A Problem with Recent Treatments of the Doctrine of Predestination

Dictionary of Everyday Theology and Culture. Bruce Demarest and Keith Mathews, eds. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010. ISBN: 978-1600061929
Peter Thuesen, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-0195174274

G. B. McClanahan and Christopher Bounds

THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 2. Fall 2010. Volume 28.
Date Posted July 10, 2010

The doctrine of predestination has been one of the most contentiously debated theological topics through much of church history. Today, it continues to incite lively discussion in both academic and local church contexts.

Unfortunately, with the recent resurgence of Reformed theology in the American context, attempts to bolster the doctrine by grounding it in consensual Christian thought have led to erroneous statements about the doctrine. In the recently released Dictionary of Everyday Theology, Bruce Demarest makes the claim that "Most Christians believe that according to God's wisdom and pleasure, he in eternity past sovereignly chose from among all of fallen humanity yet to be created the ones he willed to be saved by grace. The rest he left to suffer the just punishment of their sins. . . . The saved are the objects of God's decretive or unconditional will, while the lost are the objects of his permissive or conditional will."

This "single predestination" view of what "most Christians believe" becomes outlandish when one realizes that Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy make up the largest bulk of Christians in the world today and neither one of these traditions holds to such a view. Furthermore, one could make the argument that this is not even the major position on predestination in Protestantism today. When Reformed scholars, like Demarest, make bold claims like this, they mislead their audience about the acceptance of this doctrine within the larger church.

These types of overstatements are happening in other areas of scholarship. Attempts to ground the doctrine in historical consensus have led to unfortunate misinterpretations. In his book, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine, Peter Thuesen, associate professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, provides an excellent treatment of the doctrine of predestination in the American context. However, in describing the doctrine's early historical background, Thuesen clearly articulates Demarest's position on predestination as the consensual view of the Western Church after Augustine.

Specifically, when discussing Augustine's views on God's grace, Thuesen presents Augustine's teaching on predestination, particularly on the elect, as the "more or less official" position in the West. He leads readers to believe that Augustinian teaching on election is standard "orthodoxy" in the Western church until the late medieval period. While Reformed views on predestination would benefit from this type of historical validation, the evidence speaks strongly to the contrary. Careful research shows that the Western church did not endorse Augustine's doctrine of election. Instead, the church navigated between the extremes of both Pelagianism and Augustinianism.

A quick survey of scholarly treatments addressing the fifth and sixth centuries of the church quickly reveals this point. Jaroslav Pelikan in The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine: Volume 1 The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) makes clear that the church's official condemnation of Pelagianism did not entail an unconditional endorsement of Augustine's teaching. While the Western church accepted Augustine's anti-Pelagian doctrine of grace, it was "shorn of its predestinarian elements." The "official teaching of Latin Christianity" rejected Augustine's "particular and idiosyncratic theory" of predestination.

Thomas Oden, in his attempt to state Christianity's consensus on the issue of election in The Transforming Power of Grace, argues that the Western church located the doctrine of predestination in divine foreknowledge, rather than in an act of God's sovereign will before creation. God's knowledge of a Christian's exercise of "faith" and an unbeliever's "recalcitrance" does not "determine either" response.

Similarly, Gerald Bray, a Reformed theologian, in his work on the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. VI, Romans, teaches that the early church Fathers as a whole did not follow Augustine's interpretation of predestination in Romans 9. Instead, they saw passages like "Jacob have I loved and Esau have I hated" as an example of God's foreknowledge and assessment of what these two brothers would do later in life. The Fathers were careful to clarify that God was not the "unilateral" cause of love and hatred here. The Fathers who come after Augustine, as a whole, dismissed his predestinarian reading of this text.

Christopher Hall, in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, admits that the church saw Augustine's teaching on sin and its effect upon the human will as much closer to the truth than Pelagius's view. However, the Church's embrace of grace's necessity for repentance and faith did not "necessitate the Church to accept all of Augustine's soteriology," such as his extreme teaching on predestination.

Likewise, J.N.D. Kelley, in Early Christian Doctrines, recognizes the triumph of Augustinian theology in the West. However, he qualifies this by saying that Augustine's teaching on "the irresistibility of grace and his severe interpretation of predestination were tacitly dropped." He argues that the Western church in the end would embrace a Semi-Augustinian theology, one with a synergistic understanding of salvation, but with priority given to God's grace in all.

In conclusion, while recent treatments of the doctrine of predestination have made a Reformed perspective look like the dominant view in Christianity and the consensus of the early church in the West, such proponents suffer from historical and ecclesial myopia.