Augustine, Luther, And The Development Of Predestinarianism In Reformation Thought: Part I

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St. Augustine of Hippo

            I felt like I would try to tackle the “free will vs. predestination” debate from a different angle.  I am pretty sure that I have settled the argument here (bring on the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes – read sarcasm, if you’re not sure).  Consequently, I’m off to solve world hunger and the problem of evil after I have a midnight snack.


            As Augustine’s predestinarianism was developed by Luther and assimilated into Reformation thought, an inexorably flawed theological system based on double predestination quickly emerged.  Prior to Luther’s utilization, prominent figures in church history left Augustine’s doctrine relatively intact.  As early as the Synod of Orange in 529 and notably in the Belgic Confession of Faith in 1561, church leaders rejected the assertions of double predestination.[1]  Gottschalk hazarded an attempt at interpreting Augustine in a theory of double predestination in the ninth century, but was condemned of heresy because of it in Maiz.  Anselm of Canterbury promoted the Augustinian position in the eleventh century.  Thomas Aquinas elaborated the Augustinian position by differentiating between God’s general will and his special will in the soteriological realm in the thirteenth century.  If any real deviation from Augustine’s predestinarianism took place, it was in the Catholic Church’s general trend toward Pelagianism.[2]

            For eleven centuries, then, endeavors to deviate from the Augustinian position on predestination were generally met with condemnation by the church.  Though Luther played a seminal role in the Protestant church’s schism with Catholic thought, he too maintained an Augustinian predestinarianism.  Scholars cannot agree concerning a cause for the longevity of Augustine’s postulation.  However, history makes clear the fact that attempts to create a system of thought centered on his postulation would not be tolerated.  The Reformation, though, provided grounds to contradict the wishes of the Catholic Church.  This provided opportunity for the Reformation’s thinkers to speculate the value of theological system based on Augustine’s philosophy and theology independent of church councils. 

            Unfortunately, only one of those thinkers really understood Augustine’s agenda and, perhaps, the doctrinal consequences of basing a theological system on it.  The correlations between Augustine and Luther reveal that their theologies sought to accomplish a different goal than those found in the reformed tradition that emerged from Calvin’s influence on the Reformation.  The predestinarianism of Augustine and Luther was born out of a personal struggle with sin and served as the means to a soteriological end, not as the framework for a theological system.

Augustine and Early Predestinarianism

            Religious upheaval, bearing profound consequences, regularly struck at the core of St. Augustine’s life prior to conversion.  This upheaval centered on Augustine’s lifelong struggle over the problem of evil with near exclusivity.  While his mother had trained Augustine in the tenets of Christianity, he could not reconcile the existence of evil in the world with that worldview.  This and other early irreconcilable differences with Christianity drove Augustine to dabble in Manichaeism and Neo-Platonism.  Fatefully, once again through the influence of his mother, Augustine agreed to hear the preaching of Ambrose, and came to a point of personal crisis regarding Christianity.  Namely, Ambrose’s preaching inadvertently quelled Augustine’s most vexing contentions.  However, having many of his intellectual disputes settled, Augustine struggled with the moral demands that following Christ placed on a person’s life.[3]

            Ultimately, this internal upheaval replaced the external, intellectual upheaval that had dominated the landscape of his life prior to conversion.  Augustine long remembered the internal struggle, and the point of his will’s desire to fight off grace’s apprehension influenced his defense of the faith.  Some like Gerald Bonner suggest that Augustin’s theology of predestination began here long before the Pelagian controversy, and, in fact, that his predestinarianism was a result of his stress on original sin and internal struggling against the Spirit of God. [4]  Gonzalez also identifies this internal upheaval as the point of contention between Augustine and Pelagius, noting that Augustine rejected Pelagius’ claims to the simplicity of human will.  Because of Augustine’s personal struggle with sin, the reader finds him postulating, “the will is not always its own master, for it is clear that the will to will does not always have its way.”[5]  For Augustine, something overrode his internal will that wanted to continue in iniquity; he identifies that “something” as the grace of God.

            Consequently, predestinarianism is something that Augustine grows into.  Fendt argues that Augustine’s writing in Confessions, De Libero Arbitrio, and the anti-Manichaean works adequately developed the predestinarianism “about which Augustine seems to grow more adamant as he ages.”[6]  This predestinarianism, though, analyzes the role of the created will relationally to the holiness of God, not the role of God’s providential rule over the created order.  This remains the important difference between Augustine’s predestinarianism as means to understanding justification and subsequent developments of the doctrine as a theological system. 

            At every point, Augustine’s evaluation of the will indemnifies the Creator against the guilt of creating evil, and at the same time locating the responsibility of justification squarely on the good pleasure of the greatest Good, God.  Therefore, God has not created evil, propagated evil, or preemptively damned the existence of any created will; but He alone reserves the right to express grace or not to express grace to that created will.  Augustine writes, “The supremely Good thus turning to good account even what is evil, to the condemnation of those whom in His justice He has predestined to punishment, and to the salvation of those whom in His mercy He has predestined to grace.”[7]  Accordingly, Augustine’s predestinarianism involves itself with the business of offering salvation or offering consequences, whereas subsequent theological systems create a priori criteria and preexistent decrees that stem supposedly from the providential rule of the creator.  Then all of creation is bound by the content of these decrees and restrained within the parameters of a system where God expressly creates wills in order to damn them.

