Rev. Dr. John A. Vissers on the Reformation

This conversation with Rev. Dr. John A. Vissers, Principal of the Presbyterian College and Adjunct Professor of Christian Theology at McGill University Faculty of Religious Studies, seeks to situate contemporary Protestant theology in its historical context. All Protestants have been deeply influenced by Luther, Calvin and the Reformation.  Dr Vissers provides a solid Reformation context for subsequent interviews with major Protestant denominations.


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1. Augustine and Original Sin


Believer’s Dilemma:  This current research series focuses on original sin and its repercussions on grace, salvation, freewill and predestination.  These ideas all find their origins in Augustine.


John Vissers:  You believe the doctrine of predestination originated with Augustine?


Believer’s Dilemma: The doctrine of original sin was never a major part of Christian theology prior to Augustine.  Augustine enforced original sin so rigorously that unbaptized babies were condemned as sinners.  Predestination was an inevitable consequence of reducing freedom of will to an illusion.


John Vissers: That is true, but one could argue that there is a very strong doctrine of predestination already in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.  Prior to Augustine it was a different doctrine in the sense that it was an election to vocation, rather than an election to salvation. But nevertheless the underlying issue is, ‘Why did God choose Israel rather than anyone else?’


Believer’s Dilemma:  Choosing Israel to be a light in the world is different than choosing Israel for salvation out of the depraved mass of humanity. And it is very different than predetermining that some group of people should be condemned.


John Vissers: Certainly.  The basic structure of the doctrine of predestination existed before Augustine, although it was not directly associated with salvation. Predestination takes on a different problematic when it is connected with Augustine’s doctrine of original sin.  Reading the ‘Fall of mankind’ into the third chapter of Genesis is also part of that problem.


Believer’s Dilemma:  The Eastern Orthodox Church and Judaism read Genesis differently, but many Christians who come from the Christian traditions of Western Europe are absolutely convinced that the only possible narrative for the story of Eden is the Fall of mankind and the wrath of God.


John Vissers: If you read the Genesis text objectively, there is no ‘Image of Fall. That is clearly a distinctly Augustinian rendering of Genesis 3.   



2. Luther and the Bondage of the Will


Believer’s Dilemma:  According to Augustine, the human will has no power to please God. It is capable only of sin. Augustine used the analogy that a stone could claim to have free will although on its own power it can only fall downwards.  Similarly, without God’s grace man can only fall deeper into sin. Why do you think Luther made original sin, depravity, and predestination the cornerstones of his theology?


John Vissers: That’s a good question. Context is essential to grasp what is at stake for Luther, and for Calvin.  First and foremost, they are framing the doctrine of grace.  In other words, what they’re really reacting against is anything that smacks of righteousness based on a human contribution to one’s salvation.


Believer’s Dilemma:  Grace and freedom of will were also at the heart of the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius. Pelagius believed that we are capable of accepting the gift of salvation.  Augustine’s conception of original sin left little room for freedom of will. He was strongly opposed to the Pelagian idea of the sinner actively participating in his own salvation.


John Vissers: When Luther appealed to Augustine, he was arguing that humans do not have freedom to do whatever they wish.  Luther and Calvin were adamant that they didn’t want any kind of theological framework that would allow human beings to think that somehow you can save yourself. For them, true freedom is only found in God, and in the Gospel.  Anything other than that is an orientation away from God.


Believer’s Dilemma:  It is hard to imagine that Augustine did not anticipate the collateral damage that would result from his strict and narrow interpretation of original sin.  Is it possible that the Reformers did not see the problems that would follow from placing so much emphasis on original sin, depravity and predestination?


John Vissers:  One of the ways to read the Reformation is as a debate between Roman Catholic theologians and Protestant Reformers about Augustine. Luther and Calvin are driving Augustine’s doctrine of grace and therefore pushing this doctrine of predestination as far as it will go to make their point. Whereas the Roman Catholic theologians are driving Augustine’s doctrine of sacraments and pushing that as hard as it will go in response. Both sides appeal to Augustine, but they are taking two different tracks to support their point.  


