Predestination

In theology, predestination refers to the predetermination by God of the individual’s ultimate destiny. Controversies regarding predestination have centered on the apparent contradiction between such predetermination and man’s free will. (As noted below, they are thus analogous to controversies regarding man’s freedom in a universe seemingly determined by scientific law.) The doctrine of predestination is associated particularly with Christianity, but also occurs elsewhere; in Islam,* e.g., during its scholastic period, the orthodox position was strongly predestinarian, but some theologians stressed free will (the Mutazalites). In the first centuries of the Christian Church, predestination was not an issue. Theological energy was taken up with definitions of the Trinity and arguments regarding the nature of Christ. In the Orthodox Churches this has remained the case (with minor exceptions: notably Cyril Lucar in the 1500s).

In the Western Churches the issue was raised (as imperial rule in the West tottered) by Pelagius, who taught that man had the freedom to accept or reject God. This was countered by the great theologian Augustine,* who held that man’s will was enslaved by sin, that grace was needed to choose for God, and that this grace was given to those whom God had predestined. The Augustinian position was upheld by the Synod of Orange (529)—but by this time the barbarian invasions were in full swing, and there was little talent or time for theology. An aftermath to the Pelagian controversy occurred in the age of Charlemagne*: the monk Gottschalk* held (apparently) that God actively willed the nonelect to be damned, a position which was rejected (Synod of Quiercy, 849).

The medieval revival of learning, from around 1050, produced schools and universities in abundance. Theology was held to be the “queen of the sciences,” the key to the understanding of reality. The task of the Schoolmen, or Scholastics, was to reconcile Christianity with the newly rediscovered heritage of classical philosophy; in a sense, to harmonize reason and faith. By the late 1200s, after Peter Lombard,* Bonaventura,* Albertus Magnus,* Thomas Aquinas,* and a host of other scholars, the task seemed completed, briefly, with several Scholastic systems, differing in detail, available. Predestination generally was handled in the context of God seen as Supreme Intellect, who predestined on the basis of His foreseeing the choice the individual would make (for God, all temporal things are “present”; He is outside time).

But this “solution” was soon attacked. With Duns Scotus, and especially with William of Ockham* and his followers in the 1300s, God was seen as Sovereign Will, and the problem of predestination shifted. How can man’s choice be free, if foreseen? How can God be called fully sovereign, if He is bound to follow a future which is already determined? How can God bind His will in advance? The tangled controversies which followed seemed to raise insoluble questions. There were reactions: Thomas Bradwardine* revived a rigid Augustinian view, stressing divine predestination as basic to an ordered universe. From a different vantage point, John Wycliffe* and John Hus* stressed election as a key theological concept and viewed the church as the community of the elect, those already saved, rather than the source of desperately needed aids to salvation.

The Protestant Reformers followed this emphasis also. Luther,* Zwingli,* Calvin*—all held to predestination, the true church as made up of the elect, the enslavement of the will (e.g., Luther against Erasmus*), the need for unconditioned grace to enable a choice for God. Yet this strongly Augustinian approach did not escape criticism. In the Lutheran churches the fierce “synergistic” controversy of the later 1500s resulted from Melanchthon’s* attempt to save some role for the human will. Similar debates arose in Calvinism over the teachings of Arminius (condemned at the Synod of Dort,* 1618-19). Scholastic refinements in Protestant theology brought further disagreements: the Calvinist quarrels between sublapsarian* and supralapsarian* theologians, the controversy in the Huguenot* churches over Amyraut’s teachings, and the like. As Protestant Scholasticism declined during the 1700s and Pietism arose to regain a “heart-felt” religion, the question arose in Methodism: John Wesley favored “Arminianism,”* George Whitefield* a “Calvinist Methodism.”*

In postmedieval Catholicism the issue flared up several times. The Council of Trent,* though avoiding a definitive stand, leaned toward a Semi-Pelagian* position. The teachings of Luis de Molina (d.1600) aroused much controversy, with Jesuits tending to support, and Dominicans oppose, his complex attempt to give man’s will a role in the process of salvation. Around the same time, Baius* at Louvain, followed by Cornelius Jansen, returned to a rigid Augustinian. Jansenism* produced a notable controversy (Port-Royal, Pascal’s* defense of Jansenism, etc.) which finally produced a minor schism (the Old Catholic Church* of Utrecht, from 1713).

As interest in traditional theological argument faded into the background in the 1800s, the problem appeared in other areas. If the universe is determined by scientific law, how can man have free will? If man’s actions are not in a sense determined by such law, how is any political science or economic science or science of history possible? If heredity and environment determine actions, how can the courts punish a man (for doing what was predetermined)? And the like. In the twentieth century, Karl Barth’s* revival of a Scholastic Calvinism has raised again the theological issue of predestination. Barth attempts to cut through previous controversy by stressing God’s election of man in Christ (which perhaps involves some sort of universalism).

In summary, predestination and the debates about it deal with a recurring problem, whether in theology or in other fields: the relation between man’s freedom and a universe which seems in some sense determined.

Bibliography: J.B. Mozley, A Treatise on the Augustinian Doctrine of Predestination (1855); L. Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (1932); M. Luther, On the Bondage of the Will (ed. J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston, 1957); P. Maury, Predestination (1960); H.G. Hageman, Predestination (1963).