The Tension Between Divine Grace and Human Freedom
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ: even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blemish before him in love: having foreordained us unto adoption as sons through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, which he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved (Ephesians 1:3-6).
This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4).
One of the most contentious and long-lived disputations in the history of “Christendom,” particularly in the West, involves the tension between divine grace and human freedom. The Scriptures speak both of a sovereign God who is able to accomplish His will and human beings who are called upon to serve and obey Him. The disputations involve how these two realities relate.
Everyone in all the disputations has affirmed that God is sovereign and has provided grace to mankind, and that mankind has some type of free will. But can man’s free will invalidate or alter God’s will? If God is sovereign, does that mean that His will is absolute? If God’s sovereign will is absolute, is it necessary for God to have predetermined who would be saved and who would be condemned? How far does God’s grace extend? Can man really come to God in the first place, or is God entirely responsible for man’s regeneration? What is the relationship between God’s will and God’s foreknowledge? Can God predestine the elect to salvation without predestinating the rest to condemnation? How can God desire all men to be saved and yet have some be condemned?
Western “Christendom” has been disputing the answers to these questions for over 1,500 years. The discussions have been complicated immensely by the perspectives and presuppositions of those who have participated in them; any attempt to come to an understanding of these disputes must also take into account the philosophical presuppositions of their participants along with their perspectives of those who came before them. Many times the arguments have more to do with the worldviews of the disputant and his traditional loyalties than they do with what the Scriptures have revealed on the subject.
Let us attempt, as best as we are able, to navigate through the dispute as it transpired over a 1,500 year period. In so doing we will confront oversized personalities in “Christian” theological history and the doctrinal consequences of misplaced confidence in shaky theological premises. The story of the dispute involving divine grace and human freedom always has as much to do with the theological climate of the day as it does with the message of the Scriptures. The dispute has value in expressing not just what is right and true about how the Scriptures present divine grace and human freedom, but also in avoiding excesses and imbalances that come about from overemphasizing one attribute to the detriment of the other.
Fatalism, Responsibility, and Foundations: 100-400
Significant disputations about the relationship between divine grace and free will are not recorded until the disputes of Augustine with Pelagius in the early fifth century. Other, more pressing issues consumed the energies of “Christendom” in the first three centuries after the Apostles.
One of the most significant and most pressing needs in those first three centuries involved a strong defense of the claims of Christianity against the paganism of the Roman Empire. Greeks and Romans of the day had lost much of their confidence in their gods, and were more resigned to fate. In Greek and Roman mythology, the only all-powerful forces were the three Fates: even Zeus and the other gods were subject to them. Human responsibility and freedom were entirely undercut by these impersonal forces of fate and fortune in popular thinking. This not only deeply influenced the paganism of the day but even the heretical opponents of Christianity; many Gnostic groups held strong beliefs regarding original sin and man’s subjection to destiny. In the pagan worldview man was not responsible for his fate—it had already been decreed, and he was merely acting out the role assigned for him.
Since most of their pagan neighbors maintained a very fatalistic worldview, the first Christian apologists strongly emphasized man’s responsibility and free will. Many worked diligently to show that even though God had foretold the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, His accomplishments were not based on fate. Judgment was the fate that awaited all mankind, and judgment was based on the decisions that men and women made. While God certainly foreknew what would take place, such did not cause men to act as they did. These were the positions of Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Origen in the second and third centuries. Even Augustine, who in general strongly overemphasized God’s sovereign will and divine grace to the detriment of man’s free will, established against the pagans that man did have free will, even if, in his mind, it was subject to God’s grace. Fatalism, therefore, was universally denounced, and in the early centuries, man’s free will and responsibility were emphasized in order to oppose it.
Another significant disputation that began at this time involved the nature of Jesus as the Christ. In the disputes regarding the nature of humanity, the very nature of humanity and sin were brought into question. The fact that God the Son, the Logos, took on flesh, indicated that flesh could not be intrinsically evil, according to Athanasius and others. The universality of death on account of Adam’s fall was fundamental, not the idea that sin was inevitable. While most would resolve the contradiction between original sin and Jesus’ incarnation with the idea of the immaculate conception, focusing on the Son taking on flesh indicated that “original sin” involved the inheritance of a nature, not actual sin. Since the Logos took on flesh and “progressed” or “developed” in obedience, man also could progress and develop godlike attributes, and thus was not intrinsically evil These emphases led eastern “Christendom” to come to vastly different conclusions about grace and freedom than the West.
Meanwhile, other doctrinal developments were being established that would have significant bearing on future discussions of grace and freedom. Beginning in the middle to late second century, some of the churches began baptizing infants. Not long after it gained notice from Tertullian: he considered it an unnecessary novelty. Infant baptism was never well-grounded in the Scriptures, but beginning with Origen in the middle of the third century, it was considered to be an “apostolic” practice. He attempted to base the practice on John 3:5 and the necessity of baptism in order to enter the Kingdom, even though he could find no justification for saying that infants had sinned.
Tertullian, who considered infant baptism an unnecessary novelty, nevertheless laid the groundwork for the other doctrinal development of the day: the concept of original sin. Tertullian spoke regarding the condemnation of man that followed from partaking of the fruit of the tree in Genesis 3:1-23. He considered Adam as the “pioneer of sin” (Exhortation to Chastity 2.5). Since he saw no value in infant baptism, it is hard to say that Tertullian truly believed in what would be called “original sin.”
The groundwork, however, had been laid: Tertullian spoke of the condemnation that came about because of Adam, yet found no value in infant baptism; Origen believed infant baptism to be an apostolic practice, but could not justify it in terms of atonement from sin. Cyprian, a few decades later, began the synthesis by arguing that infant baptism ought not be delayed since “being born physically according to Adam, he has contracted the contagion of the ancient death by his first birth” (Letter 64.5).
Ambrose of Milan, Augustine’s mentor, added another piece in the middle of the fourth century. Based upon the developing idea of original sin, and David’s expression of iniquity from birth in Psalm 51:5, Ambrose provided a different perspective on the virgin birth of Jesus. Jesus’ sinlessness was based, at least in part, by His birth from a virgin: He did not contract original sin since He was not conceived in the normal way. Thus the doctrine of the immaculate conception was born in order to justify Jesus’ sinlessness in the face of the promotion of the doctrine of original sin that justified the practice of infant baptism. These three beliefs–infant baptism, original sin, and the immaculate conception–would strongly influence Augustine’s view of man and therefore his perspective on the matter of grace and freedom.
Augustine and Pelagius (400-430)
The dispute over grace and freedom per se was invented in the conflict between Augustine and Pelagius in the early fifth century. The rest of the history of the dispute flows from this original conflict.
For better or for worse, Augustine of Hippo is the most influential person in “Western Christendom” outside of the Bible. His intelligence and literary output was rarely matched; from his death until now he has been venerated by many denominations. Augustine’s writings defined the discussion of grace and freedom in the West until 1600, and have significant bearing on the discussion even until this day. Calvinism and its TULIP acrostic simply represent a sixteenth century resurgence of Augustinian doctrines.
His positions were highly influenced by his path and his worldview. His mother was a believer, but he did not initially accept Christianity. In his younger days he was a Manichee; later, through the influence of his mother and Ambrose of Milan, he converted to Christianity. For a long time he accepted the tenets of Neoplatonism, the popular modified version of Platonism developed in the third century CE, as his philosophical bridge from Manichaeism to Christianity.
Before we can understand Augustine’s view on grace and freedom, we must understand the two streams of thought that converged to create it: Augustine’s view of man and Augustine’s view of God.
Augustine’s view of man derives from his conclusions based upon the virgin birth and original sin. As established above, Ambrose his mentor established the concept of the immaculate conception from the virgin birth. It was a short step for Augustine to come forth with the inverse of Ambrose’s claim: if Jesus was born without the taint of original sin by the virgin birth, so mankind in general is subject to original sin on account of the means of their procreation. In Augustine’s synthesis, all of mankind inherited sin from Adam through being born of the sexual union, and thus started off condemned unless saved through God’s election and infant baptism. From his Manichee and Neoplatonic background, he believed that the source of evil was the absence of good, and the absence of good comes from human sin, which was passed down to each person through Adam.
Since humanity is sinful and condemned from the beginning, according to Augustine, man is incapable of coming to God. The doctrine of total depravity, therefore, derives from Augustine’s justification of infant baptism by the doctrine of original sin and the immaculate conception.
Augustine’s view of God derives from his singular emphasis on God’s sovereignty. God is omnipotent, and therefore His will must be done. God is not under compulsion to do anything; therefore, anything He does represents a gift–or grace–to those upon whom He bestows it. The creation is an act of grace. The atonement is an act of grace. Everything that God provides is grace.
In Augustine’s view, therefore, God’s omnipotence and sovereignty means that His will must be executed, and therefore reality exists by His will. There can be nothing that He did not will; Augustine never let go of the Neoplatonist belief that God is the absolute cause of everything.
When Augustine’s view of man and Augustine’s view of God meet, the result is the Augustinian view of divine sovereignty and grace: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints, even if Augustine did not describe them in as many words. God is completely sovereign, and therefore what He wills must take place. The Bible describes that man has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory; God must have willed it. The Bible indicates that some will be saved and others will be condemned; God must have willed it. Thus we have not just the doctrine of “predestination,” but in fact “double predestination”: if God is sovereign and His grace is sovereign, according to the Augustinian synthesis, then God has already willed who will be saved and who will be condemned. It was considered anathema to believe that Christ’s sacrifice could be in vain for anyone; therefore, Jesus’ blood was shed only for those whom God predestined as the elect. God would draw the elect to Him in His church, and by His sovereign power they were definitively saved.
