Neglected Sources of the Reformation Doctrine of Predestination

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Neglected Sources of the Reformation Doctrine of Predestination Ulrich Zwingli and Peter Martyr Vermigli (by Frank A. James III)

Although its reception has been varied, the doctrine of predestination--and particularly double predestination--has nevertheless had a significant impact throughout church history. Augustine, Fulgentius of Ruspe, Isodore of Seville, Gottschalk of Orbais, Thomas Aquinas, the sixteenth-century Reformers, and, more recently, Karl Barth all devoted careful attention to this question, even if the church did not always appreciate their efforts. But of all the religious movements in history, few have been more closely associated with the doctrine than the early Reformed theologians.[1]

At this point a caveat ought to be issued against overgeneralizations. Not all of the major Protestant Reformers agreed with Calvin's doctrine of double predestination. Some Protestants (both Lutheran and Reformed), such as Bullinger, Bibliander and later Melanchthon, found double predestination objectionable.[2] Furthermore, not every Roman Catholic rejected this doctrine out of hand. Although the vast majority of Roman Catholic theologians strongly refuted a rigorous doctrine of double predestination, nevertheless a few early sixteenth-century Roman Catholics, such as Konrad Treger, considered it a legitimate part of their Augustinian heritage.[3]

Despite the common historical misconception, John Calvin was not the exclusive source of the Reformed branch of Protestantism. From a distance, he may appear to tower over other Reformed theologians, but the intervening centuries have distorted the historical reality. In recent years, it has been increasingly recognized that the origins of Reformed theology do not derive exclusively from Calvin, but rather from a coterie of theologians who were associated with Swiss reform, including Ulrich Zwingli, Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Wolfgang Musculus.[4]

This study concentrates on two of the leading lights from this constellation of theologians who gave formative shape to early Reformed theology: Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) and Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562). These men represent two important but different strains within the Reformed tradition. Zwingli was a first-generation magisterial reformer and inaugurator of Swiss reform. He did not give much attention to the topic of predestination until his meeting with Luther at the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529. While there, Zwingli preached a sermon on providence and predestination to an audience which included Luther himself. This sermon was later expanded and published as De providentia (On Providence).

Peter Martyr Vermigli belonged to the second-generation of Reformed theologians who, along with Calvin, gave definitive shape to the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Vermigli is somewhat unusual in that he had been a prominent Roman Catholic theologian before embracing Protestantism. During his first forty-three years in Italy, he was an active reformer within the Roman Catholic Church, but fled the Roman inquisition in 1542 and sought refuge among the Protestants. Almost immediately after his flight from Italy, he rose to prominence as a Protestant theologian. In his new Protestant capacity, his sphere of influence extended to the major centers of the reformation movement -- Bucer's Strasbourg, Archbishop Cranmer's Oxford, and Bullinger's Zurich. His prominence in the Reformed community was such that one contemporary could say: "the two most excellent theologians of our times are John Calvin and Peter Martyr."[5]

Vermigli does not make predestination the signature doctrine of his theological system. But like Calvin, his name became associated with it because he was repeatedly called on to defend it and thus he became one of the principal apologists for a reformed doctrine of predestination.[6] He championed it against Johann Marbach in Strasbourg and Theodore Bibliander in Zurich.[7]

Like most of the early Protestants, both Zwingli and Vermigli held strong views on predestination. Although there was diversity, this doctrine came to be inextricably linked to Reformed theology. But how did the Reformed doctrine of predestination develop?

Sources for the Reformed Doctrine of Predestination

Historically, as noted above, predestination is not a doctrine that distinguishes Protestants from Roman Catholics. The Reformed doctrine of predestination was essentially a recovery of Augustine's view, yet it was not just theological mimicry, for the reformers sought above all to return to the teaching of the Apostle Paul. Paul was, however, interpreted through an Augustinian theological grid.

It is well-known that the apostle employed the term "predestination" as well as its near equivalent "election," on a number of occasions in his epistles.[8] Furthermore, Paul derived the essence of his conception of predestination from the Old Testament; broadly from the idea of Israel as God's chosen people, and narrowly from the divine choice of Jacob and the divine rejection of Esau.[9] The language and the idea of God choosing some to the exclusion of others is an important substrata throughout the biblical writings.

