Predestination was always going to be a problem

ProphecyI suspect most Anglicans have hardly if at all heard of predestination, and the presence of article 17 at the back of the Prayer Book would be something of an incomprehensible surprise to those might stumble across it, not least because of its rather confused wordiness compared to most other briefer articles.

XVII. Of Predestination and Election
Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind. and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: then be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son ,Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.
As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, 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, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.
Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in Holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.

That comparative Anglican ignorance lies in part in the fact that mainstream worshipping texts and more recently hymns and songs have entered the bloodstream of ordinary Christians rather more than the articles entered their thought-world. As much as weekly – and sometimes daily – they were reminded in the Eucharist that God gave his

only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world

In the collects which many Anglicans learnt by heart as part of their praying tradition, that for Palm Sunday states:

Almighty and everlasting God,
who of tender love towards mankind,
hast sent thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ,
to take upon him our flesh,
and to suffer death upon the cross,
that all mankind should follow the example of his great humility …

It was these and other liturgical texts pointing to a much more generous and global intent of God’s love and Christ’s work that formed the backbone of Anglican thought, and it is in the context of such statements that the article needs to be pondered. There are several things that are worth drawing attention to.

First, there is the placement of this article compared, say, to the Westminster Confession. Here this is the seventeenth article coming after the main credal doctrines, and the place of scripture, and towards the end of a set on salvation. There it is the third article following Scripture and God, but coming before creation, providence and all the rest.

Next, while the article begins with “Predestination to Life [as] the everlasting purpose of God”, there is no corresponding foreordination to death or damnation. The most Cranmer will say about a negative mirror of a predestination to death is that for those lacking the Spirit of Christ it is an idea that “is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them … into desperation”. He remains silent on whether it is anything more than that.

All this suggests a certain reticence in the article which is rather at odds with its language about the doctrine as “full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons” Moreover it notes that this predestination to life is “to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind.” The focus here is on what God chooses to do in Christ, which comports well with the clearest biblical statement of this idea in Ephesians 1:4-5. Contrast this with the Westminster Confession again:

By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death. These angels and men, thus predestinated, and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished. … As God has appointed the elect unto glory, so has He, by the eternal and most free purpose of His will, foreordained all the means thereunto. Wherefore, they who are elected, being fallen in Adam, are redeemed by Christ (III: 3,4,6)

One cannot help but feel that in the Calvinist articles Christ appears as a means of accomplishing an already determined outcome. The predestination of individuals precedes the calling of Christ and his purpose. By contrast the very ambiguity of the Anglican article suggests that God’s purposes for us are inseparable from Christ. If Christ is always the beloved in eternity, and the chosen one in his incarnation, then perhaps it is only possible to speak of our being chosen as dependent on his prior calling as the focal point of God’s creating and redeeming work.

This may be one way of trying to wrestle with what the article says, and it fits well with the final warning in the article that “we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in Holy Scripture.” It is not impossible to see in this a rebuke to some Calvinists for applying so much logic that the system controls the scriptures.

Generally, from the call of Abraham through to Paul’s wrestling with the election and apparent rejection of Israel in Romans 9-11, and many places in between, the reason for God’s election of some is the blessing of those others not so chosen. That is a fortiori the case with God’s gift of Christ, the archetypal and unique chosen one. Election, in this sense, is not the means of dividing people up into sheep and goats, but reconciling them to God.

There is, I think, a genuine sense which any Christian may sometimes experience, (for myself I wish it were more frequent) of being caught up in the purposes and presence of God in ways entirely unrelated to ability or merit. That sense of being God’s called, beloved, or even in a limited way God’s instrument, needs a great deal more discernment than it is often given by those who claim it as a frequent justification for their actions. But it can most naturally be articulated in terms of a renewed appreciation of the words of the Johannine Jesus: “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” There is no way in which that sort of experience should lead to any desire arrogantly to divide oneself from others, because it is about being of use to God in his mission to those to whom one is called. This is what, ultimately, underlines our often careless talk of vocation.

It is this sense of being involved in God at work, of being addressed in Christ as child and servant, of being guided by the Holy Spirit to somehow say the right thing, be in the right place at the right time, do the right thing, all perhaps despite myself, that continues to push me towards some sort of language of election and eternal purpose. Some experiences lead to a sense in which God’s purposes will not be frustrated, and that in turn leads on to some dimly glimpsed apprehension of an intended outcome from all eternity, that can only be spoken about in relation to the cross and resurrection as the supreme example of the way in which God frustrates the frustration of his work.

Trying to systematize that seems to me extraordinarily fraught with intimations of arrogance in place of more appropriate confessions of ignorance. The very unsystematic, slightly confused articulation of this article is in some ways its greatest strength. I see a place for some carefully guarded language of God’s eternal and perhaps (hopefully) un-frustratable and universal purposes, and correspondingly our gracious election and vocation consequent on Christ’s calling and election. I am unconvinced that predestination is the best language to use, but I would not like to see some of what it has sometimes tried to say be entirely lost.

(Part of a series on the 39 articles of religion)

2 Replies to “Predestination was always going to be a problem”

  1. It’s interesting that you should post this today, as in the Office of Readings I read in Romans 8 of being predestined, so I was musing on the topic already. I note that you write ‘The most Cranmer will say… ‘ I thought the articles were written by Abp. Parker, and i saw his draft in the Parker Library in Cambridge earlier this year.

    1. I’m not sure who wrote which draft and redraft, so I’m kind of using Cranmer in a generic sense. But I’m happy to be corrected. Do feel free to post your musings in the comments!

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