Sweet, Pleasant, and Unspeakable Comfort: The Anglican View of Predestination (Part III)

While I have taken great pains to point out that the Anglican position on predestination does not mirror the Calvinist position, it is worth noting that the Anglican position also does not mirror the opposite positions of Arminianism and Universalism. Briefly, Arminians teach that God’s predestination of some to receive salvation is based on God’s omniscient foreknowledge. God knows that some people are going to choose to respond to the Gospel with faith, and therefore God chooses them. This effectively takes salvation out of God’s hands and puts it into ours, something which classical Anglicanism strongly rejects. On the other hand, Universalists argue that God predestines everyone to salvation, thus solving the problem of how to reconcile the Bible’s teaching that Jesus died for all people with the doctrine that He elects only some to salvation. But in solving one problem, Universalism creates another by ignoring the many passages in Scripture that speak about hell and damnation. Moreover, Universalism, like Calvinism, divorces salvation from faith by making election arbitrary. The grace with which God chooses a person is impossible for that person to resist, which renders faith nothing more than a show that God puts on rather than the natural response of the human heart to receiving God’s favor.

So if the Anglican teaching on predestination is not Calvinist, nor Arminian, nor Universalist, what is it?

Allowing for Mystery

In order to understand the Anglican teaching, we need to remember the central tenet of Anglican doctrine, what I often refer to as the Anglican Principle. As I have argued here before, the hallmark of Anglican theology is the notion that Holy Scripture reveals all that we need for salvation, but that we only come to a right understanding and application of Scripture when we read it through the lens of the early Church. We need believe nothing but what the Scripture says, but we only come to rightly understand what the Scripture says when we understand how the Church has received it.

The Anglican Principle helps us to understand why every doctrine of Anglicanism does not perfectly add up in a systematic way. Not that our teaching contradicts itself, but there are places where God’s Word has only revealed so much to us, where there is a mystery about how God acts and why, and in those places, Anglicanism is content to allow the mystery to stand. This is frustrating to those of us who like to have no loose ends, myself included! This frustration leads us to try to systematize and normalize our theology, to come up with logical proofs that smooth out the rough edges and help us to feel like everything in our faith makes sense. It is an understandable impulse, but when we do this we impose a system of thought onto Scripture rather than allowing Scripture to form us. “My ways are higher than your ways,” says the Lord, “and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Our job is not to make it all make sense but to accept what God has revealed to us. Anglicanism may not always line everything up as perfectly as more systematic traditions, but the Anglican teaching is faithful to the whole of Scripture, even when there are parts that we cannot fully grasp.

William Beveridge makes exactly this point when he begins his explanation of Article XVII in his Ecclesia Anglicana Ecclesia Catholica, a large volume exploring each of the 39 Articles in some depth. Beveridge lived from 1637 to 1708 and served as the bishop of St Asaph in the Church in Wales towards the end of his life. “Though in the other articles we may make use of reason as well as scripture and Fathers,” he said, “yet in this we must make use of scripture and Fathers only, and not of reason. For as the ordinary priests were not to enter into the holy of holies, so neither is carnal reason to venture upon this mystery of mysteries.”

Choosing Us Purely Out of Love

Beveridge begins by setting the scriptural basis for the Anglican position in Ephesians 1:4-6 and 2 Timothy 1:9. These passages illustrate that God chose those whom He would save before the foundation of the world and that His choice was “not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace, which was given us in Jesus Christ before the world began.” Beveridge then bolsters these claims with quotations from the Fathers, principally Augustine. The core of Anglican teaching on predestination, which is shared by Lutherans, Calvinists, and Universalists, is that God chose His elect long before they were born and thus irrespective of anything they may do or not do. His election is completely gratuitous, completely free, and unaffected by our choices.

Election as a Comfort

Article XVII proceeds to explain how God’s election leads to God’s calling of His elect, which they respond to by grace, being made one with Christ and having their lives conformed to His, which Beveridge points out is explained in Romans 8:29-30. Election and predestination do not work apart from Christ. Rather, it is only through Christ that one can receive the gift of God’s election. And this is followed in the article by an explanation of how the knowledge and realization of being elect affects the Christian:

…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…

This is the beauty of the doctrine of election and the reason why it is rendered to us in the first place. There may be many things that God does not fully reveal to us about who He is and what He does. Certainly, the reason for our election is one of those things. Yet, God does reveal to us that He elects some and He also reveals to those who are elect that they have been elected. And the reason He reveals this to us is so that we may take heart and be comforted that our salvation is secure, that God will never abandon us, and that no matter how feeble or infirm we are, God’s promise to us is inviolable. Citing Romans 8:31-33, Beveridge says, “If God hath elected us, it is in vain for men or devils to accuse: if He be our friend, it is in vain for any one to be our foe.”

