Predestination and Mormonism

“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.[2] 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 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.”


  1. I am not sure I understand Thuesen’s point #2. Even with Original Sin, I do not see how “God’s sovereign election of some and reprobation of others could hardly appear to be anything else but arbitrary”. It is not as if, in a strict Calvinist view, there is any group not effected by original sin.

    Further, I think Mormons merely kick the can down the road to pre-plan of salvation when it comes to original sin and human depravity.

    Finally, and somewhat snootily, wouldn’t it be fair to say predestination is between God and Man, while determinism between man and “the universe”. ie- in one free will is illusory because God is making choices for us, but in the other, free will is illusory because it doesn’t exist.

  2. I like Sam’s and WVS’s work on JS’s sermons relating to Calvinism vs. Arminianism.

  3. Loose: Why do I pray for others? What happens to them is what will happen, I can’t influence it.

    I’m going to have to go with “Too Deep” myself. Interesting reading, though.

  4. I find that most of us Mormons seem thoroughly committed to agency and free will, until you start asking questions. We take a dim view of how our history could have differed had early church leaders made different decisions. After all, what happened in the past must have happened according to God’s plan, right? This view of the inevitability of the present seems pervasive in our culture. Yet if our eventual destiny is to become like God, then agency and choice have to be a part of that divine potential. I’m a firm believer in the reality of free agency, but I do see the conflicting influences in our doctrine and in our religious practices.

    Nice catch about finding the non-elected strict Calvinists. Perhaps the disdain heaped upon us by some evangelicals is a means of validating their election, by pointing out those of us who obviously are not part of it.

  5. vormalige zendeling says:

    For the record, I have met a strict Calvinist who didn’t believe she was pre-ordained for salvation. There’s tons of them in small towns in the Netherlands! It was interesting (read: disconcerting now, heartbreaking then) to see my angelically sweet mission companion testify to a woman that she was a daughter of God, only to hear the woman snap, “You don’t know that, I don’t know that, only God knows that.”

    And the fact that some people really believe it (to the extent of doubting their divine worth) makes it even more sinister to me…

  6. I’ve always felt we occupy a space between the two extremes of strict and loose. We believe in free will, but also that each person was placed where and when they are in life by God (e.g. “God put this person in just this place so they could answer the question I am struggling with now”). Somehow God is completely in control and yet not controlling.

    For me, this occupies the same deepness of time line theories – good for mental exersize but not actually accomplishing anything.

  7. christian says:

    Dangit, reading about the two extremes got my hopes up for a loophole. On that note, I heard a couple times on my mission (not from anybody of consequence, don’t worry) that if you died while serving as a missionary you got a free ticket to the celestial kingdom (would God match your accrued wife points? like some kind of 401k? I don’t know). Did anybody else hear that idea floating around? It’s such a great idea for a deterministic loophole in free agency.

  8. christian says:

    I mean FREE WILL, not free agency. Don’t want to start a fire.

  9. kevinf, I think we have to make a distinction between Calvinism and predestination. While many (most?) Mormons accept divine foreknowledge most don’t see the conflict between foreknowledge and certain conceptions of free will. (No desire to debate that here – there are posts ad nauseum over at New Cool Thang on the subject) I think for those Mormons who favor foreknowledge they make a distinction between God predestining someone versus whether there is a future fact of the matter. That is so long as God isn’t making us who we are there isn’t a conflict. For such people the problem with Calvinism is less the issue of determinism than it is the fact God makes people that way. For such people it’s the King Follet Discourse that resolves the issue and its rejection of creation ex nihilo by God. Rather all intelligences are co-eternal with God and uncreated.

  10. vormalige: very interesting to hear. I’ve not encountered anyone who considered themselves Calvinist but also non-elect. (Are there any believing Mormons who feel Telestial bound? Probably?)

    Clark: good distinctions.

  11. Bhodges, as a teen I was convinced I was destined Telestial. I hometeach a person who is convinced of the same, and consequently doesn’t always want to come to church, even though she’s a “believer”. I think most Mormons who feel that way don’t have much faith in the atonement, and the rest may very well be right.

  12. Sounds like an interesting book. In this light, I like thinking of the Jacob 5 allegory. The Lord does his best to dung and nourish his trees, but there doesn’t seem to be anything arbitrary in choosing good fruit; it just meets a certain standard or it doesn’t. God certainly seems to set things in motion, and the idea that he rarely directly intervenes is not strange to me. Rather, I think God is more about indirect intervention through angelic and mortal hands, both because it is efficient and gives us chances to grow.

  13. I think my reaction to my experiences in the church has turned me into a Calvinist who does not believe himself non-elect.

