Free Will and Predestination: Christian Concepts

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In an effort to explain the roles of human and divine agency in the accomplishment of salvation, Christian theologians have formulated concepts of free will and predestination. The concepts entered the creeds of the churches. The notion of predestination introduces the matter of time-order in affirming that God made a decision or decree about who over the course of the ages would be saved by Christ prior to any decision or action that those who are saved might take during their lifetime in relation to their own salvation. Following Augustine and Paul, theologians and the creeds have usually maintained that God's decision occurred "before the foundation of the world." In the face of this emphasis on God's previous power of decision, the notion of free will affirms the human role that might appear to be overridden thereby, and acknowledges the power of human decision within the process of salvation. The two notions exist in a paradoxical relationship with each other, and they turn on an understanding of history.

A widely held but mistaken opinion identifies the notion of predestination as a concept peculiar to Calvinists since the sixteenth century, asserting that Calvinist traditions have denied or rendered irrelevant the notion of free will. On the contrary, all Christian traditions that honor the ancient creeds have in some way affirmed both free will and predestination. They have, however, meant very different things by these concepts and have given them different roles in relation to each other. In recent times, churches have tended to mute their references to predestination, allowing the discourse to continue in a new form outside of ecclesiastical and theological milieux as a debate about freedom and determinism.

The Issues and the Scriptures

That the question arisesand that it persistsmay be attributed to the human experience of being able to choose responsibly among real options while at the same time being overwhelmed by forces apparently beyond human ability to choose. Christians have used the doctrines of free will and predestination as their means of expressing these contrary experienceson the one hand, the certitude of salvation as God's act; on the other hand, the human responsibility to believe and do what is right.

Christians have related these two concepts to many others, including God's sovereignty and grace, divine foreknowledge of future human acts, divine election in relation to human merits, eternity and time, causation, and the process of salvation. They have raised periodic warnings against trying to penetrate the mystery of salvation, against impugning the justice or the mercy of God, and against making God the author of evil.

Advocates of all positions have appealed to the Bible, even though the biblical scriptures do not contain what one might call doctrines or concepts of free will and predestination, nor even these words. The Latin term praedestinatione derives from the creation of an abstract noun from the translation of the Greek verb proorizo, which refers to deciding or setting limits on something beforehand. The word occurs six times in four passages in the New Testament: Acts of the Apostles 4:28, Romans 8:2830, 1 Corinthians 2:7, and Ephesians 1:314. The King James translation of the Bible renders the Romans passage this way: "For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called." In constructing the concept, theologians had to piece together the several passages in keeping of some sense of logic, and the ways they did this led to differences. Commonly they linked proorizo with a time metaphor from Ephesians 1 about God "choosing us" "before the foundation of the world." This they augmented with Paul's references in Romans 9 to one Old Testament passage about God's "hardening the heart of Pharaoh" and another about God choosing Jacob instead of Esau even before these twins were conceived. Over the ages, through this process of turning verbs into nouns and metaphors into concepts, theologians have built a logical edifice of considerable magnitude. The process has passed through four phases so far.

From Scripture to Early Augustine

Paul's writings in the Bible formed the basis of all future treatments. For three hundred years after Paul, theologians were content to produce commentaries on the pertinent passages. Following the lead of Clement of Alexandria (fl. c. 200 ce), however, they interpreted proorizo as depending upon proginosko (foreknow)those whom God foreknew would believe, God decided upon beforehand to save. The chief concern was to combat the concept of fatalism and affirm that humans are free to do what is righteous. Thus Origen fought the Gnostics toward the middle of the third century, and Augustine wrote On Free Will against the Manichaeans (c. 397). Origen asserted that humans were created with free will in the sense "that it is our own doing whether we live rightly or not, and that we are not compelled, either by those causes which come to us from without, or, as some think, by the presence of fate."

Augustine through the 1400s

Augustine changed his emphasis as a result of a challenge from Pelagius, who sought to defend human free will against Augustine's apparent denial of it in his Confessions (400): "Grant us what you [God] command, and command us what you will." In numerous treatises written over the succeeding two decades against Pelagius and those later called semi-Pelagians, Augustine gradually created the doctrine of predestination and established the terms in which virtually all subsequent discussions have carried on. He stated that God created humans with the free will to choose between good and evil. By choosing evil they lost their free will fully to do God's will, and thereafter needed God's grace to be saved and to live righteously. In On the Predestination of the Saints (428429) Augustine claimed that God's gift of grace is prepared for by God's prior decision from eternity to predestine some to salvation. On this view, grace then comes as the effect of that predestination. God supremely predestined Christ to be the Son of God and called all those predestined for salvation to become members of Christ's body. Those so elected do indeed choose by their free will to believe, but since they are the elect, their "will is prepared by the Lord." In Augustine's view, none of this depends on divine foreknowledge of future human merits. In the City of God (413426) he claims that God has "a plan whereby he might complete the fixed number of citizens predestined in his wisdom, even out of the condemned human race." God decides on the plan in eternity (an everlasting present) and foreknows in one sweeping vision the whole of time (the course of the past, present, and future). In Enchiridion (421) Augustine taught what came to be called "double predestination," that God not only in his mercy predestines some to salvation but in his justice predestines the rest to damnation or reprobation.