Believer’s Dilemma: Augustine as a young man believed that freewill was essential to salvation and must be accepted as a gift. Later in life, as he was battling Pelagius and trying to impose Christianity as the only official religion of the Roman Empire, he rejected freewill and argued for predestination. Quotes from different periods of Augustine’s life can bolster diametrically opposed ideas.


John Vissers: Augustine also means different things by freewill, by will, at different points in his writing. You can find quotes in Augustine where he’s very clear that human beings have freedom of will, even in some of his later writings, but he means something quite different than you and I would mean by freedom of will. He will acknowledge that we have the freedom to exercise choice but not that we have freedom ultimately to choose the good. That’s an important distinction in his thinking.


Believer’s Dilemma: That is where he used the analogy of the falling stone.  The stone might think it is freely flying but it inevitably moves in one direction only.  When modern readers read Luther, they think that ‘depravity’ simply means our will is somehow corrupted and we have a propensity to sin, but that we are still capable of choosing good.  Unlike Augustine, who was ambiguous, Luther insisted that the bondage of sin made us slaves to sin and total depravity.


John Vissers: I wouldn’t agree with that. I think what Luther or Calvin mean by total depravity is that every sphere of human capacity is touched by sin. It doesn’t mean that there is nothing good left in human nature. That is true of Calvin especially. I think the later Lutheran and Calvinist traditions messed that up.  But I think Luther and Calvin themselves understood that depravity doesn’t mean everyone is as terrible as they possible could be and there is nothing good. Calvin has a long section in the Institutes (of the Christian Religion) where he talks about all the good things human beings can do even apart from God.  


Believer’s Dilemma: You’re right. We need to distinguish between sin and depravity.  Luther makes many categorical statements about freewill and sin in his book ‘Bondage of the Will’. The term ‘Total Depravity’ only appeared later in the Reformation, but Luther did not leave room for any ambiguity about the corrupt nature of the human will.  


Augustine said that freewill has no power to please God. Freewill is capable only of sin. In his second book against Julian, Augustine calls it a slave will rather than a free will. A stone could be said to have freewill because on its own power it can fall downward. Without God’s grace, man’s freewill can only fall downward into deeper sin!

Bondage of the Will section IV Arguments for Free-will


More than half the Scriptures are promises of grace, by which God offers men mercy, life, peace and salvation. But not a single word of mercy, promise, or comfort supports this blasphemy of freewill.

Bondage of the Will section IV Arguments for Free-will (ix)


If I wanted to review all the passages in Paul alone that overthrow freewill I would have to give a running commentary on his entire writings! The boasted power of freewill is refuted by almost every word. I am amazed that other contradictory statements have won acceptance.

Bondage of the Will section VII Doctrine of Bondage (viii)


John Vissers: The thing with Luther is that he was writing tracts. Not to let him off the hook for his excesses, but it means he’s always going to push his points to the full extent possible in the rhetoric he uses.


Believer’s Dilemma: In ‘Bondage of the Will’ Luther made dozens of statements along the lines that divine foreknowledge absolutely precludes human freewill. This is precisely the same approach he used to defend God’s grace and human depravity. In Luther’s mind, human will and divine will were mutually exclusive.


If God does not foreknow and will all things, necessarily and immutably, how can anyone believe or rely on his promises? Unless we teach the necessary foreknowledge of God and the necessity of events, Christian faith is utterly destroyed and the promises of God as well as the whole gospel fall to the ground completely. The Christian’s main comfort in every adversity comes from knowing that God does not lie, but brings all things to pass immutably, and that His will cannot be resisted, altered or impeded.

Bondage of the Will section II Preface (v)


It is impossible to reconcile both the foreknowledge of God and the freedom of man together. It would be far easier to maintain that the same number may be both nine and ten!

Bondage of the Will section V Texts Against Free-will part 1 (vii)   


John Vissers: Yes. There’s no question about that.  I have criticisms of Luther but I’m trying to get at his main points.  In the context of late medieval Roman Catholicism, Luther was trying to break free from the rituals and sacraments that determined how salvation is achieved. Everything Luther wrote was meant to shore up the doctrine of grace. The challenge for us is to interpret the doctrine in a different context.  The issues that were pressing for Luther are no longer meaningful for us. The language he used, and the way he articulated his ideas, is no longer adequate.