Election of Some, Promise to All

Of course, as soon as we acknowledge this comfort given to the elect, it is difficult not to wonder then about those who are not elect. The article speaks about those who are “curious and carnal” who choose to toss aside their election, as the previous post in this series made clear, but there is no word here about God fashioning or making others for damnation. In fact, Beveridge points out that the article ends by reminding us that “we must receive God’s promises in such wise as they be generally set forth to us in Holy Scripture.” Citing Matthew 11:28 and John 3:16, Beveridge says that if we are to follow the article’s direction, then we must believe that “Though they are but some that God hath elected, yet his promises are made to all.” Therefore:

In the application of which and the like promises, we must not have respect to the eternity of God’s purpose, but to the universality of his promise. His promises are made to all, and therefore are all bound to lay hold upon his promises: and as we are to receive his promises, so are we also to obey his precepts as made to all.

Herein lies the paradox. God’s promises are made to all people. His love is for all people. Jesus died so that all may be saved. Yet only some have been elected. How can this be so? How can both of these things be true simultaneously? Beveridge’s answer is simple. Both are true because God says so. The inner workings of God’s election are not our concern. God has not revealed them to us. What God has revealed to us, He reveals for one reason and one reason only, that we may be comforted to know God’s love for us and to know that God will never abandon us. Our concern is not to worry about whether or not the person next to us can be saved but to know that we are to be saved. There are, of course, those among the Fathers, Saint Gregory of Nyssa being the primary example, whose hope was that all would be elected and thus all could be saved. This is a beautiful hope and it is something we can certainly place before God as a petition. But again, our concern with election and predestination is not to peer into God’s mind and see how He plans to sort things out, but merely to come to know that He can, does, and will save us despite our evil intentions and He does not require anything from us to make it happen. His election of us, just like His gift of dying for us, is rendered to us totally and completely without charge.

So how then can we know for sure that we have been elected? And even though we cannot lose our election, can we nevertheless reject it? These are the questions we will turn to in the next and final post in this series.

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5 Responses to Sweet, Pleasant, and Unspeakable Comfort: The Anglican View of Predestination (Part III)

  1. Cadog says:

    “[T]here are places where God’s Word has only revealed so much to us, where there is a mystery about how God acts and why, and in those places, Anglicanism is content to allow the mystery to stand.”
    “Our job is not to make it all make sense but to accept what God has revealed to us.”
    “There may be many things that God does not fully reveal to us about who He is and what He does.”

    After decades of reading books and hearing sermons on these topics, and never being comfortable with the doctrinaire Arminian or Calvinist positions, your series, and this post especially, have summed up in easy language the most sensible and biblical explanation I have ever seen. Unbelievably affirming of my decision to become Anglican, since this old debate has still been rattling around in my mind. You have put it to rest — RIP (!). THANKS AGAIN FATHER JONATHAN.

  2. Robert F says:

    I think it is very true that the attempt to devise a systematic, comprehensive theology always fails against the measure of God’s revelation and intentions. There is something idolatrous in such attempts, and ultimately blasphemous, as witnessed by Calvin imputing the Fall to God’s predestining will. To sound alarmingly Barthian, God refuses to be captured and bound by human systems of thought. He is the living, and free, God, not an idol fashioned by human hand or mind.

  3. John Thorpe says:

    Well done in this post, good Sir. It’s interesting that you seem to be taking a method not unlike the 3-legged ‘stool’ but in reverse: that is, starting with the concept of predestination as understood by human reason; reflecting thereupon in light of the Fathers’ tradition, and finally landing with an Anglican lurch upon the Scripture as bedrock, with only mystery beyond.

  4. It is also obviously possible to be a strong Arminian and be a mystical sacramentalist as is evident in much of Anglican and Episcopal history.

    • Fr. Jonathan says:

      Hello James,

      I’m not what you mean by a “mystical sacramentalist.” Certainly it is possible to be Arminian and sacramental. However, I find problematic the many historians who have characterized various Anglican divines as “Arminian,” particular Archbishop Laud and those of his school. I could be wrong, but I don’t know of any of those folks who actually embraced Arminianism in any explicit way. Rather, I think that many people do not understand the classical Anglican position and therefore mistake it for Arminianism, not getting that it is neither Calvinist or Arminian.

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