Providence and Predestination 2: Predestination

Yesterday I blogged about providence, highlighting the difference between this teaching and that of predestination, providence being the notion that God is in control of all of human history to work his own ends.

Predestination, on the other hand, is a related concept but distinct and has to do with theological anthropology, not human history at large. The doctrine approaches the question of human salvation in relation to two tricky concerns — the absolute grace of God that justifies the human person and human responsibility.

The pre-Augustinian position which is held by the Eastern churches to this day as well as some Protestants, and which was maintained by many of the ecclesiastics in southern Gaul against Augustinianism (the Gallic Chronicle of 452 refers to ‘the heresy of the predestinationists’ while also opposing Pelagianism) draws upon a specific reading of Romans 8:28-30:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to thsoe who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. (New King James Version)

Although he is not a Church Father, my preferred explication of these verses from a non-Predestinationist view (‘Arminian’ in modern terms) is John Wesley, who, like Origen and Hilary of Poitiers and Ambrosiaster as well as the young Augustine before him, sees God’s foreknowledge as being the prerequisite to the predestination. God in his infinite wisdom sees all of human history, and he sees those who will have a natural turning towards Him; to these who are already inclined to love Him and put faith in Him, He gives His grace to help them turn more fully to him, thus predestining them for salvation due to His divine omniscience. (See here:

John Cassian, the monastic founder in Marseille, also addressed this issue ca. 435 in the 13th book of his Conferences. He sets out a vision of predestination that says that all humans have enough of the original image of God in them (fr. Gen 1) that they are able to turn towards God, yet God does not withhold His grace from them, but rather provides this grace to help those who have started to turn to turn all the way. In the early modern period, this view was wrongly termed ‘semi-Pelagian’, and others who share it with Cassian are Faustus of Riez (who is a shockingly insistent rigorist when it comes to post-baptismal sin; some excerpts of Faustus’ letters are in an appendix to Ralph W Mathisen’s TTH book Ruricius of Limoges and Friends) and Vincent of Lérins (Commonitorium).

Boniface Ramsay, in his commentary to the Ancient Christian Writers translation of the Conferences calls Cassian’s view ‘semi-Augustinian’, interestingly enough. These people are often called Massilian because of their southern Gallic origins; they resist both extreme Augustinianism and Pelagianism. I have sympathies with their enterprise to do justice both to God’s grace and human responsibility/freedom. I’ve blogged on Cassian and this issue before.

Augustine’s view started to shift, largely through confrontation with Pelagians such as Julian of Eclanum, while he was Bishop of Hippo. There is a fully-fleshed vision of Augustinian predestination that would be pressed after his death by supporters such as Prosper of Aquitaine and enshrined at the Council of Orange in 529 (albeit local councils do not have universal jurisdiction; the Council of Orange is therefore not binding for the western Church in terms of developed Canon Law vs. certain early modern Protestants; the canons are here: This is the version most people think when they hear ‘Augustine. Predestination.’ The teaching is that the human will is fallen and cannot of itself turn towards God, therefore grace is necessary for every step of human salvation, including good deeds.

Pelagius is somewhat in fashion these days; he was a presbyter in Rome who, upon hearing a line of Augustine’s, was a bit worried that people would slip in moral laxity if they simply relied on grace with no works for their salvation. While the current scholarly consensus is that he was not an exponent of the heresy that bears his name, Pelagianism, to put it crudely, is the teaching that the human will is not actually fallen, and that we all do bad stuff simply because of bad examples. If we had truer knowledge, we would be able to will properly and thus live properly. Since God’s grace would nullify free will, Pelagianism teaches that we do not receive any and that it is up to our own work to become holy and attain to salvation. The best description of Pelagianism I have read is in A M C Casiday, Tradition and Theology in St John Cassian.

Over time, and through controversy both with Pelagians and the Massilians, Augustine’s view on predestination was moderated, as seen in his tract On Grace and Freewill (available in the Ancient Christian Writers translation series from Paulist Press). This latter piece argues almost for both positions — humans are responsible, yet we rely entirely on God’s grace. Augustine will still lean more towards grace alone, but he makes room for compromise with people such as Cassian.

