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

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Luther and Predestinarianism in the Reformation

            The similarities between Augustine and Luther extend beyond Luther’s experience as a monk of the Augustinian order, which seems a forgone conclusion at first.  Clearly, Augustine heavily influences Luther regarding presuppositions that underpin their predestinarianism.  Bayer contends that Luther’s interpretation of Scripture leads him to the same conclusions about human nature as Augustine: the nature of sin in man is both, “superbia and desperatio.”[1]  However, Luther has more in common with Augustine than just a hermeneutical predisposition.  Augustine affected Luther’s thinking so significantly because of a shared soteriological need.  Luther offered more than intellectual obeisance to Augustine; he needed Augustine to lead him down a philosophical path that would clear his conscience.

            Luther’s life was plagued with the same kind of religious upheaval that Augustine experienced.  An important difference, though, is that Luther seemed to be cognizant of an internal upheaval that drove his various religious experiences.  Augustine sought explanation for his seeming reluctance to seek Christ wholeheartedly, but Luther was so consumed by a pursuit of piety that he could not easily find solace.  Luther’s early life lacked the wholehearted embrace of sinfulness that plagued Augustine, but his angst over the origin, nature, and effect of sin were strikingly similar.  As a monk, Luther sought consolation in works of grace hoping for absolution and justification.  However, even a strict regimen of sacramental observance and contrition left him with the dread of damnation.  Luther became so obsessed with absolution that he pathologically pondered his sin and found that confession only intensified his guilt.  After a foray into mysticism, Luther abandoned his strict sacramental pursuit for an endeavor in loving God.  Sadly, his childhood experience with severe authority figures left him hating God instead.[2]

            At the behest of his confessor, Luther entered into a lectureship at the University of Wittenberg.  His superior hoped, as in the case of Jerome, that Luther would find his temptations and guilt abated in the study of Scripture.  This appointment now seems providential.  While preparing a lecture in the Epistle to the Romans, Luther concluded that both faith and justification are the work of God, alone.[3]  This revelation about the nature of grace and its correspondence to both faith and justification were the balm that Luther required.  Augustine’s work on predestination in relationship to Romans provided the fine-tuning that Luther needed.  This predestinarianism, then, became for Luther what it had been for Augustine, a means of confidently receiving grace.  Luther was lead to affirm predestination both because, “it was a corollary of justification by faith as a free gift of God, and because he found it amply supported by the authority of Paul and Augustine.”[4]  However, this doctrine also provided a point of attack for the increasingly Pelagian Catholic Church.

            Just as Augustine found cause to sharpen his predestinarianism in Pelagius, Luther found cause to refine his position because of Desiderius Erasmus.  Luther and Erasmus, who had averted being involved in the conflict with reformers to this point, engaged in a published dispute over the ability of humanity to cooperate with God in achieving salvation.  Erasmus’ view that the human will is capable of fighting “against the flesh or for the Spirit,”[5] was rejected wholly by Luther.  He countered with arguments, which reasoned, “Man can contribute nothing toward his own salvation good enough to be juxtaposed with any work of God.”[6]  Interestingly, Luther sided with the most revered scholars of the Catholic Church, Augustine and Aquinas among them, against Erasmus and the church.  Luther’s defense of Augustinian predestinarianism would not be emulated by the rest of the Protestant church, though.  The other Reformers took the example of Luther and the work of Augustine a step further.

The Reformation’s Departure from Augustinian and Lutheran Predestinarianism

            The various incarnations of Augustine and Luther’s soteriological doctrine eventually yielded to a theological system that expunged human cooperation in faith and broadened the doctrine’s scope to the entirety of God’s providential rule over creation.  Certainly, many agreed with Luther and sought to expand his influence and teaching.  Many hoped, though, to expound upon or deviate from the teaching of Luther.  In fact, Luther found his ideals and doctrine caught between the Catholic Church and the likes of Carlstadt and Calvin.[7] 

            Nevertheless, the remaining important issue revolves around Luther’s resolve in pursuing Augustinian predestinarianism, though not likely out of any inordinate dedication to Augustine himself.  Nonetheless, McGrath observes that, “Of the reformers, it is Martin Luther who is closest to Augustine in his teaching on justification.”[8]  He remains the closest to Augustine because he did not attempt to derive a theological system out of his notions of predestination.  While Luther spoke plainly of ecclesiastical and priestly behavior he found contradictory to Scripture, he did seek to know the word of God truly, even if it meant agreeing with the church.  Melanchthon viewed Luther within the Reformation context as a voice “interchangeable” with Augustine: a voice that was renewing the early teachings of the church.[9]  In fact, according to McGrath, “Augustine’s conflict with Pelagianism in particular is seen by Melanchthon as an exemplar of the Lutheran protest against the Pelagianism of the sixteenth-century church.”[10]

