Did Christians Teach Predestination Before Augustine?

A reader named David recently wrote to the Heidelblog to pass along a question that someone else asked of him: “What do the church fathers prior to Augustine believe about free will? I was told that all of the church fathers prior to Augustine all held to a traditional more Arminian free will position.”

The controversy between Augustine and Pelagius did not take place until the late fourth century. The question assumes that doctrines drop out of the sky fully formed. For example, I can show Trinitarian theology in the early second century, but I cannot show anyone using the word Trinity (Trinitas) until Tertullian. Does that mean they were not Trinitarian? No. I also cannot show anyone refuting Arius until he taught the eternal subordination of the Son in the early fourth century. So, your dialogue partner is effectively asking you to show him someone writing about jets before the Wright brothers flew.

I can show pre-Augustinian writers speaking very highly of grace, of “the elect,” and even of predestination, but we do not find writers, including Augustine, refuting Pelagius before Pelagius. Even Augustine was not Augustinian, as it were, until he was confronted with Pelagius. His language pre-AD 400 was different than it was in the period AD 410–34.

The Doctrines Of Grace In The Apostolic Fathers

In the Apostolic Fathers (e.g., Holmes, ed., 1992), the noun ἐκλεκτός (elect) occurs about thirty times. This includes 1 Clement 1:1, which is the first text in most editions of the Apostolic Fathers and dates to the very early second century. The unknown author was writing to the Corinthians about some of the same problems that plagued them fifty years earlier. The fact that he speaks, without any self-consciousness, about the “elect,” that he gives no explanation, that he feels no need to explain himself, suggests that he thought that some sort of doctrine of election was a given, a widely accepted truth among Christians. He spends very little time on the doctrine of salvation generally and he was, in my opinion, almost certainly a layman, mainly concerned about Christian ethics and morality. So, when he speaks to soteriology, it is interesting and orthodox. He teaches justification by faith alone.

In 2.4 he uses the expression, “the number of the elect,” which is interesting since it seems to imply that there is a limit. See also 6:1; 46:3–8; 49:5; 52:2; 58:2; 59:2. That it occurs so often in what is arguably the least theological of all the Apostolic Fathers impresses me.

Ignatius, pastor of Antioch, is an important early witness to a number of Christian doctrines—for example, he has an early version of what would become the Apostles’ Creed; he tells us that there were three offices in the early church: pastors, elders, and deacons—and gives us a clear witness to the early doctrines of election and predestination. He uses both words. In the prologue to his Epistle to the Ephesians (c. AD 114), he described the Ephesian congregation as “elect” and “predestined before all ages” (τῇ προωρισμένῃ πρὸ αἰώνων). He also described the congregation of the Trallians as “elect.”

The Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. AD 150) 16:1 says, “the whole crowd [of pagans] was amazed that there should be so great a difference between the unbelievers and the elect.” The author of the Martyrdom was narrating Polycarp’s heroic death for Christ so it is interesting that he speaks this way in passing. Again, he did not regard such language as controversial. The (likely) later addition says, in 22:1, “with whom be glory to God for the salvation of the elect.”

Even the (in my view) crazed apocalyptic-moralistic mess that is the Shepherd of Hermas (c. AD 150) takes it for granted (5:3; 6:5; 8:2; 13:1; 16:3; 17:10; 23:5; 24:5) that there is such a thing as “God’s elect.”

The Epistle to Diognetus (4:4) uses the noun election (ἐκλογῆς) in critiquing Judaism and contrasting it with Christianity. He complains that the Jews think that being circumcised makes them elect. Apparently, the Federal Vision is not all that new.

These are only representative texts. We could look at the Apologists (i.e., Justin and Irenaeus) and see similar things from the middle of the second century and the AD 180s. Justin seems to speak of divine election to salvation in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew in chapter 123. Irenaeus, in Against Heresies, 2.2.4, in his refutation of the Gnostics (Valentinians), asserts divine sovereignty rather clearly:

This manner of speech may perhaps be plausible or persuasive to those who know not God, and who liken Him to needy human beings, and to those who cannot immediately and without assistance form anything, but require many instrumentalities to produce what they intend. But it will not be regarded as at all probable by those who know that God stands in need of nothing, and that He created and made all things by His Word, while He neither required angels to assist Him in the production of those things which are made, nor of any power greatly inferior to Himself, and ignorant of the Father, nor of any defect or ignorance, in order that he who should know Him might become man. But He Himself in Himself, after a fashion which we can neither describe nor conceive, predestinating (praedestinans) all things, formed them as He pleased, bestowing harmony on all things, and assigning them their own place, and the beginning of their creation. In this way He conferred on spiritual things a spiritual and invisible nature, on super-celestial things a celestial, on angels an angelical, on animals an animal, on beings that swim a nature suited to the water, and on those that live on the land one fitted for the land—on all, in short, a nature suitable to the character of the life assigned them—while He formed all things that were made by His Word that never wearies” (ANF, 1.361; Migne, PG, 7.714)

In this passage, Irenaeus is essentially expositing the Rule of Faith (regula fidei), “I believe in God the Father almighty” (omnipotentem). We know that Rule as the Apostles’ Creed. In other words, he takes it as basic Christianity, contra the Gnostic heretics, that we creatures are dependent upon God and not he upon us. Remember, the Gnostics were polytheists and Christians are monotheists. In 3.15.1, writing against the Ebionites (who rejected the authority of the Apostle Paul), he complained that they “despise the election of God.” In 3.16.3, Iraenaeus paraphrased Romans 1:1 by replacing “set apart” (ἀφορίζω) with “predestinated” (praedestinatus; Migne, Patrilogia Graeca 7.922). He uses the language of predestination relative to the Son (3.22.1) and the Holy Spirit (3.17.4). He spoke of Adam having been predestinated to have an animal nature (3.22.3). Again, in 5.1.1 he speaks of believers as “predestinated.”

In short, since there was no controversy yet with Pelagius in the second century, no one was yet articulating the full Augustinian position. But despite the absence of controversy over election and predestination, Christian teachers regularly refer to these doctrines with no hint of any self-consciousness that they are doing anything unusual. When Augustine responded to Pelagius, he had grounds in the earlier fathers for speaking as he did.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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    • Haha, thanks. This gave me my first laugh of the day! Hearing Arminians preach through Romans 8 and 9 is like hearing nails on a chalkboard, or watching a contortionist or a a game of Twister or something.

  1. Maybe in the early Church they understood that it was by the Spirit men were drawn to Christ and that being of God, thus elect of God. I think about Peter going to the house of Cornelius and the Holy Spirit falling on them testifying to them being elect.


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