No Article in the Thirty-nine has occasioned more controversy amongst members of the Reformed Church than Article Seventeen. For this reason, if for no other, it requires the most careful consideration.
The controversy was comparatively late in origin. It is a well-known historical fact that King James I sent representatives to the Synod of Dort in 1618 including such well-known figures as Bishop Davenant and Bishop Hall. When Hall after his return was accused of Arminianism he pathetically exclaimed, “I am scorched with the fire l sought to put out.”
But, notwithstanding this fact, James had a strong aversion to the type of Calvinism developed on the Continent of Europe, an aversion which found expression in the dictum attributed to him: “No Bishop, no King.” Charles I inherited his father’s aversion to his own undoing. As frequently happens religion and politics were inextricably mixed in the unsettled days of the later Stuarts.
A Mistake Concerning Laudianism.
Still it is a mistake to imagine that what is popularly called Laudianism was wholly dominant in English theological thought. Archbishop Usher was a contemporary of Laud. While he shared, to some extend, Laud’s royalist sympathies, he was a very firm exponent of the opinions popularly called Calvinistic. Although his scruples prevented him from attending The Westminster Assembly of Divines,” a good deal of “The Westminster Confession of Faith” has been derived from his pen. The curious may find this theme fully developed in Professor Warfield’s Articles on the making of The Westminster Confession.
The 104 Irish Articles.
Usher is directly responsible for the framing of the 104 Irish Articles which embody the distinctively Calvinistic “Lambeth Articles” drafted by Archbishop Whitgift but suppressed by the authority of Queen Elizabeth. This is yet another instance of the strong so-called Erastian colour that attaches to some of the principles now eagerly adopted by those who claim that their desire is to free the Church from all parliamentary or Imperial control. Such reflections may seem out of place in considering the Thirty-Nine Articles but it is necessary at times to recall the fact that the political situation affects seriously the temper of thought in any age and sometimes directs theological opinion into certain channels.
The Article Practically Unaltered since 1553.
It is a remarkable fact that the original Article of 1553 underwent no serious change in subsequent revisions. The words “in Christ” were added after the words “chosen” in the earlier part of the Article so that it read “whom He hath chosen in Christ out of mankind” instead of “whom He hath chosen out of mankind.” The words “Although the decrees of Predestination are unknown to us” were omitted from the last paragraph.
The first alteration may well be regarded as making the original statement more fully explicative. The second alteration, strange as it may appear, actually favours the doctrine of full assurance of salvation which was a favourite topic in the sermons of the Puritans. They contended very earnestly that while God’s counsel was indeed secret to us, the results of that counsel were manifest in the hearts and lives of those who through grace obeyed His calling. If the alterations can be said to lean in any direction it could reasonably be maintained that they supported a more definite Calvinistic position. A still more reasonable explanation, however, is that the words “in Christ” were inserted, as we have suggested, as being more fully explicative. The words “Although the decrees of Predestination are unknown to us” were omitted as being redundant, having been already asserted when the Article stated that predestination to life was constantly decreed by God’s counsel secret to us.
The Scholastic Divines.
A further introductory observation may not be out of place. The Scholastic divines were not united in opposition to what is popularly called Calvinism. Archbishop Usher has preserved for us his edition of Gottschalk of the ninth century, who was an ardent defender of the opinion now usually called ‘Particular Redemption.’ This in itself ought to be enough to dispose of the widely accepted belief that John Calvin is the originator of the doctrine of Predestination and that before his time all commentators of any weight were committed to what is now called Arminianism and many believe that the views of John Calvin on this important and difficult subject are only those of Augustine formulated with that clarity which is admitted to be a feature of Calvin’s writings.
The Testimony of Newman.
It is, indeed, possible to table Cardinal Newman as a witness for this opinion. In his letter to the Duke of Norfolk, Newman points out the fact, to which we have referred, that Aquinas was an advocate of strong Augustinian opinions and attributes the change of attitude in the Roman Catholic Church on the interpretation of the doctrine of “grace” to the influence of the Jesuit School of theology. If there is any soundness in this opinion (which is supported by The Catholic Dictionary P. 745) it could be maintained that the whole problem of predestination was not immediately one of the burning questions of the Reformation.
How the View Attained Prominence.
It was not until the bearing of Augustine’s doctrine on the related doctrine of justification by faith only emerged in controversy that the supporters of the “Counter-Reformation” felt it incumbent upon them to introduce what Newman calls “modifications.” The sometimes hesitant utterances of Melanchthon in contrast with the fiery dogmatism of Luther may help to elucidate still further this important aspect of the question.
The Value of Such Considerations.
If we bear these important features in mind we will be delivered from the error of approaching this mysterious doctrine of the Gospel with preconceived notions that we have to do with some later extravagance of an obscure and unworthy theological writer whose errors required to be corrected by a simple scriptural exposition of a comparatively unimportant doctrinal position which need never be introduced into the Articles of Religion were it not that certain prevalent misconception require to be dissipated.
How Predestination Attained a New Significance.
On the contrary, we will perceive that an important doctrine of the Christian faith to which considerable attention been given in times of old suddenly gained a new significance through the rediscovery of St. Paul’s presentation of the great truth of justification of faith only.
To this fact we can attribute the position which Article 17 occupies in the theological series. It follows the Articles on the place of good works, and the assertions that Christ alone was without sin and the possibility of renewal if we have fallen from grace given. Thus our Article by its very position directs attention to the external purpose of God governing every experience of grace given and nullifying any proud confidence in our own works or deservings.
The 39 Articles – Article 17: 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 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 his purpose by his Spirit working in due season; they through Grace obey the calling; they be justified freely; they 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 of 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 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 trust 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.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, March 14, 1957.This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.