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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 158. The Doctrine of Predestination.


I. Augustinus: De praedestinatione sanctorum ad Prosperum et Hilarium (written a.d. 428 or 429 against the Semi-Pelagians); De dono perseverantiae (written in the same year and against the same opponents); De gratia et libero arbitrio (written a.d. 426 or 427 ad Valentinum et Monachos Adrumetinos); De correptione et gratia (written to the same persons and in the same year).

II Corn. Jansenius: Augustinus. Lovan. 1640, tom. iii. Jac. Sirmond (Jesuit): Historia praedestinatiana. Par. 1648 (and in his Opera, tom. iv. p. 271). Carl Beck: Die Augustinische, Calvinistische und Lutherische Lehre von der Praedestination aus den Quellen dargestellt und mit besonderer Rücksicht auf Schleiermacher’s Erwählungslehre comparativ beurtheilt. “Studien und Kritiken,” 1847. J. B. Mozley: Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination. Lond. 1855.


Augustine did not stop with this doctrine of sin and grace. He pursued his anthropology and soteriology to their source in theology. His personal experience of the wonderful and undeserved grace of God, various passages of the Scriptures, especially the Epistle to the Romans, and the logical connection of thought, led him to the doctrine of the unconditional and eternal purpose of the omniscient and omnipotent God. In this he found the programme of the history of the fall and redemption of the human race. He ventured boldly, but reverentially, upon the brink of that abyss of speculation, where all human knowledge is lost in mystery and in adoration.

Predestination, in general, is a necessary attribute of the divine will, as foreknowledge is an attribute of the divine intelligence; though, strictly speaking, we cannot predicate of God either a before or an after, and with him all is eternal present. It is absolutely inconceivable that God created the world or man blindly, without a fixed plan, or that this plan can be disturbed or hindered in any way by his creatures. Besides, there prevails everywhere, even in the natural life of man, in the distribution of mental gifts and earthly blessings, and yet much more in the realm of grace, a higher guidance, which is wholly independent of our will or act. Who is not obliged, in his birth in this or that place, at this or that time, under these or those circumstances, in all the epochs of his existence, in all his opportunities of education, and above all in his regeneration and sanctification, to recognize and adore the providence and the free grace of God? The further we are advanced in the Christian life, the less are we inclined to attribute any merit to ourselves, and the more to thank God for all. The believer not only looks forward into eternal life, but also backward into the ante-mundane eternity, and finds in the eternal purpose of divine love the beginning and the firm anchorage of his salvation.18461846    Rom. viii. 29; Eph. i. 4.

So far we may say every reflecting Christian must believe in some sort of election by free grace; and, in fact, the Holy Scriptures are full of it. But up to the time of Augustine the doctrine had never been an object of any very profound inquiry, and had therefore never been accurately defined, but only very superficially and casually touched. The Greek fathers, and Tertullian, Ambrose, Jerome, and Pelagius, had only taught a conditional predestination, which they made dependent on the foreknowledge of the free acts of men. In this, as in his views of sin and grace, Augustine went far beyond the earlier divines, taught an unconditional election of grace, and restricted the purpose of redemption to a definite circle of the elect, who constitute the minority of the race.18471847    Comp. the opinions of the pre-Augustinian fathers respecting grace, predestination, and the extent of redemption, as given in detail in Wiggers, i. p. 440 ff. He says, p. 448: “In reference to predestination, the fathers before Augustinewere entirely at variance with him, and in agreement with Pelagius. They, like Pelagius, founded predestination upon prescience, upon the fore-knowledge of God, as to who would make themselves worthy or unworthy of salvation. They assume, therefore, not the unconditional predestination of Augustine, but the conditional predestination of the Pelagians. The Massilians had, therefore, a full right to affirm (Aug. Ep. 225), that Augustine’s doctrine of predestination was opposed to the opinions of the fathers and the sense of the church (ecclesiastico sensui), and that no ecclesiastical author had ever yet explained the Epistle to the Romans as Augustinedid, or in such a way as to derive from it a grace that had no respect to the merits of the elect. And it was only by a doubtful inference (De dono pers. 19) that Augustineendeavored to prove that Cyprian, Ambrose, and Gregory Nazianzen had known and received his view of predestination, by appealing to the agreement between this doctrine and their theory of grace.” Pelagius says of predestination in his Commentary on Rom. viii. 29 and ix. 80: “Quos praevidit conformes esse in vita, voluit ut fierent conformes in gloria. .... Quos praescivit credituros, hos vocavit, vocatio autem volentes colligit, non invitos.”

