Lincoln’s Calvinized Deism

Abraham Lincoln, as Allen Guelzo shows at length in his intellectual biography, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, was an unbeliever, or at most a kind of Deist, at least until the Civil War. Also, he denied free will, explicitly and thoroughly. He said people were controlled by impersonal forces and promptings which were ultimately guided by self-interest. But how, then, could Lincoln make any moral argument against slavery? He said in one speech that the great issue facing the country was the eternal contest between good and evil, between freedom and tyranny. But if people have no free will to choose right or wrong, how can there be a battle between good and evil? How could Lincoln condemn slavery as wrong, since the slaveowners are themselves completely under the power of Providence or self-interest or what have you?

Here is my attempt at an answer to these questions, based on my reading of Guelzo.

Lincoln’s “Calvinized Deism,” as Guelzo describes it, means that Providence determines everything, including whether each person is good or evil. All that people can do is submit themselves to Providence and put themselves in harmony with its purposes, even though no man can truly understand what those purposes are. I would sum this up as follows: Good and evil do exist, and we act in a good or evil way, but we cannot choose to be good or evil. Rather, God is revealing the nature of good and evil through history’s providentially unfolding events, and all we can do is submit ourselves to that unfoldment. I’m not sure that eliminates the contradiction but it at least lessens it.

Also, it occurs to me that Lincoln’s contradiction is not just his own but that of Calvinism itself. Guelzo points to it in his discussion of the Second Great Awakening on page 17: “a religion of absolute submission to a sovereign God, in which everyone was understood to be helpless and in need of redemption, but which everyone was obliged to seize for [himself] as an expression of [his] own moral responsiblity.” As Guelzo points out, it seems like an impossible contradiction. On one hand we’re absolutely helpless to do anything, yet on the other hand we’re responsible to convert to God and change our character. A further psychological obstacle to the Calvinistic evangelicalism was the expectation that a person demonstrate “pure disinterested benevolence” as the proof of genuine conversion and true Christianity. Guelzo says this was too high a standard for Lincoln and many other people in the nineteenth century, who became unbelievers as a result, adopting such Victorian substitutes for religion such as reason, science, and sentiment.

It would therefore seem that Lincoln’s later and ever-deepening belief concerning Providence represented his personal, and quite original, substitute for the Calvinism-based evangelicalism that he was unable to believe in. The evangelicalism involved a personal conversion experience and personal submission to God. The Providentialism or Calvinized Deism that he developed over the course of his life as a substitute for that lost faith involved a submission to the historical process as the unfolding and revelation of the purposes of Providence. This of course was the great theme of his Second Inaugural address, delivered a month before his death.

Notice how throughout the famous culminating section of the Second Inaugural Lincoln suggests that the evil things men do are not chosen by them but rather are God’s purpose. It was God’s purpose that there be slavery, and now it is God’s will that the slavery end, and that the people who profited from and defended the slavery—and even the people who opposed the slavery—must suffer the due penalty for the evil that God himself had purposed. Though men imagine otherwise, they cannot know God’s purposes or do God’s will. All they can do is accept the working out of God’s purpose, which is worked out through history. In Lincoln’s strange fatalistic vision, his Calvinism sans Christ and sans redemption, God the supreme and sovereign judge and disposer of events stands utterly apart from man the depraved and helpless sinner and sufferer of events, and there can be no direct relationship between two such different beings. Like Job, or like Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, man can only endure the consequences of God’s unfathomable will and thereby grow wise:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 12, 2004 06:49 PM | Send

The ‘TULIP’ of 5-Point Calvinism is something I’ve never been able to understand. On the one hand, we recognize that God is absolutely Sovereign. But that definition must include the absolute right of God to determine how He chooses to exercise His authority. But it is precisely here where Calvinism seems to fail.

The fact that God knows the end from the beginning seems to present a dilemma — a kind of fatalism, unless we recognize that God made a creation external from Himself, a sort of independent ‘sphere’ wherein he ‘delegated’ the right of some beings to exercise free moral will. This necessitated of course the possibility that His will would be disobeyed, and that sin would then exist. But He has _permitted_ this, for now, in spite of the fact that He never had to allow it, being Sovereign.

Within that ‘sphere’ people actually do make choices. The fact that that God knew in advance what those choices would be need not mean that he ‘caused’ them to make such choices, or that they were not free to choose otherwise. I think of foreknowledge in this context as having the same magnitude of effect as _afterknowledge_ — it’s just knowledge. The very fact of the existence of evil suggests this reality — unless we conclude that God actively _desired_ that evil should exist, which I reject.

(Nor does this in any way contradict the fact of God’s active involvement in human affairs. And the process by which one comes to the Lord IS one in which His Spirit is intimately involved.)