Believer’s Dilemma: It is difficult for people in the modern world to sympathise with Luther’s arguments in ‘Bondage of the Will’.


John Vissers: There is nothing sacrosanct about our modern world view. I don’t think modernity is sovereign and I have a problem with interpreting history as if we’ve got it all figured out now and they didn’t back then. That’s a very dangerous position to build any theology on. It is exactly the position that got Luther and Calvin in trouble. The challenge for us is to rethink these conceptions in terms of our modern world view.


Believer’s Dilemma:  One of the problems in the modern world is that we have never systematically questioned the flaws in the doctrine of original sin that led Augustine to condemn unbaptized infants or led Luther to dismiss freewill as a delusion.


John Vissers: I think anyone who wants to explore the Reformation seriously has to be prepared to deal with history and tradition that are richly diverse and contradictory: sometime very evil and sometime very magnificent. That’s what the Christian tradition is.


Believer’s Dilemma:  Some of the traditions are perfectly sensible and some of them appear quite ugly. It would be helpful for the Church to state clearly that not all historical ideas have equal credibility or are equally supported by Christian tradition.


John Vissers: Churches do make pronouncements. The question is whether you’d ever get consensus about all the things that need to be set aside. That is why we have so many different denominations with different beliefs.


Believer’s Dilemma:  There are certain key points that virtually everyone agrees on. For example, is there a single Christian who would agree with the Council of Carthage (418) in its opinion about unbaptized babies?


-          Infants must be baptized to be cleansed from original sin.

-          Children dying without baptism are excluded from both the Kingdom of heaven and eternal life.


John Vissers:  That is a good example of a pronouncement that is extremely difficult to understand at this point in history.  But nonetheless it remains part of our history and we have to deal with it.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  As soon as Augustine was safely dead and buried, his fellow Bishops dealt with it by transferring unbaptized infants to limbo. Pope Benoit XVI is now saying that Limbo was an artificial concept that might be dispensed with.  Have Protestants been as willing to admit the errors of Luther and Calvin?  


John Vissers:  I don’t disagree that Luther and Calvin distorted parts of their theology to defend grace and divine sovereignty at all costs.  My point is you’re never going to get universal agreement about where they went wrong.   If you talk to people in the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church they are probably still are committed to Luther’s take on bondage of the will.  I don’t think you can undo what has gone before in the tradition. You can make statements about it, and you can go in a different direction, but you can’t disown it as part of the Christian tradition.



3. Calvin and Predestination


Believer’s Dilemma:  Calvin is closely associated with the doctrine of predestination. How deeply was Calvin indebted to Augustine?   


John Vissers:  First of all, Calvin wasn’t saying anything new or unusual for the 16th century. You can find the exact same doctrine of predestination in virtually all the late medieval theologians. The Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas used identical language about election and reprobation in his writings.  


Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (1a.23.5):

The reason for the predestination of some and reprobation of others must be sought for in the divine goodness.... God wills to manifest his goodness in those whom he predestines, by means of the mercy with which he spares them; and in respect of others whom he reprobates, by means of the justice with which he punishes them. This is the reason why God chooses some and reprobates others. Yet why he chooses some for glory and reprobates others has no reason except the divine will.  


John Vissers:  In Calvin’s day, predestination was an established part of Christian tradition. So it’s incorrect to say that Calvin single-handedly resurrected Augustine’s views about predestination. Calvin tried to reframe the doctrine in light of his understanding of grace.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  The elect were saved by God’s grace alone, through no merit on their part? And the reprobates were condemned for the same reason?


John Vissers:  Yes. Calvin wrestled with the doctrine of predestination throughout his career. The final edition of his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ filled four large volumes. It is important to recognize where predestination is situated in Calvin’s theological plan. The first book of the Institutes deals with the God of Creation. The second book deals with Christology and salvation.  Book three covers the Holy Spirit and justification, and then has a long section on prayer which is actually the longest section in the Institutes. It is not until the end of the third book that Calvin says, ‘I better say something about predestination. It is a doctrine that has to be addressed.’ Calvin places it at the end of Book 3, and it is what I would call a kind of post-soteriological theological reflection.


Believer’s Dilemma: What do you mean by that?


