lowest common denominator approach to unity, but they are the only steps God will honor.

The schism is the failure to maintain communion with God, and to recognize the sacramental presence of Christ in other churches.

Also, the teacher in the institutional church has a right to expect a special power from the Holy Spirit in his teaching that the parachurch teacher cannot claim.

The second commandment forbids bowing down and serving anything made by human hands in an attempt to conjure and manipulate God. It does not forbid the making of artistic or symbolic objects, nor does it forbid their placement in the environment of worship.

The most obvious bodily movement missing from “Bible believing Protestant” culture and worship is the sacred dance. The psalms repeatedly enjoin dancing, yet psalm-singing churches do not dance, and neither do hymn-singing churches. If there was ever proof that a Greek rationalistic intellectualism has robbed the church of her Biblical foundations, this is it. The African churches, which have not been ruined by rationalism, use dancing. Perhaps we shall learn from them.

in spite of all the yelling about abortion, and all the rhetoric about abortion’s being murder, how many evangelical leaders have come out and demanded the death penalty for conspiracy to commit abortion? Has anybody? No wonder God does not take evangelicalism seriously!

Conversion from the Top Down

I finally finished reading James Jordan’s The Sociology of the Church today. I am looking over bits of it and re-read this section on converting the nations:

Americans (evangelicals) like to believe the myth that society is transformed from the “bottom up” and not from the “top down.” This flies squarely in the face both of history and of Scripture. The history of Israel, as recorded in Scripture, is not a history of revivals from the bottom up, but of kings and their actions. Good kings produced a good nation; bad kings a bad nation. The order is always seen from the top down, though of course with real feedback from the bottom up.

To my knowledge, there has never been, in the entire history of Presbyterianism, a man who was set aside to be a scholar and writer. Without exception, Presbyterians load their best men down with detail and trivial tasks, so that they accomplish little. Their best thinkers are made teachers in theological institutions, where they are made to spend their days going over basics with young, immature men just out of generally worthless college educations.

We can contrast this with the armies of scholars maintained by Rome, and the small cadre maintained in Episcopalian circles. The difference is marked, and points to the fundamental difference between these two groups.The catholic party (Roman and Anglican) is frankly elitist. It strives to convert and control the elite in society, and it arms its best men for that task, giving them time for reflection and writing. The evangelical party (Presbyterian and Baptist, especially the later) is infected largely with the heresy of democracy, and believes (wrongly) that the conversion of society comes with the conversion of the masses.

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 them  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.”

Beza the Mormon

If you are familiar with the Book of Mormon, you probably know its radical doctrine of the Fall:

Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.

II Nephi 2.25

So listen to Peter White talking about Beza:

Beza could even claim that ‘it was good that sin and death should enter into the world’ on the grounds that it was a necessary step before the benefits of the work of Christ. In that sense Adam’s Fall was ‘the best and the most profitable thing that could be done for us.’ [Beza, Quaestiones, I. 103-7]

Pretty wild stuff!

Critique from Within

N.T. Wright highlights how Paul and Jesus critiqued Judaism from within. He says:

Paul’s polemical engagement with paganism, however, was not exactly like a non-Christian Jewish engagement might have been. It involved, as its reflex, a critique of Judaism. But it was not a critique from outside, from a pagan standpoint. It was a critique from within.

…The prophet does not criticize Israel from a non-Jewish standpoint; he claims to represent Israel’s true vocation and belief, calling her back to an allegiance to her God from which she had declined. Though he may be regarded as a disloyal Jew, the prophet always claims the high ground: he stands for true loyalty, which the present regime or ideology is abandoning (compare Elijah’s exchange with Ahab in 1 Kings 18:17-18). The prophet’s task is to speak from the heart of the tradition, to criticize and warn those who, claiming to represent the tradition, are in fact abandoning it.

And again of Jesus:

One of the noblest and most deep-rooted traditions in Judaism is that of critique from within. The Pharisees were deeply critical of most of their Jewish contemporaries. The Essenes regarded all Jews except themselves as heading for judgment; they had transferred to themselves all the promises of vindication and salvation, while they heaped anathemas on everyone else, not least the Pharisees. That did not make the Pharisees, or the Essenes, anti-Jewish.

Healthy organizations of any kind can tolerate dissent and internal self-critique. They don’t have to shut down conversation and hunt down anyone who has dared to speak against their policies. They can conduct conversations in the light and they don’t have to obfuscate. Scientology would be an example of the opposite pattern. Hide, litigate, and shut people up. Paul was chased from city to city and beat up to shut him up.

Unhealthy organizations obfuscate, plead and discipline for the crime of speaking up. In most Christian situations, like the current Sovereign Grace debacle, you’ll see “O tempora, O mores?” type of criticisms leveled at the troublemakers. Pietism and moralism come into play with “why can’t we all just get along”, “what will unbelievers think” and “can’t we just get back to spreading the Gospel” questions thrown around to end debate. This semi-gnostic approach to reality assumes that it is not nice and pious to delve into the messy realities of politics and personalities. You have to stay above the fray in the airy realm of the spiritual. Shut down that conversation. These folks must cringe when they read the rhetoric used by the Reformers and Church Fathers. Listen to Tertullian:

You are fond of spectacles, expect the greatest of all spectacles, the last and eternal judgment of the universe. How shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs, and fancied gods, groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness, so many magistrates, who persecuted the name of the Lord, liquifying in fiercer fires than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sage philosophers blushing in red-hot flames with their deluded scholars;”

Wow, did he miss the Sunday School lesson on being nice? This is not to say that our conversations shouldn’t be irenic when possible, but sarcasm has a very Scriptural place (cf. Doug Wilson, The Serrated Edge). “Foolish Galatians…castrate yourselves,” “You are of your Father the Devil.” And so forth. But we are living in a nauseating age where the worst can get away with just about anything if they just say “bless your heart” as they knife you in the back.


The Challenge of Jesus, N.T. Wright

What Saint Paul Really Said, N.T. Wright