History of the doctrine of predestination from the Early Church to the Reformation part 1

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Introduction to the development of the doctrine of predestination

It must first be understood that by 'development of doctrine' it is not meant that doctrines of the church are developed over time apart from the express teaching of Scripture but rather that through the course of time heresies and such arose which prompted the orthodox church to express the teachings of Scripture in formulated doctrines. The intent of this paper is to examine the formulation of the doctrine of predestination which is expressly taught in Scripture and was formulated in the church through the course of time. A completely pure and right understanding of this doctrine as it is conveyed in Scripture was not reached in the early church. Even Augustine, whom Luther appealed to in the defense of his teachings, had an erroneous view of predestination. Nevertheless, the early church did grapple with predestination and attempts were made (primarily by Augustine) to formulate a doctrine drawn from the teaching of Scripture that could be handed down to posterity.

At the council of Arausiacum (Orange: 529) a formulation on the condition of fallen man and the effects of God's grace (both pertinent to predestination) was established. The following propositions, synergistic in nature, were confirmed: (a) As a result of Adam's transgression both death and sin have passed to all his descendants; (b) man's free will has consequently been so distorted and weakened that he cannot now believe in, much less love, God unless prompted and assisted thereunto by grace; (c) the saints of the OT owed their merits solely to grace and not to the possession of any natural good; (d) the grace of baptism enables all Christians, with the help and co-operation of Christ, to accomplish the works necessary for salvation, provided they do what is in them; (e) predestination to evil is to be anathematized with detestation; and (f) in every good action the first impulse comes from God; it is this impulse which instigates us to seek baptism and, with His help, attain salvation.[1]

The attempt to maintain salvation by the grace of God alone is evident in the formulation of the Council of Orange. However, in the effort to preserve God's universal grace this formulation affirms the synergistic teaching that salvation is in part dependant upon man. This is in accord with the early church fathers as will be demonstrated. In fact, Augustine more or less stands alone in denying man any part in his own salvation. Divine monergism was not emphasized by the early church fathers and the attempt will be made in this paper to explain why.

The doctrine of predestination, or the election of grace, is mentioned only in passing by the early church fathers. Their focus is rather on the free will of man to choose between good and evil, belief and unbelief. Primarily because of the influence of Gnostic teaching where the God of the Old Testament is seen as corrupt[2], the early church fathers desired to exonerate God and thereby attributed the existence of evil to the free will of man and the devil. Further, in an attempt to distance the church from the fatalistic teachings of Gnosticism[3], the early church fathers attributed man with the ability to attain salvation with the help of God. This placed the fault of condemnation solely on man but also led to synergistic tendencies.

Augustine is the first father in the early church to devote any significant time and effort to the doctrine of predestination. Jaroslav Pelikan wrote that his awareness of the sovereignty of divine power and grace "took the form of a doctrine of predestination more thoroughgoing than that of any major orthodox thinker since Paul"[4]. The truth of man's fallen condition which was being realized more fully in the fourth-century coupled with the prevailing belief in free will and responsibility gave rise to Augustine's conception of mankind as a 'lump of sin'. This conception and Pelagius' teaching on free will, which goes quite beyond that of the fathers up to that time, were both major impetuses to Augustine's formulation of God's predestination.[5] Augustine sought to demonstrate the Scriptural teaching that the salvation of mankind is and must be wholly dependent on God's grace. As a result he stood opposed to Pelagius' assertion of man's ability to "accomplish the divine will by his own choice"[6] even if the ability was given by God.

In order to see the progression of thought in the early church and the impetus for the early church father's focus on free will, we will first give a summary of the Gnostic teachings which these fathers so diligently fought against. Then we will give an overview of the teachings of the early church fathers on free will, foreknowledge, predestination and synergism. Some attention will be given to the teaching of Pelagius which was a motivating factor for Augustine's formulation of the doctrine of predestination. And lastly, we will examine Augustine's formulation of the doctrine of predestination and consider how he went too far to the opposite end of the pendulum in reaction to the Pelagian heresy. In this examination of the development of the doctrine of predestination the task is to prove that Augustine was the first father in the early church to begin to rightly formulate the doctrine of divine monergism, the eternal election of the saints by God before the foundation of the world, as it is taught in Scripture.


