The darker side of predestination

Lee Gatiss
I was interested to see that TGC have launched in Australia. I hope and pray it will be a great support and encouragement to gospel-minded people down under.

On their shiney new website, there is an article posted two days ago on the great Anglican theologian, W.H. Griffith Thomas by my friend and birthday buddy, Michael Jensen.

One of the things Griffith Thomas says, and which for some reason Michael chose to zero in on in his summary of the man, is that there is no mention of the darker side of predestination in the Anglican formularies. Or as WHGT put it when commenting on Article 17 of The Thirty-nine Articles, "There is no reference to Reprobation or Preterition, neither of which is part of the Church of England doctrine."

Now, I don't especially like talking about this sort of thing. It can be difficult pastorally, and you always have to hedge everything around with qualifications and asides to guard against misunderstandings. And there isn't a consensus even amongst the more Reformed type of evangelicals about how precisely to formulate this sort of thing. So it isn't something I personally would choose to bring up if I was trying to build a coalition around central gospel truths. I would pass over it.

All that being said, it is a little disconcerting to read this sort of thing, and to be told that "there are scant Scriptures that might be said to teach a doctrine of reprobation." OK, so Article 17 does not explicitly cite:
1 Peter 2:8, "[those who do not believe] stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do."
2 Peter 2:12, "But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction."
Jude 4, "certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ."
Revelation 17:8, "the dwellers on earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the foundation of the world..."
But in such scriptures, the doctrine of reprobation does seem to many interpreters to surface in a most remarkable way. If it doesn't, if there is some other explanation for what these verses say, then perhaps we ought to be educated on that, rather than them simply being dismissed as "scant." They are, after all, about as scant as the number of verses directly addressing practising homosexuality, or whether you should marry a non-Christian.

We don't usually accept the argument that "where number of verses addressing a subject is small, dismiss the doctrine," or call it "mysterious," or say there is "no reference" to it. After all, how many times does God need to say something for us to listen?

As a mere historian, I think it is only fair to point out that Article 17 does actually speak of "the sentence of predestination." This "sentence" leads those without the Holy Spirit into desperation and ungodly living. This can only be a reference to that aspect of predestination which is directed against the non-elect, can't it?

The positive side of the doctrine is stated in the Articles using a clear allusion to Romans 9:23 "vessels made to honour". When you look that up, as all contextual exegetes like to do, it doesn't take long to notice that it is immediately preceded by a contrasting mention of "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" (Romans 9:22). Did I mention Romans 9 earlier? Maybe not, but again, it is another place where many commentators have seen the darker side of predestination being addressed, i.e. "What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction...?" Romans 9:13 doesn't say, "Jacob I loved."

It simply won't do to say that there is "no reference" to the flip side of this sweet doctrine. I know some people are offended by it. So did the English Reformers. There is an official Anglican Homily about that, "An Information of them which take Offence at certain Places of Holy Scripture." (The Homilies are officially recognised as having a certain authority in Anglicanism, by Articles 11 and 35.) This teaches us to have a "reverend estimation of God's word." And in part 2 of that homily, we are taught that, "Christ Jesus is a fall to the reprobate, which yet perish through their own default; so is his word, yea, the whole book of God, a cause of damnation unto them."

You might say this is simply affirming that sinners are damned by their own fault. That, as Griffith Thomas puts it "it is not God's doing." But it seems to me that it mentions God's word also being "a cause of damnation" there. Or did I misunderstand? I'm not quite convinced with Michael Jensen that "if we are condemned, it is our fault entire." I suspect there is more to it than simply us opposing his will (as if that could trump God's will). 2 Corinthians 4:3 also mentions another agency involved in the perishing of unbelievers.

There's also the lesser-read "Homily for Rogation Week" (Part 1). Here, we are also informed that God "may do what liketh him, and none can resist him. For he worketh all things in his secret judgment to his own pleasure, yea, even the wicked to damnation." God is involved somehow even in this darker side of things, it seems to say here. That even alludes to Proverbs 16:4 (another of those scant scriptures I forgot to list earlier).

I agree with Michael, that "There is much more of value in the work of Griffith Thomas." There is a great deal of useful stuff in the work of this great dispensationalist, premillennialist Anglican of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for those seeking to build a coalition around the gospel. Indeed, his portrait graces the walls of the Church Society office, and his commentary on the Articles is a Church Society publication. I just wish that we had learned more in Dr Jensen's article about some of the valuable things in his work, rather than this much more questionable aspect of his output.

Lee Gatiss is Director of Church Society, adjunct lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology, and Research Fellow of the Jonathan Edwards Centre Africa at the University of the Free State, South Africa