A succession of church councils culminating in the Council of Orange (529) elevated Augustine's position to the status of orthodoxy. Thereafter the view not quite accurately attributed to the Pelagiansthat original sin has no power to keep humans from using their free will to gain their own salvationwas deemed unacceptable. The Council of Quiercy (853), responding to the concept of double predestination as elaborated by Gottschalk (848), declared that view unacceptable as well. The council held that while God surely preelects some to salvation, he merely leaves the remainder of humanity in their freely chosen sin with its predestined consequence of eternal punishment.

Between roughly 1050 and 1450, numerous theologians worked in Augustine's lineage to construct logical definitions of free will or predestination. They included Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109), Peter Lombard (d. 1160), Duns Scotus (d. 1308), William of Ockham (d. 1349?), John Wyclif (d. 1384), Lorenzo Valla (d. 1457), and others. In his Summa theologiae (12661273), Thomas Aquinas gathered and elaborated a great array of logical distinctions to explain the concepts of free will and predestination: sufficient and efficient grace, habitual and actual grace, operating and cooperating grace, unconditional and conditional necessity, antecedent and consequent will, primary and secondary cause, and so on. According to Thomas, predestination was "the planned sending of a rational creature to the end which is eternal life." It "presupposes election, and election [presupposes] love." Thomas believed that his logic would show that none of this impairs free will.

Reformation through the 1800s

The rupture of Latin Christendom called the Reformation led to a proliferation of positions roughly analogous to the pluralism of ecclesiastical traditions produced after the 1520s. A brief statement by Martin Luther (1520) that appeared to deny free will prompted Desiderius Erasmus to write On the Freedom of the Will (1524) in the hope of settling the matter simply. Instead of a resolution, however, the ensuing debate initiated a controversy lasting four hundred years. By the time it ended, theologians in virtually all traditions had attempted definitions of the concepts of free will and predestination, and every major church tradition had built some statement of the concepts into its creed.

Erasmus picked up a concept that Thomas and others had used about cooperating grace and brought the analogous concept of cooperating will or assisting will into the discussion. Erasmus asserted that the will of God "preveniently moves the [human] will to will." Yet, humans do indeed will and achieve something. He concluded that Philippians 2:1216 "certainly teaches that both humans and God work." Luther retorted with On the Bondage of the Will (1525), denying any possibility of cooperation between God and human will. The term free will, he claimed, applies only to God or to the "lower choices" that humans make about everyday matters. All matters pertaining to salvation "depend on the work of God alone," the only power able to free the will from bondage to sin. Luther adopted Augustine's position on predestination. The Lutheran Formula of Concord (1576) stated: "The predestination or eternal election of God extends only to the good and beloved children of God, and this is the cause of their salvation." Concerning the nonelect, the formula urged caution when speaking of reprobation.

Caution had become necessary, the Lutherans thought, because of John Calvin's views. In his Romans (1540) and Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin adopted Augustine's views and followed Luther in rejecting the notion of divine and human cooperation in salvation. By the final edition of the Institutes (1559), however, he defined predestination expansively to include double predestination: "By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every person. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation." A succession of Reformed creeds, including the French Reformed Confession (1559), the Scots Confession (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), adopted Calvin's teachings, excepting the notion of the nonelect. On this point they urged caution or, as in the Belgic Confession, affirmed that God was "just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves." Of the Reformed creeds, only the Westminster Confession (1647) adopted double predestination. The Canons of Dordt (1619) condemned the formulation presented by Jacobus Arminius and the Remonstrants' creed (1610) concerning God's assisting or cooperating grace. Arminius had characterized predestination as God's eternal decree by which he determines to save through Christ "those who, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, shall believe on this his Son Jesus" and who by cooperating grace are enabled to persevere to the end. Many generations later Jonathan Edwards wrote his Freedom of the Will (1754) against the Arminians. The mainstream of the Baptist tradition sided with the Calvinists against the Arminians in adopting the New Hampshire Confession (1833) and the Louisville Abstract of Principle (1859).

