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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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In the Christian tradition, the nearest approaches
to determinism are to be found more in ideas about
man's ultimate destiny than in ideas about the course
of man's life in this world. They are to be found partic-
ularly within systems derived from the thought of Saint
Augustine of Hippo, the greatest early theologian of
the Western Church. They have been derived most
commonly from Augustine's doctrines of original sin
and predestination. These doctrines Augustine devel
oped from his reading of the Pauline epistles in the
Christian New Testament. In developing his inter-
pretation, Augustine (354-430) was almost certainly
influenced by the preaching of Saint Ambrose (ca.
340-97), and other prominent earlier Western theolo-
gians. He departed from the views of influential East-
ern theologians such as Saint John Chrysostom. But he
reacted most explicitly against the teachings of his
contemporaries, the British monk Pelagius and his

Pelagius seems to have been an austere moralist, who
worked hard to convince Christians of their duty to
lead good lives. The Pelagians argued that the evil,
particularly the moral evil, which they acknowledged
to be endemic in the world was due to free acts of
will by individual human beings. Men decide freely
to perform wicked deeds, in full knowledge of the fact
that these deeds are wicked and that those who do
them incur punishments decreed by God. This wicked-
ness, or sin, became pervasive, as men imitated each
other and became the slaves of sinful habits. God
punishes wicked acts in a variety of ways, partly in
this life through natural disasters like illness, partly in
the life to come by eternal punishment of the souls
of the sinful. If a man wants to escape from sin, and
its many unpleasant consequences, he can do so by the
exercise of his reason and will, in imitation of Jesus
Christ, who led a perfectly good life. Man can thus
decide to avoid sin and do good. He can thus escape
punishment and win rewards. He can even escape the
ultimate punishment of eternal damnation and win the
ultimate reward of eternal bliss in heaven. God gave
man the faculties of reason and will for these purposes.
God also gave man freedom to use these faculties as
he wished, and made man responsible if he did not
use them as he should.

These arguments horrified many Christians, of whom
Augustine was the most articulate. They did not seem
consonant either with the revealed truths of Scripture
or with human experience. They seemed to diminish
the power and majesty of God, to make Him something
less than an omnipotent being. They made it possible
for an individual man to decide freely whether to be
good or bad, and thus to tell God whether to send him
to heaven or hell. And that was an intolerable denial
of divine omnipotence, an insult to divine majesty. In
short it was a heresy, a belief so dangerous that it
doomed its adherents to damnation.

In arguing against the Pelagians, Augustine devel-
oped his doctrine of original sin. He insisted that a
sin is not one in a series of separate acts, based on
erroneous decisions. Sin is rather a radical defect of
human character, from which no man can escape by
his own efforts. It is a defect which first became appar-


ent in the first man, Adam, when he defied God by
violating very explicit instructions, and was thrown out
of the Garden of Eden and condemned to a painful
life and death as a result. This defect is passed on to
every man born into this world by the very way in
which he is created, by the marital act, accompanied
as it inevitably is by shame and lust. Every man is thus
a sinner, even before he is born, incapable of doing
anything that is good, doomed to do nothing but evil
deeds and to suffer the full consequences for this evil
doing. This is the true explanation for the evil we see
to be endemic and uncontrollable in the world about us.

God did not intend that all men remain in this
desperate state, however. He did develop one, and only
one, way for escape from sin and its consequences. This
was through His grace, made available to man through
the life and passion of Christ. By grace a few men are
purged of original sin, and left free to live the good
lives which merit eternal rewards. This grace is a free
gift. No man can ask for it, or decide to appropriate
it, or do anything to deserve it. Grace is given only
to a small fixed number of men, the “elect” or “saints.”
Others are called to the good life, but do not receive
the grace to take advantage of the call. God, further-
more, decided which individuals would receive grace
before any of them were even born. They are thus
predestined to salvation. He endowed these fortunate
individuals with perseverance, so that they would in-
evitably lead the good lives which merit eternal re-
wards. Every other member of the human race will
inevitably remain in the corrupt state in which all are
born, will find it impossible to avoid doing sinful acts,
and will suffer the eternal punishment which God
decrees for the sinner.

These arguments are developed in their most ex-
treme form in Augustine's anti-Pelagian tracts. There
are scholars who would argue that Augustine's true
opinions are better revealed in his earlier works, which
allow a more significant role for human free will. Other
scholars would argue that the two strains in Augustine's
thought can be synthesized, and that there are elements
of both free will and determinism in his thought. The
texts of the anti-Pelagian tracts themselves, however,
come close to asserting a consistent determinism of
man's ultimate destiny. Augustine's successors in the
Christian West were aware of this, and either used
these tracts to approach determinism themselves, or
tried to find ways of attenuating his doctrines so that
the rigor of a full determinism could be avoided.