John Vissers:  Simply that Calvin deals with predestination after he has considered everything else. What this means is that he doesn’t see predestination as a cornerstone of the gospel.  For him it is a consequence of the doctrine of grace.  This is where Calvin differs from many of the people who call themselves Calvinists.  For example, the Westminster Confession creates problems by moving predestination from a position near the end up to the front, which makes it an organizing principle for the theology.


Believer’s Dilemma:  That’s very interesting.  But Calvin did take predestination seriously.


John Vissers: Yes. However, later Reformed theology is more extreme than Calvin because everything is filtered through the lens of the doctrine of predestination. It takes on a grander, more sinister influence. Now having said that, the substance of the doctrine of predestination is still problematic and of course the Reformed tradition since the 20th century has been distancing itself.


Believer’s Dilemma:  A number of people I’ve spoken to recently have defended Calvin as being misinterpreted and misconstrued.  They have assured me that Calvin taught predestination, but never double predestination.


(Note, in simple predestination God chooses the elect for salvation while the reprobate bear full responsibility for their own damnation. In double predestination, God specifically chooses both the elect and the reprobate.)


John Vissers:  That’s not true. Calvin believed in double predestination.


Believer’s Dilemma:  It has always seemed to me that Calvin clearly argued for double predestination:


Let Augustine answer for me: "Would you dispute with me? Wonder with me, and exclaim, O the depth! Let us both agree in dread, lest we perish in error," Moreover, if election is, as Paul declares, the parent of faith, I retort the argument, and maintain that faith is not general, since election is special.

Book 3 chapter 22


The human mind, when it hears this doctrine (of predestination), cannot restrain its petulance, but boils and rages as if aroused by the sound of a trumpet. Many professing a desire to defend the Deity from an invidious charge admit the doctrine of election, but deny that any one is reprobated). This they do ignorantly and childishly since there could be no election without its opposite, reprobation.

Book 3 chapter 23


John Vissers: There is a trajectory in Calvinism that argues for single predestination but it can’t be justified through Calvin’s texts, which unambiguously defend double predestination.   


Believer’s Dilemma:  I was curious to know how you would defend that.


John Vissers: You’re not going to find me defending Calvin concerning double predestination. It’s very clear that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination is double, it’s absolutely unconditional, and it’s particular. There’s no question about it.



4)  Calvinism


Believer’s Dilemma:  Calvinism spread from Switzerland to many parts of the world. The principles of Calvinism are frequently summarized in the acronym TULIP.   How faithfully does this encapsulate Calvin’s theological system?


Total Depravity.  All descendants of Adam are born totally depraved and blind to God. 

Unconditional Election.  God alone chooses the elect without any consideration for merit, effort or desire to be saved.

Limited Atonement. Jesus did not die for all mankind, just the elect.

Irresistible Grace.  Those who are elected and called to salvation cannot resist. The controlling will is divine not human. 

Perseverance of the Saints. The saved cannot subsequently reject salvation or fall from grace. Once saved, always saved.


John Vissers:  The TULIP acronym didn’t appear until 1619. And it really only summarizes the position decided Synod of Dort.


 (Note, The Synod of Dort was a council of the Dutch reformed Church called to settle a divisive controversy initiated by Jacob Arminius, a Calvinist theologian who had taught at the University of Leiden. The Arminian interpretation of Calvin was essentially the opposite of TULIP, which was why the Synod of Dort formulated these five points.)


Believer’s Dilemma: Arminius believed in freewill rather than predestination. His relationship to Calvinism was almost identical to the relationship between Augustine and Pelagius.


John Vissers:  Yes. Pelagianism and Arminianism are very similar, although Arminius stands closer to Calvin than Pelagius did to Augustine on Predestination. The Calvinism defined by the Synod of Dort is very dominant in American Reformed circles, especially among Dutch Calvinists.  It’s a very important trajectory but there are others. You don’t find in Scottish Calvinism much talk about TULIP.


Believer’s Dilemma:   How important were the Synod of Dort and TUPIL in defining Calvinist ‘orthodoxy’?


