Hero Image

‘Calvinists’ Before Calvin?

Predestination in the History of the Church

ABSTRACT: Luther’s and Calvin’s Catholic contemporaries argued against Reformed doctrine because it disagreed with the teaching of Rome. The Reformers argued, first, that their doctrines agreed with Scripture, but they also appealed to church history. Predestination and the other doctrines of grace were, according to them, not novel teachings, but teachings held as far back as the church fathers — especially Augustine.

Protestants in the Reformed tradition have not been shy about championing the doctrine of predestination, God’s gracious and sovereign choice to save individual sinners for his own glory.

In Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) masterpiece, On the Bondage of the Will (1525) — one of only two works Luther wrote that he thought were worth posterity’s interest — Luther grounded his doctrine of sinful humanity’s bondage to sin in God’s sovereign predestination: “If we believe it to be true that God foreknows and predestines all things (Romans 8:29), that he can neither be mistaken in his foreknowledge nor hindered in his predestination, and that nothing takes place but as he wills it (as reason itself is forced to admit), then on the testimony of reason itself there cannot be any free choice in man or angel or any creature.”1

John Calvin (1509–1564) pithily defined divine predestination as that “by which God adopts some to hope of life, and sentences others to eternal death.”2 More fully, he professed,

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.3

The international Synod of Dort (1618–1619), convened to address the erroneous views of Arminianism, defined election as “God’s unchangeable purpose by which . . . before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of his will, he chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin” (1.7).

Finally, the most important compendium of doctrine in the English-speaking Protestant tradition, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647), says this of predestination: “By the decree of God, for the manifestation of his glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death” (3.3).

Sola, Not Nuda

First- and second-generation Reformers like Luther and Calvin, however, were immediately and constantly challenged by their Catholic opponents about their gall in teaching doctrine not in accord with the Catholic teaching of their day. The Reformers began by arguing, as we would hope they would, that they believed these things because the Bible taught them. Who can forget Luther’s defiant words at the Diet of Worms? “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason — I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other — my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”4 Throughout Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion and in his voluminous sermons and commentaries, he likewise displays his belief in the Bible’s supreme authority.

“In basing their entire lives on ‘sola scriptura,’ Luther and Calvin never devolved into ‘nuda scriptura.’”

In basing their entire lives on sola scriptura, though, Luther and Calvin never devolved into nuda scriptura (“naked Scripture”). Rather, they believed that we read the Bible in community, learning from other sinners — alive and dead — how to understand the teachings of Scripture better and how to correct the blind spots in our biblical interpretation. Tradition never trumps Scripture, but it is a very useful tool in checking our biblical hermeneutics and doctrinal formulations.

In fact, Luther and Calvin found solace in the fact that their views, though not the mainstream teaching of the Catholic Church of their day, had historical precedents. In Luther’s Disputation Against Scholastic Theology of 1517, which predates his more famous 95 Theses, he argues at length against all kinds of soteriological errors of his day, including the “modern way” of Gabriel Biel and the standard view of the church of his day, which he labeled Pelagian.5 Instead, he wrote, “Man, being a bad tree, can only will and do evil” (Thesis 4). “The best and infallible preparation for grace and sole disposition toward grace is the eternal election and predestination of God” (Thesis 29). Explaining his developing views to a group of Augustinian monks at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, Luther exclaimed, “Free will, after the fall, exists in name only” (Thesis 13). His proofs of the theses are peppered with references to Augustine, such as “St. Augustine says in his book, The Spirit and the Letter, ‘Free will without grace has the power to do nothing but sin’; and in the second book of Against Julian, ‘You call the will free, but in fact it is an enslaved will,’ and in many other places” (proof of Thesis 13).