Augustine's theology was tremendously influential.
It came to be the most significant single theological
system in western Europe for more than a millennium.
And with the rest of the system, the doctrine of pre-
destination, with its deterministic implications, came
to be generally accepted. However it also came to be
a rather controversial doctrine. It made many theolo-
gians uneasy because it seemed to make God the author
of evil. If God predestines the elect to salvation, it was
felt that He must logically predestine the rest of man-
kind to live in sin and be damned. And this conclusion
was difficult to reconcile with God's ultimately good
and loving nature. Consequently a number of theolo-
gians in succeeding centuries proposed modifications
of the Augustinian doctrine of predestination, designed
to introduce some element of human responsibility for
sin and damnation. To the extent that they did so, these
modifications obviously reduced the degree of deter-
minism in the doctrine. Against these modifications,
other theologians worked out the Augustinian doctrine
in ever more rigorous and detailed forms. Their modi-
fications tended to bring the doctrine closer to deter-
minism. However a number of them explicitly denied
the charge that they were adopting determinism.

This process of modification and counter-modifi-
cation continued for several centuries. It probably
reached its climax in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries. The great Protestant Reformers were satu-
rated in Augustinian theology. Luther had been edu-
cated as an Augustinian monk, and traces of that
education remained with him throughout his life. Cal-
vin's education had been secular, in classics and in law,
but his writings reveal that he, too, had soaked himself
in the writings of Augustine. For Calvin the doctrine
of predestination came to be particularly important.
In the controversies surrounding it during his career
and among his successors, it was reworked and devel-
oped into particularly extreme forms. Many of these
forms had medieval antecedents, although Calvin and
his successors were not always aware of them.

One possible modification was the argument that
while God predestines the saints to salvation, He is
not actively responsible for the fate of the damned.
Human will is too weak to choose the good, and thus
merit salvation. But it remains strong enough to choose
the sinful way, and thus deserve punishment. This
version is labeled the doctrine of single predestination,
and it received wide support in influential circles.
Against it, the rigorous Augustinians argued that logic
requires double predestination, both of the saved and
of the damned. God could not give away to men the
power to will actively to be damned and still remain
omnipotent. Early disciples of Augustine, like Gott-
schalk of Orbais in the ninth century, read their master
in this way. So did Calvin.

A second possible modification was the argument
that while God predestines both the saved and the
damned to their respective fates, He does it only be-
cause He knows, as a result of His foreknowledge, that


the saints will lead lives that will merit salvation and
the rest will lead lives that will deserve eternal punish-
ment. The rigorists rejected this modification, also, as
undercutting divine omnipotence in yet another way.
They insisted that an omnipotent God must plot the
course of every human life, as well as deciding its
ultimate result. Or they argued that God's decisions
about each man's destiny could not have followed His
acquisition of knowledge about each man's behavior,
but must have come first or concurrently.

A third possible modification was the argument that
God made His decisions to save some and damn others
after the creation of Adam, the first man. God endowed
the first human creation, made in His own image, with
complete freedom. Only when He saw how badly
Adam used his freedom, did God take it away, and
decree that all of Adam's descendants would lead sinful
and miserable lives, meriting eternal damnation, except
for the small number of saints God chose to exempt
from this fate. This view, that God enacted His predes-
tinating decrees only after Adam's fall, has been labeled
infralapsarian or sublapsarian. It tended to make divine
determinism a historic event, introduced into history
at a definable point, after an attempt to grant free will
to man failed. However it also tended to make divine
omnipotence a historic event, suspended at the creation
of Adam, only to be reintroduced following his fall.
The rigorists consequently rejected this modification
too, advancing an argument labeled supralapsarian.
They insisted that God's decrees of predestination were
enacted before the creation of the first man, even
before the beginning of time. They are part of the
eternal structure of the universe. God could not sus-
pend them, without denying an essential part of his
own nature. This view was advanced by several medi-
eval theologians, by Calvin, and, most vehemently, by
his seventeenth-century Flemish disciple Francis

A fourth possible modification was the argument that
while it was God's initiative which saved or damned
a man, man had to react to this initiative, or at least
had to be prepared passively to receive it. The decision
as to whether any individual was saved or damned,
therefore, was a joint decision, for which both God
and man shared responsibility. This argument, often
labeled synergism, has a long history, and one can
find traces of it in some of Augustine's Greek prede-
cessors. One can find it again in many medieval theolo-
gians and also in theologians of the Reformation such
as Philip Melanchthon. But for the rigorists this, too,
was an unwarranted denial of God's omnipotence and
exaltation of man's powers. Hence they rejected it.

