Free Will, Predestination, and Politics in Early Christianity: Musings for 2023

Besides finally finishing my dissertation (God willing), I think one intellectual project for 2023 is going to be getting a better handle on i) how pre-Augustinian Christianity approached community (both within and beyond the Church) and ii) how socio-political factors affected Christianization from the fourth century on. These angles strike me as highly relevant to our present moment, whether we’re dealing with the more rarified air of confessional ressourcement projects in political theology or more down-to-earth pastoral concerns. As a newly-installed pastor and friend confided to me recently, he just worries about guiding his church wisely through the Sturm und Drang of another imminent presidential election cycle. I share his sense of dread.

With those bigger aims in mind, I want to put down one cornerstone that might be important later: prior to Augustine, early Christian intellectuals forcefully stressed human free will over against predestination. (I’ll come to why this could matter for a Christian vision of society toward the end.) This has been one of the features of patristic thought that has most surprised me. Like many who grew up in evangelicalism, I was routinely exposed to the Calvinist-Arminian debate and the attendant fights over, say, the meaning of Romans 9. As I continued to think about the topic in college, I vaguely assumed (though coming down strongly on one side myself) that this was an intractable theological dilemma that went all the way back in Christian history. After all, an authority as great as Augustine had plainly wrestled with these same questions, and Augustine was ancient. Surely, Christians had been wrangling over free will from the moment Phoebe read out Paul’s letter to the faithful gathered in some house in Rome.

Imagine my surprise upon discovering that this dispute over free will and predestination had no real parallel in Christian theology before Augustine. That I have ever found—and there may very well be exceptions that I have missed—the patristic sources who commented on the subject came down decidedly for free will while often nonchalantly declaring this to be the position of Christians at-large: Justin Martyr,[1] Irenaeus,[2] Tertullian,[3] Origen,[4] and Eusebius,[5] to list just a few of the most prominent names. As I got to know the world of antiquity a little better, context made this impression even starker. That is, what we often consider the philosophical, ideological, and religious competitors of Christian orthodoxy in this period tended to fall hard on the other side of the ledger: Stoicism most famously, but also Neoplatonism, the original gnostics and probably the Valentinians who borrowed from them, and the Manicheans—to say nothing of antiquity’s ubiquitous astrological determinism. To a man, the theological rhetoric coming from the pre-Augustinian fathers was the exact opposite emphasis of what I had heard from popular Calvinists like John Piper but also what I read in the erudite systematic theology of Calvin himself.

To be sure, this early Christian theological tradition does not dispositively show that Augustine or Calvin were wrong. Maybe they had Paul pegged correctly all along where others had misunderstood or else been unwilling to face what they read in him. Still, that leaves a pretty hefty historical problem, even if we should find a predestinarian exegesis of Scripture persuasive on its own terms. To illustrate, how is it that someone like Irenaeus, who seems to be only one step removed from the apostolic past, could have missed what Augustine and Calvin made a distinguishing, central element of their own theology? It looks worse when Augustine himself appears to have had some sense that he was innovating on this point, as Ken Wilson has argued at length in his larger monograph and in his shorter, more popular-level, and more polemical precis of his research.[6]

Wilson marks several particular factors of interest here. First, Wilson thinks he has identified when and (through chronological context) why Augustine changed his mind on these issues. More controversially, Wilson also suggests that Augustine never entirely shook his Manichean outlook on the world and goes to Augustine’s own writings to make that case, which I leave to interested readers to sort out for themselves. Third, but more relevant to my broader interests, Wilson suggests Augustine had at least partly painted himself into a theological corner a priori with his view of infant baptism, an issue which naturally catches many thorns associated with free will and predestination. Again, better Augustinian scholars than I will have to adjudicate whether this is a fair assessment, but it strikes me as entirely plausible, particularly when paired with how other historians of early Christianity have situated Augustine in the broader currents of his world. Thus, Kyle Harper has seen in Augustine a nexus of issues that we would not necessarily associate today: freedom of the will (or lack thereof), infant baptism, sexual integrity and autonomy, ecclesiology, and even political theology. Harper writes:

What was at stake in Augustine’s [determinist] pessimism, in the larger sense, is the ability of the church to absorb society. The impossibility of human perfection was the necessary adjunct to a vison of the church as an embracing institution, impure in its present form.[7]

