Six Positions on the Doctrine of Election in Church History


Over the course of history, there have been many different theological systems and individuals who have interpreted the doctrine of election. Each has understood the doctrine of election differently. I will briefly discuss the basic definitions of election that Origen, Augustine, Semi-Pelagianism, Roman Catholicism, Calvin, Arminius, and Wesley have each given.

1. Origen lived during the 200’s and had a great fear that biblical election taught fatalism. Fatalism was prevalent during his time and he feared that this teaching encouraged and kindled this idea. As a result, Origen answered his concerns with universal salvation. He taught that all would eventually choose God and as a result be saved.

2. Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, lived during the 300’s and his view of election stemmed from his opposition to Pelagius who taught the heresy that man had the ability to save himself (human monergism). Augustine, in direct contrast to Pelagius, had a very strong doctrine of election which was marked by divine monergism. Augustine held that election was God’s choosing of some individuals to save while passing over others leaving them to be justly condemned. Augustine presented election as being God’s mercy and our only hope to be saved. Some of us get more than what we deserve while no one receives less than what they deserves under Augustine’s definition of election.

3. Semi-Pelagianism, which is a softer presentation of Pelagianism, states that the weakened human being can and does initiate their own salvation and then God responds. Semi-Pelagians taught that once an individual does initiate their salvation, God responds by assisting the weakened human will with divine grace and cooperatively God and man achieve salvation. Therefore, Semi-Pelagianism denies unconditional election because they believed it rendered human freedom and responsibility non-existent and the work of a pastor was viewed as futile. Similarly to Origen, Semi-Pelagianism feared and believed that the teaching of unconditional election led to fatalism.

4. Roman Catholicism begins their understanding of election with the denial of total depravity of man. Similar to Semi-Pelagianism, Roman Catholics traditionally view the human will as being weakened rather than dead. When some begin within themselves to desire grace, God responds by giving grace. Roman Catholicism is eerily similar to Semi-Pelagianism in their affirmation of salvation as a result of divine-human cooperation. Roman Catholic understanding of election can be simply defined as God’s foreseeing of the meritorious works of individuals. These individuals are then elect but can fall from this state of grace even on their deathbed. Likewise, those who are non-elect (those who have not demonstrated meritorious works with the combination of God’s response of providing grace) can rise to salvation even on their deathbed. Roman Catholics view sovereign unconditional election as inconsistent with God’s love and therefore deny Augustinian and Reformed doctrines of election.

5. John Calvin, in contrast to Roman Catholicism, was a major proponent of unconditional election. Calvin lived in the 1500’s and he viewed election to be based on God’s sovereign will and good pleasure. God’s free will is glorified in Calvin’s view of election, rather than man’s. However, Calvin did believe in the free will of man. He simply interprets it differently than those in the Arminian and Wesleyan traditions. Election is therefore based on God’s unconditional choice of individuals rather than being based on any good in individuals. God chose some sinners to save and others to condemn.

While God freely elects out of sheer mercy and grace, he was never under any obligation to do so and therefore God’s election of us is a result of his goodness and sovereign will toward undeserving mankind. Calvin’s view of election included the affirmation that election is a result of God’s foreknowledge of persons and not choices. Calvin taught that election was caused by God’s sovereign will and grounded in Christ’s atoning death.

6. Jacobus Arminius and John Wesley held very similar, if not identical, views concerning the doctrine of election. Their view of election was conditional as they believed unconditional election made God to be arbitrary and unloving. Wesley in particular adamantly opposed unconditional election as he reasoned that belief in predestination inevitably led to double predestination (some are predestined to life and others in the same way are predestined to eternal death), which he viewed as egregious. Arminius before Wesley and Wesley afterwards taught and believed in conditional election which is the sole view of individual election among the Arminian and Wesleyan traditions. They believed in a synergism that taught that God frees the human will by providing every individual with prevenient grace. This prevenient grace frees up the will to positively choose Christ and based on the condition of this faith, God then responds by electing those individuals to eternal life. They each arrived at this conclusion by starting with the truth that God desires all to be saved (2 Tim. 2:4; 2 Pt. 3:9).

They then assert that God desires something more than this, namely the free will of man. In order to preserve free will and uphold God’s love, Arminius and Wesley taught that God decided to save all of mankind and provided the way through prevenient grace in Christ. However, in order to preserve free will, God does not choose any to save without their cooperation. God gives the ability to choose him through prevenient grace and then it is up to the individual to respond in faith. After this response of faith, God then elects those individuals to eternal life. This conditional election held by Arminius and Wesley is rooted in God’s foreknowledge of the free choices of individuals, not individuals themselves. The crux of election in the teachings of Arminius and Wesley is prevenient grace, for without it, their teachings become Semi-Pelagian.

396110_519885398036913_1852978654_nMathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.



4 thoughts on “Six Positions on the Doctrine of Election in Church History

  1. A helpful synopsis of various positions on election from church history. I really like your synopsis of Augustine’s position: “Some of us get more than what we deserve while no one receives less than what they deserve under Augustine’s definition of election.” I would be interested to know where you on this spectrum (if at all) you find yourself.

    1. Thanks, brother. I find myself in the Reformed camp on the doctrine of election. So, I align with Calvin and Augustine. The only place in Calvin’s interpretation I am uncertain is double predestination. I am still working through this doctrine, and while I currently hold that God elects some sinners and passes over others, I am open to the possibility that God actively elects sinners to both salvation and condemnation. I need more time in Romans 9, I suppose. 🙂

      At the end of the day, I will hold to the interpretation I believe makes best sense of Scripture. Nothing less. Nothing more.

      Thanks for the comment and interest.

  2. Matt – I’ll echo misterdan’s sentiments: a very nice summary of the main position of election (and I guess salvation) through history.

    Funnily, I think in Origen’s effort to distance his theology from fatalism, I think he fell into an opposite form of fatalism in that everyone is fated to salvation, regardless of their own will.

    As an Arminian myself, I appreciate the honest way that you present our position. What may help in understanding the modern incarnation of Aminianism is that we see that our position is arrived at as we hold that the goodness of God as expressed through Jesus Christ is foundational to our understanding of all other theological constructs. As Hebrews 1:3 says, Jesus is the exact image of God, so every other truth must align itself to this cornerstone, Christ.

    As a result, we find it difficult to see a Calvinistic interpretation of election where God’s choice seems to elevate His own glory above His own goodness. We say this because if Calvinism is a true view, then there seems to be no reason why God could not elect every member of the human race to salvation. The only reason He doesn’t is to display His glory, thus elevating glory above goodness.

    Anyway – I do love learning from you and your journey.

    1. Thanks for the interaction, brother. It is refreshing to receive respectful and Christlike feedback from one who disagrees with me soteriologically. I have always believed Calvinists and Arminians can completely disagree with one another, yet benefit from one another’s perspective. Thanks for your kindness and gracious expression of your view. Blessings!

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