            The seminal stages of Augustine’s predestinarianism play a significant role in the aftermath of the Pelagian controversy as well.  If, as Fendt suggests, Augustine cultivates an increasingly rigid predestinarianism, then it is because of polemics and not because of conviction.  Augustine seemed destined to contend for Christianity against enemies of the faith and Fendt warns that Augustine’s later writings bear the mark of rhetorical certitude and not necessarily that of an increasingly severe idea of predestination.  Fendt writes, “Augustine must feel at the time of writing this part of DCD the threat of Pelagian huzzas, for if we do not make salvation the direct determination of (predestining) grace, it sounds like it is within our power to save ourselves.”[8]  Augustine, then, has polarized the issue with Pelagius somewhat.  Later writings carry the weight of a hard predestination, only if the reader ignores the rhetorical context.  Fendt concludes his argument by observing that Augustine not only has a vaster education in rhetoric than he does in the intricacies of philosophy but also that it is, “required of a bishop in the pressing situation to be forceful and obvious.”[9]

            From start to finish, the student of Augustine can appropriately understand his predestinarianism within the context of a personal struggle with sin and the philosophical quandary over the existence of evil.  Though the content of Augustine’s later writing bore the mark of reactionary pontificating, his writing should not be held hostage by a situation that can be explained within a historical context.  Augustine wrote extensively concerning his early life and conversion, documenting in brilliant commentary the skirmish that he personally waged against the sinful will.  This propensity for documentation not only provides modern scholars with insight into his thinking, but it also provided a young Augustinian monk going through a very similar struggle with the means to articulate his own treatises on predestinarianism.

 More on that young Augustinian monk in Part II…

[1] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology. Vol. 3, Sin, Salvation. (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2004): 565-566.

[2] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998): 925.

 [3] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, Vol. 1 (San Francisco: Harper, 1984), 208-211.

[4] See Gerald Bonner, Freedom and Necessity: St. Augustine’s Teaching on Divine Power and Human Freedom, (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2007) This contention is indeed the thesis of Bonner’s entire work, and is argued to the effect that Augustine’s predestinarianism stemmed more from this soteriological source than a polemic against Pelagius.  See also Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 922.

[5] González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 1, 214.

[6] Gene Fendt, “Between a Pelagian Rock and a Hard Predestinarianism: The Currents ofControversy in ‘City of God’ 11 and 12.” The Journal of Religion, 81 (April 2001): 211.

 [7] Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series. Vol. 3, Augustin: On the Holy Trinity, Doctrinal Treatises, Moral Treatises, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 2004), 269.

[8] Fendt, “Between a Pelagian Rock,” 222.

[9] Ibid.



  1. I think it is ironic that it was the problem of evil which led Augustine to “grow into his predestinarianism,” while it is that same problem of evil that drives many people away from today’s reformed version of predestinarianism, especially supralapsarianism.

    Just another reminder that the things really got out of hand at the time of the reformation, and that many of the consquences (i.e. what’s going on today) were unintended.


  2. Excellent direction here. I have found that Augustine’s predestinarianism is quite different than the massive idea of perfect freedom in some of the Greek fathers, namely Gregory of Nyssa. Nyssa saw the progress of salvation to consist of the continual learning to experience the freedom of God, toward God.

    Augustine couldn’t connect with that because it gave the “will” too much prominence for his mind.

    Rowan Williams has great essays on the spirituality of both of these figures in his book on the history of Christian spirituality.


  3. James,

    Excellent observation – the fact that I am trying to emphasize about historical predestinarianism (let’s face it, there is a strong deterministic motif in the Bible)is that for longer than one thousand years it was carefully directed away from the kind of “hyper Calvinism” that only those with the lowest anthropologies find attractive(until the reformation made it possible to contradict the guiding hand of the Church).


    I am with you – Augustine’s personal struggle is so immensely helpful on this issue. The man (the myth, the legend) desperately wanted to continue in his sinful lifestyle, but there was something that continued to call him away from it. Augustine (for me) has authority to speak where others do not.



  4. I continue to lean closer and closer to double-predestination being a true blue heresy. I’m also contemplating what that means for Ecumenical relationships with ‘hyper calvinists.’


  5. Tony,

    I sympathize with your feelings, but I am still hung up on two things /1/ It seems like our theological language is more closely guarded than our doctrinal purity – I feel like reformed theologians are saying the same things a lot of others say, but in terms that are distasteful to the wider Christian community. Problematically, they are tenaciously dedicated to their terminology and won’t bend on it. /2/ I never feel like I know how much of “Calvinistic” posturing is purely rhetorical. The polemics of this debate have left folks digging trenches in the sand, daring each other to cross. This is an important element in using Augustine to understand the debate, because it is largely his rhetorical polemics with Pelagius that fuels our modern debate. In fact, most have trouble even conceding that it is possible that Augustine was merely being rhetorical in his senior years.