But my attempts to have a serious discussion with Calvinists, genuinely trying to understand their point of view, have proven fruitless. They start with “God is Sovereign,” and I agree. Then I ask whether God, in the working of His Sovereignty, might not have permitted his human (and angelic) creatures a freedom to choose the good or the evil. Their answer: “But God is Sovereign.” I again agree, and ask if we are not merely disagreeing over how He has chosen to exercise His Sovereignty. Their reply: “But God is Sovereign.”

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on February 12, 2004 7:21 PM

Let me ask Mr. LeFevre a question: If Calvinism is so difficult to understand (and I certainly find it so), how could it have been adopted so readily by entire peoples and thus become the basis for a new culture and way of life within Western civilization?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 12, 2004 8:16 PM

Mr. Auster’s question could be asked of many such lines of Christian thought, and I don’t have a good answer except as follows. It is clear to me that God has used John Calvin, and the movement he started, to accomplish much good. (Our family Bible at the Lancaster County Historical Society was among many such volumes smuggled into France by the Calvinists, at no small risk.)

Ironically, Calvinists have been fervent evangelists, which would seem a contradiction — though as one once told me: “I’m just helping Him find His sheep.” That made some sense — not ‘correct’ as I understand it, but arriving at the same place: preaching the Gospel, men hear and are saved.

I perceive that all of the great men of God down through the ages tend to be deeply flawed in some manner. I think of Billy Graham. He’s clearly been used of God, but he’s also done more to advance liberalism and ecumenical apostacy than any non-Christian could have done. It’s not always so much the flaws themselves, it’s the fact that the position of leadership these men are/were in magnified the harm of those flaws. I’m talking about flaws of which we all have one or another.

The remarkable lesson that is (re)learned here is that God has been pleased to use flawed men for His work. The Apostle’s were flawed men, (though infallible in matters of doctrine,) and erred, and stumbled. Paul referred to himself as the chief of sinners. They weren’t perfect. But they were used mightily of God and turned the world upside down.

This is how I understand men such as Calvin, Luther, Darby, and many others. And it’s why I feel it necessary to give a certain ‘latitude’ to churches or denominations which hold to certain positions I don’t agree with, but are clearly blessed by God and have been used for His work, assuming faithfulness to the fundamentals of faith and doctrine.

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on February 12, 2004 8:38 PM

I was not asking about Calvin’s personal or theological flaws, I was asking about the _difficulty_ of Calvin’s teaching, and wondering how something that I find so difficult to get a conceptual or experiential grasp of could have been so readily adopted by so many people.

Also, if I may ask a more personal question, what are the commonalities or differences that Mr. LeFevre sees between his own evangelical faith and the beliefs of his Calvinist Huguenot ancestors?

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 12, 2004 8:44 PM

While many Calvinists might start and end conversations with the sovereignty of God, I find that there is another motivation that is more visible in the actual writings of Calvin and his early followers. When the gospel is preached, some accept it and others do not. Why? Well, it is not really explained in scripture. You come across phrases like “their hearts were hardened” and “they had ears, but refused to hear”, but these do not necessarily explain anything. WHY did they refuse to hear?

One natural tendency is to think that it is to one man’s credit to accept the gospel while another man is rejecting it in the same environment. This can lead to the further misconception that his acceptance is therefore meritorious and somehow violates the doctrine of salvation by grace. The solution is the Calvinist doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement, irrestistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints, i.e. the last four letters of TULIP, which all flow from the initial premise, Total Depravity. The keyword here is “total”. If someone is TOTALLY depraved, then they are incapable of doing anything meritorious; with a free will acceptance of the gospel being defined as meritorious, here we go down the rest of the acronym.

As an imperfect analogy to traditionalist conservative thought, consider this point from a decidedly non-Calvinist. Traditionalists don’t agree that everything has to be decided on a basis of pure reason. A tradition embodies a great deal of accumulated wisdom, while I am not omnisicient and might not be able to articulate all of the good reasoning behind it. My inability to do so should not be a basis for its abolition. Some things are subrational. Similarly, I cannot answer every spiritual mystery, and attempts to do so through the ages have often led to heresies. There are things that are difficult to understand and articulate in human language about the nature of the Trinity, etc., that are accepted on faith. One such mystery is the acceptance of the gospel by some while it is rejected by other, very similar individuals, and how that is not meritorious for the one. God knows the answers, but we do not, for we cannot look into the hearts and minds of others and comprehend it all. Calvinism arose as an attempt to answer that which humans cannot answer, but wish they could. I will politely call that simply a mistake, although my own feelings about Calvinism are quite a bit stronger than that. (You might note the eerie analogy to politics when you observe that Calvinism was overly rationalistic and rejected much of the faithful’s acceptance of mysteries by faith, preferring instead to rationalize and demystify almost everything in the Christian faith.) The other key mistake is the word “total” in “total depravity”, which is not taught in scripture and starts the ball rolling in the wrong direction throughout TULIP.

