Themes in Puritan Theology: God’s Decrees

Having considered God in his essence and attributes then his unity of essence in the diversity of three persons, we will know give attention to his decrees (eternal purposes) according to the Puritans. In the next post, we will then discuss how those decrees are carried out in creation and providence. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (SC) gives us a good starting point: “God’s decrees are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby, for his own glory, he hath foreordained whatsoever comes to pass” (e.g. Acts 2:23; Eph 1:11-12). 
First, God, according to his all-knowing and perfectly wise will, unchangeably decreed or purposed from eternity all things that would come to passAs William Ames attests, the decree of God denotes “his determinate purpose of effecting all things by his almighty Power.” God plans according to his “Counsel” or “deliberation concerning the doing of every thing in the best manner” according to “perfect judgment” (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity). Accordingly, notes Ames, God’s “constancy” denotes the fact that his decrees remain “always immutable,” as the “Counsel of the Lord, it shall stand” (Prov. 19:21) without fail.
Second, the decree of God does not nullify the liberty or contingency of second causes. While God’s purposes come to pass necessarily (according to his ordained power), he could have decreed otherwise (according to his absolute power). Thus, he freely purposed everything and not by utter necessity. Likewise, God’s decrees do not annul “liberty or contingency of second causes” (WCF 3.1, see also 5.2) in which humans act freely (without “violence” to their wills, WCF 3.1) and contingently (they could have chosen otherwise) and without God being the “author of sin” (WCF 3.1). Thus, argues Ames, God “did so dispose all things,” as Pharoah hardening his heart, yet he as a man “did work freely in these things.” So, the Puritans maintained that divine sovereignty (by God’s will hidden from mankind) was compatible with human freedom and responsibility (by God’s will revealed to mankind). Thus, Christ’s death by the “determinate counsel” of God occurred at the same time by the “wicked hands” of men (Acts 2:23). Such thinking was by no means novel and extended back through many of the Reformers (e.g. Ursinus, Calvin, Luther), medieval theologians (e.g. Aquinas), and patristics (e.g. Augustine). 
Third, the decree of God extends to salvation as he predestines those who believe on Christ. The general consensus among the Puritans was that some humans and angels being “predestined unto everlasting life,” with the rest “foreordained to everlasting death” (WCF 3.3, e.g. Rom. 9:22-23). This latter concept of reprobation was sometimes stated (as William Perkins did following Calvin) in the manner of a straightforward double decree in which God elects some to salvation and the rest to damnation while others focused on the single decree of election (as John Arrowsmith did following Augustine) to salvation while leaving the rest to be damned for their sin. This passing over does not deny “foreordination” to judgment (see WCF 3.3) but clearly seeks to place hold sinners responsible for their judgment. In line with such reasoning, WCF 3.7 makes clear that God was “pleased . . . to pass by” and “ordain . . .to wrath” the non-elect “for their sin.” In the end, God still sovereignly chooses to pass by the reprobate yet with an emphasis on human responsibility. Wrapped up in this discussion was the matter of how God’s decrees unfolded in relation to fallen man. Did God elect men to salvation logically before the decree for the fall as in supralapsarianism (“above the fall”) or after it as in infralapsarianism (“below the fall”)? The Puritans varied between supralapsarian (e.g. Perkins) and infralapsarian (e.g. John Owen) though the WCF favors the latter.
Fourth, God’s decree makes no allowance for the concept of middle knowledge or a foreknowledge view of election. The Puritans and Reformation and medieval theologians before them, made a distinction between God’s natural/necessary and free/voluntary knowledge. The former (in line with what we discussed about God’s absolute power) was completely internal and concerned the essential knowledge of all things that could possibly be (not just actually would be). The latter (in line with his ordained power) concerned that which God freely decreed and would actually come to pass. In this regard, what God knows will take place he has decreed to occur. 
During the time of the Reformation, the Jesuit Luis de Molina (1529-1599), proposed the concept of “middle knowledge” (scientia media), between natural and free knowledge, in the attempt to reconcile divine sovereignty and human freedom. In middle knowledge, God possesses the awareness of all possible outcomes connected to what man would freely choose (supposedly without such choices decreed) in all possible sets of  circumstances. Based on what someone freely chooses in a given set of circumstances, God purposes to bring such to pass. The problem with this, of course, is that it attributes to humans an absolute sort of freedom in which they make choices independent of God. Instead, if he had certain knowledge of what comes to pass based on certain conditions, then he must have decreed it and the circumstances to bring it about, which in no way takes away from the free choice of man whose liberty was ordained by God. 
Where the concept of middle knowledge created the greatest controversy came in connection with the soteriology of Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) who popularized a foreknowledge view of election based on middle knowledge. In other words, based on “foreseen faith” of an individual freely and independently expressed, God elected him or her to salvation. This view as maintained by Arminius’s followers (the Remonstrants) was soundly condemned at the Synod of Dort (1618-1619) where William Ames was present as an English representative. He testified that if the decree of predestination is based upon the idea of “foreseen faith,” the very “Idea of God” depends on something outside of himself (Marrow of Sacred Divinty).  So, argues Thomas Watson, “If God's decree be eternal and unchangeable, then God does not elect upon our faith foreseen, as the Arminians maintain.” Instead, “As many as were ordained to eternal life, believed.' Acts 13:48. They were not elected because they believed, but they believed because they were elected” (A Body of Divinity).

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.

For previous posts in this series, see:

  1. What is Puritan Theology?
  2. William Ames and Puritan Theologizing
  3. William Ames and Shorter Catechism Q&A 1
  4. The Two Lights
  5. Scripture
  6. God Is
  7. Trinity
Bob McKelvey