John Vissers:  Arminianism became a byword among Calvinists for heresy but Jacob Arminius considered himself an ‘orthodox’ interpreter of Calvin.  The Synod of Dort was actually more about politics than theology.  Much like the Westminster Confession, it was a council called by state rulers because there were political consequences if a church dispute was not settled. In my mind that raises problematic questions about the power dynamic at work. You have to read the Westminster Confession and the Canons of Dort (TULIP) in their historical context. There is a lot more going on there than just abstract theological debate.


Believer’s Dilemma:  The Synod of Dort (1618-1619) was contemporaneous with the outbreak of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), which was one of the most violent periods of European history.  Was that a war opposing Catholics and Protestants or was it about political powers using religion as an excuse to fight?


John Vissers:  It was about religion and politics, as represented by the magisterial Church.


Believer’s Dilemma:  By magisterial church, you are referring to Catholicism?


John Vissers:  I include the magisterial Reformers. When I use the term magisterial, I mean any view of the church which is committed to the politics of Christendom.


Believer’s Dilemma:  And how do you define Christendom?


John Vissers:   The principle that the faith of the ruler should be the faith of the people.


Believer’s Dilemma:  So, a state in which religion is imposed by the authorities?  It is a system that leaves no room for freedom of will or religion.  Those ideas created many problems.   


John Vissers:  I am not saying there were no problems with Reformation theology. And I am not saying that theological ideas don’t have consequences. I think they do. But the real problem occurs when a powerful Church or state religion employs theological ideas in a particular historical context.


Believer’s Dilemma:  Luther and many Calvinists provoked Catholics by calling the Pope the antichrist.  That was bound to provoke a violent reaction.  We can understand that Luther and Calvin were in a conflict with the Pope and with the power and authority of the Roman Catholic Church, but why did the Reformers demonize their opponents rather than simply debate ideas?


John Vissers:  That is certainly true but parenthetically, on the antichrist question, Calvin wrote a commentary on every book of the bible except the book of Revelation. One of the theories why is that the common interpretation on the Reformation side was to read the antichrist in terms of the Pope and Calvin did not want to go there.


Believer’s Dilemma:  In the preface to his translation of the Book of Revelation Luther wrote, ‘About this book of the Revelation of John, I leave everyone free to hold his own opinions. I would not have anyone bound to my opinion or judgment. I say what I feel. I miss more than one thing in this book, and it makes me consider it to be neither apostolic nor prophetic.... I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it.’ Luther hated the Book of Revelation and Calvin avoided it. One explanation is that it is irreconcilable with parts of their theology, in particular predestination.


John Vissers: We really don’t know why Calvin did not comment on the Book of Revelation. To answer your question about the source of religious conflict in the 17th century, people in those days thought differently, debated differently, and solved their problems differently. It wasn’t just true of the churches. It was true of life in general.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  We get some sense of that in the culture wars south of the border.  


John Vissers:  Today we see religious terrorism in various parts of the world. I wouldn’t want to justify religious violence committed by Christians in the Reformation era, but we can understand how that particular mindset can function. There is an argument in the scholarly literature that violence will inevitably occur in any form of monotheism, which includes Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  These scholars argue that any belief system committed in an absolute way to any singularity is ultimately going to lead to violation of ’the other’ and some form of imposition.   



5. Westminster Confession (1646)


Westminster Confession - Of the Fall


I. Our first parents, being seduced by the subtilty and temptations of Satan, sinned, in eating the forbidden fruit. This their sin, God was pleased, according to His wise and holy counsel, to permit, having purposed to order it to His own glory.

II. By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion, with God,  and so became dead in sin,  and wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body.

III. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation.

IV. From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.


Westminster Confession - Of Free Will

II. Man, in his state of innocency, had freedom, and power to will and to do that which was good and well pleasing to God; but yet, mutably, so that he might fall from it.

III. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good,  and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.


Westminster Confession - Of Effectual Calling

I. All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, He is pleased, in His appointed time, effectually to call, by His Word and Spirit,  out of that state of sin and death, in which they are by nature to grace and salvation, by Jesus Christ;  enlightening their minds spiritually and savingly to understand the things of God,  taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them an heart of flesh;  renewing their wills, and, by His almighty power, determining them to that which is good,  and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ:  yet so, as they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.