            Wallace provides helpful categorization of the change that occurs after Luther in the Reformation:

     “A more significant division between doctrines of predestination is not whether it is single or double, but between those versions where its soteriological impact remains central and those where the doctrine becomes an organizing principle for a theological system and is thus intertwined with the whole consideration of providence, something which became increasingly the case in the later part of the sixteenth century.”[11]

This kind of predestinarianism seems present in Augustine and Luther.  However, historians and theologians alike have long commented on the polarizing, often inflammatory, nature of both Augustine’s and Luther’s polemical treatises.  Wallace notes that while there is a strong predestinarianism in Luther’s reply to Erasmus in the Bondage of the Will, a marked emphasis on double predestination does not occur in the English Reformation until it is formulated by the Swiss and Rhineland Reformed traditions.[12]  These reformed traditions inherited their emphasis on double predestination from the likes of John Calvin.

            It would be a mischaracterization to promulgate a claim that Calvin merely expanded the scope of Augustine’s theories.  McGrath notes that Calvin, in his Institutes, does not wholly approve of Augustine’s treatment and departs from Augustine’s belief that “Christ is the source of man’s righteousness, in that the Spirit is poured into man’s heart on account of his obedience.”[13]  Calvin insists that the transformative work of faith and grace are completely alien to the human nature.  God is sovereign over all of creation and its redemption, and humanity is utterly depraved.  Calvin’s departure from Augustine and Luther occurs most notably in the creation of a theological system that locates double predestination as one of its pillars of thought. 

            This shift in theology has been rejected by church councils for over a thousand years.  It demands that all of Scripture bow to its methodology.  Geisler points out that the consequences of this system burden humanity with a God that is the direct author of evil and that hates the non-elect.[14]  As one who worked tirelessly and meticulously to avoid those very consequences in his own theology, this outcome would have been completely unacceptable to Augustine

            However, it also suffers from crippling philosophical contradictions, and it should suffice to note that Augustine’s predestinarianism has been relegated to an element of theology until the emergence of lapsarianism.  This system of decrees and there seeming authority, even over the biblical text, create a web of presuppositions that rest squarely on Augustine’s philosophy of the origin of evil.  Robert Brown identifies the philosophical problems associated with using Augustine’s predestinarianism as a foundational system of thought, explaining that Augustine’s explanation of first sin is at best incomprehensible.[15]  If it becomes something more than incomprehensible, then the system’s other claims regarding God’s nature or his culpability in creating evil is suspect at best.  Geisler has already hinted at this in his theological critique of double predestination, but this is clearly his point of reference for making the claim.


            While predestination is an unavoidably biblical concept, Augustine and Luther intended to direct the hearts of men toward God in gratitude for grace received, not to establish a lens through which all other Scripture must pass.  Predestination achieved, for Augustine and Luther, a different end than what is achieved by a system based on double predestination.  Augustinian and Lutheran predestinarianism provides a soteriological framework to understand how humanity, in its plight, is able to receive and be confident in justification.  This predestination declares the God is the author and finisher of our faith, and that there is no person or thing that can separate us from that work.


[1] Oswald Bayer, “Freedom?  The Anthropological in Luther and Melanchthon Compared.” The Harvard Theological Review, 91 (October 1998): 375.

[2] González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2, 16-17.

[3] Ibid., 19-20.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] Oswald Bayer, “Freedom,” 377.

[6] Roland N. Bainton, Christianity, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000): 253.

[7] Though for very different reasons.  Ibid.

[8] Alister E. McGrath, “Forerunners of the Reformation? A Critical Examination of the Evidence for Precursors of the Reformation Doctrines of Justification.” The Harvard Theological Review, 75 (April 1982): 230.

[9] Peter Fraenkel, Testimonia Patrum: The Function of the Patristic Argument in the Theology of Philip Melanchthon, (Geneva: Droz, 1961) 32.

[10] Alister E. McGrath, “Forerunners of the Reformation,” 229.

[11] Wallace, Dewey D. “The Doctrine of Predestination in the Early English Reformation.” Church History, 43 (June 1974): 203-204.

