Predestination and the Early Fathers

Kurt Dahlin
Burns, Patout J. “Predestination,” Encyclopedia of Early Christianity. Ed. Everett Furguson. New York, NY: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1990 750-751.

PREDESTINATION. God's determination of the ultimate destiny of individual human beings and the operations through which he brings each person to the chosen end. During the patristic period, predestination refers only to those being brought to salvation, not to the damned. God's election is based upon no prior merits of those who are to be saved: it precedes and actually effects the good willing and performance that make one worthy of eternal life. In contrast, God knows (foreknowledge) but does not will or cause, either by acting or failing to act, the sins for which the condemned are judged. Moreover, the theory of predestination is applied only to those who have fallen in Adam and are saved in Christ: God knew but did not produce either the fidelity of the angels or the sin of Adam and the demons.

The biblical foundation of the doctrine of predestination is twofold. The scriptural narrative portrays God acting without regard for or even against human qualifications and achievements in assigning roles in the economy of salvation‑ the favoring of Jacob over Esau provides a signal but hardly isolated instance of this divine sovereignty. God’s purposes, moreover, were accomplished even in the actions of those who appear to be acting against them: Pharaoh's resistance to Moses and Judas's betrayal of Jesus both advanced God's plan. Paul's (751) assertion (Rom. 8‑11) of the gratuity of salvation and the efficacy of God's treatment of Jacob and Esau, Israel and the nations, provided the foundation for the patristic doctrine of predestination. Additional evidence was found especially in Matthew 20:23; John 6:44‑45, 66; and Ephesians 1:3‑14.

Christian apologists in the second and third centuries ignored this biblical theme; in their struggle against Gnosticism and other forms of determinism, they insisted upon the role of individual free choice in both good and evil. They explained the sovereignty of divine governance over all creation through God's exhaustive knowledge of the intentions and actions of the creatures. Each individual's free choices are integrated into the divine plan for the whole. Although insisting upon individual responsibility, these and subsequent Christian writers also asserted the gratuity of the divine mercy and the divine initiative in the saving activity of Christ.

At the end of the fourth century, Augustine initiated a different interpretation of the text of Romans and a new understanding of divine sovereignty. In his To Simplician on Various Questions, he asserted that without regard for their prior or subsequent merits, God chooses certain individuals for conversion and actually effects their own saving faith in Christ. A later treatise, On Correction and Grace, applied the principles derived from Romans, and elaborated by reference to an array of scriptural texts, to perseverance in Christian faith and good works, which were judged necessary for salvation. God freely elects individuals, moves them to believe in Christ, grants them the power to fulfill his commandments, and ensures their performance of good works and repentance for failures. Thus does God bring the elect to glory, without regard for any independent or autonomous merits of their own.

The doctrine of God's predestination of the elect assigns to God all glory for salvation; the creature can claim no credit for initiative or even independent cooperation with the divine mercy. Failure and damnation, however, are assigned to the independent choice of the creature. Augustine explained that initially God had endowed humanity with the capacity for meritorious action enjoyed by the angels; through this, humans might have earned eternal beatitude. In Adam, all human beings failed and merited damnation. Those whom God elects in Christ are saved not by their own power or even by their cooperation with divine assistance but through the efficacy of divine mercy. All others are condemned in God's justice for their participation in Adam's sin and for the sins that they have personally added.

The Augustinian theory of predestination met widespread resistance. Predestination of the elect seemed logically to entail a divine decision to withhold necessary assistance and thereby to condemn the non-elect. In addition, the theory postulated that God chooses some for Christian faith but not for eternal life. Through the Council of Orange (529), the western church accepted the doctrine that God elects individuals for Christian faith without regard to their merits and actually causes their own free conversion. The council ignored Augustine's assertion of divine predestination of individuals to salvation or glory that would be accomplished through the grace of perseverance and without regard to merits. In the ninth century, the church condemned the teaching of the monk Gottschalk that God predestines some to damnation. The eastern church did not share Augustine's doctrine of divine influence over human willing, through which the saving purpose is effected. See also Augustine; Election to Salvation; Original Sin, Pelagius, Pelagianism; Prevenient Grace. (J.P.B.)