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Augustine Had It Right; Calvin Did Not

Question:

Some Protestants claim St. Augustine taught predestination and "faith alone" like Luther and Calvin. Are they correct?

Answer:

St. Augustine of Hippo taught neither doctrine. He did not teach “double predestination,” i.e., that not only does God predestine some to heaven, he also ordains that others will go to hell so that there is nothing they can do to reverse their eternal damnation.

To be clear, John Calvin taught this erroneous doctrine, not Martin Luther. Among other problems, there is no free will of any consequence for those who are divinely reprobated. In other words, they will ultimately be damned and can’t do a thing about it. Augustine would have strongly disagreed with this heresy, as he affirmed man’s God-given free will and thus our ability to accept or reject God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

The Catholic understanding of predestination or divine election encompasses man’s free-will response in accepting God’s gift of eternal salvation. As Augustine, the great Father and Doctor of the Church, summarized so well, “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us” (CCC 1847).

St. Augustine would also affirm that God knows from all eternity who will accept his gift of salvation and who will reject it. That’s because God is omnipotent (all-powerful) and omniscient (all-knowing), so nothing he creates—including the material realms of time and space—can limit him. Rather, to God, everything is present. He doesn’t have to wait for history to unfold as we mere humans do to find out what is going to happen. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be God.

On the other hand, God’s knowing how we will choose does not entail his willfully predetermining how we will choose. Here we see the worst part of Calvin’s “dreadful doctrine,” as he describes this teaching: it’s blasphemous. God, who is supposed to be all good, is ultimately responsible for those who go to hell, not the sinners themselves. A mere human mother desires that all of her children be saved. How much then would we expect from a divine creator?

Indeed, Scripture affirms that God desires the salvation of all mankind (1 Tim. 2:4, 2 Pet. 3:9), and that those who go to hell choose to exclude themselves from him and his heavenly kingdom (see, e.g., Matt. 7:13-14, 25:31-46; CCC 1033-37).

These passages from Matthew affirm that man is not saved by God’s grace through faith alone, contrary to what Martin Luther taught, but through both faith and good works (see also James 2:14-26). As a faithful Catholic bishop, which is beyond dispute, St. Augustine concurred with Jesus and St. James.

For more on predestination and double predestination, as well as man’s free will, click here. For more on the importance of good works, see CCC 1854-64, 2006-16.

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