Like every predestinarian before the sixteenth century, Reformed theologians drew particular inspiration from Paul. The ninth chapter of Romans served as the biblical epicenter of their doctrine of predestination. This passage contains the powerful language of the divine hardening of Pharaoh's heart, God's election of Jacob and rejection of Esau before their birth, as well as the imagery of vessels of wrath prepared for destruction and vessels of mercy prepared for glory. Whatever criticism may be leveled against Reformed theologians, they were determined to forge their theology from Scripture, and Paul especially served as the chief source of their doctrine of predestination.

History also reveals that, beginning with Augustine, a distinctive hermeneutical tradition emerged which drew from Paul's words an unequivocal doctrine of predestination. Reformed theologians knew the writings of all of the major fathers, both Greek and Latin, but it was Augustine who occupied first place in the pantheon of fathers. Although not infallible, he was viewed as the preeminently judicious and wise mentor on most theological questions, not the least of which was the doctrine of predestination.[10]

Just as these Reformed theologians interpreted Paul under the guidance of Augustine, they also encountered Augustine under the shaping influence of late medieval theology. As such, one cannot understand the development of the Reformed doctrine of predestination without some acquaintance with the late medieval theological influences that shaped their thought.

Stoicism and Ulrich Zwingli

Gottfried Locher judges that of all the major Protestant reformers, Zwingli articulated the most extreme doctrine of predestination.[11] Calvin himself expressed concern about the "immoderate" and "paradoxical" formulation of Zwingli's view of providence and predestination. It was not until the publication of his work De providentia that Zwingli expressed his mature understanding of predestination. He was deeply indebted to Erasmian humanism and its penchant for seeing the classical pagan authors as rhetorical mentors. The important catchphrase of the humanists was ad fontes (back to the fount or original sources). Humanists such as Zwingli took this to mean a return not only to classical authors but also to the church fathers and the Bible in its original languages. It was Zwingli's humanism that made him highly amenable to appropriating insights from pagan philosophers for his theology.

Zwingli's De providentia reveals his strongly philosophical cast of mind. Indeed, because of the philosophical strains in this treatise, many scholars have concluded that Zwingli is more philosopher than theologian.[12] Most obviously, his philosophical orientation is signaled by the constant parade of ancient philosophers across the pages of this work. While Calvin and Vermigli also alluded to classical authors, there is a fundamental difference between Zwingli's use of ancient philosophers and that of Vermigli and Calvin. These two looked to the classical philosophers as illustrations of Christian truth, where Zwingli sees them as guides to it.

Of all the ancients, Zwingli's greatest praise is reserved for the last great representative of Roman Stoicism, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, "that unparalleled cultivator of the soul among pagans." For Zwingli, Seneca was a "theologian," and his writings were "divine oracles."[13] So prevalent is the spirit of Seneca throughout the De providentia that François Wendel concludes that it "reads almost like a commentary on chosen passages from Seneca."[14] The most significant impact from Seneca is found in Zwingli's all encompassing doctrine of providence, of which predestination is a subcategory. Following Seneca, he insists there is no secondary causality: "it is established therefore that secondary causes are not properly called causes." He adds: "Nothing is done or achieved which is not done and achieved by the immediate care and power of the Deity." Providence in fact looms so large that there appears to be no room for human will or human responsibility. Thus Zwingli's understanding of predestination as indistinguishable from providence, logically inclines him to the conclusion that God is the cause of human sin. If, as Zwingli affirms, absolutely everything is under divine providence, then is not human sin also under the direct control of divine providence? To be sure, God is absolved of any personal culpability, yet Zwingli can assert that God is the "author, mover and instigator" of human sin.[15]

When this all-pervasive divine providence is applied to the matter of reprobation and to eternal condemnation, it necessarily follows that God is the direct and exclusive cause, since God is the cause of everything. Eternal condemnation is explicitly traced back to the pretemporal rejection by the will of God. Temporal sins may be the occasion for eternal condemnation, but they are not the ultimate and direct cause. For him, reprobation, as well as election, is conceived teleologically.[16] The divine will does not simply reject, it rejects with a specific purpose in view. To Zwingli's mind, reprobation includes eternal consequences. Just as election is unto eternal life, so reprobation is unto eternal punishment.

At the core of Zwingli's predestinarian thought about election and reprobation is the notion that both issue directly from the divine will. Zwingli attributes both to the divine will in the same way, constructing an absolutely symmetrical doctrine of double predestination. The cause and means of both election and reprobation are precisely the same. For Zwingli, God is the exclusive and immediate cause of all things.