These views were all conditioned by Augustine’s belief in God’s unchangeability and impassibility, and were extreme, to say the least. Augustine would not entirely deny that man had free will, considering it part of the “order of causes” in divine prescience: man may freely choose to make the decisions he does, but God knew of them in advance and, in effect, willed them also. To Augustine, it was impossible for man to alter or change God’s will, and it was contrary to God’s omnipotence for Him to in any way adapt His will on account of the decisions of man. After all, in that situation, God is bending to man, which simply could not be.
Augustine’s logic is stark and consistent. Augustine established that God predestined some to condemnation to manifest His wrath and to demonstrate His power (Exposition of Genesis According to the Letter 11.8). Infants who were not baptized were consigned to hell. When pressed on the matter on a theological basis, he demurred, saying that it was a great mystery why God would redeem some and consign others to condemnation. In all things, divine grace was the basis, not human merit or action.
Augustine’s views were troubling to many, and one of the first to take exception was Pelagius. Not much is known about Pelagius: he and the doctrines that would later be considered under his name were often abused and maligned in later literature, and it is difficult to explain exactly what he believed.
Pelagius was a British monk who was universally respected for his piety. He traveled to Rome and even met with Augustine once in Africa and seems to end up in the east by the end of his life. Pelagius was concerned that Augustine’s emphasis on divine grace weakened Christian obedience and relegated man to being a puppet in the divine play.
Pelagius perhaps, but certainly Pelagianism, taught that man needed to become perfect. Jesus made the command in Matthew 5:48, and it was believed that if God made the command, He expected His followers to be able to carry it out. Sin was a personal issue: each man would be responsible for his own sins. Man was not only able but expected to respond to God’s commandments and to follow them. Pelagians would not deny election, but believed that it was based upon God’s foreknowledge of those who would believe.
The flash point of the controversy involved the difference in the definition of grace between Pelagius and Augustine. To Pelagius, it would seem that grace involved God’s gifts through nature and therefore man’s ability to turn to God that God granted him by his nature. To Pelagius, a disparagement of nature was a disparagement of grace, and Augustine’s view of the corrupted nature of humanity and creation certainly represented a disparagement of nature. Augustine understood grace as the knowledge of, joy in, and capacity to will that which is good; to Pelagius, grace involved the ability God gave man to will and to act, but to will and to act involved man’s will alone.
Thus, to Pelagius, Augustine’s view of original sin might as well have been a restatement of pagan fatalism. If man was not free to decide, then he bore no responsibility. In the Pelagian perspective, original sin did not mean the actual transfer of sinfulness, for sin required a decision to do the evil.
As Augustine overemphasized divine grace, so Pelagius’ followers, at least, overemphasized man’s freedom. According to Celestius, a disciple of Pelagius, Adam would have died had he sinned or not, and mankind was not at all tarnished by Adam’s sin. Not all of mankind dies on account of Adam’s transgression. Furthermore, the law and the Gospel both lead to the Kingdom, and there were persons without sin before Christ.
Eastern Christendom did not really understand what all the fuss was about. Much of what Pelagius and the Pelagians taught could be reconciled with eastern church fathers. Furthermore, since Pelagius et al maintained Trinitarian orthodoxy, those in the East had little difficulty with them: in the Synod of Lydda-Disopolis in 415, Pelagius was officially considered orthodox in his beliefs.
The West was not exactly prepared for the disputation that was taking place. Orthodoxy versus heresy had previously involved questions of Christology, the nature of the Godhead, or the nature of the church; the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius involved none of these. In the end, however, Pelagius’ and the Pelagians’ opposition to the concept of original sin ended up being their undoing. Infant baptism had become entirely enmeshed in “catholic” orthodoxy. Even though Pelagius affirmed the validity of infant baptism, testifying with Origen that it allowed infants to enter the Kingdom, the authorities of the day agreed with Augustine that original sin was the only sufficient justification for the practice of infant baptism. The Synod of Carthage of 418 condemned Pelagianism, and one of its canons involved the need to confess original sin as the reason for infant baptism. Celestius was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431, and thus Pelagianism, as a whole, was condemned. Augustine seemed vindicated.
Initial Reaction to Augustine (420-530)
The condemnation of Pelagianism did not mean a wholesale acceptance of Augustinianism. Augustine had gone well beyond the contours of Christian tradition, not only eastern but also western, in his views on predestination and the irresistibility of grace. Opposition to Augustine’s views came not just from the Pelagians but also from fellow “Christians” who shared many of Augustine’s views on grace. This opposition would later be called “Semi-Pelagian,” but such labels are not very helpful, since they do not accurately represent the beliefs of the critics.
Augustine accepted that there were many “brethren” who disagreed with him yet were not themselves Pelagians. They agreed with him on almost everything but his view on predestination. They would not deny that man had fallen in Adam’s sin and required God’s grace to be redeemed.
The most prominent of these critics were John Cassian, Vincent of Lérins, and Faustus of Riez. Augustine found proponents in Prosper of Aquitaine, Caesarius of Arles, and later in “Pope” Gregory the Great. While his proponents could not understand how his critics could not accept the necessary conclusions of God’s sovereignty and grace, his critics returned to the Scriptures to point out problems in Augustine’s positions.
Augustine’s critics clearly perceived how Augustine overemphasized divine sovereignty and grace to the detriment of human will and responsibility. As Faustus said, “through the pages of the Scriptures sometimes it is the power of grace and at other times it is the assent of the human will that is asserted” (On Grace 1.13). The critics perceived the tension in the Scriptures between divine grace and human freedom, yet did not believe that this tension should be resolved in the favor of either over the other.
Augustine’s doctrines seemed just as fatalistic to his “orthodox” critics as it did to Pelagius. In Augustine’s view of divine sovereignty, God wills evil and God wills sin. Yet, above all, Augustine’s concept of “double predestination” could not be immediately reconciled with Paul’s statement to Timothy that God willed for all men to be saved (1 Timothy 2:4). Augustine’s doctrines meant that God did not really will for “all men” to be saved, merely “all the elect.” In time, proponents of Augustine would argue just that: when Paul speaks of “all men,” they would say, “he really means ‘all the elect,’ since the elect involves persons from every gender, nation, and class.”
Augustine’s doctrines also questioned the value of preaching. Augustine did teach that God predestined Judas for condemnation while predestinating the rest of the Apostles for the Kingdom. If all of this happens according to God’s will alone, why bother preaching to anyone? God will save or condemn them regardless. Why, in fact, should anyone pray, anyway? God’s will is going to be accomplished regardless of your prayer, and in Augustine’s view, there is no reason to believe that God would change His will, either before or presently, because of your petition.
In short, Augustine’s critics clearly perceived a fundamental flaw in Augustine’s reasoning: he was so carried away by the “logical consequences” of his view that he departed from God’s actual revealed will. Augustine’s presuppositions about the way God “must be” did not square with how God actually revealed Himself to be according to the Scriptures.
Augustine’s extremely dim view of humanity was also criticized. Paul indicated that some Gentiles, by nature, did what God required (Romans 2:14); this required man to have some ability to come to God’s truth.
According to John Cassian and others, the Bible provided plenty of examples of people who, by their own will, turned to God, including Zacchaeus and the thief on the cross. Yes, the Bible also described accounts of God calling persons, like Matthew and Saul/Paul. One could not so easily confine the working of God to a specific system like Pelagianism or Augustinianism.
Augustine’s proponents would point to God’s secret counsel to support their positions, but did not really find good arguments to combat the critics of their teacher. They could not be tied to the Pelagians. On account of this, many of the early Augustinians felt compelled to moderate some of their teacher’s more extreme views, and bring Augustinianism back into the fold of “catholic orthodoxy.”
To do so, Augustinians affirmed the universal will of God for salvation by positing that every soul does hear the Gospel in some form and those who will be condemned, in some way or another, refuse it. Their refusal would free God from having decreed their condemnation arbitrarily. While Augustine would disallow God’s prescient will from being bent by His foreknowledge of man’s actions, Prosper of Aquitaine would say that predestination to condemnation was based in God’s foreknowledge of their impenitence. The “essential rule of faith” would not be God’s eternal predestinating will, but God’s universal will for man’s salvation. Predestination was relegated to a “more profound and more difficult point” of theology that was not necessary to describe God’s grace (Prosper of Aquitaine, Call of All Nations, 1.25).
The end of the first round of disputes on the tension of grace and freedom came with the Synod of Orange in 529, whose decrees relied heavily on Prosper’s Book of Sentences from the Works of St. Augustine and Caesarius of Arles’ On Grace. In this synod, essential Augustinianism was vindicated, but not every tenet that Augustine taught. There was a lack of clarity on the relation between predestination and the universal saving will of God, and while Caesarius’ writings would lead to the conclusion of double predestination, he did not do so in establishing doctrine for the church; instead, the Synod anathematized anyone who would teach predestination to condemnation. The Synod also affirmed that baptized believers can be obedient to salvation. Nevertheless, in all instances, God’s grace was affirmed over human will: no one comes to God by their own will, but all come by gifts of divine grace.
The Synod of Orange did not fully justify Augustine, but it certainly did not affirm his opponents, either. Augustinianism, by in large, became official Catholic teaching. His specter would always loom over the discussion to follow. For the next millennium in “Western Christendom,” all disputants speaking on grace and freedom would invoke Augustine. Both sides in every dispute would claim Augustine. Augustinianism became the framework for the entire discussion. When everyone seeks to be more like Augustine than his opponent, the outcome is really without doubt.
From the Synod of Orange to the Reformation (530-1500)
While Augustinianism, by in large, ended up representing the doctrines of “Western” Christendom, it would not be so in the east. By the time of Augustine it was evident that Christianity was dividing into two spheres: the “western” sphere, which looked preeminently to Rome and involved the Latin-dominated lands of Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and North Africa, and the “eastern” sphere, which still looked to historic patriarchates and involved the Greek-dominated lands of Greece, Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt.
