According to the most lengthy of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:
The godly consideration of Predestination and our Election in Christ is full of sweet, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh in their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God. And yet, the study of the subject has most dangerous effects on the “carnal professor.”1
Speaking of the doctrine of election as “a comforting article when it is correctly treated,” the Formula of Concord (Lutheran) offers a similar caution:
Accordingly we believe and maintain that if anybody teaches the doctrine of the gracious election of God to eternal life in such a way that disconsolate Christians can find no comfort in this doctrine but are driven to doubt and despair, or in such a way that the impenitent are strengthened in their self-will, he is not teaching the doctrine according to the Word and will of God…2
During the magisterial Reformation, the doctrine of election was regarded as a corollary to justification, the nail in the coffin of synergism (justification and regeneration by human cooperation with grace). Pastorally, election was used to drive away despair and anxiety over one’s salvation. John Bradford, an Edwardian divine who was martyred under “bloody Mary,” wrote that this doctrine was a “most principal” tenet since it places our salvation entirely in God’s hands. “This, I say, let us do, and not be too busybodies in searching the majesty and glory of God, or in nourishing doubting of salvation: whereto we all are ready enough.”3 As we will see, all of this is carefully expounded by Calvin as well.
Did Calvin Invent Predestination?
More than anything else, Calvin and Calvinism are known for this doctrine. In one sense, that is quite surprising. First, the doctrine held by Calvin–namely, predestination to both salvation (election) and damnation (reprobation)–was insisted upon by many of the church fathers. Augustine took it for granted as the catholic teaching, in opposition especially to Pelagius. Aquinas wrote,
From all eternity some are preordained and directed to heaven; they are called the predestined ones: “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children according to the good pleasure of his will” [Eph. 1:5]. From all eternity, too, it has been settled that others will not be given grace, and these are called the reprobate or rejected ones: “I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau” [Mal. 1:2-3]. Divine choice is the reason for the distinction: “…according as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world.”… God predestines because he loves… The choice is not dictated by any goodness to be discovered in those who are chosen; there is no antecedent prompting of God’s love [Rom. 9:11-13].4
Lodging the cause of election in the foreknowledge of human decision and action, says Aquinas, is the fountainhead of Pelagianism.5 Thomas Bradwardine, the fourteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, recalled his discovery of this great truth:
Idle and a fool in God’s wisdom, I was misled by an unorthodox error at a time when I was still pursuing philosophical studies. Sometimes I went to listen to the theologians discussing this matter [of grace and free will], and the school of Pelagius seemed to me nearest the truth… In this philosophical faculty I seldom heard a reference to grace, except for some ambiguous remarks. What I heard day in and day out was that we are masters of our own free acts, that ours is the choice to act well or badly, to have virtues or sins, and much more along this line… But every time I listened to the Epistle reading in church and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will–as in the case in Romans 9, “It is obviously not a question of human will and effort, but of divine mercy,” and its many parallels–grace displeased me, ungrateful as I was… However, even before I transferred to the faculty of theology, the text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and, captured by a vision of the truth, it seemed I saw from afar how the grace of God precedes all good works… That is why I express my gratitude to Him who has given me this grace as a gift.6
This personal revolution was so deeply practical that Bradwardine turned his energies toward the recovery of the doctrine of grace and, with it, a strong emphasis on God’s unconditional election. The Case of God Against the Pelagians was his declaration of war on “The new Pelagians who oppose our whole presentation of predestination and reprobation, attempting either to eliminate them completely or, at least, to show that they are dependent on our merits.”7
“I received it all from Staupitz,” Luther said of his mentor, Johann von Staupitz, the Augustinian abbot whose most famous work was titled Eternal Predestination and Its Execution In Time.8 “And thus the claim for man, namely, that he is master over his works from beginning to end, is destroyed,” Staupitz wrote. “So, therefore, the origin of the works of Christian life is predestination, its means is justification, and its aim is glorification or thanksgiving–all these are the achievements not of nature but of grace.”9 Luther’s defense of a rigorous version of predestination in The Bondage of the Will is well-known and it is also defended in both earlier and later editions of his Romans commentary.