In response to rumours of Pelagians at large in northern Italy, Leo the Great sent his first, second, and eighteenth letters, saying:

And since they pretend to reject and put aside all their definitions to help them sneak in, they seize on this with all their art of deceit, unless they are understood, that the grace of God is felt to be given according to the merits of the recipients. Which, of course—unless it were given gratis—is not grace, but payment and recompense for merits: as the blessed Apostle says, ‘You were saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves but it is the gift of God, not from works, lest perhaps some be exalted. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared that we may walk in them.’[1] And so every bestowal of good works is a divine preparation: because no one is justified by virtue before grace, which is the beginning of justice, the fount of good things, and the origin of merits for one and all. But by these men, therefore, it is said to be anticipated by that innate industry so that which was clear by its own zeal before grace, seems not harmed by any wound of original sin; and it is false which Truth said, ‘For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save that which had perished.’[2] -Ep. 1.3, my trans.

[1] Ephesians 2:8-10.

[2] Luke 19:10.

For information, the official stance of the Anglicans on the issue is:

Predestination to Life is the everlasting purpose of God, whereby (before the foundations of the world were laid) he hath constantly decreed by his counsel secret to us, to deliver from curse and damnation those whom he hath chosen in Christ out of mankind, and to bring them by Christ to everlasting salvation, as vessels made to honour. Wherefore, they which be endued with so excellent a benefit of God be called according to God’s purpose by his Spirit working in due season: they through Grace obey the calling: they be justified freely: they be made sons of God by adoption: they be made like the image of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ: they walk religiously in good works, and at length, by God’s mercy, they attain to everlasting felicity.

As the godly consideration of Predestination, and our Election in Christ, is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh, and their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth greatly establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God: So, for curious and carnal persons, lacking the Spirit of Christ, to have continually before their eyes the sentence of God’s Predestination, is a most dangerous downfal, whereby the Devil doth thrust them either into desperation, or into wretchlessness of most unclean living, no less perilous than desperation.

Furthermore, we must receive God’s promises in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture: and, in our doings, that Will of God is to be followed, which we have expressly declared unto us in the Word of God. (Article of Religion XVII)

To close, if any Pelagians happen upon this blog, I am open to clear explications of the Pelagian position. However, I will not suffer ad hominem attacks on myself, my intellect, or St Augustine. If you troll, your comments will be removed.


10 thoughts on “Providence and Predestination 2: Predestination

  1. Two things come to mind, and I’d love your thoughts. One is that St. Ignatius says, in passing, in his Exercises, not to tell beginners how much grace is involved in their sanctification, lest they be lazy, and which you cite above as a worry Pelagius shared.

    And the other is the lovely line “No one comes to me but the Father draw them.” (John 6:44 (paraphrasing) and somewhere else, too, but I don’t remember where). Intriguing to ponder.

    One consideration (my own opinion, as far as I know, and therefore not worth much) is that different people need different sorts of encouragement. It’s not much good telling a person who lays about watching TV all day that God’s grace is the main factor in their salvation/sanctification, and instead would benefit from being told to get their lazy behind in gear and turn their life around. Whereas someone who is struggling mightily and devoutly to live their faith – perhaps struggling so much that they confuse their own efforts with God’s grace – might benefit from being told to recognize the immense power of grace and stop trying to run the show and take credit for everything.

    • Thank you for your posts on providence and predestination (I hope you have one or two more on the subject.) I once heard an Eastern Orthodox priest say in response to the question, “What must I do to obtain salvation?”—“Everything and nothing!” There is something about the theological imprecision of his response that makes it appealing. Salvation is a gift we must receive. We need grace even to receive the gift offered. To God be the glory.

    • Hi Ona,

      Thanks for these thoughts. I think the concerns of Loyola and Pelagius are worthy concerns. One of the shocking events in my life was as an undergrad when a fellow-student expressed the attitude that since we’re all saved by grace, she and her boyfriend could have sex every night with no problem. Such grace abuse is the ugly, illegitimate child of Luther and one that Bonhoeffer attacks head on in the first chapter of The Cost of Discipleship.

      I like the John verse as well.