Much of Augustine’s works were not translated into Greek until much later. Furthermore, there were strong tendencies in eastern patristic authors toward “Pelagian” or “Semi-Pelagian” views, strongly affirming man’s free will. Since there is no Augustine-like figure in eastern “Christendom” that strongly asserted God’s sovereignty and divine grace, there was no real dispute in the east like there was in the west. Yes, Pelagianism was officially condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431, but such was probably more of an accommodation to Rome and the West; Photius preserved the meeting articles of the Synod of Lydda-Diospolis of 415, justifying Pelagius, and these enjoyed more popularity in later days in the east. Furthermore, disputations on the question tended more toward the opposite end of the spectrum, with John of Damascus opposing the duality of the Bogomils and Manichees.
Therefore, there was no difficulty for Maximus the Confessor in the seventh century to affirm that “the Spirit does not generate a will that is not willing,” but “a will that has the desire” (Questions to Thalassius on the Scripture, 6). Photius, two centuries later, could say that “God never does violence to the power of free will” (Amphilochia, 1.24). Salvation depended on man’s own will. Yet this was not sheer Pelagianism; Photius established that salvation presupposed union and collaboration between grace and freedom. This is made evident in the confession of Jesus having two wills, the human and the divine: if the human will did not align with the divine will, Jesus would not have been the willing sacrifice required by Isaiah 53:1-12. In the east, Christians freely held to both divine grace and human freedom, did not see a contradiction between the two, and refused to emphasize one over the other.
They were able to do this despite believing in infant baptism and original sin. The reason for this–one which would be tested by interactions later with Reformation churches–was the belief that original sin was really “ancestral sin,” sin that needed atonement but which did not hinder free will or God’s inherent goodness. While it would seem discordant to hold to both original sin and free will, the Eastern Orthodox continued to maintain both beliefs. Free will was too necessary and profound, and the idea that a good God could be responsible for an evil nature was anathema.
The dispute regarding divine grace and human freedom, therefore, would be a heritage of “Western Christendom” only. And forces were at work in the early medieval period that would set the tone for the discussion for many years.
The decision of the Synod of Orange vindicated most of Augustine’s doctrines regarding divine grace and human freedom, and while it anathematized the idea of “double predestination,” it never went so far as condemning or censuring Augustine himself for holding the position. This lack of condemnation would have serious implications for the future.
Augustine’s reputation as perhaps the greatest theologian since Biblical times was solidified by the writings of Prosper of Aquitaine, Caesarius of Arles, and “Pope” Gregory the Great, who, as with the Synod of Orange, confirmed what they approved of Augustine’s teachings and mollified or minimized his more difficult teachings.
The two hundred years from the death of Gregory until the Carolingian Renaissance (roughly 600-800) were extremely difficult times in the Western world. Hordes of invaders came through, little hope of political unity existed, and people were simply trying to survive. During this period, the writings of Augustine himself were not as well known as were the Sentences of Prosper and the discussions of Augustine’s ideas in Gregory’s works and others. During this period, Augustine’s greatness was being exalted without any consideration of the difficulties of some of his doctrines.
On account of this, when theologians returned again to Augustine’s actual writings during the Carolingian Renaissance in the ninth century, they happened upon his view of “double predestination,” yet without having much indication that Augustine had gone beyond orthodoxy in presenting the doctrine. Therefore, in the bitter disputes between Hincmar of Rheims and Gottschalk of Orbais, the issue involved what Augustine “really taught.”
Gottschalk, along with his supporters, Ratramnus, Servatus Lupus, and Florus of Lyons, affirmed, on the whole, Augustine’s view of divine grace and human freedom. Gottschalk went so far as to deny mankind the ability to do anything good beyond God’s grace, a position his supporters even did not defend. People must have some type of free will so that they are without excuse.
Gottschalk accepted Augustine’s view of God entirely: God is the ultimate cause, God is impassible, and God does not change. God’s will could not be altered in any way; therefore, all which took place was already determined by God.
Hincmar, Rabanus Maurus, and others attempted to make room for free will and to condemn the concept of double predestination. In their view, God’s predestination did not compel anyone. Free will was sluggish, but it still existed. Hincmar accepted the same definition of God and predestination as Gottschalk, yet defined predestination as distinct from God’s foreknowledge. Hincmar followed Prosper of Aquitaine, asserting that God’s predestination was based in His foreknowledge of who would believe and who would not believe, and therefore Hincmar attempts to extricate Augustine from the negative implications of double predestination: punishment of sin is predestined, not the sinner. Gottschalk and others denied this, because if God’s decision were on human merit, it could not be by grace. Gottschalk also argued that since God is timeless, to speak of foreknowledge would be inaccurate: there would be no interval between God knowing and God deciding. Hincmar’s attempt to extricate Augustine was also seen as just an evasion: predestination “of” punishment was not to be distinguished from predestination “to” punishment.
The entire discussion was hindered with texts being cited that were really psudepigraphic; the views of Augustine and others was that much more difficult to ascertain in the midst of competing documents teaching different things.
During the discussion, Florus of Lyons set down “seven rules of faith,” that God’s foreknowledge and predestination is eternal and unchangeable, no act of God was not foreknown and foreordained, God did not foreknow some but foreordain others, good works belong to the creature in a way that are altogether the works of the Creator while evil works are foreknown but not predestined, and God did not impose necessity on anyone by His foreknowledge and predestination” (On Three Epistles 1-3). Such “laws” were designed to maintain Augustine’s views of divine grace while attempting to free God from being responsible for evil deeds and imposing on free will.
Another participant in the discussion, aligned with Hincmar, was John Scotus Erigena, who argued against double predestination as being against reason as it was against Scripture and tradition. His approach was quite philosophical for the time. He was willing to compare various authorities with each other, including Augustine in that mix, and was quite taken with the eastern fathers. He would be condemned for his philosophical leanings, willingness to question certain authorities, and his Greek-leaning views, especially on the possibility of universal salvation. Nevertheless, he demonstrates that when and if one could get beyond Augustine and consider other sources, one would recognize the great difficulties that Augustine’s doctrines created.
It is not surprising that Gottschalk and his supporters would, on the whole, fare better than Hincmar, considering that no one was willing to question whether Augustine truly spoke for “the faith” with his doctrine of double predestination. But the one matter of difficulty for Gottschalk and his supporters involved “limited atonement.” The Bible made very clear statements about Christ’s blood being able to atone for all sin, and while it was generally displeasing to believe that Christ’s blood would be “wasted” on anyone, it was hard to square the idea that Christ’s blood was shed only for a few with the Bible. Nevertheless, Gottschalk and Florus devised different sets of categories of “redemption,” and in so doing attempted to demonstrate that all New Testament passages could be understood as saying that Christ’s blood was shed only for the elect. The real problem was the value of sacraments: Augustine himself championed the efficacy of sacraments, and to believe that baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the other “sacraments” developed by Roman Catholicism were useless for those who were really unregenerate would undermine the authority of the Church. Gottschalk conceded that the grace of baptism would forgive anyone’s past sins, but since it does not redeem from future sins, would not change the judgment of the condemned.
Hincmar convened a synod of his supporters at Quiercy in 853, codifying his understanding of divine grace and human freedom. In 855, a synod at Valence condemned Quiercy and affirmed double predestination instead, and this was confirmed in 859 at a synod in Langres. It was alleged that the pope, Nicholas, affirmed the synod at Langres and the belief in double predestination and limited atonement, but this has never been able to be confirmed.
The dispute of the ninth century was the first of many flashpoints over the doctrine of divine grace and human freedom that focused more on what Augustine taught than what the Bible really said. It is not surprising that when the issue became focused more on Augustine, the pendulum swung more toward Augustine’s perspective, and it would stay there for the next 800 years. Had the Synod of Orange or Gregory or some other respected individual censured Augustine for his “double predestination” as, say, Origen was condemned for his belief in eventual universal salvation at the second Council of Constantinople, the dispute might have turned out quite differently.
Nevertheless, the disputes of Hincmar and Gottschalk opened up the issues of the nature of Christ’s atonement and the nature of the authority of the fathers. The former issue would be taken up with Anselm and others in the eleventh century, and it is beyond the purview of our discussion to consider it in detail; the latter would be better analyzed and systemized by the Scholastics of the thirteenth century, who would set forth the neo-Augustinian doctrines that Luther and Calvin would pick up.
The period between the ninth century and the thirteenth century did not see much in the way of disputations on divine grace and human freedom, but there were many who continued to try to “work out” some of the issues. Some in the eleventh century found no room for human will in man’s salvation. Anselm of Canterbury, on the other hand, saw grace working alone on behalf of infants, but saw “natural free will” assisting with those who were more “mature.” Anselm also facilitated a type of reconciliation of predestination with God not being the author of evil by asserting that God caused deeds but not the evil in them. Predestination was not incompatible with freedom, because God can foreknow sin without forcing man to sin, and God is timeless anyway. Nevertheless, the eleventh century’s focus was more on the free gift of atonement in Christ than on the particular question of the relationship between that grace and human freedom.
The thirteenth century was the great age of the Scholastics, men who worked diligently to systematize religious matters. Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, and others took the fruit of Augustine, Anselm, and others, and presented the first coherent form of systematic medieval theology. Part of their task involved systemizing the various presentations of the discussion of divine grace and human freedom.
The Scholastics, following Hincmar, understood predestination in terms of foreknowledge: God did not predestine people to sin, but foreknew that they would reject His grace. Nevertheless, these same Scholastics went along with Augustine’s more “mature” judgment that God’s predestination did not have its determination in human merit, despite the tension between these two views. Divine predestination was not seen as placing constraints on free will. God did not harden people’s hearts. God, as being unchangeable, has already determined who will be the elect. Thomas Aquinas attributed predestination to the divine intellect; Bonaventure attributed it to the divine will.