The whole debate over predestination came to one
of its historic climaxes in the Netherlands during the
early seventeenth century. The protagonists in this
debate were two Calvinist professors of theology at
the University of Leiden, Jacob Arminius and Francis
Gomarus. Arminius, who had studied in Geneva with
Calvin's own succesosrs, tried to modify Calvinist doc-
trine in order to reduce its harshness and create some
role in it for human responsibility. Gomarus went
beyond Calvin himself in insisting on all the harshest
logical consequences of his system. The views of
Arminius were most succinctly stated after his death,
in a five-point Remonstrance drafted by his followers
in 1610. This document urged: (1) that God's decree
of salvation is conditional, benefiting only those who
by an act of will accept and persevere in faith; (2)
that God's universal love is reflected in the fact that
Christ died for all men, although only believers are
benefited; (3) that man can truly do good, after he is
born again through the Holy Spirit; (4) that man can
perversely resist God's offer of grace; (5) that the faith-
ful receive divine assistance in leading the good life,
but only if they want this assitance and do not remain

The Remonstrance provoked a bitter controversy,
in which the Gomarists led the attack. It spread beyond
the Netherlands to other countries in which Calvinist
influences had been strong. The controversy was finally
settled, at least temporarily, in a general synod of
representatives of all the Reformed churches, held in
Dort, 1618-19. The synod of Dort was dominated by
the Gomarists. It adopted a five-point retort to the
Remonstrance which has come to be called the Five
Points of Calvinism: (1) Unconditional election—God's
predestinating decrees derive solely from his decisions,
and do not in any way depend on the beliefs or the
behavior of individuals; (2) Limited atonement—Christ
died for the elect alone, not for all mankind; (3) Total
depravity—man in his natural state is so totally corrupt
and helpless that he is incapable even of desiring salva-
tion; (4) Irresistible grace—once God decides to save
a man he is helpless to resist, and automatically is
saved; (5) Perseverance of the saints—God so assists
His elect to adopt the correct beliefs and live the
proper kinds of life that it is impossible for them to
fall from grace. This is sometimes called the TULIP
formula, an acronym based on the initial letters of the
five points. The formula obviously approaches deter-
minism very closely, since every point limits man's
freedom and exalts God's power. Yet even the canons
of Dort cannot be called completely and consistently
deterministic. For, despite the urgings of Gomarus, the
assembly dominated by his followers refused to adopt
a clearly supralapsarian formula, but instead settled on
one with infralapsarian elements.

Since the seventeenth century, there has been a


general decline in the acceptance of Christian theolog-
ical doctrines that imply determinism. Among groups
that have remained relatively orthodox, semi-Pelagi-
anism has become widespread and Arminianism has
won many adherents. And there have been frequent
attempts to break loose from all forms of orthodoxy,
and to revise Christian doctrine radically, in order to
make it more credible to minds shaped by the revolu-
tionary discoveries of modern science and to make it
more relevant to men preoccupied by the problems
of their own societies. Adherence to the traditional
theological doctrines implying determinism has been
limited to relatively small groups of churchmen who
have remained faithful to a really strict historic theo-
logical system, like Calvinism.

The twentieth century, however, has witnessed some
recrudescence of these doctrines. This is particularly
true of that variety of twentieth-century theology
labeled neo-orthodox, and dominated by the thinking
of the American Reinhold Niebuhr and the Swiss Karl
Barth. In the systems of the neo-orthodox one finds a
significant place for the doctrine of original sin, which
had fallen out of favor among nineteenth-century the-
ological liberals. Original sin tends to be rooted less
in human lust, as in Augustine, than in human finitude.
But the fact that man is a finite creature does, it is
argued, create a radical defect in his nature. It makes
it impossible for him to be truly good, for being invari-
ably good in one's dealings with other men requires
a knowledge of their inner problems and needs which
no individual can ever achieve. Thus man remains in
need of help from some exterior and transcendental
source, if he is to avoid evil. Furthermore, for Barth
at least, man cannot seek for this external help and
appropriate it to himself. It must be freely offered by
God alone, without any initiative from man.

In Barth's system one even finds a significant doctrine
of double predestination. The doctrine is deliberately
made quite distinct from that of Calvin, whose thought
Barth knew intimately and generally admired a great
deal. For Barth predestination is essentially Christo-
logical. Jesus Christ is both the electing God and
the elected man. In Christ, God Himself has both
suffered rejection and enjoyed salvation. All who are
in Christ will benefit from these experiences. This view
tends to make of predestination to damnation an
ephemeral historic event, occurring in the past with
the crucifixion of Christ, while predestination to salva-
tion is a present reality, which will be assigned to true

To the extent that these doctrines of original sin and
predestination limit human free will and exalt divine
power, the modern systems of the neo-orthodox, like
those of their predecessors, approach determinism.