Late Medieval Augustinianism and Peter Martyr Vermigli
As a Roman Catholic theologian, Vermigli actually read Zwingli but did not embrace a Stoical-flavored view of predestination. Although Vermigli's primary inspiration came from Augustine, he went beyond his mentor in his interpretation of Paul's predestinarianism.[17] The explanation for this intensified Augustinianism is found at the University of Padua, where as a student Vermigli first read and appreciated the robust Augustinian theology of Gregory of Rimini. What is significant for our purposes is that Gregory was "the first Augustinian of Augustine."[18] Reading Gregory at the formative stage of his theological training, Vermigli had encountered one of the most vigorous double predestinarians of the late medieval period. The modern editor of Gregory's works offers this caveat to unwary readers: "Leafing through Gregory's pages one may be shocked by the predestinarianism, and ask oneself whether Gregory's God was the Mexican War God."[19] Gregory was probably unfamiliar with Mexican deities, but there was indeed a militancy in his defense of Augustine's doctrine of predestination.

Gregory is credited with having given birth to a late medieval "academic Augustinianism" committed to the pursuit of -- and obedience to -- the genuine theology of Augustine. This intensive form of late medieval Augustinianism began a concerted effort in the fourteenth century to recover the whole corpus of Augustine's works and to develop a systematic acquaintance with his entire thought. Gregory of Rimini not only knew the writings and followed the doctrines of Augustine more closely than any other late medieval theologian, he also restored long neglected works to circulation and evidenced a highly developed critical sense to distinguish genuine from apocryphal works.[20] In the fourteenth century, one can speak of an "Augustinian renaissance" which some have designated the schola Augustiniana moderna.[21] This new intensified Augustinianism developed a ferociously anti-Pelagian theology of grace, including a vigorous doctrine of double predestination.

Although more than a century separates these two theologians, there are remarkable parallels between the predestinarianism of Gregory and that of Vermigli. Time and time again, the same issues are isolated and resolved with the same theological conclusions, often employing the same terms, and always based upon the same twin sources, Scripture and Augustine. Vermigli's most mature exposition of this doctrine occurs in an extended locus from his commentary on Romans, where he, much like Gregory, develops the doctrine of predestination within a causal nexus.[22] On the matter of election (which he technically equated with predestination), God's will in eternity was the exclusive cause. Vermigli follows Augustine's line, thinking of all humanity as a massa perditionis (mass of perdition), doomed to eternal condemnation unless God intervenes. Divine election is construed as the rescue of doomed sinners, who can do nothing to aid in their own rescue. After being elected from the mass of fallen sinners in eternity past and granted the gift of faith, the elect exercise that gift of faith in time and thus will inherit eternal life.[23] In sum, Vermigli, like Gregory before him, taught an unconditional election.

Vermigli did not shy away from the difficult matter of reprobation. There are two important features in his understanding of reprobation that underscore this. First, he understood reprobation as a passive expression of the sovereign will of God. Although the will of God is absolutely free and sovereign, God wields it passively in reprobation. By passive willing, Vermigli meant something more than mere permission but less than an active willing. For Vermigli, God is not to be pictured as sitting back and simply permitting matters to take their course. Rather, God engineers and orchestrates men and events without coercion in order to produce his predetermined salvation result. To reprobate is characteristically described as "not to have mercy" or "passing over."[24] Yet, it does not conjure up visions of a dispassionate deity arbitrarily hurling helpless victims into a lake of fire. Vermigli's vision of election and reprobation is more complicated; it portrays God as actively rescuing some sinners, but deliberately and mysteriously bypassing others.

A second major feature of Vermigli's view of reprobation is the adoption of the distinction between reprobation and condemnation. Reprobation has reference to the decision not to have mercy in eternity past, and its cause lies in the inscrutable sovereign will of God. Condemnation, on the other hand, has a temporal orientation, where causality lies within the matrix of original and actual sins. For Vermigli, "sins are the cause of damnation but not the cause of reprobation."[25] God's role in condemnation is confined to the institution and execution of the general principle that sins are to be punished. Condemnation is the expression of divine justice. So then, the true cause of condemnation is sinful man, but the true cause of reprobation is the unfathomable purpose of God (propositum Dei). Vermigli's version of double predestination differs from that of Zwingli in that the latter has a symmetrical double predestination while the former has an asymmetrical version of double predestination. For Vermigli, God does not deal with the elect in precisely the same way as he does with the non-elect. For the elect, God not only is the ultimate eternal cause, but by granting the gift of faith, he is also the temporal cause of the elect attaining eternal life. That parallel is not sustained when it comes to reprobation. Although the ultimate eternal cause of election and rejection is precisely the same, the cause for condemnation does not correspond to the cause for eternal blessing. For the condemned, it is their sins that cause their eternal destruction.


