Monday, 27 July 2009

Peter J. Thuesen, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (2009)

Peter J. Thuesen's, Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (Oxford, 2009) has been an engrosing read over the lask week or so. With a largely American focus, although there's plenty on the British context as well, Thuesen's book is a grand sweeping narrative of the role which debates over the concept of Predestiantion have played in American religion and society since the arrival of the Puritan settlers in the seventeenth century, and his narrative brings the story right up to the present day with a discussion of Rick Warren's ubiquitous The Purpose Driven Life. At little more than 220 pages of actual text, its far from an exhaustive treatment, but rather selects key stopping-off points along the way. Neither is it really the historical theology in the strictest sense of the term, but rather an intellectual history, that focusses more on the social impact of the role which predestination has played in American society.
What is remarkable is how frequent and how sophisticated predestinarian debate has been within American religion and society, and indeed to some extent still is even today, with the concept of the American people being a chosen people and America being a city on a hill being commonplace.
Thuesen begins with a really useful introduction which charts some of the key ways in which predestination was understood before the foundation of America. There's an excellent examination of Augustine's views about election, and then a useful discussion of how Aquinas' view informed much of the medieval Catholic Church. His sections on Puritanism reflect the current state of the literature really well, showing that there was no agreed interpretation of the doctrine among the English Puritans, and that the legacy of Calvin was bitterly fought over. The role of William Perkins in developing a supralapsarian understanding of the divine decrees is particuarly helpful (don't worry there's a very full glossary of theological terms provided at the end!!), as is his painting in of the different interpretation of key biblical passages on the nature of God's election and foreknowledge among the later Puritans. This discussion is then followed by a chapter on the specific American context, where the basic argument concerns the modification of strict Calvinist beliefs, with redefinitions of the exact nature of God's foreknowledge and the precise meaning of double predestiantion, particularly reprobation.
I was slightly disappointed by Thuesen's discussion of predestinarian debates in the eighteenth century, particularly among the new evangelical movement. There's some discussion of the Wesley/Whitefield debate, as well as the later still more acrimonious Toplady/Wesley contretemps, but I'd have liked to have seen more reflection on its significance. I guess this is only because I'm trying to write up my paper on the Calvinism of the Calvinistic Methodists at the minute. John Wesley tends to be seen as the innovator by Thuesen which he certainly was, but maybe Whitefield was more of an innovator than Thuesen gives him credit. Although Whitefield was a Calvinist, he was no double predestinarian, at least in the strict sense of the term, his Calvinism looking more like Augustine's version than Calvin's in actual fact. I've got a thesis that I'm toying with at the moment that Whitefield popularised a moderate Calvinism in the eighteenth century, that only really stressed God's active decree of election and that prioritised the indiscriminate offer of the gospel, in contradistinction to the hyper-Calvinism prevalent among some prominent London baptists. I'd also have liked to have seen some discussion of Alan Clifford's views relating to Wesley really being an Amyraldian, rather than an outright Arminian.
In the rest of the book Thuesen looks at the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Second Great Awakening threw up a myriad of different groups on the edges of Protestant orthodoxy; the Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists among others. Thuesen charts these less immediately accessible waters with some skill, as he does the role of predestinarian debates among nineteenth-century American Caltholics and Lutherans, particularly surrounding the establishment of the Missouri Synod Lutherans. The chapter on the twentieth century is more impressionistic; discussion on the changing of the Westminster Confession plays a prominent role, including the fascinating participation of US president Benjamin Harrison, who was also a prominent figure in northern Presbyterian ecclesiastical politics. There is some discussion of the fundamentalist controversy of course, but maybe J. Gresham Machen and Westminster Seminary deserved more prominence.
On the more contemporary scene, Thuesen's helpfully charts the intricacies of the recent Reformed coup within the Southern Baptist Convention, whose figurehead these day is Al Mohler, the current presdent of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at Louisville, Kentucky. There's not much discussion of the nature of the Calvinism espoused by some of these figures, although the more arch-conservative Founders group does crop up. Of course, Mohler is a very prominent voice in the current new Calvinist awakening in the US, figuring prominently in Collin Hansen's Young Restless and Reformed (2007). Again I'd have liked to have seen more discussion of the movement, particularly of its place in the long reformed continuum in the US. But then I guess, its Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life which is the bestselling Christian book in America currently, and Warren has a strong emphasis on the way in which God has a plan for the life of every Christian, suggesting an element of predestianarianism at least. In the end though Warren's book is pretty light on theology, and my reading suggests that there's an eclectic chosing of those elements of classic reformed theology that appeal most to the modern purpose-driven mentality, without a serious engagement with the notion of God's predestinating grace.
Having said all this, Thuesen has written a terrific book - thought provoking thoroughout. Obviously with this kind of book, which is pretty short and only really intended to sketch in the broad picture, there much that I'd like to see developed much much further. But I guess that's for others to do now that Thuesen has sketched in the context.


John Maiden said...

Thanks for this review, David. I wasn't aware of this book and I'll certainly look out for it.

You might be interested to know that I've started my own blog - - maybe take a look sometime, although there's nothing much on there at present!


Augustinian Successor said...

Dr. Clifford is seriously mistaken in regarding Wesley as an Arminian, both on theological and historical grounds. Thus, it involves categorical confusion. Amyraldianism and Arminianism share a common tradition, i.e. Reformed theology, and by extension, common theological concerns. Hence, both sought to rework the decrees of God in their logical sequence.

But crucial differences arise regarding election, atonement and grace. Amyraldianism is a 'dual-track' theology where the dialectic of universal/particular is systematically construed. Arminianism is grounded in the patristic conception of the creation-redemption unity. The Cross restored universal grace and made divine-human encounter possible.

Augustinian Successor said...

And yes, Whitefield was a moderate Calvinist, single predestinarians, although not all SPs are Calvinists, or even Amyraldians(!) Toplady was a 'high Calvinist,' ir rather a traditional Calvinist who limited the salvific will of God to the elect only. In this he was, e.g. merely following the Lambeth Articles (1595). This is why churchmen such as Lancelot Andrewes and Richard Hooker had some problems with the wording of the Articles.

Augustinian Successor said...

"... regarding Wesley as an Arminian."