Later, while preparing for his 1519 Leipzig debate against a Catholic opponent, Luther happily referred to Gregory of Rimini (d. 1358) and called him Augustine’s one true disciple among the medieval scholastic theologians: “It is certain that the so-called ‘Modern Theologians,’ in this point of grace and free will, agree with the Scotists and Thomists except for one whom all condemn, Gregory of Rimini. . . . Also these theologians made it absolutely and convincingly clear that they are worse than the Pelagians.”6 Luther took comfort that Gregory was on his side in holding to God’s sovereign predestination of helpless, dead sinners.

On numerous occasions, Calvin challenged his Catholic opponents on their charge that his teaching was novel. Throughout his “Reply to Sadoleto,” for example, Calvin claims against his Catholic opponent that “our agreement with antiquity is far closer than yours,” ushering several teachers from the first centuries of the church who espoused Protestant, not papal, doctrine.7 When he defends his teaching on divine predestination in his Institutes, Calvin regularly appeals to Augustine as one who believed the same doctrines. At one point, he notes, “If I wanted to weave a whole volume from Augustine, I could readily show my readers that I need no other language than his. But I do not want to burden them with wordiness.” Instead, Calvin here simply agreed with Augustine’s reflection on Romans 9: “God’s grace does not find but makes those fit to be chosen.”8

These comments by Luther and Calvin lead us to ask exactly what the state of “Calvinism” was before the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Though Calvinism touches on more than the doctrine of God’s sovereign predestination, we will focus our attention there.

Fathers to Augustine

The earliest Christian writers after the close of the New Testament canon did not stress God’s predestination of his elect. In fact, until the days in which Augustine (354–430) felt compelled to respond to the heretical ideas of Pelagius (who, among other things, denied the biblical truth of original sin) and the later semi-Pelagians (who taught that, though persons inherited sin from Adam, they were still able on their own to do some spiritual good to which God would respond in grace), the church did not stress the gracious predestinarian chords of Paul or Jesus.

Why did some great thinkers in the history of the church (people like Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Athanasius), who thought deeply and wrote thoughtfully, not address a doctrine that seems so apparent throughout both the Old and the New Testaments? Several reasons may contribute.

Augustine: “God’s grace does not find but makes those fit to be chosen.”

First, even though many Christians thought deeply during this period of time, Christians faced intermittent and sometimes empire-wide persecution up until the reign of Constantine as the emperor of Rome. Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 finally granted Christians freedom of religion. Believers fighting for their lives are deprived of the luxury to reflect as deeply on God’s word as they wish they could. In addition to this pressure from persecution, Roman authorities sometimes destroyed Christian writings, especially believers’ copies of the Scriptures.

Second, as early Christians struggled to define themselves in a hostile environment, they strove to avoid many of the errors of their day. They opposed Stoicism, which was fatalistic, in addition to other fatalistic religions and philosophies. John Hannah is certainly correct in noting that “as arguments are shaped by opponents, causing a perpetual imbalance, and as doctrine is formulated only at points of conflict and not holistically, the Gnostic and Manichaen accusation of Christian fatalism led to a counterdenial [by the church] that resulted in an unbiblical stress on freedom.”9

Third, and related to their concerns about the fatalism of Gnostics and others, early Christians stressed the importance of obedience in the Christian life. They had reason to fear that one of the errors of the Manichees, for instance, was an “I couldn’t help myself” kind of attitude about sin. Going hand in glove with the fatalism of these groups was a push to approve licentious living. Reacting to licentiousness (right), they turned away from a strong affirmation of God’s sovereignty in salvation (wrong).