    I think the issue is more that when you think of “Calvinist,” you think more of people who believe in Christ, etc., etc., and who believe they have had an irresistible experience that led them to that. You don’t really consider a lot of people who would say, “I think that God would have to reach out to me in an undeniable way for me to believe, but that hasn’t happened yet” as Calvinists even though they are rejecting the voluntarist perspective with respect to beliefs/faith.

  14. Calvinist who does not believe himself to be elect*.

    Too many negatives in more original post.

  15. I know this is a tangent only slightly related to the original post, but is “theosis” really the best word to describe Joseph’s/The Church’s teachings on deification? Does Theusen use the word “theosis”? Do we officially call our own doctrine “theosis” anywhere in our literature?

    I have long fascination and love for Eastern Orthodoxy, and I think that co-opting their word to describe our own doctrine might be doing their beautiful doctrine a disservice.

  16. (not that our doctrine isn’t beautiful, it’s just that blurring the distinction between the two does both a disservice)

  17. Greg Smith says:

    I’ve known a Dutch Calvinist who was convinced she was not elect, because she hadn’t had a born again experience. She and her husband were both convinced she was headed for everlasting hell when she died. Her minister confirmed this exegesis. So, it may be rare, but it does happen, and it’s pretty terrifying when it does.

  18. Well it’s easy to be exhausted if you take your responsibilities seriously…

    But honestly (as one of the exhausted) I think much of the problem of Mormon exhaustion is confusing righteousness with social signals. Being good really isn’t exhausting. Exhaustion usually comes from something else.

  19. Syphax, theosis is a pretty common term. Be aware that the term is used more broadly than just in Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A lot of pre-Christian Greek thought can be seen as focused on theosis. Arguably a lot of the syncretic semi-platonic pagan beliefs of late antiquity also clearly are about theosis. And that’s the term used for say the hermetic texts.

    It is interesting though that if you google for these terms Mormonism comes to the top – well above eastern orthodoxy.

  20. Divinely predestination is what makes Calvinism what it is. Nearly everything distinctive about Calvinism is the logical consequence of taking that idea seriously. Start with God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass and (most of) the rest of the Westminster Confession of Faith rolls out like clockwork. It is a logical tour de force.

    It is not just Mormonism that rejects divine predestination though. Arminius started the ball rolling two hundred years prior, and there are a number of denominations, most particularly the Methodists which Joseph Smith was most inclined to, who do the same for essentially the same reasons.

  21. #19. Interesting. As for your last comment, (Mormonism is on top of Google search results), I have noticed anecdotally that there is a lot more discussion, in English, online about Mormonism than Orthodoxy. This could be due to confirmation bias or a biased sampling on my part, but I think it has more to do with the fact that Orthodox are generally from poorer countries and don’t speak English.

  22. Isn’t the term ‘exhausted Mormon’ redundant? =) My friend and I always joke that a great missionary line to our non member friends would be, “If you think you’re tired now…come join our church!” Shockingly, it hasn’t been very effective. Another friend said, “They grind you into the ground, pluck you out, turn you over and start on the other side.” Again, not something you’d ever see in a Mormon Ad, but our reality nonetheless.

  23. I got stuck on kevinf’s comment (#4) which seems really true to me. Look at the beginnings of America, the way both Columbus and the English settlers treated the Native Americans. I have never once talked to a super conservative Mormon (which is what 90% of the people in my life are) who did not respond to that topic by saying that it was God’s plan for us to come here and completely ignoring the parts about genocide. They can’t manage to acknowledge the fact that those people did really terrible things, because what would it say about the whole promised land thing? (And frankly, I’m not sure I can see why “it was God’s plan” is any better–do we prefer to think that God directed those people to murder and enslave millions?) So what do we really believe, when it comes down to it? I’m getting the sense that official church doctrine and what members actually believe are maybe not quite the same thing.

  24. I have serious doubts about the reality of true libertarian free-will. If such existed, then given any moral decision, if we repeated that EXACT same moral decision repeatedly (with the exact same circumstances, exact same physical situation, exact same memories, exact same brain states, etc) then we would be capable of (and occasionally actually) making different choices during different iterations of the same event. While my existential self wants to believe that I am capable of making different decisions, my rational self says that it would not happen–that given the exact same iteration, I would make the exact same choice every time.

    I think this is exemplified in Ground Hog Day, where Bill Murray’s character is the only person able to act differently each day because he retains memory of the previous days, and thus approaches each decision differently (whereas everyone else only differs by their interaction with him).