  6. Shawn,

    I agree that Augustine is very important in the discussion. Though, like Calvin, I do not think that all later extrapolations can be justifiably traced to his thought. Or maybe I just like him too much to let the Protestants alone have him:)

    Recently the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of America said to the ACNA that if they dropped womens ordination and Calvinism they could move to greater unity. The Orthodox at least see double predestination as heresy in an ‘official’ way.


  7. Tony,

    Can you assist me in the difference btwn double-predestination and Jansenism?

    As to the rest I don’t see how one can take a position of positive reprobation which is the conclusion of double predestination, but only a negative reprobation.


  8. quickbeam,

    Not knowing the details of the Augustinus writings it seems that they are very similar in that unless an extra and specific grace is accorded to someone, then that person will in effect be damned by their total inability to respond to God’s gift. And since this special grace is by the arbitrary initiative of God, then it is a sort of ‘passive’ double predestination.

    I’m not sure if Janesenists view the election of those ‘chosen’ for damnation the same way though. A hyper Calvinist sees their destruction as a good and necessary thing because, they say, that it reveals certain aspects of God’s glory that would not have otherwise been revealed. In a way, it says that for God’s glory to be full, sin, evil and damnation are necessary and designed by God himself!

    Augustine saw evil as not having ‘being,’ or being the absence of God’s grace. Calvinism as I see it practically requires that evil be a positive force created by God for his glory’s sake.


  9. Ah! Gentle, gracious Dove,
    And art thou grieved in me,
    That sinners should restrain thy love,
    And say, “It is not free:
    It is not free for all:
    The most, thou passest by,
    And mockest with a fruitless call
    Whom thou hast doomed to die.”

    They think thee not sincere
    In giving each his day,
    “ Thou only draw’st the sinner near
    To cast him quite away,
    To aggravate his sin,
    His sure damnation seal:
    Thou show’st him heaven, and say’st, go in
    And thrusts him into hell.”

    Worthy of whence it came!
    Forgive their hellish blasphemy
    Who charge it on the Lamb:
    Whose pity him inclined
    To leave his throne above,
    The friend, and Saviour of mankind,
    The God of grace, and love.

    O gracious, loving Lord,
    I feel thy bowels yearn;
    For those who slight the gospel word
    I share in thy concern:
    How art thou grieved to be
    By ransomed worms withstood!
    How dost thou bleed afresh to see
    Them trample on thy blood!

    To limit thee they dare,
    Blaspheme thee to thy face,
    Deny their fellow-worms a share
    In thy redeeming grace:
    All for their own they take,
    Thy righteousness engross,
    Of none effect to most they make
    The merits of thy cross.

    Sinners, abhor the fiend:
    His other gospel hear—
    “The God of truth did not intend
    The thing his words declare,
    He offers grace to all,
    Which most cannot embrace,
    Mocked with an ineffectual call
    And insufficient grace.

    “The righteous God consigned
    Them over to their doom,
    And sent the Saviour of mankind
    To damn them from the womb;
    To damn for falling short,
    “Of what they could not do,
    For not believing the report
    Of that which was not true.

    “The God of love passed by
    The most of those that fell,
    Ordained poor reprobates to die,
    And forced them into hell.”
    “He did not do the deed”
    (Some have more mildly raved)
    “He did not damn them—but decreed
    They never should be saved.

    “He did not them bereave
    Of life, or stop their breath,
    His grace he only would not give,
    And starved their souls to death.”
    Satanic sophistry!
    But still, all-gracious God,
    They charge the sinner’s death on thee,
    Who bought’st him with thy blood.

    They think with shrieks and cries
    To please the Lord of hosts,
    And offer thee, in sacrifice
    Millions of slaughtered ghosts:
    With newborn babes they fill
    The dire infernal shade,
    “For such,” they say, “was thy great will,
    Before the world was made.”

    How long, O God, how long
    Shall Satan’s rage proceed!
    Wilt thou not soon avenge the wrong,
    And crush the serpent’s head?
    Surely thou shalt at last
    Bruise him beneath our feet:
    The devil and his doctrine cast
    Into the burning pit.

    Arise, O God, arise,
    Thy glorious truth maintain,
    Hold forth the bloody sacrifice,
    For every sinner slain!
    Defend thy mercy’s cause,
    Thy grace divinely free,
    Lift up the standard of thy cross,
    Draw all men unto thee.

    O vindicate thy grace,
    Which every soul may prove,
    Us in thy arms of love embrace,
    Of everlasting love.
    Give the pure gospel word,
    Thy preachers multiply,
    Let all confess their common Lord,
    And dare for him to die.

    My life I here present,
    My heart’s last drop of blood,
    O let it all be freely spent
    In proof that thou art good,
    Art good to all that breathe,
    Who all may pardon have:
    Thou willest not the sinner’s death,
    But all the world wouldst save.

    O take me at my word,
    But arm me with thy power,
    Then call me forth to suffer, Lord,
    To meet the fiery hour:
    In death will I proclaim
    That all may hear thy call,
    And clap my hands amidst the flame,
    And shout,—HE DIED FOR ALL

    Charles Wesley


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