Countless other examples from church history could be offered. It is not all of one piece, of course: especially in the Middle Ages, where confidence in human ability was a practically–if not always officially–held dogma. Facienti quod in se est Deus non denigat gratium was the medieval slogan: “God will not deny his grace to those who do what lies within them.”
Nonetheless, predestination was well established before the Reformation, and then defended again by the first generation reformers. As such, there was little peculiar about a young Frenchman defending this doctrine in his commentaries, tracts, and in his famous Institutes. The predestination which Calvin taught was catholic and evangelical, as it was faithful to the biblical text despite the scandal to human wisdom, speculation, and pride.
How Central to Calvin’s Thought?
Many of Calvin’s critics would concede that he was not the first to promote such a doctrine. What made Calvin’s system distinct, however, was that it was the first to make predestination central. Or, at least, that is how the story is often told. But there are some serious flaws in this popular assumption.
First, as historical theologian Richard Muller has pointed out indefatigably, the notion of a “central dogma” is itself imported from the Hegelian tradition of historical theologians. “According to Schweizer’s reading of the older dogmatics,” says Muller, “the orthodox Reformed theologians attempted to build a synthetic, deductive, and therefore irrefutable system of theology upon the primary proposition of an absolute divine decree of predestination.”10 Later, the Reformed writer Heinrich Heppe just assumed this central dogma idea and it became a way of reading (or misreading) the literature. Even before Muller’s thorough critique, Francois Wendel complained, “After Alexander Schweizer in 1844 and Ferdinand Christian Bauer in 1847 had claimed that predestination was the central doctrine of Calvin’s theology and that all the originality of his teaching proceeded from it, historians and dogmaticians went on for three- quarters of a century repeating that affirmation like an article of faith which did not even need to be verified.”11
The problem with this approach is, well, Calvin. One simply cannot read the most representative of his works and conclude that he is obsessed with predestination. When the subject comes up, as in his exposition of key biblical passages, or when he is engaged in specific polemical battles with opponents of the doctrine, he faces it squarely and rigorously. He does not, however, spin a systematic web around a predestinarian core. Calvin’s emphasis on this doctrine grows over time in the crucible of pastoral questions and debates. One does not even find the doctrine spelled out in his early catechetical and confessional work. Even in the final edition of the Institutes (1559), Calvin declares concerning the doctrine of justification that we must “consider it in such a way as to keep well in mind that this is the principal article of the Christian religion” (3.11.1).12 If one is searching for a central dogma, then such references (viz., justification is “the main hinge upon which true religion turns,” etc.) would seem to support justification, rather than predestination, as the most likely candidate.
While this point can be overstated, it is interesting that even in his final edition of the Institutes, Calvin placed the discussion of election after the treatment of prayer. Surely it does not occupy systematic centrality in the Institutes. But then, nothing does. Calvin’s classic was a defense of the Reformed faith in the teeth of practical life (namely, persecution) organized around the articles of the Apostles’ Creed and Paul’s letter to the Romans. The discussion of election begins (3.21.1) with the pastoral concern for assurance: “We shall never be clearly convinced as we ought to be, that our salvation flows from the fountain of God’s free mercy, till we are acquainted with his eternal election…” But speculation on this topic is deadly. He writes:
The discussion of predestination–a subject of itself rather intricate–is made very perplexed, and therefore dangerous, by human curiosity, which no barriers can restrain from wandering into forbidden labyrinths, and soaring beyond its sphere, as if determined to leave none of the Divine secrets unscrutinized or unexplored… [The curious] will obtain no satisfaction to his curiosity, but will enter a labyrinth from which he will find no way to depart. For it is unreasonable that man should scrutinize with impunity those things which the Lord has determined to be hidden in himself (3.21.1).