The Scholastics also had to wrestle with Augustine’s “double predestination” viewpoint. Pseudepigraphic works of Augustine were brought into the discussion as in previous disputes. God’s predestining persons to condemnation was not seen as a positive act of election as much as a negative act permitting condemnation. The Scholastics followed after Hincmar, asserting that the punishment for sin was predestined, not men for that punishment.
Why God chose some men for redemption and let others be condemned was one of the mysteries that men would not be able to understand, but it was nevertheless accepted as true. Even though God loved all men and wished all some good, he did not wish the same good to all men, and the decision was of “His own accord” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica 1.23.3).
Another innovation of the Scholastics involved answering the challenge of 1 Timothy 2:4 and God’s desire for “all men” to come to the truth. While using the same answers as before, the Scholastics also appealed to different forms of God’s will: it was God’s “antecedent” will for all men to be saved, which is relative to man’s decisions, and not his “consequent,” or fixed and absolute, will.
The Scholastics, in attempting to systematize the faith, found recourse to the same types of arguments that Hincmar put forward four hundred years earlier. No one sought to deny the mantle of Augustine, but it was clear that his doctrine of double predestination did not sit well with most theologians.
The discussions did not end with the Scholastics. The period leading up to the Reformation (1300-1500) involved another phase in the discussion, this time swinging back more toward Augustine’s original intentions. While Thomas Aquinas and others were more amenable to Hincmar’s attempts to reconcile Augustinianism with “Catholic orthodoxy,” later theologians felt more compelled, for various reasons, to more strongly emphasize Augustine’s perspectives.
Other issues were clarified. Duns Scotus focused on the concern that predestination in some way confined God’s freedom. To do so, he argued that God, being the first cause, caused things to take place by contingency, not by necessity, since God always had the freedom to not predestine anything. Mankind is confused about God’s freedom because we do not understand how God is timeless: strictly, no divine act is in the “past,” and God can freely will as He desires now as if He never had predestined anything.
Yet what of divine foreknowledge of future contingents? Both divine knowledge and future contingents stood without abolishing the other, as Giles of Rome attempted to explain, contra the Scholastics, who felt that contingency and necessity only involved “lower” and not “higher” causes.
Scotus, by placing divine will as the centerpiece of his definition of predestination, could establish God’s foreknowledge as immutably necessary without being deterministic. The foreknowledge of God’s intellect did not compel God’s will to be determined; therefore, Scotus would deny that God predestines election or condemnation based on foreknowledge of man’s actions.
It should be noted that throughout this discussion we have focused on the dispute as it was carried on in the writings of various monks, scholars, and theologians of the day. We have less information about what the “common believer” thought about divine grace and human freedom. Nevertheless, based upon the information in the writings of many theologians in the fourteenth and fifteenth century, it is apparent that many believed and/or were teaching views that were considered “neo-Pelagian.” The exact contours of this “neo-Pelagianism” is not known, but it meant that there were many who were willing to emphasize human freedom—or, at the least, not relegate it to obscurity.
Thomas Bradwardine and Gregory of Rimini represent those who returned to strict Augustinianism, advocating double predestination, and with Scotus, that predestination was entirely by divine will without consideration of human merit. The “absolute sovereignty of God” was again being emphasized.
Even the forerunners of the Reformation, John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, thought highly of Augustine. Wycliffe added a new dimension to the discussion, one that would feature prominently in the Reformation: the concept of the church as the congregation of the predestined, contra the definition of the church as the institution governed by the pope that the Roman Catholic church promoted. Wycliffe promoted Augustinian double predestination to the point of fatalism, going so far as to say that Adam’s sin was “necessary” because it led to the exaltation of man in Christ. He did believe, however, that one could only be part of the church if he or she did so by their own free will. Wycliffe also emphasized that even though no one could really know if they were elect or reprobate, each believer had the obligation to hope that they were part of the elect, even if they were, in truth, deceived. The reprobate would be condemned regardless of whatever “virtue” they had; the elect would be saved regardless of their sinfulness. These emphases would return in the Reformation.
As in discussions past, the nature of man’s free will vexed theologians in the fourteenth and fifteenth century. They used the Scholastic delineations of “wills” to address 1 Timothy 2:4. Bradwardine went so far as to say that God commanded intercession for all men because of all the “simple people” who believed that God’s will could be changed by their prayers and that they would be forgiven of their ignorance and their good intentions. After all, as Augustine had said, the church prays for all men but God only hears them for the elect.
Yet perhaps the oddest development in the discussion during these times was put forward by William of Ockham, who combined free will and determinism into what could be considered “deterministic semi-pelagianism.” In this synthesis, the main problem of divine grace and free will—that man could somehow negate God’s will—was resolved by saying that while God did predestine all things by His will, He did so in a way that did not negate human freedom. “Predestination” and “reprobation” were not realities unto themselves, but to God, who “caused” each person’s ultimate destiny.
The dispute involving divine grace and free will, while seeing developments in definition and argument, was in not much different of a state at the time of Gregory’s death as it was when Luther nailed his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Augustine’s doctrines were ascendant, even if there was widespread discomfort with double predestination. Ideas of theologians and the faith of the “common man” may have been quite different. Yet the direction of the dispute was changing, as Wycliffe and Hus made evident. This change would be made quite evident in the Reformation.
The Reformation and Its Consequences (1500-1715)
Momentous changes came upon western “Christendom” in the sixteenth century, yet the reasons for these changes have been reinterpreted as time has gone on. It has become popular to venerate Luther and Calvin and others for standing up against the Roman Catholic church, and many wonder why it is that Luther and Calvin did not go “further” in their changes.
Yet, at the time, there was no desire to be novel or innovative. Luther especially had no intentions of establishing his own church, but sought to call the Roman Catholic church back to doctrines and beliefs for which it once stood, at least in his opinion. The Reformation was not designed to be a departure from “catholic orthodoxy”; instead, it was designed to be an affirmation of it. Therefore, far from disputing the validity of Augustinian theology, both Luther and Calvin wholeheartedly embraced it. As with before: when the intention is to vindicate traditions and beliefs, it is not surprising to see those traditions and beliefs strongly promoted by its adherents.
While John Calvin and his doctrines are truly representative of Augustine’s views on divine grace and human freedom, Martin Luther was just as strongly influenced by Augustine. He perceived Pelagianism as the perennial heresy among Christians and spoke despairingly of his Pelagian theological instructors.
Luther’s disputes with Desiderius Erasmus focused heavily on the question of man’s freedom. Erasmus, by asserting that man has free will, appealed to the authority of tradition; to Luther, he was no better than a Pelagian. Erasmus attempted to frame his view of free will in Augustinian terms, and considered Luther’s doctrinal heritage to be the Manichees and Wycliffe.
While the medieval theologians were uncomfortable with Augustine’s perspective on human freedom, Luther sought to swing the pendulum fully toward it. Human will, while not evil by nature, was “innately and inevitably evil and corrupt,” and not able to “strive to whatever is declared good” (Luther, Disputation against Scholastic Theology, 8-11). While Augustine, when pressed, would concede to the idea that the sinner commits sin by his own free will, Luther would not concede as much to Erasmus: humans act almost entirely by necessity , since free will was “nothing,” not able to accomplish anything good, and was confined to “natural matters” like eating and drinking. He would later feel compelled to moderate himself, sensing the legitimacy in the claim that he was reviving Manichaeanism in order to condemn Pelagianism.
Luther remained wedded to original sin and total depravity even after moderating his views. Adam’s sin had so corrupted the divine image in man that it was almost entirely lost: Luther’s introduction of the idea of man in the “image of the devil” led later Lutherans to posit that original sin involved the loss of the image of God for the image of the devil! Adam’s sin now was no longer just the loss of righteousness but was, in fact, the acquisition of evil! Against the claim of Manicheanism, they claimed that the difference was that they posited this depravity after the fall, not in the creation.
Luther’s views were extreme because he was arguing against the perceived Pelagianism in others; Philip Melanchthon would later feel compelled to mediate between Luther’s and Erasmus’ views of free will, and to take the edge off Luther’s view of the sin of Adam. Debates within Lutheranism regarding these matters would continue, with later Lutherans striving to disengage from either Manichaean or Pelagian extremes.
It would be left to Calvin to put forth strong positions on both divine grace and human freedom, but Luther set the stage by “out-Augustining” Augustine in matters of human freedom. Nevertheless, while Luther’s doctrines would inevitably lead to a position of double predestination, he found little value in contemplating the doctrine: God’s hidden will should remain hidden. To consider predestination would lead either to despair or presumption.
Where Luther would not go, Calvin would. Through his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin set forth the complete Augustinian position in regards to divine grace and human freedom. He affirmed all what Luther taught regarding human freedom, and paired it with confessing Augustine’s double predestination theology.
According to Calvin, as with Augustine, God has an eternal will, to which the eternal destiny of all is referred. God as sovereign Lord decides by His will who will be saved and who will be condemned, and does so without consideration of what humans will do. Romans 9:1-23 featured heavily in Calvin’s theology; Paul strongly affirms God’s sovereign will. The life and death of Christ were all by God’s will and counsel: the divine will decreed condemnation just as it decreed life. Foreknowledge involved God’s omniscience, but predestination was God’s eternal decree “by which he has decided within himself what he wills to happen to each individual human being” (Institutes, 8).
Yet Calvin was acutely aware of the determinism that could be seen in Augustine’s positions, and set to disentangle foreknowledge, providence, and predestination from it. Predestination involved God’s ultimate goals; providence included intermediate goals. God has but one will; therefore, God as much condemns the reprobate as much as He justifies the elect, a feature of Augustinian doctrine not emphasized since Augustine. Why does God do so? As with Augustine, so with Calvin: that is His business, and who are we to question God?
