Saturday, July 26, 2008

Question from Liz - Calvinist doctrine on illegitimate children

When answering a question about Edward's religion and why he excluded his sisters from the throne one person wrote: "What if he also embraced the Calvinist doctrine of predestination to the extent that he genuinely believed that both Mary and Elizabeth were already damned, and hence unfit to rule over the elect?"

This statement made me curious, did Calvinist believe that illegimate children were damned?


Anonymous said...

No, Calvin did not believe that illegitimate children were damned.

The Calvinist dotrince of the predestination of the elect is a complex one and often misunderstood then and now. In his "Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God," Calvin never stated that entire categories of people, e.g. the illegimately born, were predestined to damnation. Quite the opposite: he stated very clearly that only God knows for certain who is among the elect and who is not. Calvin states specifically that election occurs before one is even born, and that one's circumstances or behavior at a single point in life cannot itself be taken as evidence that the person is among the elect or the damned. "Those who live godly in appearance are, indeed, called by men the children of God; but, because they are destined sometime or other to live ungodly, and to die in that ungodliness, God does not call them His children in His foreknowledge." The opposite is also true: those who are today called by men evil and reprobates may be destined by God to die in godliness and may therefore actually be among the elect, much like the two criminals crucified with Christ.

Therefore if Edward did indeed embrace fully the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, he would not have assumed that either of his sisters were among the damned, especially not solely on the basis of their illegitimate birth. Instead, he would have maintained hope for their future acceptance of what he viewed as the true religion and thereby their salvation. Their illegitmacy was a legal convenience to exclude them from the succession and not itself a religious reason. The religious reason was the fact that Mary was still an adamant adherent of the Roman Catholic faith at the time that Edward wrote his Devise, while Elizabeth's religious persuasion was at best ambiguous (and certainly not as staunchly Protestant as Edward's).

Foose said...

I thought Calvin and his followers suggested that although you couldn't know absolutely, there might be certain "signs" of a person's predestination to salvation or damnation. For example, someone leading an upright moral life (by Calvinist standards) manifests God's grace as one of the elect.

Therefore, in Mary's case, Edward could have felt that her "contempt of the Gospel" (which Calvin cited as a "sign" of being destined to damnation) might be enough evidence that she was an unfit successor from a theological standpoint. There is the alleged remark of Lady Jane Grey, "That were a shame to follow the lady Mary, who leaveth God's word ..." etc., which may indicate the general view of the Reformers at Edward's court to his Catholic sister. She leaveth God's word! Deliberately! Could this not be a sign that she was damned?

On the other hand, perhaps Edward himself was more flexible in assessing the salvation-worthiness of others. He was evidently intending to marry Princess Elisabeth of France, a Catholic; I don't know whether he planned to "turn her opinions" or how, but it's interesting to speculate how he would have handled the inevitable influx of Catholics in her suite.

Anonymous said...

PHD historian, could you please give me your email addy, I would like to ask you a few questions on PHD programs for English history.


Anonymous said...

Yes, Foose, there was a popular and somewhat hopeful belief among the Calvinst reformers that there might be visible signs that one was among the elect. Emphasis on "might." Calvin himself acknowledged the possibility of such signs but cautioned against relying on them and repeatedly stated that only God knew for sure who was or was not among the elect. As I noted earlier, Calvin explicitly stated that someone who was judged by men to be a reprobate and damned today might tomorrow achieve godliness ... and might therefore have been always among the elect, regardless of how men had read the signs previously. The ultimate determination was God's, not man's. Ungodliness at the time of death was for Calvin the only reliable sign that one was among the damned. All other signs, including those of election, were unreliable. (This is necessarily something of a simplification. As I noted, Calvinist predestinationism is so complex that a thorough explication of his attitude toward outward signs of salvation would take up a great deal of space. I offer instead the "nutshell" version.)

And without question Edward judged Mary to be among the damned because of her theological position. But it is very UNlikely that he judged her (or Elizabeth) among the damned simply because of the legal circumstances of her (their) birth.

And yes, Mary's refusal to convert to the reformist viewpoint was viewed by Edward and other Protestants as a certain sign that she was, FOR THE TIME BEING, damned. But it is extremely important to note that such views were ALWAYS qualified by the hope that non-believers could and would be converted to the "true" faith in future. Hope of conversion and salvation was a hugely important element of reformist theology, and that hope extended even to include Catholics. If Mary "leaveth God's Word" today, she might soon be made to see the error of her ways and "to returneth again to the true faith." This belief was especially true in relation to women, who were thought inherently prone to error, especially in the area of theology and religion. Women were thought to be more malleable in matters of religion than were men, and thus they could be convinced more easily to convert (or conversely to embrace heresy). They lacked the masculine qualities of fortitude and steadfastness that supposedly enabled men to resist attempts by others to alter their religion.