    If this is the case, then our actions and choices would, in a way, be “predetermined” at birth, with the only possibility of diverging from destined paths being from an outside intervention (ie God/grace).

  25. whizzbang says:

    I wonder if God told us here and now how everything is and what he knows, when and what he intervenes with would blow our minds but I too am in a state of confusion as to how foreordination works and what the lived experience is. I don’t know what is worse or better confusion or I can’t even comprehend it it is so beyond me.

  26. whizzbang says:

    I also wonder if God saw or sees how everything was played out and sees the ending from the beginning and saw how people actually chose to do stuff and while he doesn’t agree with their choices he respects their agency and tries to influence their decisions. For example God knew that say Elder Richard Lyman would be exed in 1944 and so Elder Mark Petersen was called to replace him and so he gave Elder Petersen the necessary training to be ready to serve as an apostle in 1944 and not in the 1960’s when Elder Lyman died.So God looks backward and sees how we chose and how everything “was” which is now our “is”

  27. I’m not sure if it’s correct yet… but I’ve had this inkling over the years with my own personal experiences of being exhausted.

    I think it’s just not possible to keep up the level of charitable, Christlike activity necessary to really live up to attempting to take his name upon us and follow in his footsteps unless we have the spirit.

    In some ways, I think this is being one of the virgins whose oil ran out of their lamps. The spirit’s oil never runs out, but our good works will exhaust us if we do it without the spirit. In myself, I’ve noticed if my heart is in the right place, I’m doing the things I should be doing and placing the right priorities (internet instead of family/work/church/sleep anyone?) where I already know the spirit has directed me then I’m much less likely to get worn out.

    When I try to do it all, my will, and then the Father’s will, instead of focusing on the Father’s will first and foremost and continually, then it’s easy to get exahusted if I try to have it my way while seeming to do it the Father’s way. Hope that made sense… I only worry in writing it because it might seem like an indictment of anyone exhausted and a cheap shot to say “clearly you don’t have the spirit”.

  28. OOOOh! Mormonism and predestination, one of my favorite topics!

    I think Kevin f. in #4 is exactly right ,’ We take a dim view of how our history could have differed had early church leaders made different decisions. After all, what happened in the past must have happened according to God’s plan, right? This view of the inevitability of the present seems pervasive in our culture.”
    Frank Pellet’s idea in #6 illustrates his point.

    I disagree. While I see you are making a clear distinction, most Mormons like to say they believe in foreknowledge and not predestination– however except rhetorically, I don’t see any real evidence they distinguish between the two.

    What Clark said (#19) Most normal church-goers don’t go around using words like theosis, soteriology, christology and theodicy either—yet all of it certainly can be applied trans-religiously, and to the study of Mormon Christianity.

  29. I know that this discussion is several notches above my IQ level, but I’m going to throw in my two cents anyway.

    My sister in law and I have this ongoing debate about how much God intervenes in our lives. She thinks he doesn’t micro-manage our lives as much as we think he does, or care which house we buy, or if we get 5 or 10 lbs of flour at the store. I disagree about the house and believe that he cares about the neighbors who my family would influence and be influenced by, the ward we would be in, etc. The flour? Okay, I can see how that seems a little silly…unless I felt like a starving Elijah type was going to drop by later.

    On the flip side, I know that God has the capability to heal my special needs children but he doesn’t. Of course we prayed about where to live and moved into a ward where my son just happens to have as his primary teacher the only person in the ward who works full time with children with his same challenges. And my daughter just happens to have the same condition as her YW leader’s family member. In both instances, God doesn’t heal my children, but he places people in their lives that can assist them knowledgeably and influence them for good. I couldn’t have hand picked either one of these people better myself.

  30. Steve Evans says:

    kc, your two cents are better than most. Thanks for your insights.

  31. Sharee Hughes says:

    This has been an interesting discussion and I had not thought to leave a comment myself, but decided I would anyway. We have been told somewhere that “time is measured only to man.” To me, that means that, to God, there is no such thing as time, and everything is happeing at the same moment, just at a different place on the space/time continuum. That is why God knows everything, past, present and future. It is always NOW to Him. That does not take away our agency. It just means that He knows what our choices will be. And it does not mean He does not guide us in making the correct choices (such as moving into a neighborhood that will provide the best possible people to help our special needs children). He does that because He has already seen the good that can do. And He will ofte havethe Spirit whisper to us in order, for example, to help us avoid a terrible acccidetn because He knows that accident is just around the corner. I am sure He leaves most of the ordinary day to day decisions (such as how much flour to buy, which day to do the laundry, when to mow the lawn) up to us, as well as more important decisons that affect our spiritual well-being; otherwise, we would not grow. But He knows what we are going to do. Does this make sense?