In the Anglican tradition, the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563, 1571) followed Calvin on both free will (article 10) and predestination (article 17), but not on double predestination. The Irish Articles (1615), written by James Ussher, included double predestination. Anglican theologians, from Richard Hooker (1590s) to J. B. Mozley (author of Predestination, 1855) sought various ways to affirm both predestination and free will.

For the Roman Catholic tradition, the Council of Trent treated the matter in its Decree on Justification (1547). The decree spoke of God's prevenient grace and associated it with predestination. But the council took issue with Luther and Calvin, declaring that God disposes people "through his quickening and assisting grace, to convert themselves to their own justification, by freely assenting to and cooperating with that grace." Certitude about being among the predestined came only when salvation was complete for those who persevered to the end. The Jesuit Luis de Molina expanded upon Trent in his Concordia (1588), in which he presented the concept of the concurrence of assisting grace with free will. Predestination, for Molina, depends on a scientia media by which God, when preordaining some to salvation, takes into account how each person would use free will in all possible circumstances. Cornelis Jansen wrote Augustinus (1640) to combat Molina, Trent, and the logical distinctions devised by Thomas Aquinas and the Thomists. He proposed a revival of Augustine's views in order to defeat any suggestion of concurrence and cooperation between divine and human will. A papal bull condemned Jansenism in 1653.

Among Eastern Orthodox, the Russian Orthodox Confession (1643) and the Confession of Jerusalem (1673) responded to the Lutherans, Calvinists, and Trent by reaffirming the pre-Augustinian belief that God predestines some to glory and others to condemnation solely because "he foreknew the one would make a right use of their free will and the other a wrong." They affirmed synergism, the working together of God's prevenient grace and human free will throughout a lifetime of perseverance.

In 1784, John Wesley, founder of what became the Methodist tradition, prepared the Articles of Religion, a revision of the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles. In them he omitted reference to predestination but retained a notion of divine "prevenience," i.e., the human free will to believe depends on "the grace of God by Christ preventing [i.e., going before] us." In Predestination Calmly Considered (1752) and other writings, Wesley himself had affirmed predestination in the form of what he called conditional election, God's eternal choice of some to be saved, based on foreknowledge of their future belief. He contended that unconditional election not based on such foreknowledge is really the same thing as double predestination.

The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries

In 1920, Max Weber pronounced predestination to be the cardinal doctrine of Calvinism and gave impetus to the view that the attached the notion to Calvinists in particular. Throughout the twentieth century, however, theologians as diverse as William Temple (Anglican), Karl Rahner (Roman Catholic), Karl Barth and G. C. Berkouwer (Reformed), and Wolfhart Pannenberg (Lutheran) gave significant attention to the concepts of free will and predestination. Church statements from Vatican II and the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue in the United States to the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church referred positively to both concepts. At the same time, many Christian thinkers let the subject drop, in keeping with the declaration by the World Conference on Faith and Order (1937) that theories about how the truths of God's grace and human free will might be reconciled are not part of the Christian faith. In any case, over the ages the vast host of Christians, not being theologians, have apparently had little awareness of, or concern about, what the theologians said on the subject. As Christians have become more appreciative of metaphor and the nuances of history, and more wary of logical abstraction, philosophers not thinking as Christians have filled the void with their own concepts of freedom and necessity, free will and determinism.

See Also

Atonement, article on Christian Concepts; Free Will and Determinism; Grace; Justification; Merit, article on Christian Concepts.


Most of the original writings by the thinkers mentioned herein are readily available. The texts of many of the church creeds are in Philip Schaff's Creeds of Christendom, 6th ed., 3 vols. (reprint edition, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1983); and Creeds of the Churches, 3d rev. ed., edited by John H. Leith (Atlanta, 1982). Worthy studies of the doctrines are Francis Ferrier's La Pédestination (Paris, 1990); M. John Farrelly's Predestination, Grace, and Free Will (Westminster, Md., 1964); and Predestination and Free Will: Four Views of Divine Sovereignity and Human Freedom, edited by David Basinger and Randall Basinger (Downers Grove, Ill., 1986). The many books on particular thinkers or traditions are easily located in subject indexes. Of these, especially good are Dennis R. Creswell's St. Augustine's Dilemma: Grace and Eternal Law in the Major Works of Augustine of Hippo (New York, 1997); John M. Rist's Augustine on Free Will and Predestination (Oxford, 1969); Fredrik Brosché's Luther on Predestination: The Antinomy and the Unity between Love and Wrath in Luther's Concept of God (Uppsala, 1978); and Richard A. Muller's Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Durham, N.C., 1984).

C. T. McIntire (1987 and 2005)

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Free Will and Predestination: Christian Concepts

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