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. Thanks for this post. Very insightful. I’ve been wondering about the same question recently as well.

  2. 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.

  3. This is not accurate. Nearly every Patristic scholars worth their salt, including many who are Calvinist, will tell you Augustine was certainly a departure from the 300 years of father’s before him. Even Calvin admits this saying they were all “muddled” on this.

    While the earlier father’s used the words “elect”, “predestination”, since afterall they are Bible words, they showed great evidence they did not understand them in a Calvinistic/Augustinian manner. They also had a very synergistic view of salvation. This is not debated by anyone objective.

    The question is were the father’s of 300 years before Augustine a departure from the Apostles? Or was Augustine? One or the other was indeed because they are certainly different, which is one reason the Eastern Church has never recognized Augustine as a teacher of the church. His teachings on original sin, election/predestination were always & still are rejected by the Greek father’s & church.

    • Spencer,

      1. I’ve been teaching patristics for 25 years. I’m reasonably aware of what the secondary literature says and doesn’t say.

      2. The secondary literature is one reason why I wrote this piece. People write from within their framework and some frameworks don’t allow people to see things. E.g., not many have written on the covenant theology present in the 2nd-century fathers because covenant isn’t a category in their tradition.

      3. You’ve committed the ad populum fallacy. How many scholars think something doesn’t make something true.

      4. If you want to persuade me you need to show that my interpretation of the sources, with which you haven’t engaged in your reply, is inaccurate. I recommend that you go back and re-read what I wrote. Perhaps it’s an unfamiliar argument or perhaps it challenges some assumptions you hold about what must be true? If so, it can be difficult to process or accept evidence that contradicts a deeply held belief. Give yourself some time.

  4. A few thoughts:
    1. You did not answer the reader, David’s, question about free will; “Did the Fathers advocate for free will?” You used his question as a launching pad to talk about an Augustinian/Calvinistic view of election without answering his question, or, you assume that because (in your view) they believed in the “doctrines of grace” in vivo, therefore they must not have believed in free will.
    2. I think your point is very good that “doctrines do not drop out of the sky fully formed.” We should all keep that in mind.
    3. Yet, it is a weak argument to assume that the “doctrines of grace” were forming just because the Fathers used the words “elect” and “predestined.” The use of those words means little to nothing. In the OT, one can find the words “elect, choose, chosen, chosen” but that does not mean that unconditional election to salvation for individuals was in view. It had a different content.
    4. Therefore, to discover, the meaning of those words, one should look at the other things they were talking about and refuting. Ken Wilson, Ph.D. Oxford, in his book The Foundations of Augustinianism-Calvinism” has shown that the Fathers were refuting ideas from Gnostics, Neo-Platonists, Manichaeans, and Stoics who were advocating ideas that were more in line with what became known as “doctrines of grace.” Thus, their use of “elect” terminology should not be used as evidence of a budding “reformed” way of thinking.

    • Jonathan,

      My question is whether David actually read what I wrote or whether he merely reacted to the title of the essay? He would not be the first to do the latter. Once we establish whether he bothered to read what I wrote, we can move on to other issues.

      I gave specific evidence from primary sources which points to the fact that the fathers spoke freely about election. I did so because I’ve been reading the Apostolic Fathers with my students for a long time and those instances are rather striking. I’m not claiming that they taught a full-bodied anti-Pelagian doctrine of election but it is interesting that these instances exist in the absence of any controversy.

      That readers feel compelled to complain, in effect, that I shouldn’t be calling attention to historical facts is interesting and suggests a certain prejudice and it was with the knowledge that such a prejudice exists that I wrote the essay.

      I’m aware of Wilson’s work. I read Augustine. Suffice it to say that I’m not persuaded by his revisionism.

      • That’s a good question about David, and I guess he is the only one who can tell us. It is true that many people react rather than deal thoughtfully with an article.

        Regarding “the absence of any controversy” when such words as “elect” were used, I do not see how that proves anything. It just shows that the writer assumed that the audience knew what he was talking about, but it does not give content to those words.

        You say that you are aware of Wilson’s work. Have you read it? I have read the dissertation summary but not the full thesis. I’m not sure I want to shell out $150 for the full dissertation!! 🙂 But I may as it does seem to be important. His scholarship is impressive. Along these lines, I listened to Dr. James White’s refutation of Wilson’s book. If you have not heard it, you can hear it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAsE4-9Dly4

        And Wilson’s rebuttal to White’s video can be heard here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LatpdNAnH4g

        I listened to both recently. Wilson is impressive in his research.

        Grace and peace to you from our Father and Lord Jesus,

        Jonathan Williams

  5. Scott, I did not mean to sound like I was being condescending of your work. I was not & am sorry if it appeared that way.