The development of the Reformed doctrine of predestination reminds us first and foremost that the primary source for Reformed theology is and must continue to be the Scriptures. Second, a good knowledge of church history can be a useful guide to the interpretation of Scripture, and on most issues, there is no better guide than Augustine. Third, we must exercise caution about the subtle cultural and intellectual influences that infiltrate our theological system. Doctrine is never formed in a theological vacuum and so we must examine and refine our presuppositions to conform to historic Christianity. Finally, predestination, although alien to most twentieth-century minds, is a vital, indeed necessary truth which stops us in our tracks, destroys our pride, and relieves us of the arrogance of thinking we did it our way.


1. Paul K. Jewett, Election and Predestination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 10.

2. For Heinrich Bullinger's views, see J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition (Athens, Ohio, 1980), 27-54. For Theodore Bibliander's view, see J. Staedke, "Der Zuricher Prädestinationstreit von 1560," Zwingliana 9 (1953), 536-546. For Melanchthon's views, see Clyde L. Manschreck, ed., Melanchthon on Christian Doctrine: Loci Communes 1555 (Oxford, 1965; reprinted, Grand Rapids, 1982), xii-xiv, xl-xlii, 187-191.

3. Adolar Zumkeller, "The Augustinian Theologian Konrad Treger (ca. 1480-1542) and his Disputation Thesis of May 5, 1521," in Via Augustini: Augustine in the Later Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation, edited by H. A. Oberman and F. A. James III (Leiden, 1991): 130-142.

4. Richard Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 39.

5. Gordon Huelin, "Peter Martyr and the English Reformation," (Ph.D. dissertation, University of London, 1954), 178.

6. Charles Schmidt, Leben und ausgewahlte Schriften nach handschriftlichen und gleichzeitigen Quellen (Elberfeld: R. L. Friderichs, 1858), 106.

7. Frank A. James III, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination: The Augustinian Heritage of an Italian Theologian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 31-36.

8. Paul employs the term repeatedly -- Romans 8:33; 8:29; Ephesians 1:5. Jesus also made comments concerning the elect: Luke 18:7; Matt. 24:22; and Mark 13:27. For a more complete summary of the biblical data, see Paul K. Jewett, Election and Predestination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 24-29.

9. Paul's discussion of predestination in Romans 9:10-24 is self-consciously derived from the Old Testament. Much of Romans 9 is a recitation of Old Testament passages, including Malachi 1:2-3; Exodus 33:19 and 9:16.

10. James, Peter Martyr Vermigli, 94-95.

11. G. Locher, Zwingli's Thought: New Perspectives (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981), 54.

12. W. P. Stephens, The Theology of Huldrych Zwingli (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 81.

13. Huldreich Zwinglis Werke, ed. M. Schuler and J. Schulthess (Zurich, 1828-1842), IV, 95.

14. F. Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (London: Collins, 1963), 29.

15. Werke, IV, 96, 134, 112.

16. Werke, IV, 126, 139.

17. James, Peter Martyr Vermigli, 104-105.

18. Damasus Trapp, "Augustinian Theology in the Fourteenth Century: Notes on Editionis, Marginalia, Opinions and Book Lore," Augustiniana 6 (1956), 181. 19. Damasus Trapp, "Notes on the Tubingen Edition of Gregory of Rimini," Augustiniana 29 (1979), 238.

20. Trapp, "Augustinian Theology," 181-213.

21. Heiko A. Oberman, Masters of the Reformation: The Emergence of a New Intellectual Climate in Europe (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1981), 70-71.

22. James, Peter Martyr Vermigli, 133.

23. Peter Martyr Vermigli, In Epistolam S. Pauli ad Romanos 
commentarii doctissimi, (Basel, 1558), 410, 413-14.

24. Romanos, 37, 381, 480, 430.

25. Romanos, 414.

Frank A. James III (D.Phil., Oxford) is associate professor of church history at Reformed Theological Seminary (Orlando) and the author of Peter Martyr Vermigli and Predestination: The Augustinian Heritage of an Italian Theologian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).