Herman Bavinck summarized the previous two concerns well:

In the early church, at a time when it had to contend with pagan fatalism and gnostic naturalism, its representatives focused exclusively on the moral nature, freedom, and responsibility of humans and could not do justice, therefore, to the teaching of Scripture concerning the counsel of God. Though humans had been more or less corrupted by sin, they remained free and were able to accept the proffered grace of God. The church’s teaching did not include a doctrine of absolute predestination and irresistible grace.10

Fourth, dare I suggest that perhaps some early Christians were just wrong in their interpretation of the biblical text and the conclusions they drew from it? They erred in other doctrines (at least this confessional Baptist thinks they did), such as in their swift move toward episcopal authority in their churches, some of the magical views they associated with the Lord’s Supper, their turn toward infant baptism, and some of their overly allegorical biblical interpretations. This argument would take more space to develop (and it would require another article to explain the relationship between the authority of history and the authority of the Bible), but most Protestants would agree with at least parts of what I’ve said here. They would definitely agree that the later medieval church’s move toward a sacramental understanding of salvation based on merit and fueled by fear of purgatory has no basis in Scripture.

B.B. Warfield insightfully suggests that there was a logic to the early church’s doctrinal debates and determinations. He observes,

The chief controversies of the first four centuries and the resulting definitions of doctrine, concerned the nature of God and the person of Christ; and it was not until these theological and christological questions were well upon their way to final settlement, that the church could turn its attention to the more subjective side of truth [that is, the doctrine of salvation].

He continues,

It was inevitable that sooner or later some one should arise who would so one-sidedly emphasize one element or the other of the Church’s teaching as to salvation, as to throw himself into heresy, and drive the Church, through controversy with him, into a precise definition of the doctrines of free will and grace in their mutual relations.11

Augustine to Aquinas

The match that lit the fire, so to speak, of the church’s codification of its beliefs about salvation was the British monk Pelagius (d. 420). Upon moving to Rome and seeing what he thought was the lax discipline of Christians there, Pelagius thought he could solve the problem: just teach people they are not bound in sin to Adam (i.e., deny the doctrine of original sin), and tell them they can be perfect if they’ll just work hard enough, and all will be well! Well, all wasn’t well for Pelagius, because his teaching called forth the theological ire of Augustine, whose moniker “Doctor of Grace” owes itself to his reaction to Pelagius’s heresy. Fueled by his reading of Paul’s epistles, Augustine averred that God

has appointed them [people condemned in Adam] to be regenerated . . . whom he predestined to eternal life, as the most merciful giver of grace. To those whom he has predestined to eternal death, however, he is also the most righteous awarder of punishment, not only on account of the sins which they add in the indulgence of their own will, but also because of their original sin, even if, as in the case of infants, they add nothing to it.12

In other words, as Gregg Allison writes, Augustine believed “it all depends on God’s sovereign will to choose some and pass over others.”13

After Augustine’s death, his views were attacked by semi-Pelagians like John Cassian (d. after 430), Vincent of Lérins (d. 450), and Faustus of Riez (d. 490); they were defended by Prosper of Aquitine (d. 463) and Hilary of Arles (d. 449). The controversy culminated in the Synod of Orange (529) which, in Hannah’s words, resulted in a lukewarm affirmation of Augustine’s views that paved the way for changes in his doctrine in the early medieval era:

Though the synod’s findings were Augustinian in tone, they were only moderately so. While election was recognized, unconditional election was not mentioned (though it was implied), grace was not seen as irresistible, and predestination was expressly anathematized. The synod advocated cooperative salvation from an Augustinian perspective.

Orange, in effect, set “the pattern for Catholic theology in the medieval period, a semi-Augustinianism.”14

Complicating matters for the fate of Augustine’s thought was the rise to power of Pope Gregory I (r. 590–604). Though he thought he was simply restating Augustine’s thought to a new generation, Gregory the Great (as he is often called) actually colored Augustine’s thought with a semi-Pelagian hue. It seems he read Augustine through the lens of Cassian’s thought.15

Thus, Augustine’s thought was lost to many generations of medieval Catholics. Sometimes, when persons taught something akin to Augustine’s thought, they were persecuted for it. Such was the case with Gottschalk. Gottschalk of Orbais (d. 869) taught a full-orbed Augustinian doctrine of predestination — including its double aspect. His views were so controversial in his day, though, that he suffered trial and eventually imprisonment for holding them, even though others — such as Prudentius, Remigius, Ratramnus, and Lupus — agreed with him.16

“Augustine’s thought was lost to many generations of medieval Catholics.”