Furthermore, Calvin found any distinction between “divine action” and “divine permission” frivolous. His devotion to the concept of God as sovereign to the point of the cause of everything meant that one could not distinguish what God allowed from what God did, for they were one and the same. Calvin was willing even to attribute God’s active predestination to Adam’s sin and the consequent need to condemn “so many peoples, together with their infant offspring” (ibid., 3.23.7).
It is in Calvin that Augustine found his most faithful and dominant proponent, and one whose influence was widespread. The Reformed churches directly proceed from him and his teachings in Geneva; John Knox took Calvinism and converted Scotland to Presbyterianism. English Protestants fleeing from Mary Tudor ended up in Reformed lands; when they returned to Britain, they agitated for Calvinist belief systems, wrote the Westminster Confession, and were known as Puritans. The Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession were Calvinistic documents; the later Synod of Dort would encapsulate Calvin’s (and Augustine’s) doctrine into the familiar TULIP acrostic: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Reformed churches, Presbyterianism, and the descendants of Puritanism all held to the Calvinistic viewpoint. Calvin guaranteed that the dispute regarding divine grace and free will would continue in Protestantism.
Calvin’s exaltation of Augustine’s doctrines, however, also led to the first significant questioning of that tradition in a millennium. While the Roman Catholic church never felt compelled to explicitly censure Augustine for his views on double predestination, and many theologians in that tradition taught little differently on the issue from Calvin, the fact that the Protestants had entirely taken the doctrine over led to significant backpedaling from Catholics. When viewed through polemical lenses, double predestination now seemed to most Roman Catholics as fatalism. Calvin would attempt to argue that the necessity of sinning did not come from compulsion from God but from the fault of man’s will. Roman Catholics also argued that Calvin’s doctrines would lead to moral laxity, since one’s salvation was not dependent on what one did; prayer would also be useless since God has fixed everything anyway. Furthermore, a major problem existed within the Calvinist (and Augustinian) system: confidence in salvation. Calvin exhorted people to trust in their election, yet, based on his doctrines, there would be no basis in that trust without having knowledge of God’s hidden will. Against Calvin’s exhortation for certainty, Roman Catholics asserted the fact that no one can know with complete certainty that they have received God’s grace.
The Roman Catholic church felt compelled to attempt to “rescue” Augustine from both Lutherans and Calvinists. They attempted to establish that Augustine was against both Pelagius and the Manichees, and was not so anti-Pelagian as to again fall into Manicheanism, as the Protestants had done. Yes, man’s will was impaired by sin, but it still existed. God’s grace did not compel or coerce—free consent was necessary for justification. There was no antithesis between grace and free will, or grace and merit, as the Protestants posited. Roman Catholics again returned to the idea that God’s predestination does not impose necessity. On the whole, it is quite interesting that the very arguments offered against Augustine by his fifth century critics, later chastised in medieval literature, were now being offered by the Catholics against Calvin and his fellow Protestants.
Yet some of the strongest opposition would develop within the Reformed community itself toward the end of the sixteenth century and in the beginning of the seventeenth. Jacob Arminius, a Reformed theologian, began to doubt some of the legitimacy of the Calvinist synthesis. His beliefs would be put forth in confessional form by adherents after his death in the Remonstrance of 1610. To Arminius, human will had to be free, in some real sense, from “fatalistic necessity.” Calvinist predestination undercut both God’s and man’s freedom, and was equated with Stoic fatalism and Manichaeism. Arminius agreed with Calvin that God foreknew future contingents, and He was also free to do as He willed for His creation. Likewise, God’s grace was undeserved and unmerited, but it was not irresistible. If grace were irresistible, God’s offer for reward for obedience and punishment for immorality were vanity. Arminius recognized that the distinction between what God willed and what God allowed was essential—God did not will evil, but permitted evil to allow man to be free. Hardened hearts were due to the impenitence of sinners, not divine initiative.
Furthermore, God’s counsel should not be understood deterministically, as Calvin did. According to the Remonstrants, Jesus was the Savior of the world, and His death was for all men: a rejection of limited atonement. It was left for Wesleyans, however, to realize the full import of this, that God’s will was a universal will of salvation.
Calvinists responded to the Remonstrant attack with the Synod of Dort, attempting to refocus the issue on God’s sovereignty, and having all Scripture understood in those terms, especially 1 Timothy 2:4. Christ only reconciled the elect, not the whole world. God’s mercy did not infringe on God’s justice. The Calvinist mindset could not imagine the divine will ever being frustrated in its designs.
Yet unlike before, opposition to Augustinian Calvinism continued and was sustained. The dispute was no longer Augustine vs. Pelagius; it was now Calvin vs. Arminius, Calvinists against Arminians. John Wesley would be greatly influenced by Arminius, and Methodism represented one of the strongest Arminian churches. The disputation would not be as one-sided as it had been in medieval times.
The seventeenth century involved the same disputations as the sixteenth. Calvinists responded to Roman Catholic and Arminian arguments with the same responses that had been in use for generations.
Yet even within Calvinistic groups solidarity was not to be found. While double predestination was a satisfactory conclusion to many, others felt that predestination did not contain reprobation, and only referred to election to life, since Scripture never speaks of the condemned as “predestined” to that conclusion. To answer this, theologians of the day used the theology of God’s decrees as posited by Calvin and concentrated on how God executed His decrees. The Bible, in this view, demonstrates God’s execution of decrees, and not the decree as such.
Against Catholic, Arminian, and Lutheran arguments that God’s predestination was determined based on His foreknowledge, Reformed theologians attempted to establish that faith was the effect of God’s sovereign choice, not its basis or efficient cause, and used Christ Himself as an example.
The relation of the Fall to predestination was also an issue; many were not comfortable with Calvin’s assertion that God actively willed mankind to sin. To counter this, some posited that while God is timeless, and His will is eternal and unchangeable, God’s decree of election did take into consideration of Adam’s sin, since redemption was the response to Adam’s transgression.
This period of time also saw developments in covenant theology among Calvinists. Focus on covenant as demonstrating God’s predestined choice went back to Calvin. God is faithful at keeping His covenant, redeeming the elect and condemning the reprobate. The covenant of grace leads to the sanctification of the elect. As God chose Israel and not other nations, so now He chooses the elect, and not other persons. Martin Heidegger made “election” and “covenant” synonymous. The Westminster Confession made the covenant concept authoritatively binding on Puritan churches. Jonathan Edwards made Calvinism and covenant the basis of his theology, and federal/covenant theology would have great impact on American religious development. Election, therefore, was considered part of ecclesiology as much as soteriology.
The Roman Catholic church was also sorting out its position on the issue. Cornelius Jansen protested the perceived Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism in the Roman Catholic church, demonstrating Augustine’s doctrines clearly in his posthumously published Augustinus. In 1653, Pope Innocent X issued Cum Occasione, officially proscribing extreme Augustinianism. Michael Baius came forth with a strongly Augustinian position on divine grace and free will, and set off another round of discussion on the issue. Pope Pius V, in 1657, condemned his propositions. Baius and Jansen were attacking previous works by Louis Molina and others who were trying to promote, at some level, free will. While it may seem that the Roman Catholic church was strongly moving away from extreme Augustinianism, the magisterium still exhorted that no one condemn any other on the basis of the question of divine grace and human freedom.
Yet the problem of the inconsistent traditions on the question caused great difficulty. Previous testimony was garbled: Augustine had his detractors, the Synod of Orange condemned part of Augustine’s teachings without condemning Augustine, and both sides of the dispute claimed all these traditions for themselves. The Council of Trent had enshrined Thomas Aquinas’ definition of grace, which preserved essential Augustinianism while making room for free will. Nevertheless, the conflict continued: Molina and Suárez against Baius and Jansen, rehashing the same arguments that had gone on since the fifth century. Nevertheless, all of them condemned Calvin for his extremism.
The dispute had gone on long enough. The process that began with Cum Occasione continued, and by 1715, the teaching office of the Roman Catholic church was actively speaking against Jansen and his neo-Augustinianism. This opposition led to the creation of a dogmatic sect within the organization: Jansenism had become not just a doctrinal position, but a movement within the Roman Catholic church.
The Dispute in Europe (1715-Present)
The eighteenth century involved many watershed moments in the history of Europe and of its religion. The philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment reaffirmed man’s capacity to reason, and the questions it would raise would define the conflicts within Christianity for the nineteenth century and beyond.
The dispute over divine grace and human freedom, however, continued on as before. Jansenist Catholics and Calvinists shared no love for one another, and yet both held to Augustine’s perspective. The dispute was also present within the Church of England: Puritans tended to be more Calvinist, while the rest of the Anglicans tended more toward Arminianism.
The emergence of so many different positions on the matter of divine grace and human freedom led to confusion in terminology. Terms like “Pelagianism” and “Manicheanism” had been thrown around throughout the life of the dispute; “Semi-Pelagian” was now being used in various senses by various people. It was one thing when there were factions within the Roman Catholic church; now there were Molinist, Jansenist, and Quietist factions in the Roman Catholic church, along with Puritanism, Methodism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Pietism among Protestant groups.
Two developments in the dispute both involve the Pietist movement. This movement actually began in the seventeenth century, but much of its fruit came in the eighteenth. Pietism stressed the conversion of the individual believer and a focus on developing personal faith. Its stress on the individual prepared the way for the Enlightenment in many ways; focus on personal belief also served, among many, to undermine a strong emphasis on divine grace. The Pietist movement was trans-denominational; as such, many who could agree on Pietist principles could still disagree on matters of divine grace and human freedom.
Pietist theology strongly influenced John Wesley in the latter part of the eighteenth century, and he was one of the founders of Methodism. Methodism would become one of the strongest defenders of the Arminian position, although its influence was felt more strongly in America than in Europe.
Yet it would be the Enlightenment and its consequences that changed the face of the discussion. In general, the Enlightenment saw the reassertion of reason as the primary authority among men, and involved a much more optimistic view of humans and their capacity than had been seen beforehand.