[12] Ibid., 202.

[13] Alister E. McGrath, “Forerunners of the Reformation,” 233.

[14] Geisler, Systematic Theology, 567.

[15] A term Brown utilizes as an expression of a temporal happenstance with a transcendent cause.  The sin of Satan and Adam may have happened temporally, but its cause is outside of our closed finite system.  Brown argues that any other explanation of Augustine’s postulations results in grievous philosophical error.  I contend that Brown is reading Augustine through the lens of Calvin and a theological system.  If Augustine can be read concerning the origin and effect of a sinful will in relation to humanity’s ability to save itself, then Augustine has accomplished what Brown had hoped he would, a structure for interpreting one’s present existence (324).  See Robert F. Brown, “The First Evil Will Must Be Incomprehensible: A Critique of Augustine.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 46 (September 1978): 315-329.



  1. This is an interesting post. I’d just say that Calvin himself was probably closer to Augustine and Luther in tying predest to soteriology and justification by faith (i.e. God is the source of salvation, not human beings, so relax). Calvin places discussion of predest next to justification by faith in the Institutes, and it is really the later Calvinists who turn predestination into a pillar of theology by addressing it as part of the doctrine of God (as opposed to part of soteriology). TULIP was more a product of Calvinism than Calvin himself. And while that might sound dumb and one could say the roots of TULIP are in the Institutes, I think it is worth noting that Calvin himself did not uplift predestination as the key to understanding God or Christianity. It merely became a very distinctive element among those who came to call themselves Calvinists. Calvin saw it more as a mystery that should ideally offer comfort to the faithful that God had worked out their salvation and that they need not fear hell (this probably was a comforting word to those who might have the unsettled mindset that tortured Luther before he came upon justification by faith).
    Of course, with the notion of predestination and only a limited number of elect (with which Luther and Augustine both concurred), there were of course many later followers of Calvin who fretted over their election in the first place. Suppose there is always something to worry about : )


  2. Nelson,

    Thanks for your post, and welcome!

    I certainly understand your position, but I would be interested to see what you think about this quote from Calvin’s Institutes III.21.5:

    “No one who wishes to be thought religious dares simply deny predestination, by which God adopts some to hope of life, and sentences others to eternal death. But our opponents, especially those who make foreknowledge its cause, envelop it in numerous petty objections. We indeed, place both doctrines in God, but we say that subjecting one to the other is absurd.”

    Now, while I don’t want to be guilty of proof-texting with Calvin anymore than I do with the Bible. I think there is ample evidence to demonstrate that Calvin was the origin of a lapsarian system that places the locus of soteriological predestination within the sovereignty of God’s person. Did this notion get drawn out and developed beyond Calvin’s original intent by people like Beza? Probably. Nonetheless, there is evidence to demonstrate that Calvin went further with his notions of predestination than either Luther or Augustine. One thing that does occur to me as possible; perhaps Calvin should be interpreted rhetorically as I have claimed Augustine’s later writings should be?



  3. iiinteresting. Sadly I’m currently separated from my copy of the Institutes (I know. it’s a shocking situation), but I definitely want to check out that passage – naturally Calvin had to use the language “both doctrines in God.” what a bum.

    I wont be reunited with the Institutes till Sunday, but I’ll definitely investigate then.
    And on a related note, I bet your right that Augustine and Calvin (and Luther) all wielded a pretty hardcore rhetorical sword, that often made them look more extreme than they might have been outside the context of public debate.


  4. Richard,

    I don’t really “get on to Calvin,” in this series. So, by all means, have at me! :0)

    Thanks for the book suggestions, too. I appreciate that you always have great reading suggestions.




  5. @ Tony,

    I’m with James on this one. The world is currently short on people who have had three semesters of Greek that foist their expert word-loads on unsuspecting parishioners (I hope you don’t take that personally-insert sarcasm).

    I’m glad you’re enjoying my web-self-publication. :0)

    My school of thought: expose your work to as much criticism as possible – it will only make it stronger.



  6. It’s my opinion that every MDiv should have 4 semesters of formal Greek, and the final two should be required reading classes and/or advanced exegesis


  7. Tony,

    Well, then, I’m sure you’ll be happy to know that I have had five semesters of NT Greek. :0) (I know that isn’t why you said it, so…)

    I agree, in fact, the most helpful commentaries and scholarly works are nearly inaccessible to those who cannot do sound exegesis from the Greek text (I am thinking specifically of this series and this series, and to some extent this series). In fact, I found myself trying to hack through German, Latin, and French in such epic works as Climax of the Covenant. Not to mention the treasure trove of scholarly journals that become available once you can use academic languages.



