Book Review: “Conversion and Election”

Conversion and Election: A Plea for a United Lutheranism in America. By Francis Pieper. Ithaca, NY: Just and Sinner, 2020. 140 pp. $14.00 (paper).

In the late nineteenth century, Lutherans in America were at odds with each other over the doctrines of election (i.e., predestination) and conversion. The conflict was reignited in 1912 when a joint committee convened by Norwegian Lutheran churches released what became known as the Madison Settlement, in which they accepted “unanimously and without reservation the doctrine of Predestination which is stated in the Eleventh Article of the Formula of Concord” (1).

The following year, Francis (a.k.a. Franz) Pieper published Conversion and Election as a “discussion of the Norwegian Articles of Agreement, and of the criticism to which they have been subjected.” His purpose in doing so was “to aid, on our part, toward the recognition and maintenance of the doctrinal position of the Form of Concord as the only one which is in accordance with Scripture and correct from the theological point of view” (vi).

Article XI of the Formula of Concord is too long to summarize here, but Pieper traces “the fundamental difference…in the controversy” to a single excerpt in Section 57 of the Formula’s Solid Declaration: “One is hardened, blinded, given over to a reprobate mind, while another, who is indeed in the same guilt, is again converted” (19).[1] According to Pieper, there is a “mystery” here:

The Scriptures teach, on the one hand, that the grace of God in Christ is extended to all men alike, and, on the other hand, that there is no difference among men, since all are in the same state of total depravity and in the same guilt before God, and their conduct over against the saving grace of God is equally evil. Such being the case, we might conclude, either that all men would be saved by the grace of God, or all men be lost by reason of their own guilt. Instead, the Scriptures teach that some are saved merely by the grace of God, and the rest are lost solely by their own guilt. Why this different result when the underlying conditions are the same? (15)

Pieper says we must accept that the mystery is “insoluble in this life,” for anyone who attempts to “solve” it “is forthwith proved a false teacher; for he denies either the sola gratia, that is, he denies that those who are saved are saved solely by the grace of God, or her [sic] denies universalis gratia, i.e., he denies that all who are lost are lost by their own fault” (16). Those who adopt the latter solution are “Calvinistic,” while those who opt for the former are “synergistic” (19).

Pieper thus spends most of the book arguing that to uphold both sola gratia—that we are saved by grace alone, and not through any effort or conduct of our own—and universalis gratia—that salvation is genuinely offered to all—is not only the traditional Lutheran position, but the biblical position. He critiques the idea that God elects people intuitu fidei (“in view of faith”), i.e., the notion that God elects people on the basis of foreseen faith (60‒61). This position had become popular among some Lutherans in America at the time, and was defended on the basis that a number of the “old dogmaticians” in the Lutheran tradition used the phrase themselves. Pieper, however, shows that these older Lutheran thinkers understood the phrase in a markedly different sense than the “American representatives of intuitu fidei” do (61).

In making his case, Pieper appeals to Scripture in responding to both “Calvinists” and “synergists.” However, given that the book is situated in an intra-Lutheran dispute, the bulk of his discussion is rooted in the Lutheran confessional and theological tradition (which, of course, Pieper argues is itself merely the expression of Scriptural truth). This is not meant as a critique—I only mention it so that potential readers will not expect a deep dive into all the relevant biblical passages.

That said, even though the book is addressed to a particular denominational audience and context, Pieper’s treatment of election and conversion remains useful today not just to Lutherans, but to Anglicans as well. The reason for this is that Pieper reminds us of a simple truth that is all too easily overlooked in our own day: it is possible for Christians to affirm unconditional election and at the same time not affirm double predestination, that is, the idea that just as God from eternity predestines some to election, so too from eternity he predestines others to damnation. Pieper mostly couches this latter point positively in terms of the sinner’s culpability for his own damnation—to wit, that “all who are lost are lost by their own fault.” Yet he also affirms the implied corollary when he approvingly cites the 529 Synod of Orange as having “[rejected]…the praedestinatio ad malum” (16).

The reticence of the Anglican Articles on this topic can be better appreciated when they are compared with other Protestant confessions. For example, the Westminster Confession explicitly affirms double predestination in Chapter III, Section 3: “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels…are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.” Equally clearly, the Epitome of the Formula of Concord denies double predestination in Article XI, Section 19, where it rejects the error “that God is unwilling that every one should be saved, but that some, without regard to their sins, from the mere counsel, purpose, and will of God, are ordained to condemnation so that they cannot be saved.”[2]

The Thirty-Nine Articles, however, are silent on this point. While Article XVII explicitly teaches predestination unto salvation, it does not address the prospect of predestination unto damnation, as seen here in the full article:

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. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God, be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfall, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.

Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in Holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God.

