Were the Reformers Obsessed with Predestination?

A Common Misconception

A commonly held prejudice regarding Reformation theology is that the doctrine of predestination and election was the peculiar focus of Reformed theologians, especially its leading theological figure, John Calvin. Whereas the Protestant Reformation, both in its Lutheran and Reformed expressions, especially emphasized the doctrine of free justification by grace alone through faith alone, the Reformed branch of the Reformation was distinguished by its special interest in the topic of predestination.

In this interpretation of the two traditions, the religious impulse of the Reformation—the rediscovery of the gospel of God’s free acceptance of sinners on the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone—was imperiled by an austere and foreboding view of the absolute sovereignty of God. The fresh wind of Luther’s rediscovery of justification by faith alone was threatened by a doctrine of predestination that removed the focus from God’s revealed will in the gospel of Jesus Christ and replaced it with a focus on the hidden and inscrutable decree of the triune God.

I do not intend here to resolve this prejudice, which has played a significant role in the interpretation of Reformation theology. However, it deserves mention for at least three reasons.

The Authority of Scripture

First, since the Reformation was born out of a renewed attention to the teaching of Scripture, it was bound to include a renewed consideration of the scriptural teaching on predestination and election. Though the language does not belong to the sixteenth century’s theological vocabulary, historians of the Reformation period often speak of the doctrine of Scripture as its “formal principle.” Over against the medieval Roman Catholic Church, which privileged the church’s official interpretation of apostolic tradition (whether in written or unwritten form), the Reformers insisted that Christian theology must be normed by the teaching of Scripture, properly interpreted. The church’s dogmatic pronouncements must always stand the test of Scripture and must be revised where they are at variance with scriptural teaching.

For this reason, the leading theologians of the Protestant Reformation were obliged to address the doctrine of predestination and election. For example, since the apostle Paul’s epistle to the Romans was a particularly important source for the Reformation’s articulation of the doctrine of justification, it was scarcely possible that the Reformers could ignore the doctrine of predestination, which forms an important part of the teaching of Romans.

According to the teaching of the leading Reformers, salvation begins and ends with God’s gracious initiatives in Christ.

Grace Alone

Second, the central theme of the Reformation, the doctrine of free justification, was born out of a rediscovery of the gospel of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia). Contrary to the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s teaching that fallen human beings retain a free will that is able to “cooperate” with God’s grace and “merit” further grace, even eternal life, the Reformers insisted that fallen human beings are incapable of performing any saving good.1

According to the teaching of the leading Reformers, salvation begins and ends with God’s gracious initiatives in Christ. Only those who are brought to faith through the work of the Holy Spirit and the word of the gospel, are able to embrace the promise of the gospel, the forgiveness of sins, and free acceptance with God. Human merits, achievements, and performances contribute nothing to the salvation of fallen sinners. The Reformation doctrine of justification emphasized that the righteousness of Christ, freely granted and imputed to believers who embrace the gospel promise, is the sole basis for the believer’s right standing with God. The Pelagian and semi-Pelagian teaching that fallen sinners have the wherewithal to cooperate freely with God’s gracious initiative in Christ or the capacity to perform good works that constitute a partial basis for salvation was roundly condemned by Reformation theology.

These features of the Reformation doctrine of salvation were bound to raise the question that the doctrine of predestination and election addresses. After all, if fallen sinners are unable to save themselves or perform any works that contribute to their salvation, then their salvation is ultimately authored by God alone, who takes the initiative to provide for and effect the salvation of believers through the work of Christ. The doctrine of predestination and election naturally finds its home within the context of acknowledging human inability and affirming the gospel of God’s undeserved grace in Jesus Christ. The same theological emphases that gave impetus to the doctrine of justification undergirded the Reformation doctrine of election.

An Augustinian Heritage

Third, though the Reformation was born from a renewed study of Scripture, it was also deeply rooted in a long-standing Augustinian legacy, especially in Western Christian theology. The doctrine of predestination and election found its most thorough patristic expression in the great church father Augustine’s polemical writings against Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism.2

While Augustine’s doctrine of justification did not coincide entirely with that of the sixteenth-century Reformers, his doctrine of predestination and election, as it was formulated over against Pelagianism, was an important source for the Reformation view.3 Indeed, among most of the primary authors of Reformation theology, Augustine’s doctrine of predestination and election was a key component in their polemic against medieval semi-Pelagianism and every form of a doctrine of salvation based (wholly or partly) on human works.

Reformation Theology

Matthew Barrett

Offering readers a comprehensive summary of the major tenets of Reformation theology, this volume convincingly demonstrates the Reformation’s enduring importance for the church today.

The Reformers were biblical in their approach to theology, but they were also catholic and traditional in their claim to represent the historic teaching of the Christian church.4 Invoking Augustine’s teaching on the doctrine of predestination was, accordingly, an important component in their defense of the catholicity of the teachings both that salvation comes by grace alone and that salvation finds its source in the eternal counsel of the triune God.

For these reasons, it is not surprising that the Reformers, in the course of rediscovering the gospel of salvation by grace apart from any human works, also rediscovered the scriptural and Augustinian doctrine of predestination and election. The Reformation wanted to underscore the truth that God alone authors and accomplishes the redemption of his people through the work of Christ. In defending the truth of grace alone and Christ alone, they insisted that the work of Christ had deep roots in God’s own loving determination from before the foundation of the world to save his elect people in Christ.

1. The following statement of the Council of Trent, which treats the way in which fallen sinners can freely cooperate with God’s grace and dispose themselves for justification, is representative of the Roman Catholic view: “They, who by sins are alienated from God, may be disposed through his quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and co-operating with that said grace.” Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes, vol. 2, The Greek and Latin Creeds, rev. David S. Schaff (1877; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985), 92.
2. For Augustine’s doctrine, see Augustine, Four Anti-Pelagian Writings, trans. John A. Mourant and William J. Collinge, Fathers of the Church 86 (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1992); Donato Ogliari, Gratia et Certamen: The Relationship between Grace and Free Will in the Discussion of Augustine with the So-Called Semipelagians (Leuven: University Press, 2003); J. B. Mozley, A Treatise on the Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination, 2nd ed. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1878).
3. In the fourteenth century, Augustine’s views were embraced and defended by Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini, who anticipated the views of the Reformers of the sixteenth century. For treatments of medieval Augustinianism, see Heiko A. Oberman, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, a Fourteenth-Century Augustinian: A Study of His Theology in Its Historical Context (Utrecht: Kemink & Zoon, 1958); Gordon Leff, Bradwardine and the Pelagians: A Study of His “De Causa Dei” and Its Opponents (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957); and P. Vigneaux, Justification et predestination au XIVe siècle: Duns Scot, Pierre d’Auriole, Guillaume d’Occam, Gregoire de Rimini (Paris: Librairie Philosophique J. Vrin, 1981).
4. Cf. Heinrich Bullinger, Der Alt Gloub [The old faith] (Zurich: Froschouer, 1537). Bullinger’s treatise is a striking example of the Reformer’s claim not to novelty but to a rediscovery of the “old faith” of the Christian church. For a treatment of this essay and its significance, see Cornelis P. Venema, “Heinrich Bullinger’s Der Alt Gloub (‘The Old Faith’): An Apology for the Reformation,” MAJT 15 (2004): 11–32.

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