Enlightenment philosophy, therefore, stood to undermine the doctrine of total depravity that was almost universally accepted in “Christendom.” For this and many other reasons many of the religious groups of the day were quite skeptical about the philosophy.
Scotland was abuzz at the time with great developments in thought and science, called the Scottish Enlightenment today. This included Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid, who advocated for “commonsense moral reasoning,” the belief that God’s intentions for man and his morality could be discerned without appeal to traditional authority, and could, in fact, be perceived through investigation of human nature. Such a view militates strongly against the idea that man is incapable of truly knowing the good without divine assistance, and sections of Presbyterianism of Scotland in the middle of the eighteenth century drifted away from its Calvinist heritage. This belief system would become extremely popular in America in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The Enlightenment represented a strong challenge to “historic” Christianity. Long cherished beliefs that previous generations could take for granted were now being questioned. The idea of one continuous and overall harmonious history of Christianity was torn to pieces. The Old Testament was being subjected to historical criticism and found wanting. Jesus Himself was not beyond question: it is at this time that the idea of the “historical Jesus” began to be separated from the “Jesus of faith.”
The political consequences were also immense; Europe saw the French Revolution come and go, Napoleon defeated, and constant tumult, exemplified in riots and insurrections in 1848.
In this climate many denominations returned to more conservative positions. In Scotland, Presbyterianism as a whole returned to its Calvinist heritage: Presbyterians there in 1840 believed the same things as did those in 1690. The same was true in Northern Ireland. Commonsense moral philosophy, beyond the University of Glasgow, found few European adherents.
Meanwhile, in the face of historical criticism, the subjective and personal aspects of faith were emphasized. During much of the past two hundred years, disputes on faith involved matters more weighty than divine grace and human freedom, instead focusing on whether the New Testament truly reflected Jesus and the early Christian movement, and whether miracles did, in fact, happen. It is not as if the dispute regarding divine grace and human freedom had been solved; the same arguments were being made by opposing sides, but the field of conflict had moved to entirely new and different areas.
The twentieth century also saw the rise of the ecumenical movement and attempts to emphasize that which denominations agreed in common. In order to do so, disputations were minimized. It should come as little surprise, therefore, that the dispute over divine grace and human freedom did not progress in many meaningful ways in Europe over the past two centuries: bigger issues were at stake, and the denominations were not as keen to emphasize points of disagreement as much as points of agreement. The relativist influence in postmodernism has also led to the minimization of doctrine among many denominations.
Faith in Europe was sinking. It would be in America that the dispute would maintain its liveliness.
The Dispute in America (1715-Present)
In the period before the American Revolution, the various denominations in colonial America were very much like their European counterparts. While the Calvinist heritage was being minimized by Presbyterians in Scotland, American Presbyterians emphasized it. Almost everyone agreed that man had little role in his own salvation and that he was entirely dependent on God.
The Puritans of New England represented the most coherent theological force in colonial America, and they were staunch Calvinists. Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the most famous of them, worked to “modernize” Calvinism in the face of the developing Enlightenment philosophy, working out an “experiential” Calvinism. Yet, in his emphasis on conversion and willingness to move away from the strong covenantal stream of Puritan theology, he unwittingly paved the way for the undermining of Calvinism in America.
Edwards was one of the forces behind America’s first “Great Awakening” in the middle of the eighteenth century, a realization of Pietist influences in America. Its immediate consequences led to greater Calvinist influence on the country, and stronger ties to the English Reformed heritage. Yet even during these times, many were uncomfortable with Calvinist doctrine, especially among Anglicans.
Nevertheless, colonial American theology represented, by in large, conservative European theologies. Eighteenth century America did not see many great changes in theology; it is notable, however, that the changes that did take place involved groups of Puritans rejecting Calvinism (with many becoming Universalists, Freewill Baptists, or Shakers in the process).
The tumult caused by the American Revolution and its immediate consequences led to the profound shift in American theology in the nineteenth century, and these changes led to a quite different environment for the dispute over divine grace and human freedom. The Augustinian conception of divine grace and human freedom could not provide sufficient answers for the problems of the day: the “commonsense moral reasoning” of Hucheson and Reid, combined with fervent evangelical pietism and attachment to republican principles, did. “Commonsense moral reasoning,” with the presupposition that the individual could understand intuitively what was right and wrong based upon the self-evident standard of “common sense,” provided a means of justifying Christianity without recourse to the traditional authorities that had previously supported it. Since nineteenth century America was deeply mistrustful of any form of inherited authority, Christianity justified by an appeal to “common sense” would gain greater legitimacy than any appeal to European authorities.
Since the entire Augustinian/Calvinist concept of divine grace and human freedom were based in man’s inability to come to God and that mankind was sinful from birth, any idea of man being able to intuitively understand what was right would inevitably lead to friction. It was on this very basis that the Puritan Calvinists of the middle eighteenth century rejected “commonsense moral reasoning,” but by the nineteenth century it represented the presupposition of almost all Americans. Without a dim view of humanity, and without the shelter of inherited tradition, Augustinian Calvinism lost the traction that it held in Europe and had previously held in colonial America.
This led to a momentous shift in theology and doctrine in America, and the Restoration movement exemplified the trend.
Barton Stone grew up during the Revolutionary War, and was exposed to most of the historic Protestant churches in America. He eventually ended up as a Presbyterian minister, but the tenets of Calvinism never entirely appealed to him. During the revivalistic campaigns that took place on the frontier from 1796-1803, especially with the Cane Ridge, Kentucky revival in 1801, Stone became convinced of the need for faith as a prerequisite for conversion and that salvation was open to all who would accept it. For his “Arminianism,” his association with the Kentucky Synod of the Presbyterian church was severed in 1803. He and some who agreed with him then formed the Springfield Presbytery, yet later concerns would compel them to disband it the next year, issuing the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, a call to return to the primitive New Testament church. His movement was known as the Christian church.
Yet it is the story of Alexander Campbell that serves as a microcosm for the momentous changes taking place in American Christianity. Alexander was the son of Thomas Campbell, an Ulster Scot living in Northern Ireland, himself a son of an Anglican French and Indian War hero. Thomas found little value in the “establishment” within Anglicanism, and became a minister of the Seceder Presbyterians. He affirmed Calvinist viewpoints but despaired of the divisions among Christians. His work toward reconciliation eventually forced him to leave Ireland for America, where he remained among Seceder Presbyterians for awhile. Thomas’ beliefs were moving him toward antiestablishmentarian views, and he was removed from the Seceder Presbyterians in 1808. The next year he put forth the Declaration and Address, a call to no longer accept man-made creeds, but to believe the Bible alone. Nevertheless, he maintained his Calvinist beliefs for the time being.
His son Alexander, meanwhile, grew up in the Calvinist Presbyterian tradition, and, on the whole, accepted it. At 14 he had grave doubts regarding whether infants were damned. In 1808, Campbell spent the winter at the University of Glasgow where he was exposed to the same teachings regarding commonsense moral reasoning that his father had learned and which was playing such a major role in American developments. He also was greatly influenced by reforming work of the Haldane brothers in Scotland, who pushed for autonomous congregations, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and a return to the Bible only. These influences led Alexander to repudiate his tie with the Seceder Presbyterians while in Glasgow.
Alexander joined his father in America the next year, just as the Declaration and Address went to press, and both were pleased at how they were reaching similar conclusions independently. Nevertheless, they both continued advancing Calvinist teachings until the winter of 1811.
Alexander had been distressed about the idea of infant baptism for years, and when he learned that his wife Margaret was pregnant, he set himself to a thorough study of the issue. He retrieved all the justifications for infant baptism that he could find, and based in his own research and analysis, found them Biblically wanting. Alexander was following his father’s guidance, testing the opinions of men on the basis of reason, just as commonsense moral reasoning required.
Alexander’s study of infant baptism compelled him to study out the entire basis of his Calvinist beliefs. He went back all the way to Augustine and Pelagius, much like what we are doing, and he also saw Calvin’s complete indebtedness to Augustine. Using the popular Baconian method of inductive reasoning, Campbell saw the excesses of Augustine’s doctrines; the fact that hyper-Calvinism was prevalent on the frontier only exacerbated the difficulty. He saw that the definition of faith being put forward by both Augustinian Calvinists and Arminian Methodists–the idea that God through the Holy Spirit provided belief in some conversion experience–was not Biblical. In the Bible, faith was the belief and confidence of the believer him or herself in God. By the next spring, Alexander had repudiated his Calvinist beliefs. He rejected infant baptism, and his daughter was not baptized. Furthermore, Alexander, his wife, and even his father submitted themselves to immersion in water for the remission of sin.
Nevertheless, Alexander found value in Augustine’s view of God providing grace through baptism and the Lord’s Supper to demonstrate why baptism was efficacious. He would later confess that he found more difficulties with Arminius and Wesley than Augustine and Calvin; he attempted to navigate the middle road between humanism and fatalism.
The stories of Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell indicate how so many Americans would come to reject the traditional views of divine grace and human freedom so powerfully put forward by Puritans just a generation before.
The new situation in America led to different responses within Calvinist churches. Some entirely rejected Calvinist tenets and formal institutions, like the Restorationists. Others rejected Calvinism, maintained formal institutions, and came to belief in universalism; most such persons were in New England and became Unitarians. Others clung tenaciously to historic Calvinism. Groups developed within both Congregational and Presbyterian churches (“New Haven” Congregationalists and “New School” Presbyterians) whose reasoning led them to deny the core concept involved in original sin: the idea that sin could be transferred. Nathaniel Taylor and Lyman Beecher were the most famous such theologians, and they posited that sin was something that could only be committed, and that by a free moral agent. This led to weakening views on limited atonement also. Such “moderate Calvinism” seemed to be a mediating option between hard-line traditionalism and digression into Unitarianism.