There were still some subsequent important thinkers, though, who followed Augustine at least in part. Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) seems to have supported Augustine’s doctrine of salvation. According to Tony Lane, Bernard believed that, “left to themselves, fallen human beings will only sin. . . . Grace so moves the will that it freely and willingly chooses the good. Grace changes the will from evil to good — not by destroying its freedom but by transferring its allegiance.”17

Aquinas to the Reformation

When we arrive at the great theologian and high-water mark of medieval scholasticism, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), we might think we’ve left Augustine’s thought behind. Certainly, Thomas was not as passionate about prioritizing divine grace as Augustine was. That might have been due to his temperament or to the genre in which he wrote. In fact, however, he followed Augustine in the main on predestination. “Predestination,” he said, is an “ordering of some persons towards eternal salvation, existing in the divine mind.” He noted that God, “by predestinating from eternity, so decreed our salvation, that it should be achieved through Jesus Christ. For predestination covers not only that which is to be accomplished in time, but also the mode and order in which it is to be accomplished in time.”18 J.B. Mozley is surely correct: “Between the Augustinian and Thomist doctrine of predestination, and that of Calvin, I can see no substantial difference.”19

We saw earlier that Luther was encouraged by the similarities in his doctrine of predestination and its concomitant, the bondage of the human will to sin, with that of Gregory of Rimini. He might also have referenced another fourteenth-century follower of Augustine, the Englishman Thomas Bradwardine (d. 1349), author of the important work, The Case of God Against the Pelagians (1344). Claiming throughout that Augustine was on his side, Bradwardine remarks, “God does not grant man eternal life on account of his future good works, but, on the contrary, He grants the good works that may bring him to eternal life.” In another place he argues, “What injustice and cruelty can be charged to God because He chooses to predestine and create one of His creatures for the service of another creature and both of them for His own service, praise, glory and honor?”20

Rimini and Bradwardine were part of a group of Augustinian-minded priests and theologians (called the modern Augustinian school) which was significant on the eve of the Reformation. They championed themes from Augustine’s teaching such as “an emphasis on the need for grace, on the fallenness and sinfulness of humanity, on the divine initiative in justification and on divine predestination.”21

“The one who saved you will indeed keep you by his grace until the day of Christ Jesus, even if he does so through many tribulations.”

Bradwardine influenced a later, better-known Englishman, John Wycliffe (d. 1384), who in many ways was the “Morning Star of the Reformation” in England. Developing the former’s thought, Wycliffe noted that the “true church” (as opposed to the institutional Roman Church) was the “congregation of the predestined” and that “neither place nor human election makes a person a member of the church but divine predestination in respect of whoever with perseverance follows Christ in love, and in abandoning all his worldly good suffers to defend His law.”22 The Bohemian Reformer Jan Hus (d. 1415) agreed with Wycliffe: the church was composed of those predestined in Christ, and the pope and all clerics had authority only insofar as they submitted to God’s word.23

Even during the early days of his theological development, Luther was not alone in his commitment to Augustine’s notion of grace. His own dear friend Johann von Staupitz (d. 1524) — a fellow Augustinian monk and Luther’s superior — emphasized the themes of “provenience of grace, the bondage of the will, and predestination.” Luther remarked, “I received everything from Dr. Staupitz.”24

Lessons to Ponder

There is a great deal for us to think about as we scan back over time and see how some in the church considered the doctrine of predestination up to the time of the Reformation. Hopefully some of my ruminations will spur further thoughts and applications on your part.

