“Predestination” seems to be fundamentally an argument about power in the relationship between humans and God. To what degree is God directly involved in our everyday stuff? To oversimplify: a strict view of predestination might hold that God wills every single thing that occurs, from the flapping of the butterfly wing to the hurricane it [didn't] cause because God caused it. A loose view barely allows room for God to intervene in the world at all. God set things in motion, deist-like, and either can’t or won’t infringe on us lest he damages agency. Either of these positions (and the vast array of possibilities lying along the spectrum) entails a few unpleasant things.
Strict: I can rest with certainty if I’m chosen. But being chosen means others won’t be, which seems rather arbitrary and cruel.
Have you ever met a strict Calvinist who doesn’t feel they are elect? I haven’t
Loose: I have a degree of autonomy, I’m free to respond to God’s invitation. But what exactly do I have to do in order to measure up?
Have you ever met an exhausted Mormon? I have.
These aren’t the only points to be made, but this isn’t the place for a full discussion of Calvinism and Mormonism. Instead, I want to show how a recent book distinguishes the latter from the former. Peter J. Thuesen recently published an intellectual history of the doctrine of predestination in America.1
He finds that views all along the spectrum rest on various biblical texts. He shows that each view sees the other in a less-then-favorable light, to put it mildly. Despite the unifying attempts of early Christian creeds, Thuesen argues that “there has never been a reigning orthodoxy on predestination” (4). He uses five pages to situate Mormonism within American thought on predestination.
Thuesen seems to see predestination as an important locus of difference in Joseph Smith’s break from other religions.2
He identifies three interrelated teachings which run counter to various Calvinistic views on predestination:
1. Deification. He interestingly ties Joseph’s account of what Jesus told him (“all sects were wrong…because they had a ‘form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof’”) to Joseph’s eventual teaching of theosis (127). Denying the power of godliness was denying the godliness (in potential) of humans created in God’s image. Humans were “radically free, indeed godlike, in their ability to choose and that their choices will determine which degree of glory they attain in the afterlife” (127). Choice is a trait of God which is also possessed by humans.
2. Original Sin. By eliminating the completely debilitating effects of the Fall, Smith “deprived predestination of its foundation. Without an inherently damnable humanity, God’s sovereign election of some and reprobation of others could hardly appear to be anything else but arbitrary” (130).
3. Pre-mortal Existence. This “not only extends human agency into the indefinite past but also throws open the plan of salvation, suggesting that this short life is but a fraction of the time in which humans can realize their divine potential” (130).
I liked Thuesen’s treatment of Mormonism, though he inadvertently leaves plenty of space for quibbling about dates and influences. Also, it’s a huge understatement to say that these three claims have far-reaching and ever-contestable implications. Thuesen’s analysis is useful in that it focuses on these Mormon doctrines by viewing them in a particular context, specifically through the lens of predestination. Joseph Smith, Thuesen argues, “was far from a systematic theologian,” indeed, “it is likely that the rough-hewn Smith was aware of the anti-Augustinian implications of his theology,” although it wasn’t for a lack of contemporary reading material or religious debate. Thuesen juxtaposes Mormonism with Methodists, Campbellites, Adventists, Christian Scientists, and with other religious thinkers who struggled with the question of God’s role in human free will and salvation. I point you to his book if you’re interested in the specifics.
Suffice it to say here that the “Restoration” of the gospel wasn’t different in that it merely broke away from earlier Christian views by presenting the only alternative. More interesting to Thuesen ( and to many current academic historians focusing on Mormonism and other religions) are the ways Joseph differed and the reasons for his differing. Thuesen highlights some of these ways, these “reactions” against Calvinism in new scripture, revelations, rituals, etc. Ultimately, Thuesen understands Mormonism as being “in some ways simply the culmination of a much wider cultural rebellion against Augustinianism” (130), one that continues, though not without advances on behalf of Calvinism, until today.
1. Thuesen is a professor of religious studies at IUPUI. His book is Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). I had a really fun time reading it. The crux of the matter seems to concern how God’s plans and power interact with human will. Thuesen traces positions from the early Christian Church through Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, to figures like Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley and Rick Warren, along with a bunch of religious thinkers and movements in between. Thuesen’s narrative dances. His careful consideration of cultural context, internecine squabbles, and exegetical assumptions place his book beyond a simple restatement of various positions. This is the true strength of the book: he’s not just relating a bunch of disagreements. He’s carefully placing views in historical context while exploring their ramifications for practicing Christians. In other words, this is the sort of thing the folks over at juvenileinstructor.org are talking about all the time, whatever qualms they might have with Thuesen’s particular success in application.
2. Also, Thuesen doesn’t go into any detail about how Joseph or the post-Joseph church dealt with those pesky biblical passages that talk about predestination or foreordination. An interesting history of Mormon thought on that subject would be fun. Don’t just point me to the Bible Dictionary or The Stick of Bruce, though! Also, God willed from the beginning of all time that the Mormon blog most dedicated to the topic would be newcoolthang. They hide it under the category of “determinism.”