[1]J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines , (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 1978), pp. 371-372

[2]ibid., pp. 22-25, this is primarily a summary of the Gnosticism of Valentinus.

[3]ibid., p. 24

[4]Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition; A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) , (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1975), p. 297

[5]Kelly, p. 357

[6]ibid., p. 358

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Gnosticism[1]

            Certain characteristic ideas for the solution to the problem of evil and human destiny promulgated by Gnosticism were diametrically opposed to the doctrine handed down by the apostles in Holy Scripture. Evidence of this can be found in many passages of John's writings (cf. 1 John 4:2, 1 John 5:1-6, 2 John 7, Rev. 2:6). According to Gnostic teachings, thirty emanations or aeons proceeded from the supreme Father, Bythos, and Sige (Silence), who is His Ennoia (Thought).[2] These thirty aeons form the Pleroma, the fullness of the Godhead. The lowest of these thirty aeons, Sophia, in an attempt to apprehend the nature of the supreme Father, travailed and conceived (Enthymesis). Enthymesis, now known as a lower Sophia, is then exiled.

            While she wanders the still lifeless void, her anguish brings forth matter and her yearning produces 'psychic' or soul-element.[3] She then also gives birth to 'pneumatic' or spiritual substance with the aid of the aeon called 'Christ'. Sophia forms a Creator, or Demiurge, out of psychic substance in the image of the supreme Father. The Demiurge, seen as the God of the Old Testament, then creates heaven and earth and the creatures inhabiting it.[4] This material world is seen as corrupt and evil because of the state of its creator. Pneuma, the spiritual element which only inhabits certain men yearns for God, and salvation consists in its liberation from the lower elements. This liberation of pneuma is the task which the savior Jesus accomplishes by bringing the knowledge needed for salvation.

            There are three classes of men according to Gnosticism, namely, the material or carnal, the psychic and the pneumatic. Salvation is not possible for the material men because the material world and all matter will be destroyed in the end. The psychic class can be saved through the knowledge and imitation of Jesus. The pneumatic attain salvation merely by apprehending the teaching of Jesus.[5] These last two classes, psyche and pneuma, are imprisoned in material bodies and salvation consists in achieving release from this material existence. This view of limited salvation is a form of predestination in that men have no choice in how they are created, some with pneuma or psyche and some without.     

            The early church fathers diligently fought against this fatalistic view of man's destiny and ultimate salvation, and the Gnostic teaching that the God of the Old Testament is evil (being the creator of the material world). The Fathers could not accept the Gnostic idea of a lesser deity who created the material order. For God is immutable, unchangeable, and He is one, there can be no other. The material order must have then been created by the only true God and therefore must also be good. As a result, the only way to explain the existence of evil was to place its source in the will of man and Satan. This helps to explain the emphasis that the fathers placed on the free will of man. They earnestly contended for the free will of man in order to both fault the will of man as the source of evil and to deny the idea of fatalism. We turn now to the teachings of the fathers on foreknowledge, free will, predestination, and synergism in so far as they can be pieced together in their writings.


[1]Gnosticism was not the only determining factor for the early church fathers' propensity towards the free will of man. Pagan Roman and Greek philosophies and religious views were also dominated by a determinism that held man to be ultimately in the hands of fate. In fact fate was the cause of most of the anxiety of the ancient world. "Human life was predetermined by higher powers (e.g., Stoicism, apocalypticism) which were often identified as fate...Fate, sometimes personified, would determine the outcome of nations, individuals, and events, with little or no human control." Charles B. Puskas, An Introduction to the New Testament, (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1989), p. 16.

[2]Kelly, p. 23

[3]ibid., pp. 23-24

[4]ibid., p. 24

[5]ibid.

Comments 1 comment

Fr Michael Azkoul 3 years ago

We can agree on what you have written about "development of doctrine,"

that is, the formulation of doctrine not the doctrine itself has "developed.'

Predestination as Calvin and the Reformers understood it, has no place among the Church Fathers --- for which reason Augustine and his school must be denied a place in their roll. Read St John of Damascus's summary of their teachings on the subject --- man has free will and God foreknows what choices what choices we shall make. On the basis of this knowledge, He predestines us to heaven or perdition. In any case, the West has been for so long alien in its thinking about the Fathers, there simply no compatibility between them.

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