First, praise God for the clarity of Scripture! Through all sixty-six books of the inerrant word of God, God the Holy Spirit speaks in one clear voice. He never contradicts himself, but teaches us the same truths in the pages of Genesis to Revelation. We may not like or understand the doctrine of sovereign predestination (apparently some people who knew Paul didn’t either; see Romans 9:19, along with the apostle’s response in verses 20–24). But we should not doubt that the Lord teaches his divine prerogative to save his elect out of his mere good pleasure, because he loves them (Ephesians 1:4–5; Deuteronomy 7:7–8), for his glory alone.

Second, one way that humility will show itself in our lives is in our willingness to listen to what other godly Christians have said about how we should understand Scripture. It is good to consider the fact that there just might be someone, somewhere, who has lived at some time, who might just understand a portion of Scripture better than we do. If there is such an individual (and I’m convinced there is, or why bother reading any commentaries or systematic theologies, let alone listen to any sermons!), then we should desire to learn from such a person. That is one of the values of having access to the writings of men devoted to Scripture such as Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, as well as to Scripture-saturated confessional statements like the Canons of Dort and the Westminster Confession. Read them humbly. You might just see something in the Bible you had overlooked before.

But third, remember that just as you approach the Scripture with particular cultural blinders as well as some intellectual and spiritual blind spots, so has every sinful human who has ever lived. No human is perfect, except our Lord Jesus Christ. So, as you read those who have preceded you in the faith, test all that they say from Scripture. Be willing to learn from them as they see things in the Bible that you have not seen before or as they articulate truths you have seen before in a significant way. But remember that they are culture-bound creatures — just like you are. Maybe you’ll understand yourself better in the process.

Finally, thank God for those throughout the history of the church who have tenaciously defended God’s sovereign right to save whom he chooses. Learn from them that there are some truths worth suffering for. And learn that the one who saved you will indeed keep you by his grace until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6), even if he does so through many tribulations (Romans 8:28–39). To him be the glory.

  1. Martin Luther, On the Bondage of the Will, in Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation, Library of Christian Classics, ed. E. Gordon Rupp and Philip S. Watson (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 332. 

  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Library of Christian Classics, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.21.5. 

  3. Calvin, Institutes, 3.21.5. 

  4. Quoted in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (1950; repr., Nashville: Abingdon, 2013), 182. 

  5. Martin Luther, “Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, 1517,” in Career of the Reformer I, Luther’s Works 31, trans. and ed. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1957), 3–16. 

  6. Quoted in Heiko A. Oberman, ed., Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought Illustrated by Key Documents, trans. Paul L. Nyhus (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), 124. 

  7. John Calvin, “Reply to Sadoleto,” in A Reformation Debate: John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, ed. John C. Olin (1966; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 62. 

  8. Calvin, Institutes, 3.22.8. 

  9. John Hannah, Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), 209–10. 

  10. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 2, God and Creation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 348. He references Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian among the ante-Nicene fathers, and John of Damascus among the later Eastern teachers. 

  11. Benjamin B. Warfield, “Introductory Essay on Augustin and the Pelagian Controversy,” in Saint Augustin’s Anti-Pelagian Works, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. Peter Holmes and Robert Ernest Wallis, vol. 5, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (1887; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), xiii. 

  12. Quoted in Gregg Allison, Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 456. 

  13. Allison, Historical Theology, 456–57. 

  14. Hannah, Our Legacy, 216. 

  15. Justo L. González, A History of Christian Thought, Vol. 2: From Augustine to the Eve of the Reformation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1970), 69–72, traces the changes Gregory wrought in Augustine’s thought. 

  16. Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:352. 

  17. Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006), 111. 

  18. Jesse Couenhoven, Predestination: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark, 2018), 69, 71. 

  19. J.B. Mozley, A Treatise on the Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination (London: John Murray, 1855), 267. 

  20. Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation, 160–61. 

  21. Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993), 78–79. 

  22. Quoted in G.H.W. Parker, The Morning Star: Wycliffe and the Dawn of the Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965), 37. 

  23. Parker, The Morning Star, 81. 

  24. Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation, 125.