  8. Apologies for the grossly delayed response, but I would say that my guess is we’re in disagreement only of degrees.

    I think the quote you pointed out (in which Calvin asserts foreknowledge and predestination as “doctrines in God”) is (like you suggested) more of a rhetorical move since the thrust of that section is to distinguish between predestination and foreknowledge (in response to the claim that predest was simply God’s foreknowledge of how humans would respond to forgiveness in Christ) – as opposed to an effort to understand God via the doctrine of predestination.

    I also still think it’s pretty significant that Calvin discusses predestination in Book Three (The way in which we receive the grace of Christ: what benefits come to us from it, and what effects follow) as opposed to Book One (The knowledge of God the Creator). I think that strongly suggests that Calvin did not view predestination as a definitive lens through which to understand God and/or scripture.
    So I would contend that as you said about Augustine and Luther, Calvin also “intended to direct the hearts of men toward God in gratitude for grace received, not to establish a lens through which all other Scripture must pass.” In Book Three, Calvin is very careful about what he says concerning predestination and offers up the whole doctrine as a mystery that is at once “sweet fruit” (III.21.1) and a “dreadful decree” (III.23.7) – since it simultaneously assures some of salvation no matter what, while confining others to hell no matter what.
    I think Calvin’s understanding and faith in scripture as God’s dumbing down of divine things to a level humans could relate to (III.21.4 among other places) led him to embrace predestination (despite the mystery and seeming horror that surrounds it) more so than Calvin’s understanding and faith in predestination led him to interpret scripture in particular ways.

    I not sure that holds true for Calvinists, particularly post Dort, since they were distinguished (and distinguished themselves) from other Christians primarily via the doctrine of predestination. I dont think Calvin had the same hang up on that front. Predestination was certainly a doctrine he maintained, but I dont think it’s fair to say it was a doctrine around which he shaped his world view (as many Calvinists did).
    So all to say, I think a bigger wedge needs to be placed between Calvin’s understanding and use of predestination, and that of his later followers.

    And while I think it is fair to say that there is a spectrum of Aug – Luther – Calvin – Calvinists that increasingly emphasizes predestination as a distinguishing aspect of God’s sovereignty and central doctrine of Christianity (as one moves from Augustine toward the Calvinists), I think Calvin himself falls much closer to Augustine and Luther than to the Calvinists.

    Good times. Thank you again for this paper. and I am very happy I came across this blog site!


  9. Nelson,

    Now I’ll apologize for my protracted response time. ;0)

    You wrote:

    “I think Calvin himself falls much closer to Augustine and Luther than to the Calvinists.”

    Interestingly, all those who come from the Reformed tradition that I have been able to have meaningful dialogue with come down in the same place on this point. Calvinists are not Calvin. I have often wondered how beneficial it is to one’s legacy to be a prolific author like Luther, Calvin, Barth, Wright, et al. It seems like the more you write, the more rope you give people to hang you with.

    My interest in this topic actually extends beyond the predestination debate to a case study on how inefficient theological language has become. Most people are just looking for someone else to use their buzz words or theological jargon in order to place them on the spectrum. They aren’t really interested in exploring the ideas, just in finding out who belongs and who doesn’t.

    I’m glad you found this site, too – thanks for the interaction!



  10. Rod,

    I am entertained by your out of hand dismissal (at least that’s what it seems, I’d be happy to hear your interpretation of your own words):

    “Shawn Wamsley over at Theophiliacs posted a two part series comparing the Augustinian doctrine of predestination with Martin Luther’s (I know, scary right?)”

    And yet, you don’t even mention the fact that I quote scholars from every walk of Christianity (Catholic, Protestant, Church historians, Philosophers, et al)that support the soft comparison I make between Augustine and Luther. Thanks for the link, I think.



  11. I think most likely that he was only implying that it is mildly scandalous to a Patristically minded thinker that the two belong together, probably tongue in cheek so go easy on him Shawn. 🙂


  12. Tony,

    I’m sorry I’m being sensitive. Sometimes I just need a good fight, and Sabio, George and Roger haven’t been around for a while. :0) So, I guess I am seeing offense where there is none? Though, I did make the caveat that I might be misunderstanding him.

    Rod – I’m sorry I jumped to a conclusion.

    (do you want to fight anyway?) :0)



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