Posted by: Clark Coleman on February 12, 2004 9:38 PM

Mr. Coleman has made a better answer than I could to Mr. Auster’s question. The point I would add is that the message of salvation is still present in Calvinism — in a bizarre contextual framework, but still very much there. I have personally benefitted from the ministry of certain Calvinists, such as D. James Kennedy, in a very limited but profitable way. And even by some with Calvinist leanings like J.N. Darby.

The other point I would make — it’s not as if there’s no basis at all for Calvinist teachings. Rather, Calvinism has taken some truths and stretched them to extremes to the point where they lost all proportion and other truths were crowded out. This is not terribly unusual. It’s essentially how most movements get started. I find the extreme Charismatic movement much more difficult to understand. Again, extremes — overemphasis on the Spirit, on ‘spiritual gifts’, etc., but even in many of these groups the Gospel is still there.

As to my Huguenot ancestors, I am sure there would be differences, but only in non-fundamentals. For instance, if a given church said that Christ was not born of a virgin, or didn’t literally and bodily rise from the dead, I’m out of there. I don’t identify as a Protestant anyway, but accept the historical perpetuity of the independent, local assembly that I believe represents the true meaning of Ecclessia. For that reason, you could call me a Baptist, but I don’t quibble over the term.

As example: I don’t accept pedobaptism, but only adult immersion upon profession of faith as being what was meant by the word transliterated ‘baptism.’ Now I can visit a church that believes otherwise on that issue, so long as they hold to the cardinal truths of the faith, and happily acknowledge my brothers and sisters in Christ among them, fellowship with them, worship together with them, pray with them, observe Holy Communion with them, (if they let me.) But I would only stop short of becoming an official member — and I would probably make an exception if there were no other place to go.

So the differences between me an my Huguenot ancestors are not exactly trivial, but not crucial either. At the end of the day, it’s still all about Christ. If my faith is ever put to the test as theirs was, even to death, I pray God gives me the grace so to remain faithful to the testimony of His Son.

Posted by: Joel LeFevre on February 12, 2004 11:13 PM

I’ve added to this article some comments on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural as an illustration of Guelzo’s thesis (or rather of my understanding of same).

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 13, 2004 2:50 AM

The word’religion’ from latin means to ‘bind back’ or bring back from what was a departure (religio).Lincoln never departed from the scriptural nurturing of his first mother. He did detest, at an earlier age, the seemingly, hypocritical and superficiality of the preachers of his time. There was much ‘hollerin’ but little ‘holiness’. He conducted his life according to the precepts of the Bible. In effect, he bore a righteous indignation for that which was unjust. As a politician, it was not his role to advertise his so-called religion on his sleeve. He would rather live the life and leave the judgement to others!

Posted by: Edwin Vogt on February 13, 2004 7:48 AM

It is not Providence that determines whether one is good or evil. If this were true, then redemption would be nil. To prove the point: Consider the Shoah (Holocaust). It is stated in Scripture that God is not willing that any should perish. Does this infer that regardless of the extent of one’s evil, He is willing to make whole that person providing he or she repents of their wicked ways? Yes. The doctrine of predestination only means that He, who is omniscient, knew before the foundations of the earth who would receive or reject His plan of Salvation. Were God to intervene everytime a brother raises his fist against another, then there would be no redemption. Thus the murdering of millions throughout history, and mostly committed by the established church. Forced conversions, etc. Each of us must account for our lives. We have complete control. Thank you for the privilege of this space.

Posted by: Edwin Vogt on February 13, 2004 8:07 AM

One could also posit that God indirectly determines who will or will not be saved by how he intervenes in the world. In other, being omnisicient, God knows the consequences to every possible choice. Therefore, every time he intervenes in the world, he is allowing certain outcomes and not others. For example, the world would have been different if God had incarnated 500 years earlier or later.
This still, in my opinion, allows for human volition, and therefore for “free will,” while also leaving God totally in charge. I think that this is at least a good approximation of how predestination actually works, although I am not certain enough to be dogmatic about it.

Posted by: Michael Jose on February 13, 2004 4:14 PM

I must modify what I said about Lincoln’s absence of professed Christian beliefs. In his proclamation of a national fast day for April 1863 he sounded the classic Christian notes of national sin, repentance, and forgiveness:

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on February 17, 2004 10:53 AM
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