      Finally, I think the pastoral implications of all doctrines are definitely worth considering. The couch potato needs to be shown the Epistle of James, while the overspiritual worry-wart (if you will) needs to be reminded of the absolute loving, saving grace of God. So, I like your idea.

  2. “The doctrine [of predestination] approaches the question of human salvation in relation to two tricky concerns — the absolute grace of God that justifies the human person and human responsibility.”

    My understanding,of the Orthodox approach to the question of the relationship between the quantity and quality of God’s work and our work in salvation is meager and incomplete. Nonetheless, as I understand it, it rests upon a paradigm of union not balance or tension or percentages or equilibrium. In other words, it is not a problem to be solved so much as a Mystery to be embraced. Salvation is “fully God and fully man.” Theanthropos — the God man. Jesus is not only the Way, He is the icon of saved man and mankind which is the union of God’s effort and our own. Man’s effort fits, like the Russian nesting dolls, inside God’s effort but is essentially united with it and essential to the actualization of the Divine effort.

    So, there is a sense in which the Eastern Orthodox approach and the Western Protestant approach are like ships missing one another in the night because they approach the whole question from different paradigms.

    Once again, I could be wrongly stating it but that is how I understand so far. If I have wrongly stated or understood, forgive me. Lord have mercy.

    • Hello, Lazarus.

      I think you are right that much contemporary Protestantism and Orthodoxy are like ships passing in the night on the question of the relationship of faith/grace and works. I think your vision of the Orthodox approach has much to commend it. It will save us from being spiritual couch potatoes like some Protestants I know while also avoiding those overconcerned Christians who fear that they aren’t doing enough to be saved, such as pre-Reformational Luther. I also believe that, articulated clearly and non-offensively, it would actually fit with a lot of confessional Protestants who have yet to throw out their Reformational heritage. 🙂

    • I really appreciate what Lazarus wrote about the relation between grace and works. It is not a problem to be solved, but a Mystery to be embraced, a Life to be lived. The “actualization of the Divine effort” is the Life we live in Christ. I suspect that life is far more exciting and rewarding than having sex all day, if we only experience it. 🙂

      Speaking as one of the “spiritual couch potatoes”, I think it’s a mistake to say that our laziness is caused by the doctrine of sola gratia. It would be like saying that, because all men were given a free gift of life as part of the Creation, without them having to work for it at all, they would all lay around and do no work. It that’s true, we would all still be living in caves.

      If I may draw a parallel between the Old and the New creation in Christ, Christians are given the Gift of Eternal Life, without works ( they can no more earn the Gift than they can earn their own existence). The grace of salvation through Christ is different from what man received in the old creation, just as Christ is different from Adam. Pelagius’ heresy, IMO, is that he confuses the two, and essentially denies the Divinity of Christ. I think that’s why St. Augustine was so adamant in battling against his doctrine.

      • Thanks for your thoughts! I, too, appreciate the approach to grace and works that sees it as a mystery to embraced. I think that sola gratia cannot be accused entirely for our laziness as well — traditional Presbyterians with their fervent belief in the sovereignty of God are also some of the ‘hardest-working’, upright Christians you’ll meet. I think some people just abuse the notion, possibly due to insufficient catechesis (a theme I bring up not infrequently!).

        As far as your comments on Pelagius are concerned, I’ll have to think on it. You’re probably, in fact, right — the standard Pelagian explanations of salvation leave no need for the Cross, from what I’ve read. This is one area I need to sharpen my knowledge, though. Thanks again, Nemo.

      • I only knew of Pelagius through St. Augustine’s writings. It seems to me that they have significantly different notions of “grace”. If I understand him correctly, Augustine believes that the relation between grace and freewill is not either/or, but both or none. It is because of God’s grace that Man becomes a living being with free will. God’s grace underlies the very nature and existence of a Christian, who is nothing and do nothing apart from grace. How anyone can argue that grace nullifies free will is beyond me.

  3. Thank you for your kind critique of my offering. I, and my family, are finding that the “third place” is where we are being invited to live. It is a place where the mysterious “both/and” rather than the “either/or” regarding such matters as faith and works provides space in which to faithfully grow in our discipleship. It is a space/place whose population is increasing.

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