It follows, then, says Calvin, that if we want to know anything about predestination in general, or our own election in particular, we are to look no further than Christ and the Gospel. If some want to boldly transgress the Word, others want to extinguish even the knowledge of this great truth which the Scriptures plainly and repeatedly afford. The only approach to the subject, then, is for the Christian to be addressed by God, making sure that “as soon as the Lord closes his sacred mouth, he shall also desist from further inquiry” (3.21.5). We cannot obtain certainty of our election by attempting “to penetrate to the eternal decree of God,” for “we shall be engulfed in the profound abyss.” We must not seek to “soar above the clouds,” but must be “satisfied with the testimony of God in his external word.”
For as those who, in order to gain assurance of their election, examine into the eternal counsel of God without the word, plunge themselves into a fatal abyss, so they who investigate it in a regular and orderly manner, as it is contained in the word, derive from such inquiry the benefit of peculiar consolation (3.24.3-4).
When timid souls seek to discover their election beyond this external word (“Come unto Christ all ye sinners”), they will doubtless question their salvation, occupied with the question, “Whence can you obtain salvation but from the election of God? And what revelation have you received of election?” These questions can only torment the conscience, Calvin says. “No error can affect the mind, more pestilent than such as disturbs the conscience, and destroys its peace and tranquillity towards God,” than such speculations. The discussion of predestination is a dangerous ocean unless the believer is safely standing on Christ the rock (3.24.4).
So how does one obtain assurance of election from the external word? In the first place, if we seek the fatherly liberality and propitious heart of God, our eyes must be directed to Christ, in whom alone the Father is well pleased… Consider and investigate it as much as you please, you will not find its ultimate scope extend beyond this… If we are chosen in Christ, we shall find no assurance of election in ourselves; nor even in God the Father, considered alone, abstractly from the Son. Christ, therefore, is the mirror, in which it behooves us to contemplate our election; and here we may do it with safety (3.24.5).
This “external word,” therefore, is nothing other than the universal offer of the Gospel. Embracing Christ alone, one is assured of “every spiritual blessing in heavenly places in Christ,” including election (Eph. 1:4). It is to be sought neither in God’s eternal hiddenness, nor in ourselves, but in Christ alone as he is offered to us in the external call. If we were to find assurance of our election in ourselves, who would be confident enough to say with certainty, “I am chosen in Christ”? Further, says Calvin, to be “in Christ” is an ecclesiological matter: it is to be in the Church, which is Christ’s body. Thus, the external word is joined to baptism, catechesis, the Eucharist, and the discipline and fellowship of the Savior’s commonwealth. Although the reprobate are scattered among the elect in this community, there is no way of separating the sheep from the goats until the last judgment. Assurance of election therefore is linked to the proper use of the means of grace and incorporation into the visible Church (3.24.5-6). Thus, certainty of election is obtained neither within oneself nor by oneself, but in Christ and with his chosen people.
Is Predestination Central For Calvinists?
There is a popular thesis (explored more fully in Joel Kim’s article in this issue), promoted largely by neo-orthodox scholars, driving a wedge between Calvin and the Calvinists. In other words, everything we have said, thus far, is granted by these thinkers: Calvin was utterly Christocentric and avoided speculation like the plague. But, say the proponents of the “Calvin versus the Calvinists” debate, Calvin was followed by those who were eager to return to the scholastic method of doing theology. Led by Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, these Aristotelian theologians placed the discussion of predestination under the doctrine of God instead of under the discussion of salvation.
In reality, however, Beza’s own writings reflect diversity in the placement of predestination. Sometimes it is under the doctrine of God, but it is also positioned there in Melanchthon’s Loci communes, and Melanchthon was hardly a Calvinist. Furthermore, the Westminster divines–often targeted as the epitome of scholastic Calvinism–placed the discussion under “The Covenant of Grace and Its Mediator.”
The bottom line is this: In neither Calvin, his colleagues, nor his successors, is predestination the central dogma. There are differences in pastoral strategy. For instance, while the Puritans directed consciences to Christ, they also emphasized Peter’s admonition to “make your calling and election sure.” This could be done, they said, not by searching out God’s hidden decree, but by leaning on Christ. But how do I know that I’m truly leaning on Christ and not on my own merits? How do I know that my faith is strong enough, that my repentance is sincere enough? This, the Puritans (at least most of them) insisted, was to make faith and repentance new works which could earn justification. So they separated faith from assurance, arguing that one was justified simply by looking to Christ alone–even if one did not have assurance.