The fact that Article XVII pointedly declines to address the subject of double predestination has not been lost on recent Anglican thinkers. Peter Toon notes that “this negative side to divine election was resisted in the Reformed Catholicism of the Church of England, even though exiles who had been in Switzerland and who returned in the reign of Elizabeth I pressed for double predestination to be included in the Confession of Faith of the reformed Church of England.”[3] Likewise, Oliver O’Donovan writes that Article XVII “does not speak of the double decree. This silence is emphasized by its peculiar shape. ‘Predestination to life is the everlasting purpose of God,’ it begins; and we naturally await a balancing sentence, ‘Foreordination to death … etc. But it never comes. Cranmer will not say that there is such a thing as foreordination to damnation, but only that belief in such does exist and that the devil can make use of it.”[4]

Older Anglican commentators have pointed out this feature of Article XVII as well. To mention just a couple of examples, Archdeacon Edward Welchman observes that in this article, “The severity of reprobation is left wholly untouched upon,”[5] and B. J. Kidd similarly writes that the article “avoids saying that the election of some implies the rejection of all the rest, and so declines to be committed to the doctrine of Reprobation, according to which all who are not predestinated to eternal life were held to be predestinated to eternal death.”[6]

Some authors also draw a connection between Article XVII’s language and that of Luther and Melanchthon on the subject. For example, Bishop Edgar C. S. Gibson notes that “the sources of the Article…are thought to lie to some extent in the writings of Luther, including both his letters and the Preface to the Epistle to the Romans; and the language of the last paragraph has been traced by Archbishop Laurence to Melancthon.”[7] Even more strongly, Bishop Edward Harold Browne suggests that “the Lutheran, not the Calvinist reformers, had weight, and were consulted on the drawing up of this Article; and…although there is no Article in the Confession of Augsburg on predestination, yet the views of that doctrine current among the Lutheran divines were more likely to prevail than those among the Calvinists, who had as yet had no influence in Great Britain.”[8]

The fact remains, though, that while Article XVII does not affirm double predestination, it does not deny it either—Anglicans are at liberty to believe either way. As Browne observes,

It seems worthy of consideration, whether the Article was not designedly drawn up in guarded and general terms, on purpose to comprehend all persons of tolerably sober views. It is hardly likely that Cranmer and his associates would have been willing to exclude from subscription those who symbolized with the truly admirable St. Augustine, or those who held the theory of prevision, so common among those fathers whose writings Cranmer had so diligently studied. Nor, again, can we imagine that anything would have been put forth markedly offensive to Melancthon, whose very thoughts and words seem embodied in one portion of this Article, as well as in so many of the preceding.[9]

Yet even though Anglicans are not confessionally obligated to deny double predestination, for those who nonetheless feel bound to reject the doctrine, Pieper’s book is an excellent introduction to the topic. In the absence of any other readily available edition of this work, Jordan and Lisa Cooper are to be thanked all the more for not only returning it to print, but making it eminently affordable as well. There is a smattering of typos, but they are not so serious as to inhibit understanding, making this book a prime resource for Christians to learn (or be reminded) that viewing election as unconditional does not necessitate a corresponding belief in double predestination.

  1. See also Book of Concord, “The Formula of Concord: Solid Declaration,” Article XI, Section 57, https://bookofconcord.org/formula-of-concord-solid-declaration/article-xi/#sd-xi-0057.
  2. Outside of Protestantism, Aquinas also explicitly denies double predestination: “Reprobation differs in its causality from predestination. This latter is the cause both of what is expected in the future life by the predestined—namely, glory—and of what is received in this life—namely, grace. Reprobation, however, is not the cause of what is in the present—namely, sin; but it is the cause of abandonment by God.” Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I.23.3 ad 2, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Benzinger Brothers, 1920), https://www.newadvent.org/summa/1023.htm#article3. See also Taylor Patrick O’Neill, Grace, Predestination, and the Permission of Sin: A Thomistic Analysis (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2019).
  3. The Calvinistic Lambeth Articles of 1595—written to supplement the Thirty-Nine Articles, but never approved by Convocation or Parliament—are an implicit testament to what the Thirty-Nine Articles do not address or affirm, including double predestination. Article 1 of the Lambeth Articles reads, “God from eternity hath predestinated certain men unto life; certain men he hath reprobated” (emphasis mine).
  4. Oliver O’Donovan, On the Thirty-Nine Articles: A Conversation with Tudor Christianity, 2nd ed. (London: SCM Press, 2011), 85.
  5. Edward Welchman, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, Confirmed by Texts of Holy Scripture, and Testimonies of the Primitive Fathers (London: SPCK, repr. 1842), 43.
  6. B. J. Kidd, The Thirty-Nine Articles: Their History and Explanation (London: Rivington’s, 1899), 155. See also A. P. Forbes, An Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 2nd ed. (Oxford and London: James Parker and Co., 1871), 251‒52; William Baker, A Plain Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (London: Rivington’s, 1883), 100; John Macbeth, Notes on the Thirty-Nine Articles, Historical and Explanatory (Dublin: Wm. McGee, 1894), 88; G. F. Maclear and W. W. Williams, An Introduction to the Articles of the Church of England (London: Macmillan and Co., 1895), 221‒22; F. E. Middleton, Lambeth and Trent: A Brief Explanation of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Chas. J. Thynne, 1900), 97; and E. Tyrrell Green, The Thirty-Nine Articles and the Age of the Reformation, 2nd ed. (London: Wells, Gardner, Darton and Co., 1912), 115.
  7. Edgar C. S. Gibson, The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, 2nd ed. (London: Methuen and Co., 1898), 462‒63. See also T. P. Boultbee, An Introduction to the Theology of the Church of England in an Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1871), 141; Maclear and Williams, Introduction to the Articles, 213; and Green, The Thirty-Nine Articles, 113.
  8. Edward Harold Browne, An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, Historical and Doctrinal, ed. J. Williams (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1874), 422.
  9. Browne, Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles, 425. See also Macbeth, Notes on the Thirty-Nine Articles, 88.

 



James Clark

James Clark is the Book Review Editor at The North American Anglican. He graduated from Yale Divinity School with a Master of Arts in Religion, concentrating in Philosophical Theology. His writing has appeared in Front Porch Republic, Themelios, and Evangelical Quarterly, as well as other publications.


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