This Ferocious Doctrine



“The predestination of saints,” Augustine of Hippo wrote, refers to the “foreknowledge and the preparation of God’s kindnesses, whereby they are most certainly delivered, whoever they are that are delivered.”[1] The unpalatable corollary is that those who are not so chosen remain in their sin and are eternally lost. This “ferocious doctrine,” as Bertrand Russell called it, would form the basis for Calvin’s decrees of divine election and rejection.

Augustine had a personal stake in this doctrine. His youthful indiscretions, on which he looked with considerable disdain, made the abruptness and intensity of his later conversion experience seem all the more puzzling. How, on his own, could he have pulled off such a dramatic turnaround?

The Bishop of Hippo had a simple answer: he could not. Man had lost his freedom to choose in the Fall. No longer could he look back on any given action and truthfully say, “I could have done otherwise.” Fallen man must sin, not because he is compelled by external forces against his will, but because his will leads him inevitably to do what is evil in God’s sight. This is the lesser freedom of “voluntary necessity”: it is the capacity of a moral agent to act on his desires, and nothing more.  Man in his corrupted state has just enough freedom to be held accountable for his sins.[2]

According to Augustine, the journey of faith cannot begin without divine intervention. The Spirit of grace must work directly on a person’s soul to inspire true belief and righteous living.

Not everyone, however, will be the recipient of divine favor. Some will be shown the light of reason, and others will not.  God will choose in a manner that is both inscrutable and unconditional: an individual’s thoughts and actions can have no influence on this decision whatsoever.

Further, God foreknows whom he predestines to believe. This is not a case of God simply foreseeing a person’s decision to become a Christian, or foreseeing an inclination to obedience and faith. Rather, God knows who will believe because He has individually, unilaterally and unconditionally pre-selected those persons for salvation. Anything less, it is alleged, would diminish God’s sovereignty.

[tab:The Monks Rebel]

The Monks Rebel

Augustine’s theory staked out a radical position among the early Church Fathers. Previously, as Gerald Bray contends, “God’s call to salvation was generally understood to be universal. The fact that not all responded was their fault entirely and the result of a deliberate choice on their part.”[3] Nonetheless, Augustine held tremendous sway over the Latin-speaking church. He could impose sanctions on his opponents through the Bishop of Rome and western emperors. His critics on the issue of predestination—Pelagius, Celestius, and Julian of Eclanum—had to seek refuge in the Greek-speaking east.

Pelagians, as they came to be known, ran afoul of church politics. If they were right, Adam’s sin had left the essential nature of human beings untouched and his children in a state of innocence. If Augustine was right, infants inherited the sins of all who had gone before. A child’s death, if it should precede baptism, would consign his soul to everlasting hell. For Julian of Eclanum, the new doctrine did nothing to preserve God’s power and everything to erode His goodness. By sending “tiny babies to eternal flames,” the Augustinian God was guilty of crimes “hardly conceivable even among the barbarians.”[4]

It was one thing to disagree on the finer points of theology; it was quite another to question a tradition going back to the time of Cyprian, and possibly even earlier.[5] To challenge original sin was to undermine the most recent rationale for infant baptism. The emerging “catholic” church could never tolerate the division that might result from a reconsideration of such a popular practice. Augustine’s arguments may have been hard to swallow, but at least they maintained the status quo.

Bad ideas, however, have a habit of creating more problems than they solve. The monks of Hadrumetum provided the first warning signs. They were not in league with the Pelagians. They did not deny original sin, or question infant baptism. But they digested the words of Augustine and decided, with impeccable logic, to ignore the rebukes of their abbot. After all, if a monk was behaving badly, but had been chosen by God for salvation, then neither monk nor abbot could change that fact. A year later, in AD 428, monks in southern Gaul began to raise questions as well.

Augustine may have won the political battle, but he began to lose ground among ascetics who had chosen, or thought they had chosen, to perfect themselves in a life of self-denial. If Augustine was right, why fight the good fight and run the race (2 Timothy 4:7) if God had His own reasons for choosing who would, and who would not, be saved? Why strive to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1) without the assistance of divine grace? Why go out into the world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19) if this was completely out of their hands? How could God command “all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30), and desire “all people to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4), and not really mean it?

Of course, Augustine had his answers.[6] Rebuke is Scriptural and good for us, he insisted. Preaching is the means by which a divinely prepared soul may hear and believe. And yes, God really wants to save “all people” while actually choosing only a few. None of this really helped the monks. Nothing in the grand sweep of Scripture matched the unrelenting pessimism of the Bishop’s writings on predestination. Nor did it help God’s image. At the very minimum, Augustine’s God was either weak or lazy: He wanted to save everybody but selected only a few. By contrast, on the Biblical view, the fault rests squarely on man’s willing rejection of the Master’s invitation (Luke 14:16-24).

[tab:A Distorted Lens/Endnotes]

A Distorted Lens

At the core of unconditional election is a misreading of the Bible’s teaching on predestination. Using the choosing of the apostles (John 15:16) to buttress his understanding of Romans 8:29-30, Augustine makes the following claim: “God elected believers; but He chose them that they might be so, not because they were already so.”[7] Just as Jesus chose each of His apostles, not the other way around, so God chooses each believer. In other words, on this view, predestination occurs at the level of the individual.

However, once we remove the distorted Augustinian lens, the meaning of the passages comes into view. We see, for instance, that Jesus was electing His apostles to office, not to salvation (see John 15:26-27). As for Romans 8:29-30, Augustine is quick to jump ahead to the next chapter where God chooses Jacob over Esau. But again, this is election to service, not to salvation (9:12).

Further, we see that God “prepared beforehand” (i.e., predestined) the lump of clay that would become the vessels of mercy to which both Jews and Gentiles would be called (9:22-24). An individual Christian is predestined only inasmuch as he is part of that lump, part of that called out body of believers (i.e., the church). He is foreknown, inasmuch as God always knew that there would be a church for him. He is elect, inasmuch as he is part of God’s holy nation. What was chosen unconditionally was the corporate body, the church of the New Covenant.[8]

None of what we read in Romans excludes the participation of human will. Indeed, the apostle exhorts his brethren to self-sacrifice and transformation (12:1-2). When we go back to chapter 8 we see that the Christian’s future glory (vs. 30) is conditioned on his love for God (vs. 28). This love means little or nothing if it has to be created in us by God, without our bidding.

We reject unconditional election because it mishandles specific passages and fails to take the whole of God’s counsel into consideration. And besides, the doctrine is tempting only if we accept the first premise. Without total depravity, nothing else follows.

[A version of this article, titled “Unconditional Election,” appeared in Gospel Advocate, June 2009, pp. 17-18.]


[1] Augustine, On the Gift of Perseverance, 14.35 (AD 428/9).

[2] Augustine, Against Fortunatus, 22 (AD 392).

[3] Gerald Bray, editor. Romans. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1998, p. 233.

[4] As quoted in Peter Brown. Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley: University of California, 1967, pp. 391,392.

[5] E.g., Cyprian, To Fidus (c. AD 252); also Apostolic Tradition, 21 (c. mid-2nd century).

[6] Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace (c. AD 426/7).

[7] Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, 17.34 (c. AD 428/9).

[8] James Burton Coffman. Commentary on Romans. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1984, pp. 298,304.


© 2009 – 2011, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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