In Augustine’s system the doctrine of predestination is not, as in Calvin’s, the starting-point, but the consummation. It is a deduction from his views of sin and grace. It is therefore more practical than speculative. It is held in check by his sacramental views. If we may anticipate a much later terminology, it moves within the limits of infralapsarianism, but philosophically is less consistent than supralapsarianism. While the infralapsarian theory, starting with the consciousness of sin, excludes the fall—the most momentous event, except redemption, in the history of the world—from the divine purpose, and places it under the category of divine permission, making it dependent on the free will of the first man; the supralapsarian theory, starting with the conception of the absolute sovereignty of God, includes the fall of Adam in the eternal and unchangeable plan of God, though, of course, not as an end, or for its own sake (which would be blasphemy), but as a temporary means to an opposite end, or as the negative condition of a revelation of the divine justice in the reprobate, and of the divine grace in the elect. Augustine, therefore, strictly speaking, knows nothing of a double decree of election and reprobation, but recognizes simply a decree of election to salvation; though logical instinct does sometimes carry him to the verge of supralapsarianism. In both systems, however, the decree is eternal, unconditioned, and immutable; the difference is in the subject, which, according to one system, is man fallen, according to the other, man as such. It was a noble, inconsistency which kept Augustine from the more stringent and speculative system of supralapsarianism; his deep moral convictions revolted against making any allowance for sin by tracing its origin to the divine will; and by his peculiar view of the inseparable connection between Adam and the race, he could make every man as it were individually responsible for the fall of Adam. But the Pelagians, who denied this connection, charged him with teaching a kind of fatalism.

The first sin, according to Augustine’s theory, was an act of freedom, which could and should have been avoided. But once committed, it subjected the whole race, which was germinally in the loins of Adam, to the punitive justice of God. All men are only a mass of perdition,18481848    Massa perditionis, a favorite expression of Augustine. and deserve, both for their innate and their actual sin, temporal and eternal death. God is but just, if He leave a great portion, nay (if all heathen and unbaptized children are lost), the greatest portion, of mankind to their deserved fate. But He has resolved from eternity to reveal in some His grace, by rescuing them from the mass of perdition, and without their merit saving them.

This is the election of grace, or predestination. It is related to grace itself, as cause to effect, as preparation to execution.18491849    De praedest. Sanct. c. 10 (or § 19, tom. x f. 803): “Inter gratiam et praedestinationem hoc tantum interest, quod praedestinatio eat gratiae praeparatio, gratia vero jam ipsa donatio. Quod itaque ait apostolus: Non ex operibus ne forte quis extollatur, ipsius enim sumus figmentum, creati in Christo Jesu in operibus bonis (Eph. ii. 9), gratia est; quod autem sequitur: Quae praeparavit Deus, ut in illis ambulamus, praedestinatio est, quae sine praescientia non potest esse.” Further on in the same chapter: “Gratia est ipsius praedestinationis effectus.” It is the ultimate, unfathomable ground of salvation. It is distinguished from foreknowledge, as will from intelligence; it always implies intelligence, but is not always implied in it.18501850    De praed. sanctorum, cap. 10: “Praedestinatio ... sine praescientia non potest esse; potest autem esse sine praedestinatione praescientia. Praedestinatione quippe Deus ea praescivit, quod fuerat ipse facturus ... praescire autem potens est etiam quae ipse non facit, sicut quaecumque peccata.” Comp. De dono perseverantiae, c. 18 (f847 sq.). God determines and knows beforehand what He will do; the fall of man, and the individual sins of men, He knows perfectly even from eternity, but He does not determine or will them, He only permits them. There is thus a point, where prescience is independent of predestination, and where human freedom, as it were, is interposed. (Here lies the philosophical weakness, but, on the other hand, the ethical strength of the infralapsarian system, as compared with the supralapsarian). The predetermination has reference only to good, not to evil. It is equivalent to election, while predestination, in the supralapsarian scheme, includes the decretum electionis and the decretum reprobationis. Augustine, it is true, speaks also in some places of a predestination to perdition (in consequence of sin), but never of a predestination to sin.18511851    De anima et ejus origine (written a.d.419), l. iv. c. 11 (or § 16, tom. x. f 395): “Ex uno homine omnes homines ire in condemnationem qui nascuntur ex Adam, nisi ita renascantur in Christo ... quos praedestinavit ad aeternam vitam misericordissimus gratiae largitor: qui eat et illis quos praedestinavit ad aeternam mortem, justissimus supplicii retributor.” Comp. Tract. in Joann. xlviii. 4: “ad sempiternum interitum praedestinatos,” and similar passages. The election of grace is conditioned by no foreseen merit, but is absolutely free. God does not predestinate His children on account of their faith, for their faith is itself a gift of grace; but He predestinates them to faith and to holiness.18521852    De praed. sanct. c. 18 (§ 37, x. f. 815): “Elegit ergo nos Deus in Christo ante mundi constitutionem, praedestinans nos in adoptionem filiorum: non quia per nos sancti et immaculati futuri eramus, sed elegit praedestinavitque ut essemus.” Augustinethen goes on to attack the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian theory of a predestination conditioned upon the foreseen holiness of the creature. Cap. 19 (§ 38): “Nec quia credidimus, sed ut credamus, vocamur.”