  32. it's a series of tubes says:

    Sharee, D&C 37:2 seems to intimate generally what you are saying. As I have posted before, as a physicist, I probably view this issue a little differently than most; I draw a conclusion that satisfies me with respect to the “all things being before the face of God” issue (reasoning by analogy from how the universe would appear to me as an observer were I to reach the velocity of c – for me, there would be no time, and all things would be present before me).

  33. While I subscribe to the idea of God being outside time, a scriptural stumbling block comes to mind – Kolob. In Abraham, it’s described as Gods abode, and has a day equal to 1000 of our years.

  34. It’s slightly afield of the direction of the post, but some philosophers would argue that a God outside of time would be a static God, and one not capable of intervening in time, any more than you or I could draw a round square. It’s a deep problem.

    kc- thanks for adding your thoughts too.

  35. I vote for increasing strangeness. Given that quantum mechanics seems to argue for everything being entangled by everything else then we, the created, are entangled with the wave function of God, the creator. Thus, who we are also influences who God is.

    The universe also needs an observer to collapse probability wave functions into solid reality. In this capacity we share with God the role of observer in creating reality.

    The universe is far, far stranger than we can possibly understand. Its strangeness rests firmly on quantum mechanics.

  36. Confused, exhausted Mormon says:

    I would love an insightful response to #23, Miri’s comment. This very topic has caused me to question if God exists at all. If he truly wills things to happen, or at best, doesn’t intervene when bad things happen to good people, he doesn’t seem like a very kind God. And yet, bad things do happen to very good people– all the time. It’s almost more comforting to believe that some people are just very unlucky rather than believing that God has willed very terrible things to happen. These thoughts bounce around in my head daily– that’s why I am an exhausted Mormon!

  37. Confused, We know that God loves Mormons so whatever collateral damage happens to native populations (maybe Lamanites, maybe not) is God’s will.

  38. #33 – fwiw, Kolob is described as a planet “set nigh unto the throne of God” and “nearest unto me”, not God’s abode. Also, if it is the nearest unto God that actually is within the scope of our understanding / discovery, it could be said to be “after the reckoning of the Lord’s time” even if God actually was outside time. I take all of this figuratively, so I take very different meanings from these sort of scriptures, but those are huge differences when dealing with this topic in a literal sense.

    #36 – Why bad things happen to good people has been debated for as long as humans have been able to debate – and there is no clear answer unto which everyone can agree. The simplest “Mormon” answer I know is, “There must needs be opposition in ALL things.”

  39. As to the post itself, I have no idea how much free will I have as I make the decisions of my life – but it’s good to believe I have some degree of power to choose. It’s also good to believe it’s not all in my control, especially as I keep struggling to change what appears to be unchangeable in my nature – and it helps keep me from condemning others who also struggle to change (or appear to not be trying at all).

    I have no idea why God very clearly and obviously spoke clear revelation through me on at least three occasions – but in the other hundreds of times when He could have done so He didn’t. It’s good to believe he will do so when it’s really important and not do so when I just need to do my best and learn from the chips falling where they may.

    I have no idea why some of the decisions I just knew were inspired turned out so badly at the time – or why some of those ended up being really good decisions in longer hindsight, while others still look like bad decisions now. It’s good to believe he will stop me from making really bad decisions that will hurt other people badly while letting me make bad decisions that will hurt me but from which I can grow.

    I have no idea why some people have been healed or protected in truly miraculous ways, while others have been left to suffer tremendously without protection or relief. It’s good to believe He loves us in those situations, but it’s bad to think He doesn’t love others in their situations.

    I have no idea why the distinction obviously is NOT objective level of righteousness. Of everything else I’ve written in this comment, that is the only area about which I am certain. Sincere effort to be righteous can result in misery and pain, while wickedness actually can be happiness – at least in all objective measurements dealing only with mortality.

    All of this could lead me to question God’s existence and/or love, but I know from personal experience there is something / someone out there that knows me personally and really cares – and that’s enough to keep faith that, despite my lack of understanding of issues like this, there is an answer that will make sense eventually.

  40. Blair: not sure you saw it, but wanted you to know you spurred some thoughts.

  41. Ah, very good. I will have to pitch in a few ideas when I get a chance. .I’ve been thinking lately about a communal approach to “original sin” (not as the primary nature of what original sin is, but as an element of our mortal lives which can be understood as something that we deal with from birth). The blood and sins of this generation, so to speak, impacting our shared accountability. If agency can be understood as individual as well as communal, acted upon and acting upon, then original sin can be seen as personal and communal, etc.

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