The following are some draft paragraphs from a book I am writing on orthodox Anglican theology. They indicate a difference between the English Reformed tradition of the Church of England and some other Reformed traditions. All Reformed traditions have been influenced by Calvin, the genius of the Reformation. This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of his birth. However, he was not “infallible”. We must learn from him as one of the great teachers of the Christian Church. But as a good Church of Scotland minister, Bob Fyall, once said, “it is a pity Calvin didn’t write the Bible.” All versions of Calvinism need, therefore, to be tested by the apostolic teaching in the Bible.
One of the marks of the Anglican (or the English Reformed) tradition is an absence of what has been called the “severe logic” of some of the other Reformed traditions. That is seen most clearly in the issue of Predestination and in Article XVII of the Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England compared with chapter III entitled Of God’s Eternal Decree of the Westminster Confession (itself a brilliant summary of a particular form of Calvinism and the confession of the Church of Scotland). You read in the Westminster Confession chapter III, section 5:
“Those of mankind that are predestined unto life God (before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will) hath chosen in Christ unto everlasting glory out of his mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith or good works or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature as conditions or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace.”
This is saying there was not a foreseeing by God of who would believe and then predestining those people. No! It was a predestining that was all of God’s “secret counsel and good pleasure.” This, however, was not controversial. The English Reformers agreed, as did Thomas Aquinas and the Roman Catholic tradition. But you then read this in section 7 of chapter III:
“The rest of mankind God was pleased (according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures) to pass by and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.”
This is called “reprobation” – the predestining of people to death and hell. But our English Reformers do not affirm this doctrine in the Thirty-nine articles. Here is Article XVII entitled 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 to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour … As the godly consideration of Predestination and our Election in Christ is full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort to godly persons … 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.”
Our English Reformers realized that you had to be very careful with the doctrine of Predestination. Pastorally, if presented wrongly, it could do more harm than good. That is why they were so keen to keep the balance and proportion of Scripture. So they said “we must receive God's promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture.” We are to focus on obedience to God’s clear will “which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God”. We are not to waste time on speculation into God’s “counsel that is secret to us.” It would seem our Reformers had looked at the Bible and did not wish to jump to conclusions about God's "hidden wisdom". But why?
Biblical balance and proportion
First, the Bible shows that Jesus avoided talking about “double predestination”. In the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats he speaks of the faithful believers who are “blessed by my Father” (Matthew 25.34) as inheriting “the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world”. But with regard to the unfaithful who are “you who are cursed” (yet with no mention of “my Father” as the curser), he speaks of “eternal fire prepared [not for you] but for the devil and his angels.”
Secondly, in Romans 9, where verses 14 and following form a key passage on predestination, Paul says:
“What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath - prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory” (Romans 9.22-23).
However, note one: “what if” – Paul hesitates about being dogmatic. Note two: God’s sovereignty in this section is clearly a sovereignty of mercy. God is withholding immediate judgment – “What if God … bore with great patience the objects of wrath.” Then note three: Paul explicitly mentions in verse 23, “objects of his mercy whom he [God] prepared in advance for glory”, while in verse 22 Paul does not mention God as the agent. Paul refers simply to “objects of wrath prepared for destruction” – not “prepared by God for destruction”. It is a simple passive. No agent is mentioned.
Thirdly, in addition to Jesus and Paul, there is Peter who says in his first letter:
“They stumble because they disobey the message - which is also what they were destined for [again there is no agent]" (1 Peter 2.8)
Peter does not say their disobedience was “destined for by God”.
Now, of course, logically if God is sovereign over all, logic says there must be a double predestination. But Jesus and the apostles did not teach this. They did not deny it. They kept silent. There is a legitimate place for mystery or for us simply not to know. This side of heaven not everything is revealed, either by special revelation in Scripture or by general revelation through the natural order (as Psalm 19 verse 1 teaches some things can be). But sufficient is revealed. Paul makes this clear in 1 Corinthians 13:
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part: then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13.12).
Our Anglican forefathers were conscious of the Old Testament truth taught in Deuteronomy:
“The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29.29).
Unlike some other Reformers, the Anglican Reformers were less “systematic”. They did not write great theologies as Calvin did. They gave us instead Thirty-nine Articles not a Westminster Confession which is a mini systematic theology and, indeed, has much to teach us. But as Griffith Thomas, the first Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, put it: “There is obvious danger in every attempt at systematizing Christian truth … it is far better to be content with ‘Articles’ or ‘points’ with gaps unfilled … This method prevents teaching becoming hardened into a cast iron system which cannot expand. It is the virtue of the Church of England articles that they … do not commit Churchmen to an absolute, rigid system of doctrine.”
Bishop J.C.Ryle saw this “over-systematizing” also behind the concept of a “limited” atonement where some reformers asserted that Christ died only for “the elect”, not “the world”. When commenting on John the Baptist’s statement in John 1.29 that Jesus is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and the claim that this does not mean the world but the elect, Ryle writes this: "I hold as strongly as anyone that Christ’s death is profitable to none but to the elect who believe in his name. But I dare not limit and pare down such expressions as the one before us. I dare not say that no atonement has been made in any sense, except for the elect. I believe it is possible to be more systematic than the Bible in our statements. When I read that the wicked who are lost, “deny the Lord that bought them” (2 Peter 2.1) and that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Corinthians 5.19), I dare not confine the intentions of redemption to the saints alone. Christ is for every man” (Expository Thoughts in the Gospels John vol 1, pp 61-2 - italics mine).
This also seems to be the view of Cranmer. In Article XXXI we are told, "The offering of Christ once made is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone." How, in the divine economy, Christ died “for every man”, when tragically not all experience salvation, remains one of those “secret things that belong to the Lord our God.