While both Calvin and the English Puritans were driven by pastoral concerns to preserve the clarity of God’s free grace in justification, the Puritan view of assurance (as not necessarily an element of saving faith) marks an important difference with Calvin and the magisterial Reformation. After all, the magisterial Reformation insisted that faith simply was assurance. This difference is easily discerned by comparing the continental Reformed view (Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism) with the Westminster Confession (see especially Article 18) and Catechisms. The continental Reformed view regards assurance as belonging to faith itself. The Westminster Confession, however, sees assurance as a reflexive effect of discerning even the slightest traces of God’s work in one’s life. Although faith did not come and go depending on one’s obedience, assurance could. Like the reformers’ teaching, the Puritan view was calculated to console disquieted consciences, but it could also be used to disturb consciences with the fear of not discerning one’s election through introspective measures. In fact, the practical and casuistic literature of the English Puritans often reflects a preoccupation with attaining assurance. As we have seen, this was the very course that Calvin warned against in his treatment of election. Many later Puritans complained of this tendency and sought to redress imbalances.
In 1619, the Synod of Dort issued its famous canons, from which the popular expression, “Five Points of Calvinism” or “T.U.L.I.P” (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints) emerged. An international synod, the meeting included delegates from the established churches of England, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as the continental churches of Switzerland, France, Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, and The Netherlands. At least publicly, King James I was as eager to extinguish Arminianism from his kingdom as the delegates he sent to Dort. (Interestingly, the Patriarch of Constantinople drew up his own version of the Canons of Dort for the Orthodox Churches, but this was rescinded and repudiated after his death.) In this definitive confession, the Reformed churches condemned Arminianism and asserted the Calvinistic distinctives. No other document in Reformed history has been so useful in offering a careful but concise treatment of the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism. But Dort has to be seen in its context. It was a response to a crisis in the Dutch church, which sister Reformed churches were battling as well, even as they continue to do to this day. Unlike the confessions and catechism of the Reformation period, Dort was a polemical statement targeting a particular error. It was never intended as a stand-alone statement of the Reformed faith. Those, like myself, who subscribe to the Reformed confession, embrace not only Dort but also the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, where predestination is not only not central, but is mentioned only in passing. Together, they are the “Form of Subscription.” The Westminster Confession and Catechisms, drafted three decades later by order of the English parliament, also had Arminianism in view, but sought to offer a full explanation of Calvinism beyond the dispute over the “Five Points.”
The reason for mentioning these historical facts is to point out that it is highly problematic to reduce Calvinism or Reformed theology to the “Five Points.” Genuine Calvinism is certainly more than this. It involves a distinct covenantal hermeneutic, including the covenant of works (“in Adam”) and the covenant of grace (“in Christ”), and this entails certain views of the sacraments and the Church. Even the isolated defense of “T.U.L.I.P.” can present election or the sovereignty of God in a way that is markedly different from the Reformed understanding. Ironically, the mistake of critics who reduced Reformed theology to predestination is too often repeated by friends of Calvinism. They have discovered the richness of the doctrines of grace and yet fail to see that it is a doctrinal system which comprehends the essential teaching of Scripture.
By abstracting the “Five Points” from that system, many contemporary “Calvinists” have failed to see the sovereignty of God in his electing and redeeming grace in the covenantal unfolding of God’s plan in redemptive history. Thus, their treatment of predestination sometimes appears to be bold speculation into God’s eternal hiddenness, apart from the external call offered to everyone and sealed by the Holy Spirit through the external means of grace. Furthermore, it seems to be a central motif in their thinking, either relegating the more central themes under which election is properly ordered to the outer edges or rejecting them altogether. No wonder, then, that such distorted versions of “Calvinism” often result in morbid introspection, severe piety, and a lack of assurance which gives no rest to the conscience. As we have seen, Calvin and the Reformed confessions (including Westminster) regard Christ and union with him as central. Even the sovereignty and glory of God are not to be considered in themselves, for apart from Christ our knowledge of God will only result in terror and judgment.
