Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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Peter Thuesen
Photo by Rocky Rothrock, IUPUI Visual Media

Free Will or God's Will?

by Lauren J. Bryant

When George W. Bush addressed the 51st annual National Prayer Breakfast in February 2003, he closed his remarks by invoking providence, with a capital P. "We can be confident in the ways of Providence, even when they are far from our understanding," said the president. "Events aren't moved by blind change and chance. Behind all of life and all of history, there's a dedication and purpose, set by the hand of a just and faithful God." Some six weeks later, Bush launched the invasion that grew into the Iraq war.

How much does Bush's providential worldview hold sway in the White House and in the United States? Pundits debate the specific effects of Bush's religiosity, but there's little doubt the born-again president favors the view that events come to pass as part of a divine plan. The estimated one-third of the U.S. population who describe themselves as evangelical Christians surely agree.

Consider, for example, the people of Saddleback Church, a megachurch in southern California led by Rick Warren, author of the bestselling Purpose-Driven Life. Peter Thuesen, an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, describes a 2005 visit to the church.

"The idea of a purpose-driven life strongly suggests the broad doctrine of providence, that God controls all things. That couldn't have been more strongly illustrated than when I attended a Saddleback new members class," Thuesen recalls. "One of the pastors leading it told the 150 people or so in attendance that God knew they would be there, that God foresaw everything, down to the color of the tablecloth on the table. How could you put a providential worldview more strongly than that?"

What's most interesting to Thuesen, though, is what the Saddleback pastors aren't teaching. A scholar of American religious history, Thuesen made the trip to Saddleback as research for a book he is writing called Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine. Predestination, he explains, "is the particular aspect of providence that has to do with the predetermination of each person's ultimate destiny, traditionally defined as going to heaven or to hell." But despite the California church's stated belief that "nothing in creation ‘just happens,'" you won't hear the word "predestination" around Saddleback.

Why? Because the ancient doctrine of predestination may be the biggest stumbling block of all Western Christian theology. As Thuesen puts it, "How do you balance the idea of an omnipotent God, who has the power to predetermine all things, with human agency and free will?" Theologians have wrestled with this question for at least a millennium, parsing Biblical passages every which way to support their views. (One of the most frequently cited texts is Romans 9, which includes the famous "Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.")

And when the predestination question is set in the American context, it becomes an obstacle of confounding proportions. "Americans are accustomed to the idea of self-determination in all things, including religion," Thuesen explains. "You say to someone, your destiny is predetermined by a higher power. . . . Well, many people rebel against that notion. When predestination came into conflict with the American, Enlightenment-influenced notion of self-determination and free will, it created a 400-year history of debate."

Which is why many American Christians, like the Saddleback Church leaders, simply avoid the doctrine altogether. "I went to Saddleback to answer the question, does Rick Warren's notion of providence entail predestination?" Thuesen says. "What I discovered is that Saddleback is the epitome of today's megachurches in that they do not want to be pinned down on that question."

A Democratic Doctrine

The doctrine of predestination has its roots in the words of the apostle Paul and the writings of Augustine, but perhaps its most influential expression came from the 16th-century theologian John Calvin, who believed firmly in absolute predestination. "Calvin said no one who wishes to be thought religious dares simply deny predestination," says Thuesen. "Because if God doesn't predetermine all things, including a person's ultimate destiny, then God is deprived of some divine power. If you deny predestination, then in some sense you deny God."

The Puritans brought Calvin's strict view of predestination to America where, soon, the theological became political. Is a strict commitment to predestination compatible with democracy? "Plenty of people in the long American tradition have argued that predestination is the ultimate democratic doctrine because it is a leveling doctrine," Thuesen points out. "Everyone is equally sinful and equally likely to be elect, so that makes everyone equal before God." Yet, plenty of believers have also opposed the doctrine as un-American in its disregard for liberty and self-determination. And that opposition, Thuesen claims, has been a major factor in shaping the American religious landscape.

