Highway To Heaven

Marc Arkin in Wall Street Journal, June 26, 2009

Media Source

For some, it is comforting to know that God decrees who will be saved, without regard to merit. For others, it isn't at all.

'You can and you can't / You will and you won't / You'll be damned if you do / And you'll be damned if you don't." Thus 19th-century Methodist Lorenzo Dow pithily described the Calvinist doctrine of absolute predestination. For some, it is deeply comforting to know that, before all time, God decreed who will be saved and who will be damned without regard to individual merit, relieving fallen humanity of an impossible burden. For others, like Dow, absolute predestination is a cruel scholasticism that turns God into an arbitrary tyrant and the author of sin, denying individuals the ability to co-operate in their own salvation and making a mockery of the Gospel call to repentance.

For the faithful, predestination is the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a mystery that both awes and fascinates.John Calvin, the Reformation theologian whose name is most closely associated with the doctrine, warned that "if anyone with carefree assurance breaks into this place, he will not succeed in satisfying his curiosity and he will enter a labyrinth from which he can find no exit." The 1577 Lutheran Formula of Concord insisted that laypersons "not concern or torture themselves with thoughts about the secret counsel of God," while assuring them that, understood rightly, predestination offers "beautiful, wonderful comfort."

More than 400 years later, the doctrine has not lost its power to fascinate. In John Updike's "The Beauty of the Lilies," fictional Presbyterian minister Clarence Wilmot's faith founders on the "clifflike riddle of predestination." Pastor Rick Warren's best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life" is suffused with predestinarian themes, repackaged as a gentler divine providence. Significantly, among some conservative Protestants predestination has seen a revival in recent years. There is something appropriate about this continuing theological tradition since, as Peter Thuesen shows in "Predestination," the doctrine played a crucial role in early America and has informed America's religious culture ever since.

In Christian theology, predestination refers to God's eternal decree appointing humans to their ultimate ends, with the saved (or elect) manifesting God's mercy and the reprobate (or damned) manifesting divine justice. Although Christianity has never lacked for contentious doctrines, predestination provided an unusually fertile ground for conflict. It is a key mystery of the faith, inextricably bound up with such doctrines as innate depravity, free will and the nature of divine sovereignty. It is also a mystery that has resisted definitive church settlement for almost two millennia because it embodies a seeming contradiction between Saint Paul's emphasis on unfettered divine will and the idea that sinners should repent and answer the Gospels' call to faith.

Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine
By Peter J. Thuesen
(Oxford, 307 pages, $29.95)

Beginning with the fifth century, the issue was joined between those, like Augustine, who see God's grace as operating utterly independent of human effort and those, like the British monk Pelagius, who accord the human will a greater role in the work of salvation. By the Middle Ages, Augustine's view predominated, although it stood in tension with the sacramentalism of medieval piety -- the belief that the church's sacraments bestow some measure of grace on the worshipper.

Hand in hand with the Reformation's rejection of medieval religiosity came its whole-hearted embrace of predestination. Transported to the New World, this stark version of the doctrine allowed New England Puritan divines to speculate that not one in a thousand would be saved, leaving their worried flocks to search their souls obsessively for signs of salvation.

Mr. Thuesen follows the career of predestination in American Christianity from New England Puritanism to the present, situating the American experience in the broader context of Western Christianity. His thesis is that predestination provides the golden thread that runs through the complex history of American churches, even when, as with Mormons and Christian Scientists, new denominations rejected predestination altogether. Although the thread sometimes runs a little thinner than the author would like, the book is commendably concise and accessible, filled with insight, and leavened with the occasional flash of dry wit.

Mr. Thuesen lucidly explicates such abstruse controversies as that between supra lapsarians (who believed that God chose the elect and the reprobate even before he created humanity) and the infra lapsarians (who believed that God chose the elect only after Adam's fall). In addition, the author considerately provides a glossary for readers who might lose their way in the thicket of technical vocabulary.

One of the most striking aspects of Mr. Thuesen's narrative is the depth of animosity between people of faith on opposing sides of the controversies. As the book progresses, squabbling Church Fathers are succeeded by squabbling Reformers, who, having crossed the Atlantic with their fights, are succeeded in turn by squabbling Lutherans, Presbyterians and Baptists. Dissenting voices found new sects, new schools, new publications, new churches, all to avoid communion with erroneous co-religionists. As Mr. Thuesen recognizes, these debates -- and their virulence -- can appear anachronistic today, when the "idea of subscribing to any strict confessional position seems as quaint to many Americans as iceboxes in the age of frost-free refrigerators."

The great virtue of the book is that, without taking sides among the combatants, Mr. Thuesen manages to capture the significance of their enterprise. It is nothing less than an unflinching commitment to living always mindful of the eye of eternity. Ultimately Mr. Thuesen mourns the decline of mystery in modern life; "Predestination" pays noble tribute to that sense of awe before the divine that theology captures only through a glass darkly.

Ms. Arkin is a professor at Fordham Law School.