Thus also the imputation of teaching that a man may be elect, and yet live a godless life, is precluded.18531853    This imputation of some monks of Adrumetum in Tunis is met by Augustineparticularly in his treatise De correptione et gratia (a.d.427), in which he shows that as gratia and the liberum arbitrium, so also correptio and gratia, admonition and grace, are by no means mutually exclusive, but rather mutually condition each other. Sanctification is the infallible effect of election. Those who are thus predestinated as vessels of mercy, may fall for a while, like David and Peter, but cannot finally fall from grace. They must at last be saved by, the successive steps of vocation, justification, and glorification, as certainly as God is almighty and His promises Yea and Amen;18541854    De corrept. et grat. c. 7 (§ 14): “Nemo eorum [electorum] perit, quia non fallitur Deus. Horum si quisquam perit, vitio humano vincitur Deus; sed nemo eorum perit, quia nulla re vincitur Deus.” Ibid. c. 9 (§ 23, f. 763): “Quicunque ergo in Dei providentissima dispositione praesciti, praedestinati, vocati, justificati, glorificati sunt, non dico etiam nondum renati, sed etiam nondum nati, jam filii Dei sunt, et omnino perire non possunt.” For this he appeals to Rom. viii. 31 ff.; John vi. 37, 39, etc. while the vessels of wrath are lost through their own fault. To election necessarily belongs the gift of perseverance, the donum perseverantiae, which is attested by a happy death. Those who fall away, even though they have been baptized and regenerated, show thereby, that they never belonged to the number of the elect.18551855    De corrept. et gratia, c. 9 (§ 23, x. f. 763): “Ab illo [Deo] datur etiam perseverantia in bono usque in finem; neque enim datur nisi eis qui non peribunt: quoniam qui non perseverant peribunt.” Ibid. c. 11 (§ 36, f. 770): “Qui autem cadunt et pereunt, in praedestinatorum numero non fuerunt.” Hence we cannot certainly know in this life who are of the elect, and we must call all to repentance and offer to all salvation, though the vocation of grace only proves effectual to some.

Augustine, as, already remarked, deduced this doctrine from his view of sin. If all men are by nature utterly incompetent to good, if it is grace that works in us to will and to do good, if faith itself is an undeserved gift of grace: the ultimate ground of salvation can then be found only in the inscrutable counsel of God. He appealed to the wonderful leadings in the lives of individuals and of nations, some being called to the gospel and to baptism, while others die in darkness. Why precisely this or that one attains to faith and others do not, is, indeed, a mystery. We cannot, says he, in this life explain the readings of Providence; if we only believe that God is righteous, we shall hereafter attain to perfect knowledge.

He could cite many Scripture texts, especially the ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, for his doctrine. But other texts, which teach the universal vocation to salvation, and make man responsible for his reception or rejection of the gospel, he could only explain by forced interpretations. Thus, for instance, be understands in 1 Tim. ii. 4 by the all men, whom God will have to be saved, all manner of men, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, or he wrests the sense into: All who are saved, are saved only by the will of God.18561856    Opus imperf. iv. 124; De corrept. et gratia, i. 28; De praed. sanct. 8; Enchir. c. 103; Epist. 217, c. 6. Comp. Wiggers, l.c. pp. 365 and 463 ff. When he finds no other way of meeting objections, be appeals to the inscrutable wisdom of God.

Augustine’s doctrine of predestination was the immediate occasion of a theological controversy which lasted almost a hundred years, developed almost every argument for and against the doctrine, and called forth a system holding middle ground, to which we now turn.



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