Augustine & Calvin – Part 4

Posted: July 10, 2011 in augustine, calvin, calvinism, election, history, soteriology, theology

See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Presdestination vs. Foreknowledge

Much of the theology discussed relating to Augustine and Calvin has been very similar.  As noted earlier, Calvin himself quoted Augustine hundreds of times in his all-encompassing Institutes of the Christian Religion, obviously considering him a trustworthy authority from which to support his own ideas and interpretations.[1]  Although Calvin insisted on the primacy of the divine Scriptures, understanding them to be the sole source for certain knowledge about God and His works, he still was heavily influenced by his great predecessor, adopting many of his ideas and building upon them.  Perhaps most importantly, Calvin shared Augustine’s same foundational understanding of man’s relationship towards God: we are helpless and He is sovereign.  This basic premise directed each man’s own person search for truth in Scripture, especially with regard to their soteriology.

However, differences still manifested themselves between the two theologians.  One of the primary dissimilarities is Augustine’s use of the terms foreknowledge and predestination interchangeably, opposed to Calvin’s strict distinction between the two concepts.  At first, this would seem to undermine much of the continuity between the two men outlined thus far, especially when one considers Calvin’s fierce words against such an equation.  However, upon further examination, I would argue that the difference is merely semantic and thus does not change the essential unity of thought expressed by the two men.

Augustine argues that the Bible uses the two terms interchangeably, with the meanings being essentially equal.  Referencing Romans 11:2, he writes,

“Consequently sometimes the same predestination is signified also under the name of foreknowledge; as says the apostle, ‘God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew.’  Here, when he says, ‘He foreknew,’ the sense is not rightly understood except as ‘He predestinated,’ as is shown by the context of the passage itself.”[2]

Citing Israel as an example, Augustine seems to understand that the biblical writers sometimes used the term foreknow in a much more personal, relational way than as it is strictly defined.  Rather than merely signifying mental knowledge of a fact before its actual occurrence in time, Augustine saw foreknowledge as denoting a loving selection or choice on God’s part.[3]  Biblical foreknowledge was therefore more than mere cognition of foreseen merits in the life of the “potential” elect person, such as good works or faith.  This is proven by what Augustine says immediately prior to the previous quote, where he writes that faith, and perseverance in that faith, are both gifts from God.

Calvin, however, was much more careful with his terms, insisting that God’s foreknowledge was not the same thing as His predestination.  For Calvin, foreknowledge was God’s knowledge of all things, past, present, and future.[4]  This knowledge is “extended throughout the universe to every creature.”[5]  Predestination, on the other hand, is “God’s eternal decree, by which He compacted with Himself what He willed to become of each man… Eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others.”[6]  Calvin was forced to make this distinction because of his opponents who were defining God’s foreknowledge primarily in terms of knowledge of facts about the future, then insisting that God’s predestination is based on the foreseen merit of the individual, a concept which made His election conditioned on some human action.

Calvin could not accept this, for to condition man’s salvation on anything other than the immutable will of God was to strip God of His absolute sovereignty and give man power over his own salvation.  For Calvin, this transfer of power from God to man was also a transfer of glory in the same direction, and thus God was dishonored, while man was exalted.  This inversion of God’s stated purpose in creating and sustaining the universe was unacceptable to Calvin.  Referring to Ephesians 1:5, he writes,

“By these words [Paul] does away with all means of their election that men imagine in themselves.  For all benefits that God bestows for…flow from this one source: namely, that God has chosen whom He has willed, and before their birth has laid up for them individually the grace that He willed to grant them.”[7]

Because foreknowledge was defined in a much less relational, electing way for Calvin than it was for Augustine, Calvin rejected any equation of the two terms, instead taking time to carefully explain the differences lest God be robbed of any glory in the salvation of men.


After exploring the issue, it seems clear that although the two theologians explicitly contradicted each other in regards to the use of the terms foreknowledge and predestination, their understandings of each were so divergent as to render to conflict null and void.  When one considers the whole of their respective soteriologies, it is abundantly clear that any perceived conflict is superficial: Augustine and Calvin both emphasized man’s absolute dependence on God for anything good, the fact that faith is a gracious gift of God, and that predestination is based solely on His good pleasure and mercy.  For both, the goal of God’s sovereign election was to trample underfoot the pride of man with the glory of God.

[1] It must be noted, however, that Calvin never held Augustine to be of the same weight or authority as he held Scripture to be.  Unlike his Roman Catholic counterparts, Calvin truly did strive to uphold the Reformation doctrine of sola Scriptura as much as possible.  Thus, Calvin uses Augustine merely as supplementary support for his interpretations.
[2] Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, ch. 47
[3] Indeed, this is how the biblical writers often use the word foreknowledge.  See 1 Peter 1:20; Romans 11:1-2; Matthew 7:22-23; Genesis 18:17-19
[4] Actually, Calvin maintained that because God is outside of time, for Him “there is nothing future or past, but all things are present.  And they are present in such a way that He not only conceives them through ideas, as we have before us those things which our minds remember, but He truly looks upon them and discerns them as things placed before Him.” Institutes, 3:21:5
[5] Calvin, Institutes, 3:21:5
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 3:22:2

  1. Donald D. Champeon says:

    O.K. boys and girls, it’s quiz time! 1. What do you call a person who repeatedly reads and quotes Calvin? 2. What do you call a person who repeatedly reads and quotes the Bible? 3. Which is better, to be a Calvinist or a Biblicist? [Oops; did I just give away the answers to nos. 1. and 2.?]

  2. Matt Tully says:

    1. Someone who appreciates Calvin.
    2. Someone who appreciates the Bible.
    3. Obviously, it is better to be a “Biblicist.” However (to play along), if I believe that Calvin is rightly interpreting the Bible’s teaching on a particular topic, the distinction is moot. I agree with Calvin only insofar as he is “correctly handling the word of truth.” It just so happens that I believe that he often does just that, especially when it comes to many soteriological issues.

    How’d I fare on the quiz?

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