Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine

Written by Peter J. Thuesen Reviewed By Paul Kjoss Helseth

Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine, by Peter J. Thuesen, is an engaging and at times entertaining overview or the history or the doctrine of predestination in the American context. Written as “a guidebook through the thickets of predestinarian controversies among U.S. Protestants and Catholics,” the volume “paints the big picture of predestination’s career in American theology, situating the most notable debates on the broad canvas of Western Christianity since Augustine” (p. 4), his While Thuesen’s general focus is on the doctrine of predestination “in its proper theological sense” (p. 4) particular interest is in the question that “has dogged Christian predestinarians from the beginning: does God predestine individuals—and even the Fall of humans into original sin—without regard to their foreseen conduct?” (p. 6). Among other things, Thuesen argues and successfully establishes that predestination in general—and this question in particular—“has been one of the most important but unacknowledged sources of discord in [American] churches across the denominational spectrum” (p. 4).

Informing Thuesen’s analysis is his recognition that “predestination cannot be viewed in isolation but must be seen as part of a package of … interrelated issues” (p. 6). Those who accept the “total package” and embrace “a strong belief in predestination” do so, he argues, because they “necessarily reject or deemphasize certain alternatives” (p. 6). Among the alternatives they reject are those ways of “being religious” (p. 6) that are grounded either in a commitment to the libertarian view of human freedom or in the endorsement of a kind of sacramental piety that cultivates “mystical wonder before the power of priestly ritual” (p. 7). While Thuesen’s analysis generally lends credence to the familiar thesis that the history of Christianity in America is best described as the history of the decline and fall of Calvinism—i.e., the “total package”—in the American church, it accounts for this decline by pointing not “primarily” to the loss of “confessional precision” among believing Christians from the time of the Puritans to the present, but to the increasing irrelevance of “the mystical dimension of their experience of divine grace” (p. 216), particularly as it is mediated to them “through ritual” (p. 27). What now characterizes many believers “in the modern United States,” he not only argues but clearly laments, is an understanding of saving grace that has been domesticated, if not entirely by the Reformation’s subordination of “the church to the Bible,” then most certainly by the Enlightenment’s reinterpretation of the Bible “through the lens of empirical science” (p. 217).

As such, Thuesen argues that what accounts for the vague and altogether innocuous “providence-without-predestination” (p. 215) that is standard fare in many churches today is not, in the first place, a self-conscious rejection of the doctrine of predestination per se, but an understanding of saving grace that has been compromised by (1) the almost complete abandonment of “mystical confidence” in the inherent efficacy of the sacraments (p. 216), and (2) the accommodation of an “empirical” tendency that encourages those who embrace it to turn predestination “into something logical and rational, unwittingly depriving grace of the miraculous all-sufficiency they were trying to preserve” by embracing the doctrine in the first place (pp. 217–18). In short, Thuesen insists that it is the “erosion” (p. 216) of “the sacramental substance” of the Christian religion along with the “modern tyranny of ‘proof’ in religion” (p. 217)—a tyranny that has led many to ignore the hermeneutical significance of “churchly traditions” and to imagine that the debate over predestination could be settled merely “through the collation of sufficient biblical evidence” (p. 217)—that “all but extinguished the mysterium tremendum of predestination” (p. 218), thereby making the doctrine seem “deadly—and sometimes deadly boring” (p. 217) to many in the church. It is the ever weakening “hold” of an appropriate sense of “sacramental” and “dogmatic” mystery on “the Christian imagination” (pp. 216–17), then, that is the real reason for the doctrine of predestination’s loss of both significance and “power” (p. 13) from the time of the Puritans to the present, or at least so argues Thuesen.

On one level, Professor Thuesen’s volume is a remarkable success. His overview of the American career of this contentious doctrine not only surveys territory that is generally familiar to most students of American church history, but it also summarizes aspects of the story that will likely be entirely new to readers who, like me, are not church historians themselves. For example, while I appreciated Professor Thuesen’s overview of the more familiar debates between those in the Presbyterian and Baptist camps in chapter 6, I found his discussion of the debates in the Catholic and Lutheran camps in chapter 5, and his analysis in chapter 4 of those “upstart religious movements” that were united by their “opposition to the monarchial God of Calvinism” (p. 103), to be particularly instructive, largely because of gaps in my own reading.

On another level, however, Professor Thuesen’s analysis leaves something to be desired because it begs a host of questions that are relevant to the history of the doctrine in the American context. For example, Professor Thuesen essentially ignores important questions regarding the nature of religious truth and the locus of religious authority. But how judiciously can one tell the story of such a contentious doctrine if one disregards precisely those questions that ultimately account not just for the positions of the various participants in the discussion, but also for the judgments that are rendered—often, in this case, through the provocative use of adjectives and adverbs—throughout one’s analysis? In my estimation, Professor Thuesen’s discussion would have been far more helpful and compelling if he had addressed methodological kinds of questions more forthrightly throughout his analysis.

Paul Kjoss Helseth

Paul Kjoss Helseth
Northwestern College
Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA

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