The Episcopal Doctrine of Predestination

Some have suggested that Episcopalians and other Anglicans deny the doctrine of predestination (or election unto salvation) in favor of a pluralistic or universalistic understanding of salvation (this may be true for some modern Episcopalians). Others insist that the original Anglicans of the sixteenth century tenaciously defended the notion of predestination -- that God has decided to save some and not others based merely upon a decree to that end. This they assume from a prima facie reading of the seventeenth article of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (to be examined below).

In the Catechism of the Episcopal Church, published in 1801, there is no offering of an outline for the doctrine of election or predestination. But in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, published in 1562, we find the following on the subject:
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 out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. (emphases added)
Is this confession Calvinistic or Arminian in nature?

At first glance, one might assume that the statement is overtly Calvinistic, until one considers two primary truths: 1) there is the obvious lack of the nature of election here being unconditional; and 2) Jacob Arminius himself grants us a similar definition of the doctrine: "Predestination therefore, as it regards the thing itself, is the Decree of the good pleasure of God in Christ, by which He resolved within Himself from all eternity, to justify, adopt, and endow with everlasting life, to the praise of His own glorious grace, believers on whom He had decreed to bestow faith."1 There is one word which distinguishes Arminius' statement from the Anglican confession: believers. Believers in Christ are elected in Christ.

Could the framers of the Thirty-Nine Articles have implied the same notion as that of Arminius, a notion that is strictly unCalvinistic, yet also considered biblical? Yes, especially as we recall our Anglican history, in that the English high church tradition of the sixteenth century approached a perpetuated "dislike for Calvinism in general and Puritanism in particular."2 Hence we cannot assume a strictly Calvinistic interpretation of the seventeenth article of the Thirty-Nine Articles. Moreover, this anti-Calvinist/anti-Puritan notion was brought with the Anglicans to the New World. So the Episcopalians in America remained non-Calvinistic theologically.

Should we assume, then, that, among Episcopalians, the doctrine of election unto salvation is largely ignored? To a large degree, yes, especially among modern-day Episcopalians. But this conclusion does not indicate that Episcopalians have no commentary on the subject. Much appeal is still made to the Thirty-Nine Articles when doctrinal matters arise. Episcopalians do not hold great debates about the subject, as do Calvinists, because the debates are entirely fruitless. Ask the typical Episcopalian what he or she believes about a theological topic and one will probably regurgitate a quote from the Articles, perhaps even from Scripture, but certainly not five debatable points defending the doctrine from an Anglican perspective.

Upon closer inspection, the reader gains further insight into the nature of the doctrine from an Anglican perspective, one that remains overtly unCalvinistic:
Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God [Eph. 1:3], be called according to God's purpose by his Spirit working in due season [Rom. 8:28]: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely [Rom. 5:1]: they be made sons of God by adoption [Rom. 8:15]: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ [Rom. 8:29]: they walk religiously in good works [Eph. 2:10], and at length, by God's mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.



Some of these statements are remarkably similar to confessions that Arminius uttered half a century after the publication of the Articles. Arminius, in addition to affirming the statement above, concurs and adds:
This predestination [election unto salvation] is evangelical [i.e., good news], and therefore peremptory [i.e., without contradiction] and irrevocable: And as the Gospel is purely gracious, this predestination is also gracious according to the benevolent . . . inclination of God in Christ. But that grace excludes every cause which can possibly be imagined to be capable of having proceeded from man, and by which God may be moved to make this decree.3
Arminius, as with the early Anglicans, is careful to note that God's selection of who will be saved depends not upon the ability of humanity to desire or to receive His grace and His salvation but upon the grace of God in Christ and through the work of the Holy Spirit. God has selected, even pre-selected, whom He will save and He has elected to save those who will, by grace, believe in Jesus Christ. (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20)

Why has God selected to save only some people? Because only by faith in and union with Jesus Christ can salvation be bestowed upon the individual. Jesus is the only Savior of fallen humanity and only in Him can salvation be experienced. God does not regenerate and thus save unbelievers. (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13) This is why we insist that the doctrine of election concerns the believer: God has elected to save those who believe.

Is anyone pre-selected (or strictly decreed) for hell? Without parsing various opinions on what constitutes "hell," and intentionally neglecting to address the issue of a former believer falling away from the faith and forfeiting salvation, we find the answer to our question in the truth that all people are already, due to the fall and to sin, self-condemned. (John 3:18) Fallen humanity is running toward an eternal cliff from which none innately care to be rescued until the Holy Spirit works within the individual, stirring his or her mind and heart toward the reality that we are all sinners, that we lack absolute righteousness (rightness), and that there is a judgment to come (John 16:8, 9, 10, 11). The Spirit then enables us to respond to this work and freely trust in Christ for ultimate salvation. Those who do are the elect of God.

Does this mean, then, that God elected them to be saved and not others? No. What this means is that the believer, because she is in Christ by grace through faith in Him, is the recipient of all the blessings that can be found in Christ: this person is elect because she is in the Elect One Himself (Isa. 42:1), Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Your "election" is the status you receive by union with the Elect One. You are chosen, choice, the blessed of God due to the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ.

Do all Episcopalians believe this subject in this manner? No. There is diversity within our unity on this subject. Episcopalians who subscribe to Calvinism perceive of the doctrine of election as being unconditional in nature. God unconditionally pre-selected to save some and not others. Theologically conservative non-Calvinistic or Arminian Episcopalians subscribe to what I have outlined above. Theologically liberal Episcopalians espouse other notions regarding salvation, such as pluralism (all religions or spiritual ideologies lead to God), or universalism (all will be saved at some point in the future). The liberal notions regarding salvation have no basis in Anglican history. I think the Anglican notion of the doctrine of election bares a resemblance to the thought of Arminius rather than Calvin. But both theological schemes are able to agree with the core of the seventeenth article.

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1 Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations: Disputation XV. On Divine Predestination," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:226.

2 Robert Bruce Mullin, Episcopal Vision / American Reality: High Church Theology and Social Thought in Evangelical America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), xiv.

3 Arminius, 2:392.