II. This effectual call is of God's free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

III. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit,  who works when, and where, and how He pleases:  so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

IV. Others, not elected, although they may be called by the ministry of the Word, and may have some common operations of the Spirit,  yet they never truly come unto Christ, and therefore cannot be saved:  much less can men, not professing the Christian religion, be saved in any other way whatsoever, be they never so diligent to frame their lives according to the light of nature, and the laws of that religion they do profess.  And to assert and maintain that they may, is very pernicious, and to be detested.


Believer’s Dilemma:  The Westminster Confession is full of original sin, depravity, election, and predestination.   It is written in a formal style that sometimes reads like a criminal code, or perhaps an indictment of sinful human nature.  What were the writers attempting to express?   


John Vissers:   The 1640s were a hundred years after the Reformation. What you get in the Westminster Confession is a very good example of what is usually called Reformed Protestant Scholasticism.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  How would you define that?


John Vissers:  The Westminster Confession is a restatement of Reformation ideas using Aristotelian logic and Thomistic methodology. It produced very precise statements. Original sin was a big part of the Westminster Confession, and the doctrine of predestination was taken straight out of Calvin. As I said before, Calvin placed predestination near the end of his theology.  The Westminster Confession moves predestination up to chapter 3 which means that everything that follows is filtered through it. The problem of predestination in Calvin is greatly amplified.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  The Westminster Confession (1646) was written near the end of the Thirty Years War (1618-48).  How did that violent social context affect its creation?


John Vissers:  The mid 17th century was a complex and volatile period of history. Many ideas were being marshaled at the time to shore up a Reformed Calvinist view, not just of the church but of the state. The Westminster Confession was as much about politics as religion. 


Believer’s Dilemma:  Augustine believed that the state had the authority to impose the official religion on its subjects. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) provided a perfect Augustinian solution: each prince had the right to determine the religion of his own state. Was the Westminster Confession intended to create a single official religion in England? 


John Vissers:  The Westminster Confession was intended to establish a single official doctrine. The Divines who wrote the Confession did not want to include proof texts.  Government authorities wanted an extremely precise statement that would put an end to disputes.



6. Evolving Calvinism


Believer’s Dilemma:   Ever since Luther broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, Protestants have disputed and divided constantly. After the Synod of Dort, many Protestant began to adopt an Arminian theology and proclaim that the human will has some degree of freedom and responsibility for accepting the gift of salvation.  John Wesley, in the 18th century, was forced out of the Church of England to found the Methodist Movement.  Wesley was a strong proponent of freewill but he also wrote an entire book defending Original Sin.  How did Calvinism respond to the competing ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries?


John Vissers:  The 17th century was the Westminster period in England.  It was the height of the puritan era. The Puritans were not particularly good theologians overall, but they were brilliant spiritual theologians, very big on the Christian life and its implications. The Puritans were moving away from faith based on carefully stated propositions to faith based on lived experience.  Many aspects of what we might call traditional Calvinism were being questioned or reconsidered in the 17th century.  In the18th century, Jonathan Edwards was a very important figure who mixed Enlightenment ideas with Calvinist theology.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  Jonathan Edwards was very traditional in his writing about human freewill.  His views about divine providence - which controls every aspect of the universe, including human behavior - would appear to be diametrically opposed to Enlightenment ideas.   


John Vissers: Jonathan Edwards was a brilliant mind who thought about science and philosophy and human cognition.  He came up with startling ideas, even in Christian doctrine. He actually conceives of the possibility of the creation of the world being an infusion of the divine life. That God is so full of life that he spills forth, which is startling language for the 18th century.    


Believer’s Dilemma:  How did the Arminianism of Wesley and the Enlightenment ideas of Edwards influence Calvinism in the 19th century?


John Vissers:  The 19th century becomes very complex. Two major trajectories need to be mentioned.  The first is German pietism, which influenced Friedrich Schleiermacher early in the 19th century. His theology was a reaction against stern, cold, intellectual Calvinism.  Pietism shifted the focus from the substance of the faith, that is the things we should believe, to the faith with which we believe. Schleiermacher was very interested in the experience of faith. The mystical, human element of how we believe was central to his theology. His book ‘The Christian Faith’ was one of the most influential of his day. Schleiermacher began to rethink Christian doctrine in light of religious experience.


