A. Predestination

Religious concepts of predestination: St Augustine and John Calvin

Christians believe God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing). The idea of free will sits uncomfortably with those beliefs, because free will suggests humans control their own destinies, which would mean God wasn't all powerful. In this section, we learn about two religious thinkers who concluded that humans don't really have free will.

St Augustine

Creation was perfect before humans disobeyed God. You will have learnt about this when studying The Problem of Evil. God had a plan to save humans, however. He sent his only Son so that whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life. Pelagius taught that we can freely choose whether to accept God's salvation.

Augustine thought this was a dreadful idea. If God makes a plan, God knows exactly what's going to happen. God is the one who decides whether I am saved or not. When Pelagius suggested otherwise, Augustine laid out exactly how all these beliefs fit together with belief in an all-powerful God.

Original Sin

The Doctrine of Original Sin is based on the story in Genesis, where Adam and Eve disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This action corrupted human nature, explaining why humans today are so sinful, even though God had made them in his perfect image. Augustine used the Latin term 'Concupiscene' to describe our corrupted human nature. It means that we have an innate longing or desire for things that are sinful. Think of some of the seven deadly sins - greed, lust, jealousy, anger etc. These are in our nature, driving us to ignore our God-given reason. Concupiscene is passed on from Adam and Eve to all humans as their descendants (we're part of the family, and that is our inheritance). Also, unlike Adam and Eve, who were lovingly made by God, we were made through the act of sex. It's hard to understand why sex was such a dirty word for Augustine, but it was significant that the only human to have been born sin-free was Jesus, who was conceived of the Holy Spirit.

Massa Peccati

For Augustine, human nature was 'hopelessly corrupted'. We use the term 'hopeless' in different ways, but here Augustine is saying something utterly devestating. He says you and I have no hope whatsoever of earning salvation. He described us as a 'lump of sin' (massa peccati). Augustine has developed a theology that makes sense of a range of different beliefs expressed in the Bible. To do this, he has to acknowledge that humans have free will. What he does is to say that we can, in theory, make free choices. We have an essentially free human nature (liberium abitrium). However, our free will has been 'utterly wasted' by sin. We lose our liberty (libertas - and that's the last of the Latin words in this part of the syllabus).

We can understand Augustine by trying to see the world as he did. Firstly, he saw God as the all-loving, all-powerful, perfect creator of the universe, worthy of all love, respect, praise and wonder. Everything God made, planned and did was perfect. Secondly, he saw humans as selfish, greedy, lazy, dishonest, grubby little animals not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as God.

In this picture, no human deserves God's love, but his grace is an undeserved love where God chooses some people ('the elect') to be saved. He decided this before they were born, keeping God firmly in control. Those who weren't chosen (the rest of us) are 'reprobates'.  The elect will accept their salvation, because God's grace is irresistible. Again, we use that term a lot, but here it literally means the elect could not possibly resist God's grace - they have no 'choice'. Jesus died purely so the elect may be saved.

John Calvin

Calvin's theology comes over a thousand years later, but it's the same message again. Humans are 'utterly depraved' because of the fall (Adam and Eve choosing to eat the forbidden fruit).

Calvin was part of the Protestant Reformation. As such, he was in a group of Christians who were openly questioning the authority of the Church in Rome. On what basis could he do this? Everything Calvin taught had to be based on the bible, 'sola scriptura'. He disagreed with a church that would take money from the rich and pray for their souls to go to heaven. Only God had the power to save. Part of God's absolute power meant the denial that humans have any power at all when it comes to salvation. Like Augustine, he believed God chose those who would be saved (the Doctrine of Election), and his grace was irresistible. The Bible says:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. Ephesians 2:8

It is important to understand the nature of sin, punishment and atonement. In biblical times, when someone did something wrong, they had to put it right. The punishment needed to be harsh, so that they made up for what they had done. When Jesus died on the cross, his punishment was horrific and undeserved. In fact, Calvin says he was taking the punishment for all of the elect, a limited atonement that saved just those that God had chosen to save.

Once you're saved, you stay saved. If you sin, irresistible grace means you will seek forgiveness so that you die sinless and go to heaven. It would be impossible for someone whom God had chosen for salvation to be corrupted. Then God would not be all-powerful. As such, Calvin taught the 'perseverance of the elect', meaning that those who are chosen by God stay chosen.

It's quite an unusual world view, but if you can bring yourself to imagine a perfect world running as God planned it, with no sin, death or sadness at all, you might understand why sin that separated us from God would be hated so much. Theologians all recognised our own sinful nature, which made us totally unworthy of God's love and salvation. The fact that God chose to love and save some of us makes him even more amazing.

Synod of Dort

After Calvin and Arminius died, a meeting was called to come to an agreement about predestination. What wonderful good luck that we can use the acronym TULIP to stand for what the Dutch Reformed Church agreed:

Total depravity

Unconditional Election

Limited atonement

Irresistible grace

Perseverance of the elect

Write these out with your own explanation of what they mean in relation to predestination.


Free Will and Determinism take up a whole theme, making them half of the Year 2 Ethics course. To understand Augustine, it may help to start with Pelagius (who's on the syllabus but in the other half of Theme 4), as Augustine was in many ways responding to Pelagius' "heresy".


You will study Arminius later in this theme. He was born in the same century as Calvin, and his writing can be seen as a response to Calvinism.  You will learn about the Synod of Dort, which was called a few years after Arminius died to reach an agreeent on the opposing positions of Calvin and Arminius.