Reformation Month: Day 14

31 Days, 31 Books


A broad study of American church history that focuses upon a narrow topic.

The study of the Protestant Reformation must necessarily begin in Wittenberg, Germany and from there extend to Worms, Germany and Geneva, Switzerland.  There are then more and more extensions of this study:  Zurich and Basel, Strassburg and scattered locales throughout France.  Very quickly the study then carries us to the British Isles.  It is always vital to connect the beginning of the Reformation (1517) to Columbus’ voyages (1492 and beyond) which then takes us to the New World.

The English colonies became a Reformation melting pot.  In the New World, the theological ideas of the Reformation could be planted on soil that was free of the centuries old layers of religious strife and struggle.  Religious freedom took root and grew in North America.  The modern reader has to beware of this kind of thinking.  We equate freedom with a total individualistic, every-man and every-church unhindered, mind-set.  The concept of “a free church in a free state” was a strong recipe for the melting pot.  Freedoms came slowly and painfully.

Understandably, Puritans and others who came from the colonies had no intention of setting up sound churches in godly communities and then subjecting them all to popular votes.  No organization can survive with easy membership and democratically based structural changes.  Again, the point is not to see the Puritan era of New England and the Chesapeake Bay colonies as ideal.  But the culture and society of the New World was a blank page.

Many, in fact, most of those who came to the New World came as Lutheran-Calvinists.  By that, I mean they came as children of the Reformation.  Puritans didn’t talk about when they became Calvinists.  That would be like most of us talking about when we “became” Americans.  The era and the atmosphere was coated with the theology of Luther, Calvin, Knox, Cranmer, and others.  Calvin’s teachings were the lens through which people read  the Bible.

These colonists, contra the historian Tawney, were not consumed with the doctrines of Predestination and Election.  These doctrines were not some internal hard-drive pushing the Puritans, Separatists, and others toward accumulating wealth so that they could make their calling and election sure.  There was a lot of depth and balance to the theology of the American colonists.

But they did believe in Predestination.  They were convinced of this doctrine from Scripture.  They did look at the circumstances leading to their crossing the ocean and settling the wilderness as acts of God’s Providence, Plan, and Purpose.

Peter Theusen’s book Predestination: The American Career of a Contentious Doctrine is an insightful study of  the doctrine of predestination and its impact and history in America.  As Theusen’s title points out, this doctrine has been a contentious in the American experience.  In this study, he discusses Calvinists, Lutherans, Methodists, and others who either defended the doctrines of predestination and election or opposed them or modified them.  By the way, it should be remembered and stressed that Calvinists and Lutherans are historically at one on the doctrine of Predestination.  In fact, as the book Bondage of the Will shows, Luther was perhaps more adamant about the doctrine than Calvin.

Defending, opposing, and modifying:  By taking those three choices, one can cover much of the religious history of this nation. This book begins where American history really begins, in my opinion, with the Protestant Reformation. The Puritan theology and experience in the New World brought both an entrenchment of doctrine and opposition to it. Some opponents, such as the Methodists, were orthodox and Protestant in other points of theology; however, Mormons, Adventists, and other enemies of Calvinism veered way off the trail of historic Christianity. This book is a very useful and readable study.

This book was published in 2009 in conjunction with the world-wide celebration of the 500th year since John Calvin’s birth.  It is published by Oxford University Press.

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