And that plays directly into Edward's willingness to entertain a marriage to a Catholic princess of France. In light of Edward's near fanaticism in the area of religion, it is very likely that he and his advisors simply (and probably naively) assumed that Elizabeth of France could be converted once she was properly instructed in "right religion." She was, afterall, only an error-prone woman ... or so the belief went.

This belief that women were error-prone and more readily swayed in matters of religion rendered the marriage of a male prince of one faith to a princess of another faith far less problematic than the opposite. Thus Mary refused to consider marriage to a non-Catholic, in part because the prevailing attitude considered that a non-Catholic male could not be converted easily to Catholicism, whereas she might be swayed to abandon it. The issue also arose for Queen Elizabeth when those who supported her Catholic suitors hoped that such a marriage would achieve her conversion to Catholicism (e.g.: Philip's shortlived attempt to bring about a marriage between himself and Elizabeth at the beginning of her reign, partly in hopes of converting her and thereby returning England to the Roman church).

And Edward no doubt hoped to control and limit the influx of Catholics in the suite of any Catholic princess, just as the Stuart monarchs attempted to do so with their Catholic brides (e.g. Henrietta Maria) in the next century.

Foose said...

phd historian, let me ask you about another idea of mine regarding the Devise. I know we must be wary of psycho-analyzing pre-modern people. But could not it have seemed to Edward, surrounded as he was by constant reinforcement of his role as the "Young Josiah," that Mary and Elizabeth must be excluded from the succession, if his life was to have any meaning?

The narrative of Edward's life (as it must have seemed to him, and as perhaps it was specifically inculcated in him) was that he was the longed-for only son of the only valid marriage of Henry VIII with a genuine virgin (at least there were no dissenting voices that he was aware of) following two cursed marriages, and that the reason for God's causing all this to come about was so that Edward would bring "true religion" to England.

If he had this Messianic mindset, leaving his throne to either Mary or Elizabeth (especially Mary) would have compelled him to admit that his life had had basically no theological meaning. He might as well have not been born and Henry might as well have continued with either of his "cursed" marriages as not. Could not this have prompted him to look outside his immediate family for an alternate successor? At least with Jane Grey or her mother as his choice the psychological-theological threat to his very identity was not present.

Anonymous said...

You are so adept at raising such very interesting and thought-provoking issues, Foose!

Yes, we must be exceedingly careful of psychoanalyzing persons from the distant past, especially when the evidence for that individual's personality and thought processes is so very slim.

That said, I have to respectfully disagree with your premise that Edward might have thought his life "had had basically no theological meaning" were Mary or Elizabeth to succeed him, and that their potential succession posed a "psychological-theological threat to his very identity."

Life having "meaning" is a very modern and existential concept, one that seems to have been unknown in the sixteenth century. All "meaning" in that period was constructed solely in terms of the divine, not in terms of an internalized sense of self (egos and super-egos and ids and such). I cannot find the right words here, but I am utterly convinced that were we able to ask any sixteenth-century person what "meaning" their life had, they would respond only with a very puzzled look. Or perhaps with some theological justification of or rationale for their existence. But never with a response based on (Freudian) ego-driven perceptions of themselves as unique individuals.

As far as Edward is concerned, his "identity" (to whatever limited extent sixteenth-century persons conceptualized of unique individual identities in the same manner that we do today) was almost certainly bolstered by the successes he had achieved in reforming the English church along Protestant lines. But I think imparting any degree of a Messianic mindset to a sixteen-year-old sixteenth-century lad, whatever his royal status, is a bit risky. Certainly he was deeply concerned with preserving the reformation (note I do not say "his" reformation, since he would certanly have conceived of it as God's own reformation) of the English church, and Mary and Elizabeth both posed potential threats to that reformation. But I think if anything Edward would have conceived of himself as a humble servant of God, despite having been anointed at his coronation, and would have objected to any characterization that involved Messianic components. Even with all the praise and accolades from contemporaries who called him the Young or New Josiah and the salvation of the reformed church, there is no evidence whatsoever that Edward saw himself in such exalted terms. And I am very reluctant to posit, even tentatively, a situation that cannot be supported by direct evidence. The most I am willing to state is that if Edward had somehow been unable to craft his Devise and had instead been compelled to surrender to a Marian accession, he would perhaps have seen it not as a personal failure or negation of his existence/identity but rather as a confirmation of the eternal mystery of God's ways and an inscrutable (for humans) part of God's plan, a plan in which he was nonetheless a vital part.

I stand by my earlier assertion that a significant proportion of Edward's motivation for altering the succession, apart from the preservation of religious reform, had to do with the gender of his successor, not with personal identity issues. Jane was the immediate and only viable answer to the gender issue. But I'm afraid you will have to wait for my book to see the full argument on the subject. Can't give it all away yet! LOL

(I feel the need for a full-disclosure statement here: Despite the wording of my arguments in relation to religious subjects, I am not myself a religious person. I am, however, a historian of the Edwardian English Reformation, so I use the language that the reformers themselves would have used. My choice of wording is not an endorsement of any particular religious doctrine or theology.)