“Moderate Calvinism” is the means by which we can understand the strange Evangelical phenomenon of “faith only” salvation, “once saved, always saved,” and the need for individual conversion. This has become a hallmark of much of Baptist theology, although Baptists have been historically divided in different groups over the Calvinist question from their beginning. This perspective can only be understood in terms of nineteenth century revivalist, evangelical, republican common sense moral reasoning based Protestantism. Belief in man’s inherent sinfulness and inability to accomplish anything in his own salvation is maintained, along with the comforting idea that no matter what a man may do, he will be saved regardless by God’s power. Yet the ideas of unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace are excised because of the belief that man has enough free will to come to God and believe, and because of the revival’s call for anyone to come to this belief. Its theological conundrums are not well considered, and this theology can be considered “half-baked.” Nevertheless, it has been a major force in American “Christianity” ever since.
As can be seen, the American climate led to greater traction for the “Arminian” viewpoint. The largest proponents of such views were the Methodists, whose numbers increased mightily between 1790 and 1860. Even though they believed in original sin, positing that God’s grace through the atonement is what allows men today to choose God, they opposed Calvinistic doctrines strongly in polemics throughout this period.
The difference is most clearly seen in the second “Great Awakening.” While the first such awakening was promoted by Puritan Calvinists and led to stronger Calvinistic positions, the second awakening was pushed strongly by Charles Finney and his brand of revivalism, which was rather Arminian and quite anti-Calvinistic. The pendulum had definitively swung away from Calvinism.
Yet Augustinian Calvinism was not going away. There were many who held to the tradition as firmly in the middle of the nineteenth century as in the middle of the eighteenth. Evangelicalism from that point forward would always feature the tension between Augustinian Calvinist views, “Arminian” free will views, and mediating positions.
All of these developments took place between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. While the Americans created a new synthesis based upon their unique circumstances, they always derived much of their inspiration from European thinkers and theologians. As the nineteenth century continued, the theological crisis of the Civil War, the development of science in ways casting aspersions on Biblical accounts, and the historical criticism of the Biblical text eroded popular support for the “self-evident” and “reasonable” claims put forward regarding the Bible in the antebellum period. On account of this, as in Europe, much of the disputation shifted away from “traditional” points of contention, and instead focused on the inspiration and truthfulness of the Bible.
As the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth, modernist and fundamentalist factions of Protestants strongly argued regarding these issues. While most of Protestantism maintained a middle course between the factions, historic denominations eventually moved in the modernist direction, while evangelicals maintained more conservative positions. The ecumenical movement also made inroads in America; as in Europe, among the modernist groups, it led to a minimizing of doctrinal differences among denominations, including matters of divine grace and human freedom, to emphasize what was accepted by all. While evangelical groups did not play as large of a role in the ecumenical movement as a whole, they have always maintained a form of ecumenism of their own: while disputes do continue within Evangelicalism on the competing views of divine grace and human freedom, few believe that their opponents stand condemned for holding to different positions. Such distinctions, to many, now fall under the realm of “differing opinions that do not impact salvation.” It was not always so.
While the disputation regarding matters of divine grace and human freedom continue to be discussed, debated, and argued, modern trends have not moved in favor of Augustinian Calvinism, either in America or in Europe. By in large, the state of the dispute itself remains the same today as it did when T. W. Brents argued strongly against Calvinism in his Gospel Plan of Salvation in 1874, although there are many fewer denominationalists who would bind Calvinist views as necessary for salvation. As in Europe, so in America: the dispute over divine grace and human freedom was neglected as more weighty arguments came to the fore and as belief in the need for particularity in doctrine was minimized in ecumenism.
Divine Grace and Human Freedom
Our survey into the history of the dispute over the tension of divine grace and human freedom has brought many other issues to the fore.
The power of tradition has been a prevailing force in the discussion. The issue was never contentious in eastern “Christendom,” because Augustine was not a great force in the east. The east held to a different understanding of original sin, and considered human freedom a doctrine that could not be denied.
It was Augustine’s exalted position in western “Christendom” that led to the entire discussion. The lack of censure of Augustine regarding double predestination, which clearly deviated from the traditional norms of the “catholicism” of the day, combined with the excessive veneration bestowed upon him, meant that the discussion would never really be balanced until someone was willing to challenge Augustine’s hegemony. That person seems to be Arminius in the late sixteenth century. Therefore, it should come to no surprise that Augustine’s perspective consistently held weight throughout the medieval period, and Calvin was content being Augustine’s sixteenth century Protestant mouthpiece.
Nevertheless, ever since Augustine put his double predestination views forth, there has always been discomfort with them. From John Cassian to Hincmar to Thomas Aquinas, disputes always saw one side attempting to mediate away from the excesses of Augustine’s views. Even within Calvinism there have been constant disputations regarding the legitimacy of various points of Augustine’s synthesis.
Yet, thanks in large part to the events of the past two hundred and fifty years or so, we can look at the tension between divine grace and human freedom without having to defer to any inherited tradition, and can do so based in our own understanding of the Scriptures.
The disputation has gone on for many generations before us, and the various Scriptures used in the discussion are all but fixed. Adherents of total depravity cite Psalm 51:5 and Romans 3:10-11; Matthew 18:1-4, Mark 10:14, and Ezekiel 18:20 are offered against it. Those favoring unconditional election cite John 15:16, Ephesians 1:4-8, and 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Deuteronomy 30:19, Joshua 24:15, and Romans 2:11 are offered in opposition. For limited atonement, proponents say that John 10:1-18 and Matthew 26:28, among other passages, validate the belief, while John 1:29, 1 Timothy 2:4, and Titus 2:11 deny it. Irresistible grace is justified by John 6:37, 39, 44-45; John 12:32 and Galatians 5:1-4 justify the opposite. Perseverance of the saints is “proven” by John 10:28-29 and Romans 8:31-39, and disproven by Hebrews 3:12-14; 6:4-6; 10:26-31 and 2 Peter 2:20-22. Those who align themselves on the Augustinian-Calvinist end of the spectrum try to interpret the Scriptures in terms of the TULIP system, and those who align themselves on the other end of the spectrum do the opposite.
With both groups claiming Scriptural justification, how can we sort through what is right and what is in error? As we have seen, the disputation involving divine grace and human freedom involves people’s presuppositions as much as it involves what the Scriptures actually say. Therefore, if we will understand what God has truly said, we must first analyze whether the Scriptures justify the presuppositions of those who come to it.
Since Augustine and his perspective have been so dominant in the discussion over the past 1,500 years, we would do well to consider the presuppositions of his positions on divine grace and human freedom. As we have seen, Augustine held firmly to Neoplatonic views of divinity: God as the absolute cause of everything. It was inconceivable, in Augustine’s perspective, for God’s will to bend to humanity or be contradicted by humanity. For God to be omnipotent, according to Augustine, He must have willed all things as they take place.
There are no Scriptures that can be offered in defense of this presupposition, because it is entirely foreign to them. We agree that God is omnipotent, and that God does indeed have the ability to do as He wishes (cf. Romans 9:1-33). But this does not require that God must do anything in a certain way! Ironically, in an attempt to glorify God’s sovereignty, Augustinianism actually places God in a box; everything must already be established by His decree, and even God is not able to change whatever has been previously established.
We cannot justify any position with presuppositions that counter what the Scriptures of God reveal. And the Scriptures reveal, perhaps to Augustine’s chagrin, that God’s will is not so fixed as to be entirely unchangeable. Consider 1 Samuel 23:10-13, where God tells David that Saul will come to Keilah. Yet David departs, and Saul does not go to Keilah. Did God lie? By no means—if David had not departed, Saul would certainly have come. Events changed based upon man’s actions.
Matthew 19:8 represents a powerful challenge to the Augustinian presupposition: here Jesus says that it was not God’s will for the Israelites to be able to divorce their wives, but He permitted it. This verse clearly shows that there is a distinction between what God wills and what God permits, despite Calvin’s protestations. If Augustine’s view is correct, then God indeed willed the Israelites to divorce their wives, or Jesus is in serious error about the nature of God. Neither perspective accords with the Scriptures!
Examples of God adapting His will on account of the actions of men are legion: 1 Kings 21:20-22; 29, Jeremiah 18:7-10, Jonah 3:1-10, Acts 27:10; 21-24, among many others. Therefore, while God certainly could have predestined all things before the creation of the world, according to His revelation, He has done no such thing. According to God’s revelation, it is not an affront to God’s sovereignty for God to modify His will based upon the humility or sinfulness of men.
This also stands true in terms of man’s standing before God. The Scriptures nowhere assert that God, based upon His grace alone, predetermined who would be saved, regardless of how they would act. Romans 8:28-30 indicates that even if God predetermined those who would be saved, it was done on the basis of His foreknowledge: the foreknowledge of those who would be obedient servants of the Son (Matthew 10:22, Romans 6:16-23, etc.). This foreknowledge and “predestination” was not accomplished in opposition to man’s will, but on the basis of the decisions of men. God’s sovereignty is in no way maligned by this!
The Augustinian picture of God does seem to present a tyrannical sadist. Their defense of such in the idea of the wonderful nature of God’s mystery is quite telling (Romans 11:33-34): since such a picture of God is never really found in the Scriptures, they must act as if He never revealed it! According to such a view, God knowingly created millions, if not billions, condemning them without any hope of renewal or redemption. The story of Jesus and the cross, far from being glorified, becomes tantalizing: a wonderful hope for the “elect” while the “reprobate” have no prayer of redemption in Him. In such a view, there is little point in evangelizing; most of the New Testament would be irrelevant, because there is nothing we can do to better ourselves. Truly, if this were the picture that God wished to present, we would expect the Bible to look quite different than it does!