Believer’s Dilemma:  The quest for religious experience rather than intellectual rigour would appear to link the earlier Puritans and Methodists, as well as the future Holiness Movement and Pentecostals. Is that correct?


John Vissers: Yes and no. Pentecostals tend to be quite conservative while the liberal Protestant tradition emerges out of Schleiermacher.  Also during the 19th century you’ve got people like Charles Hodge who defended a much more traditional view of Calvinism in his highly influential ‘Systematic Theology.’ It is still read by many conservative Calvinists.


Believer’s Dilemma:  By the 20th century, Calvinism was no longer a single set of ideas?


John Vissers:  The Reformed tradition had moved in several different traditions. In the 20th century, Karl Barth arrived on the scene.  More than anyone else, Barth took all of the Reformed traditions from the 16th century forward, as well as Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Charles Hodge and others, and tried to reformulate it all into a unified system. Barth was the dominant Calvinist thinker in the 20th century.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  I’d like to ask about one other major trend in the 20th century.  A group of conservative theologians, including numerous Calvinists and Presbyterians, got together during the First World War to write a series of essays published as ‘The Fundamentals’. Where do the Fundamentalists fit into Calvinist theology?


John Vissers:  That’s an interesting question because an accumulation of things came together in the Fundamentalist movement.  One was traditional Calvinism.


Believer’s Dilemma:  The Fundamentalists were strong defenders of original sin, the Fall in Eden, predestination, and other Augustinian/Calvinist ideas.


John Vissers:  Yes. You also have the emergence of the Bible Conference Movement. There is an important book, ‘The Roots of Fundamentalism (British and American millenarianism, 1800-1930)’ by Ernest Robert Sandeen, which traces the politics of the various trajectories that came together when the church was having to confront Darwinism, Freud, and a Marxist analysis which was atheistic.  All of these things came to the forefront and it was very threatening. So there was a hunkering down and an articulation of those things that were not negotiable. Why certain things were on the list and why others got left off is an interesting question.   


Believer’s Dilemma:  The Fundamentalist were extremely harsh critics of early Pentecostals because Fundamentalist were mostly concerned with doctrine and Pentecostals were mostly concerned with experiences like baptism of the spirit and speaking in tongues. To mainline churches, Pentecostal ‘Holy Rollers’ appeared demented if not demonic.    


John Vissers:  There were also social distinctions between Presbyterians, who tended to be well educated and affluent, as compared to Methodists and Pentecostals who were often less educated and working class.


Believer’s Dilemma:  The contemporary religious landscape would be puzzling to Christians from earlier centuries.  There is no longer a vast gulf between Catholics and Protestants, who make common cause on many issues.  The people we call Fundamentalist are no longer doctors of theology or the social elite, they are more likely to be home-schooled and skeptical of education, at least scientific education. A great deal has been made about a ‘culture war’ between Conservatives and Liberals but that is not the real issue.  The one factor that unites Bible literalists, young earth creationists, and people who believe that non-Christians will suffer eternal wrath, is an Augustinian vision of original sin.  


John Vissers:  I assume you’ve read Elaine Pagels’ book ‘Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity.’  She is part of a recent strand of scholarship that identifies Augustine as the evil guy who corrupted Christianity. There is a whole school of scholarship which is making that argument.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  Peter Leithart just published a book called ‘Defending Constantine’ which argues that Emperor Constantine was not as guilty as his critics claim of using brute force to impose Christianity.  Leithart makes a good case that Constantine is not responsible for forcing the mass conversion of Pagans.  He work suggests that the real violence occurred a generation later, in the days of Augustine.  

John Vissers:  That line of argument fits with part of the contemporary scholarly discourse which is taking a hard look at Augustine and his multi-faceted influence on Christianity.  


Believer’s Dilemma:  Thank you for helping connect some of the dots between Augustine, Luther, Calvin and modern Christianity.


Questions or comments?


Tags: Pelagius, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Synod of Dort, Jacob Arminius, Peace of Westphalia, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Charles Hodge, Karl Barth, Ernest Robert Sandeen, Elaine Pagels,  Peter Leithart, Pope Benoit XVI.