If critics like Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum had been asceticizing spiritual elitists, then Augustine was an egalitarian, whence his attractiveness for the Reformers. On the other hand, this led him to double-down on the institutional church and its sacraments—thus his continued attractiveness for Roman Catholics. “Human beings could not glory,” Peter Brown remarks, “But an institution could do so.”[8]

As I have posited before, I don’t think it was an accident that Augustine’s angst about baptism and free will came at the inflection point of Christianization in the Roman Empire under the Theodosians, who went farther than their predecessors in making Christianity the official religion of the empire.[9] Likewise, it looks to be more than happenstance that the same questions suddenly reemerge in the Reformation. If one generally expects that any given individual born into a particular community is going to live (in some sense) as a “proper Christian” along with everyone else in their social world, there tend to be serious implications for soteriology, ecclesiology, and political theology.

Hopefully, this all offers better sense of why early Christian stress on free will might have ramifications for Christianity’s political program in the present today. At least one Christian theorist, Lactantius (c. 250–c. 325), appears to have made the connection, arguing that the reality or human free will in religious matters should inform how the emperors themselves ruled their subjects: with patientia, just as God himself reigned. In other words, the stronger one’s sense of metaphysical free will, the less one may feel the need to micromanage the socio-political. Lactantius dedicated the book in which these ideas were mostly thoroughly developed to one emperor in particular, and prominent scholars are now convinced that this emperor not only read Lactantius’ Divine Institutes but also articulated its ideas in his political rhetoric and applied it to his governance.[10] And so, by the benchmark of Roman emperors generally and his most recent predecessors particularly, Constantine the Great often resembles a liberal defender of freedom of religion than many would care to admit. Constantine’s exemplum is worth studying not only because he was effectively the first Christian prince but also because he was governing a society much closer to the scale of our own than, say, any of the small kingdoms and statelets that the original Protestant theorists had in mind. But I’m getting ahead of myself; Constantine will always be a contentious case for a host of different reasons, so I’ll leave full length considerations of both him and Lactantius for later posts.

There is one final point that connects Constantine back to the larger constellation of questions I hope to ponder this year alongside my deeper reservations about ressourcement projects in political theology. Namely, Christianity will soon find itself—if it has not already—in weaker demographic and institutional position than when Constantine united the empire under his rule in 324.[11] Admittedly, sociological measures of religiosity—to say nothing of orthodoxy—are slippery in the present and doubly so in antiquity. And while I think a shift away from the “Christian nationalism” discussion is welcome, a program of “Christian magistracy” or “Christian commonwealth” still presupposes, I sense, that historically orthodox Christianity is in fact “common” rather than in sharp decline.[12]

  1. Second Apology 7.

  2. Against Heresies 4.37 and 5.27.1.
  3. Against Marcion passim (e.g. 2.6).
  4. De Principiis Praef.5, 1.5.3–1.8.3, 2.1.2, and 3.1.
  5. Praeparatio Evangelica 6.
  6. Respectively, Kenneth Wilson, Augustine’s Conversion from Traditional Free Choice to “Non-Free Free Will”: A Comprehensive Methodology, Studien Und Texte Zu Antike Und Christentum = Studies and Texts in Antiquity and Chrisianity 111 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018) and The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism (Montgomery, TX: Regula Fidei Press, 2019).
  7. Kyle Harper, From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity, Revealing Antiquity 20 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2016), 179.
  8. Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000, 10th anniversary rev. ed, The Making of Europe (Chichester, West Sussex ; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 91.
  10. For starters, see Noel Lenski’s “Constantine and the Donatists: Exploring the Limits of Religious Toleration,” in Religiöse Toleranz: 1700 Jahre Nach Dem Edikt von Mailand, ed. Martin Wallraff (Boston ; Leiden: De Gruyter, 2016), 101–40; “The Significance of the Edict of Milan,” in Constantine: Religious Faith and Imperial Policy, ed. A. Edward Siecienski (London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017), 27–56; Constantine and the Cities: Imperial Authority and Civic Politics (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), 80–1 and 230–45. See also Elizabeth DePalma Digeser, The Making of a Christian Empire: Lactantius & Rome (Cornell University Press, 2000).

  11. See Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 7. Stark’s work is admittedly speculative, but going on his sociological assumptions, he had Christianity as more than 20% of the population and growing rapidly at 43% per decade.
  12. Brad Littlejohn, “Christian Nationalism or Christian Commonwealth? A Call for Clarity,” Ad Fontes Web Exclusive, Dec. 7, 2022.


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