All of this shows that the Augustinian picture of God is distorted by their presuppositions. While God is just and sovereign, He is also loving and merciful. While He certainly could have created mankind to be robotic, serving Him or rejecting Him purely on the basis of His decree, He did no such thing. Had He done such a thing, it is hard to see how we could deny that God was the author of evil and sin in the reprobate!
But such is not the case. God is not the author of evil; He does not tempt anyone (James 1:13). God provides a way out from every temptation to sin; no one is forced to sin (1 Corinthians 10:13). By His sovereign will, God created man with free moral agency: God created man and gave him the choice to obey His guidelines or to disobey them, as is seen in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:1-3:24). God gave Israel the choice to serve Him or to serve other gods (Deuteronomy 30:19, Joshua 24:15). God desired–and desires–for all men to come to Him, serve Him, and live (1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9), but because man has the capacity to choose against God, many will not be saved by their own disobedience. On the day of Judgment, God will not arbitrarily condemn anyone; those who will be condemned suffer that fate because of their own sinful disobedience, not God’s personal eternal decree for them (Romans 2:5-11).
Not only are the presuppositions of Augustinian Calvinists regarding God not in accordance with Scripture, but also their presuppositions regarding the condition of man. Augustine consolidated the doctrines of infant baptism and original sin that had been recently established, yet from the beginning it had not been so. Patristic evidence demonstrates that early Christians did not believe in original sin and did not baptize infants. There are no Scriptures that show infants being baptized: everyone who was baptized in the New Testament did so as a result of their personal belief (cf. Acts 2:36-38; 16:31-33, etc.), and infants manifestly cannot have personal belief. Infant baptism represented an innovation in the church, even if it later was clothed with the mantle of “apostolic tradition.”
Since original sin as a doctrine grew as a justification of infant baptism, if the practice is illegitimate, then its doctrinal justification is at least suspect. It is hard to reconcile the idea of the utter depravity and sinfulness of small children with Jesus’ appeals for them to come to Him, “for to such belongs the Kingdom of God,” and the only way anyone will enter the Kingdom is if they are childlike (Mark 10:14-15). This means that the Kingdom belongs to sinfully depraved brats or that children are innocent; the latter is in better alignment with the Scriptures. Psalm 51:5 involves poetry, and David speaks in hyperbole as a reaction to his own feelings of sinfulness; to base our entire view of humanity on such a passage is not wise.
The idea of “original sin” abuses the nature of sin as revealed in the Scriptures. In the Bible, sin involves acts of lawlessness, attributable to a moral agent who chooses to accomplish such deeds (Ezekiel 18:20, 1 John 3:4). Sin is never described as something inherited or transmitted. The manifest embarrassment of Ambrose and Augustine that led to the doctrine of the immaculate conception is testimony to the innovative nature of the doctrine of original sin: in order to extricate Jesus from it, they needed to reinterpret the Virgin birth as demonstrating Jesus’ sinlessness from birth, and for good measure, Mary also was often seen as conceived immaculately. The New Testament is entirely silent on these matters, and for good reason; God did not imagine Jesus as being able to obtain sin through being born! The dim view of sexuality that developed as a consequence of the belief that original sin was transmitted through conception also stands against what God revealed on that particular subject (Hebrews 13:4).
While advocates of original sin believe Romans 5:12-18 justifies them, a close reading of the passage demonstrates the opposite. Yes, on account of Adam’s sin, sin and death were introduced to the world, and all are under its sentence. But this does not mean that humans are born sinful—they are born into a world marred by sin, and they may suffer the consequences of sin, but sin is nowhere portrayed as something inherited. Children die not because they have sinned but because sin is in the world, and the creation is subjected to futility (cf. Romans 8:20-22).
The Scriptures nowhere demonstrate that man is thoroughly and entirely depraved. Yes, all people who develop free moral agency will sin and fall short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), but this does not mean that everything humans do are sinful. Gentiles can be a law unto themselves when they do God’s will (Romans 2:14-15). Paul could find commendable elements of Greek thought (Acts 17:22-31). As assuredly as Christians are able to sin, non-Christians are able to do good works. Yet, without the blood of Christ, there is no redemption from the evil that everyone inevitably does; therefore, it is only through the blood of Christ that anyone can be saved (Romans 5:8-11).
The presuppositions that undergird Augustinian-Calvinist theology, therefore, are faulty. Faulty presuppositions lead to faulty dogmas. Yet Augustinian Calvinists are not entirely wrong, either. What do the Scriptures reveal about the tension between God’s grace and human freedom?
The Scriptures make it abundantly clear that humans are entirely indebted to God’s grace. God provides the creation and all of its bounty, without which we would have no life (Genesis 1:1-2:4). God created us in His own image, giving us the capability of thinking and understanding His will (Genesis 1:26-27). Despite our sins, God, by His grace, sent His Son to die on the cross that we could have the forgiveness of our sins and be reconciled to Him (Romans 5:8-11, Titus 3:3-8). There is nothing that humans have ever done or could ever do in order to deserve these blessings. They are provided freely by God.
Yet the Scriptures also make it clear that God created man to be free to decide to serve God or to turn away from Him (Genesis 2:1-3:24, Deuteronomy 30:19). All men are to hear the Gospel of Christ (John 12:32, Matthew 28:18-20), and they are to decide whether to accept the message, believe in Jesus, and become His obedient servant, or to reject the message, and be liable to condemnation for their sins (Romans 10:17, Acts 2:36-38, Romans 6:1-23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). While God has done all that is necessary to allow for man’s salvation through the death of His Son, it is incumbent upon mankind to accept this salvation in obedient faith for God to purify them (James 2:14-26, 1 Peter 1:22). It is God’s will for all men to do this, yet He knows that not all will do so.
Christians also have the obligation to constantly serve God, and Christians should not expect to obtain their final salvation if they have been disobedient to their Lord (Matthew 7:21-23, Hebrews 10:26-31). This does not somehow make God’s promise void: God’s promise has always been dependent on man’s obedience to His will, as the example of Israel abundantly proves.
In the end, God is not a tyrant; He never compels anyone. Even when He provides more grace to some, obedience is expected. It is true that Saul of Tarsus received an opportunity that not everyone obtains; he still needed to be obedient, and he certainly could have entered Damascus and rejected the message he received (cf. Acts 9:1-22). Jesus Himself was expected to fulfill the will of the Father, and had ample opportunity to refuse to do so. He proved His obedience by doing the will of the Father willingly, and not under compulsion (cf. Matthew 26:39, Hebrews 5:7-9). God freely provides His grace, but does so to free moral agents according to His sovereign will: they must choose whether to accept it or reject it, and to endure the consequences of their actions.
Human beings sin (Romans 3:23), but still maintain the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). Since Adam’s sin, the natural will of man easily gravitates toward sin (Romans 8:1-11, Galatians 5:17-24), but this does not deny that all human beings have some good in them, as even Jesus confesses (Matthew 5:46-47, Luke 11:11-13). God has placed it within the soul of everyone to seek after Him (Acts 17:26-28); anyone, therefore, is able to come to God, if they so desire, to fulfill His will for them (1 Timothy 2:4).
What of foreknowledge and predestination? The New Testament does speak of foreknowledge and predestination, but only in terms of encouraging the saints (Romans 8:28-30, Ephesians 1:3-12). There is no hint of “predestination to reprobation,” for condemnation is on the basis of sin. God’s predestination of the elect must be understood in terms of His eternal plan in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 3:11). For God to have an eternal purpose in Jesus Christ means that He must have known that man would sin and need a Savior. An eternal plan is eternal both in terms of what came before and in terms of what will be, and since it is God’s eternal plan for His wisdom to be known through the church (Ephesians 3:10), the church was, by necessity, foreknown and predestined. And yet it is hard to deny the idea that believers are predestined in these passages, but this does not mean that God has done so apart from man’s will or by some unalterable divine decree of the ages. Instead, as Romans 8:28-39 makes clear, any predestination of Christians would be based in God’s foreknowledge of who would serve Him; likewise, the calling, justification, and glorification of these believers will be accomplished as God has otherwise established in the Word, through their obedience to God’s will (1 Peter 1:22 et al). This message is designed to encourage suffering Christians: God has foreknown their faith and has appointed them in Jesus Christ for adoption as sons and conformity to the image of the Son. This does not require that God has chosen others for condemnation or any other such permutation of the Augustinian distortion of what Paul taught. Paul does speak of predestination, and this predestination involves believers being adopted as sons of God and to be conformed to the image of Jesus His Son (Romans 8:28-30, Ephesians 1:3-12). This is in harmony with, not in opposition against, man’s need to come to God, to obey the Gospel, and to continue to be faithful until death (Romans 6:1-23, 10:17, Revelation 2:10). As we have seen throughout the disputation regarding divine grace and free will, imbalance on side hardly justifies imbalance on the other.
This need not require that God knows everything, only that He can know all things and chooses to know regarding His eternal plan in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:11). Other passages seem to indicate that God might not know all things (cf. Genesis 18:20-21; 22:12). Divine grace and human freedom are Biblical doctrines held in tension with each other: to focus too strongly on one doctrine leads to a neglect of the other, and the truth of God is missed.
The disputation regarding divine grace and human freedom has been a fixture in “Christian” history for most of its existence, and it is unlikely to entirely go away before the Lord returns. The historical imbalances from Pelagius to Augustine to dualism and universalism help us better understand the consequences of drifting too far into one extreme. Let us be judicious in how we handle the Scriptures, recognizing how so many have misunderstood the Scriptures on account of their presuppositions which they did not examine. Let us trust in God, even if we do not have perfect understanding. Let us not be swayed by traditional authorities of any persuasion, but instead rest entirely in Jesus Christ. As it is written,
As therefore ye received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and builded up in him, and established in your faith, even as ye were taught, abounding in thanksgiving. Take heed lest there shall be any one that maketh spoil of you through his philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: for in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily (Colossians 2:6-9).
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