If our critics should be expected to deal more responsibly with the actual development of Reformed theology, our friends should also be encouraged not to pull up the “tulips” from their native soil in God’s redemptive scheme.
The Consolation of Election
There are various reasons why people reject the biblical doctrine of election. Some do so, as Luther surmised, because of “the wisdom of the flesh,” seeking glory for self. Others, of a more philosophical bent, curiously probe beyond Scripture, demanding an accounting of God for why some, but not all, are chosen. It is just at that point where the biblical witness forbids further speculation (“Who are you, O mortal, to question God?”), and where human wisdom often prefers to reject God’s revealed utterance. Further questions ensue about the problem of evil, which is, we should add, not just a problem for Calvinists. In fact, it’s a problem for everyone but God. And God knew that we would throw up just such objections: “You will then say to me, how can God still blame us?… Is God unjust?” (Rom. 9).
As Luther said, the doctrine of election is as plainly revealed in Scripture as the notion of a supreme being. Thus Luther answered Erasmus’ weak refrain of ignorance of this doctrine with the reply, “The Holy Spirit is not a skeptic!” God revealed election, not for our curiosity, nor to confirm us in our laziness, but to raise our eyes to him in gratitude, acknowledging that he alone is worthy to receive praise. This doctrine is the occasion for worship and not for speculation or debate. It is just such thoughts of God’s goodness which lead us to exclaim, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect?” As we have been reminded, knowledge of this truth is of sweet comfort to those who have been crushed by the Law and raised to life by the Gospel, but it is deadly for those who have not.
Since God has entrusted his Word to his Church, it is only a measure of our pride and self-will that we should attempt to silence God’s voice on a matter of such importance. It is difficult to find a doctrine that is so clearly and prominently proclaimed in Scripture and yet so obscured and ignored in the Church. And yet, every great recovery of the apostolic Gospel throughout church history has involved a rediscovery of this great truth.
If I may be permitted to conclude on an autobiographical note, I remember well the day I finally “got” Romans chapter nine. Already disoriented and reoriented by the first eight chapters of Romans, despite my meager understanding, I was at first outraged by the sheer freedom of God. You already know what I mean, and if you don’t, read Professor Baugh’s article. Throwing my Bible across the room, I determined not to pick it up again, but my resolve was short-lived. After reading the chapter several times, I found my hard heart softening under the warm rays of God’s unmerited favor. Grace really is grace, I began to say to myself. God is greater, I am smaller, and salvation is sweeter. Whenever I get into a discussion of grace, I find that sooner or later (usually sooner), the conversation turns to election. And no wonder. While it may not be the center of Christianity, it is certainly the test of just how central the central things really are.
1. W. H. Griffith Thomas, ed., The Principles of Theology: An Introduction to the Thirty-Nine Articles, with the text of the Articles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 236.
2. The Book of Concord, tr. and ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1959), 497.
3. John Bradford, The Writings of John Bradford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1858), vol. 2, 316.
4. Thomas Aquinas, III Contra Gentiles 164; Disputations, VI de Veritate, I, in St. Thomas Aquinas: Theological Texts, trans. Thomas Gilby (Durham, NC: Labyrinth, 1982, from the Oxford University Press edition, 1955).
5. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theo., Ia. xxiii.5, op. cit.
6. Cited by Heiko Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought Illustrated by Key Documents (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1981), 135.
7. Ibid., 151.
8. Ibid., 175ff.
9. Ibid., 186.
10. Richard Muller, Christ and the Decree (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 1.
11. Francois Wendel, “Justification and Predestination in Calvin,” Readings in Calvin’s Theology, ed. Donald K. McKim (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984), 160.
12. All citations from the Institutes in this article are from John Allen, tr. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Christian Education).
Dr. Michael Horton is the vice chairman of the Council of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, and is associate professor of historical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. Dr. Horton is a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.