Skip to main content

Calvinism in History: Before the Reformation by Loraine Boettner

By April 2, 2011April 12th, 2016Church History
Loraine Boettner

Loraine Boettner

It may occasion some surprise to discover that the doctrine of Predestination was not made a matter of special study until near the end of the fourth century. The earlier church fathers placed chief emphasis on good works such as faith, repentance, almsgiving, prayers, submission to baptism, etc., as the basis of salvation. They of course taught that salvation was through Christ; yet they assumed that man had full power to accept or reject the gospel. Some of their writings contain passages in which the sovereignty of God is recognized; yet along side of those are others which teach the absolute freedom of the human will. Since they could not reconcile the two they would have denied the doctrine of Predestination and perhaps also that of God’s absolute Foreknowledge. They taught a kind of synergism in which there was a co-operation between grace and free will. It was hard for man to give up the idea that he could work out his own salvation. But at last, as a result of a long, slow process, he came to the great truth that salvation is a sovereign gift which has been bestowed irrespective of merit; that it was fixed in eternity; and that God is the author in all of its stages. This cardinal truth of Christianity was first clearly seen by Augustine, the great Spirit-filled theologian of the West. In his doctrines of sin and grace, he went far beyond the earlier theologians, taught an unconditional election of grace, and restricted the purposes of redemption to the definite circle of the elect. It will not be denied by anyone acquainted with Church History that Augustine was an eminently great and good man, and that his labors and writings contributed more to the promotion of sound doctrine and the revival of true religion than did those of any other man between Paul and Luther.

Prior to Augustine’s day the time had been largely taken up in correcting heresies within the Church and in refuting attacks from the pagan world in which it found itself. Consequently but little emphasis had been placed on the systematic development of doctrine. And that the doctrine of Predestination received such little attention in this age was no doubt partly due to the tendency to confuse it with the Pagan doctrine of Fatalism which was so prevalent throughout the Roman Empire. But in the fourth century a more settled time had been reached, a new era in theology had dawned, and the theologians came to place more emphasis on the doctrinal content of their message. Augustine was led to develop his doctrines of sin and grace partly through his own personal experience in being converted to Christianity from a worldly life, and partly through the necessity of refuting the teaching of Pelagius, who taught that man in his natural state had full ability to work out his own salvation, that Adam’s fall had but little effect on the race except that it set a bad example which is perpetuated, that Christ’s life is of value to men mainly by way of example, that in His death Christ was little more than the first Christian martyr, and that we are not under any special providence of God. Against these views Augustine developed the very opposite. He taught that the whole race fell in Adam, that all men by nature are depraved and spiritually dead, that the will is free to sin but not free to do good toward God, that Christ suffered vicariously for His people, that God elects whom He will irrespective of their merits, and that saving grace is efficaciously applied to the elect by the Holy Spirit. He thus became the first true interpreter of Paul and was successful in securing the acceptance of his doctrine by the Church.

Following Augustine there was retrogression rather than progress. Clouds of ignorance blinded the people. The Church became more and more ritualistic and salvation was thought to be through the external Church. The system of merit grew until it reached its climax in the ‘indulgences.’ The papacy came to exert great power, political as well as ecclesiastical, and throughout Catholic Europe the state of morals came to be almost intolerable. Even the priesthood became desperately corrupt and in the whole catalogue of human sins and vices none are more corrupt or more offensive than those which soiled the lives of such popes as John XXIII and Alexander VI.

From the time of Augustine until the time of the Reformation very little emphasis was placed on the doctrine of Predestination. We shall mention only two names from this period: Gottschalk, who was imprisoned and condemned for teaching Predestination; and Wycliffe, ‘The Morning Star of the Reformation,’ who lived in England. Wycliffe was a reformer of the Calvinistic type, proclaiming the absolute sovereignty of God and the Foreordination of all things. His system of belief was very similar to that which was later taught by Luther and Calvin. The Waldensians also might be mentioned for they were in a sense ‘Calvinists’ before the Reformation, one of their tenets being that of Predestination.