The anti-predestinarian backlash helped give rise to numerous American religious traditions, including John Wesley's Methodists, Joseph Smith's Mormons, and Mary Baker Eddy's Christian Scientists. And the tension over predestination persists today in the two-party splits within mainline denominations. Thuesen points to the Lutherans, for example, whose division between the Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is partly rooted in the antagonism between strict adherents of Martin Luther's predestinarian belief--"Luther compared the human will to a donkey that either God or Satan rides," Thuesen says--and those with a more liberal view. A similar schism divides today's Southern Baptist Convention, torn between a pro-predestination faction that advocates Calvinist theology and a faction that believes strict predestination is "an impediment to evangelism," says Thuesen.

Hell or Hell, No?

When he started his research, Thuesen assumed that predestinarians had diminished to a minority in the modern world, but he's since changed his mind. Predestination is alive and well in contemporary America, he says, sustained mainly by the nation's large and influential group of conservative Protestant evangelicals. One reason for that is hell.

Evangelical Christians generally believe in hell--Saddleback Church followers believe that "hell is a real place" of "eternal existence." It's literal hellfire, as imagined graphically by Jonathan Edwards, the Puritan theologian Thuesen describes as "one of the great predestinarians in American history." Edwards's hell is gaping pit, filled with raging flames, over which a dreadfully provoked God dangles the unregenerate like insects. If that kind of hell is real, Thuesen says wryly, "it increases the urgency of the question about one's ultimate destiny."

But even America's evangelicals show the strain of resolving the standoff between divine destiny and human will. "In the modern world, doubt is our starting point, even for those who claim not to doubt," Thuesen observes. "There is a burden of proof for everyone now, so that even the most ardent fundamentalist feels obliged to defend the proposition."

When it comes to predestination, American evangelicals fall into three camps, according to Thuesen: pro, con, and the ambiguous middle. Adamant supporters of predestination believe the Bible teaches the doctrine. This group includes figures such as the popular Calvinist pastor R. C. Sproul, who writes that "God chooses people for salvation before they're even born [on the basis of] the good pleasure of his own will." For its defenders, Thuesen observes, this view of predestination is paradoxically comforting. "Left to our own devices, they would say we would surely fail," he says, "so believing that our ultimate destiny is taken care of is a relief. Being left to our own devices is a scary thing for predestinarians."

But other conservative Protestants such as the late firebrand John R. Rice, founder of The Sword of the Lord newspaper, believe that "predestination is an impediment to winning souls for Christ," Thuesen explains. "Rice wrote a book called Predestined for Hell? No! He regarded the doctrine as fatalistic. You have to give people the choice to convert."

The final group of evangelicals contains the Saddleback Church types, who are "content to bracket the issue or file it away for the sake of church unity," says Thuesen. "There are millions of people in the American tradition who are happy simply muddling through."

Ancient, American, and All-pervasive

If a critical history of an ancient Christian doctrine seems especially esoteric, Thuesen's work suggests we should think again. The concept of predestination pervades American culture far beyond conservative Christian circles or even religious denominations generally. Thuesen points to the sciences such as physics, to philosophy, and especially to psychology. "Freudian psychology is in some ways a secular version of predestination, in that it assumes our actions are governed by certain things over which we have no rational power," he says.

The problem of predestination has long animated the American literary imagination, too, from the Puritan poet Michael Wigglesworth to the mid-20th century's Robert Lowell and from the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe to John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies, which opens with the Rev. Clarence Wilmot sloughing off "the clifflike riddle of predestination."

And then there are the political implications. "When the Puritans came seeking to establish a ‘New Israel,'" Thuesen says, "they were seeking to establish an elect nation. ‘Election' is a term often synonymous with predestination, and in some ways, that idea has never been stronger. In Washington, I think we see the current administration assuming that democracy is the paradigm to export to all parts of the world."

In short, Thuesen ventures that the quandary over predestination permeates not only American life, but is fundamental to the human condition.

In times of acute suffering or human tragedy, he points out, predestinarian questions naturally arise. "Facing tragedy such as the Asian tsunami, for example, some say, ‘we don't know why these things happen, but God has a plan,' while others adamantly maintain that a loving God doesn't visit that kind of destruction on people.

"At certain points in our lives," Thuesen continues, "we all become predestinarian theologians because we wonder about these things. This theology is everywhere."

Lauren J. Bryant is editor of Research & Creative Activity magazine.