Election, or predestination, is the belief or doctrine that God has chosen some persons for the gift of salvation. It is not to be confused with providence, that is, God’s governance of all things, nor with Fate or philosophical determinism. An important teaching in Western Christianity, it has been especially emphasized in Reformed theology.

Predestination is rooted in the OT theme of God’s choice of Israel and is based on many NT passages, especially in Paul (e.g., Rom. 8:29–30; 9:6–33). It was developed doctrinally by Augustine against Pelagius, whom Augustine accused of teaching salvation by human effort. Augustine believed that out of the mass of sinful humanity God had chosen some to illustrate God’s grace, while passing by the remainder to illustrate God’s justice. For Augustine, this was compatible with the will’s freedom, understood not as choice but as free and willing assent to God’s will (voluntary necessity). Moreover, since God was in eternity, not time, there was for God neither past nor future, so predestination was outside time. Augustine’s teaching reappeared in such medieval anti–Pelagians as Thomas Bradwardine and John Wycliffe. Wycliffe used the doctrine to spiritualize the divine–human relationship and undermine priestly authority.

During the Reformation, Martin Luther asserted predestination against Erasmus, whom he accused of Pelagianism. But Lutheran theology eventually minimized it. Reformed church leaders, however, emphasized predestination to glorify God, instill humility and gratitude, insist against Roman Catholicism that salvation was by God’s grace alone and did not entail human merit, and to affirm that it was God’s purpose to elect and sanctify a people to fulfill God’s will in the world. Thus Huldrych Zwingli taught predestination as part of the sovereignty and providence of God. His Zurich successor, Heinrich Bullinger, described it as God’s gracious choice of the undeserving. Martin Bucer related predestination to the doctrine of salvation (it was “in Christ”) and stressed election to holiness of life.

John Calvin carried on Bucer’s approach and also followed Augustine. He did not make predestination the center of his theology, nor did he treat it abstractly as an aspect of the doctrine of God, but he considered it in relation to soteriology and the Christian life: believers humbly and thankfully look back to their election as solely a gift of saving grace. Especially in later controversy, however, Calvin affirmed double predestination, or the reprobation of those not elected, though this was only because of their own sins. Like Augustine, he thought predestination harmonized with the will’s freedom, since God never forced the will. The approach of Bucer and Calvin is reflected in the early Reformed confessions.

The growth of scholastic method in Reformed theology gave predestination more precise definition and more central theological placement than in Zwingli’s programmatic writings and Calvin’s exegetical ones. The Italian exile theologians Peter Martyr Vermigli and Girolamo Zanchi were significant in this process as they brought the logic of Aristotle and familiarity with medieval scholasticism to their versions of Reformed teaching. Zanchi followed medieval theologians in connecting predestination with the doctrine of God. Scholastic method is also apparent in Calvin’s Genevan successor, Theodore Beza, who put God’s decrees at the beginning of his system. Beza was also a supralapsarian, holding that God’s decrees of election and reprobation preceded God’s decree of creation and permission of the fall. The doctrine of the earlier Reformed theologians had generally been infralapsarian, with predestination subsequent to these things, but some later Reformed theologians further developed Beza’s approach. In spite of these scholastic refinements, there remained an experiential core to belief in predestination, especially apparent among Puritan theologians such as William Perkins, who emphasized its uses in giving hope and assurance to believers and stimulating good works: those who trust in Christ and strive to lead a holy life should consider themselves among the elect.

There was resistance to such a prominent, sharply defined, and sometimes supralapsarian doctrine of the double decree, often deriving from the Erasmian and humanist elements of the early Reformation. Among the early Reformed, Theodor Bibliander was cautious about predestination. The seventeenth century French theologian Moïse Amyraut taught hypothetical universalism which he said had been Calvin’s view: the death of Christ was on behalf of all, even if effective only for the elect. This view became widespread among French Calvinists and was adopted by some of the English Presbyterians, including Richard Baxter. More radically, Jacobus Arminius in the Netherlands maintained that God predestined on the basis of foreknowledge of who would believe. After bitter conflict, the Synod of Dort (1618–19) condemned Arminius’s opinion and affirmed unconditional election as necessary for the preservation of salvation by grace. The Westminster Confession (1646) reflected the scholastic and anti–Arminian form of the doctrine but stopped short of supralapsarianism. In the following decades, Reformed scholastics such as John Owen and Francis Turretin continued to refute Arminians.

The evangelical movements of the eighteenth century stressed God’s grace, giving the doctrine of predestination renewed life, as in its defense by Jonathan Edwards in New England. However, evangelicalism eventually led to a simplification of theology that eroded predestination, especially after its rejection by Wesleyan Methodism; the nineteenth century American evangelist Charles G. Finney denounced it as an impediment to revivals. Thereafter revivalism tended to be Arminian, and many Presbyterians and Congregationalists in the United States abandoned belief in predestination, a process also abetted by the growth of theological liberalism. The Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. added to the Westminster Confession a section stating it was God’s desire that all be saved (1903). But scholastic predestinarian theology continued at Princeton Seminary with Charles Hodge.

Liberals among continental Reformed theologians emphasized predestination. Friedrich Schleiermacher, who said the essence of religion was the feeling of absolute dependence upon God, defended predestination as necessary for affirming that essence, though he rejected reprobation. Alexander Schweizer argued that Schleiermacher had revitalized Reformed theology by emphasizing predestination, which Schweizer thought was the primary motif of Reformed theology. But Schweizer felt that the doctrine could be replaced by its distilled essence: dependence upon God.

The neo–orthodoxy of the early twentieth century revived much in Reformation theology, reacting against liberalism. Emil Brunner, however, criticized Zwingli for determinism and Calvin for the double decree. He held that election assures believers that a personal God calls from eternity those who, in the world of time, believe; there is no before or after, only grace.

Karl Barth performed a more drastic recasting. For him, Jesus Christ is the object of predestination, and humanity is elected in him; thus the grace of God as the sole cause of salvation is preserved at the same time that the universality of this election removes the greatest obstacle to the doctrine: its invidious distinction of elect and non–elect.

Predestination is a difficult point for modern Christians. Yet it is an important guarantee of the gratuitousness of salvation, surely a central intention of Reformed theology. Also, when one considers that doctrinal formulations are human ways of understanding the mysteries of divine revelation, it may well be best to accept the intention of the doctrine: affirmation of God’s gracious favor bestowed upon the undeserving, and set aside its negative implications as unbiblical. Further, it should be remembered that predestination rules out human merit, not freedom; God’s will is exercised through secondary causes and does not compel the human will to any end to which it has not freely assented.


B. G. Armstrong, Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy (1969); Barth, CD II/2; B. A. Gerrish, Tradition and the Modern World (1978); P K. Jewett, Election and Predestination (1986); R. A. Muller, Christ and the Decree (1986); D. D. Wallace, Jr., Puritans and Predestination (1982).

CD Karl Barch, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T. & T, Clark, 1936–69)

Donald K. McKim and David F. Wright, Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.; Edinburgh: Westminster/John Knox Press; Saint Andrew Press, 1992), 291.

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