    I have devoured the pre-Augustine fathers. When I began reading them I was a full fledged Calvinist Pastor. I was struck by how the early fathers teaching challenged my understanding of Scripture. I read, & read, & read through their writings again & again seeing if maybe I was missing something. Ultimately, Scripture is the authority, not the fathers. I’ve never questioned that! My question was whether I was reading Scripture correctly. While men such as Clement, Ignatius & Polycarp did not write much, both caused questions in my mind about their view of man & grace.

    Justin Martyr & Irenaus wrote a lot! Both being disciples of Polycarp, who was the Apostle John’s, & they really,really challenged me. They were clear that their view of man was not Calvinistic, nor there view of grace. Very clear that they were synergistic in their understanding of salvation. The question that arose to me, was Augustine the restoration of Apostolic understanding of grace or a departure from Apostolic understanding. But one thing was clear, Augustine’s later understanding of grace was certainly different than the author’s I mentioned. As well as those after: Tertillian, Clement of Alexandria, Tatian…etc. I would include the early spurious writings Hermas, Barnabas, 2 Clement all seeming to support the same differences. I had to consider that their understanding of “elect”, “predestination”, & “foreknowledge” was different as it seemed clear to me that was the case in their writings. When I read Calvin basically agreeing with that assessment it deepened my questions. And other Calvinists studied well in Patristics agreeing with this assessment like Loraine Boettner, John Jefferson Davis, Sam Storms, John Piper..etc only strengthens my confidence in my understanding of what I’ve read.

    Going back to Scripture, my earliest objections to Calvinism when first learning it I revisited. I was never satisfied with Calvinistic explanations on: 1 Tim 2:4-6; Heb 2:9; 1 John 2:2; John 3:16; Ezk 33:11, Isaiah 5:1-5…etc & a host of others not as mentioned, like:
    1) the connection of 1 Thess 1:4 & yet the real concern of 1 Thess 2:20-3:8. If Paul understood election in the Calvinistic since how could he say he knew their election, yet be very concerned they might depart from the faith & his labor be in vain?

    2) I also wondered if Rom 9 is an explanation of why some believe & some don’t then why would Paul turn around & say 11:19-23? His summary statement of Rom 9:30-33 really causes me to pause as to what he is really arguing in verses 6-29.

    But when I considered what the father’s were teaching the questions surrounding so many passages with a Calvinistic understanding evaporated. Before my appeal was “mystery” as to why there was an apparent contradiction.
    Throw in Augustine’s pre conversion, philosophical life & what seemed to be a new understanding of man & grace etc….and it became a red flag. Augustine’s view certainly changed.

    I’m certainly not 100% in agreement with all I see in the fathers. I still seek to let the Scripture be the final authority. I’m still praying & searching the Scriptures, remaining teachable, & not fully settled on some of these matters. But I’ve seen enough & read enough to know the real question again is:
    Was a Augustine a departure from the Apostles or a restoration to them? Because, his teaching certainly differs from the father’s before him.

    I still believe in God’s sovereignty! But God’s sovereignly acts as a sovereign in the manner He chooses & in perfect consistency with His other attributes. I also still hold to justification by grace through faith which I see clearly in Scripture & the fathers.

    I also still love my Calvinist brethren!

    God bless brother!!

    • Spencer,

      1. The Reformed thought that they were following the fathers, so they would be a little surprised to see that the fathers led you away from the Reformed Reformation. Indeed, Johannes Oecolampadius was an important early 16th-century Patrolists and the 17th-century Reformed more or less invented the modern study of the Fathers.

      2. We’ve never thought that we were following all of the fathers completely but then we’v always known the there’s no such thing as “the early church fathers.” That’s an amateur mistake. The Patristic period covers 5 centuries, at least four language groups, and a wide geographic area. It’s very complex. Origen is a father but so is Chrysostom. There’s a world of difference between the way Chrysostom read the Bible and the way Origen read the Bible.

      3. I don’t think most Patrologists think the Justin Martyr was a student of the Apostle John. Polycarp may have heard the Apostle teach but there is even dispute about that. You might be thinking of Irenaeus, who was influenced by Polycarp.

      4. Were some fathers (e.g., Origen) synergists or worse? Yes. Origen was a Pelagian before Pelagius. We should better speak of Origenism than Pelagianism in soteriology. That said, it’s a mistake (anachronism) to read the later disputes into the earlier period.

      5. Your understanding of who is a Calvinist and what that term means isn’t mine or that of confessional Reformed folk. I think you mean predestinarian. There’s a lot more to Calvinism than predestination. Sam Storms wouldn’t be allowed to join Calvin’s congregation and neither would John Piper.

      6. I think you need to read some modern, serious patristic scholarship.

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