Predestination is a theological concept that is difficult to summarise accurately in only a few paragraphs; a page of this length cannot hope to do no more than introduce the subject.
Predestination is a Christian doctrine according to which a the eternal destiny of a person, whether it be salvation or damnation, is determined by God alone prior to, and apart from, any worth or merit on the part of that person. In some theologies, it is claimed that God only determines those to be saved. In others, that God determines both those to be saved and those to be condemned.
The latter teaching subsequently came to be called double predestination by John Calvin during the Protestant Reformation. It has roots in the Bible in the concept of an elect people that was held by the Hebrew people. Hints of the doctrine itself appear in the writings of Saint Paul, especially in Romans 8:28 - 30 and 9:6 - 24. An understanding of predestination did not appear in full form until the appearance of the writings of Augustine; he ventured into this area of Christian thought when he was opposing Pelagianism.
The doctrine of predestination again became important in the late medieval period and passed into the theology of the early Protestant authors, especially John Calvin. Calvin also insisted, against other forms of Christian theology, that grace is a gift and that a person cannot earn eternal life. Until recently, the doctrine of double predestination of John Calvin has remained a characteristic teaching of churches in the Calvinist tradition (Calvinism and Presbyterianism). In other branches of the Christian religion, however, it has received only limited support.
It is just as difficult to find in the writings of the traditional Church Fathers of the Catholic Church a solid argument for an absolute predestination. The only one who gave some development to this theological stance was Augustine, who stands, however, almost alone among his predecessors and successors in this matter. The classical medieval understanding on predestination was based on the more moderate thoughts of Augustine on the matter.
This understanding was detailed by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica, and has become Catholic dogma. Avoiding the extremes within the position of Augustine, the Catholic dogma of predestination keeps to the golden mean. It regards eternal happiness primarily as the work of God and His grace, but secondarily as the fruit and reward of the good actions of those whom God has selected for eternal life. Augustine was a major contributor to the Christian theology of predestination. Somewhat paradoxically, the thought of Augustine has been used as giving major supporting evidence for both the contrasting Catholic and Protestant viewpoints on the matter.
He entered this area of Christian thought when opposing Pelagianism. Because previously he had argued that only the grace of God could move human beings toward salvation, the issue of how God chose those who would be saved became paramount. Augustine asserted that only a few people were saved, and only God knew who was saved and who was not. This assertion provoked a sort of revolt among several French monastic communities during the year 428. If one could undertake heroic acts of the denial of self and spiritual commitment, as the monks had done, but still not know if one was saved, then what was the point of trying?
In response to letters from the monks, Augustine acknowledged that predestination was a difficult issue, but he refused to yield the point. Predestination did not mean that human beings could safely give up spiritual striving; perseverance in faith was one of God's gifts to human beings. The Pelagians held that humans can merit salvation by good works performed by application of their own will, whereas Augustine insisted that humans require the help of the grace (in Latin, gratia) of God to do good and that this grace is a free gift, given by God without regard to human merit.
Thus God alone determines who will receive the grace that alone assures entry to heaven. In this sense God does influence ahead of time the destiny of the persons who will reach to eternal life. The teaching of Augustine on this matter was generally upheld by the Catholic Church. But the further idea that some are also directed to condemnation was explicitly rejected by the Catholic Church at the Council of Orange in the year 529, the year before Augustine died.
The Council was directed by the greatest Latin scholar and preacher of the early church after Augustine, Caesarius of Arles. He carefully protected the essence of the theology of Augustine, even while certain of his positions (particularly that of double predestination) were laid aside without objection. In this way, official Church teaching never accepted the more extreme tendencies of Augustine in the area of predestination into which some - but certainly not all - of his theological references wandered.
This extreme position on predestination is reflected only in parts of voluminous writings of Augustine. Some of the range of his thinking on this subject was written while Augustine was in heated argumentation against Pelagianism. Did he begin debating with the Pelagians before his theological stance was clearly formulated - a rather risky or intemperate "thinking aloud"? Caught up in the passion of debate, did he sometimes exaggerate his position by using "debater's licence" at the expense of a more calm theological accuracy? Not even his most faithful pupils, Prosper and Fulgentius, followed Augustine in all of his exaggerations on this matter.
Accordingly, Augustinian scholars find it impossible to be sure just how much Augustine personally believed the most extreme aspects of his various references to predestination; he apparently did not hold to them permanently. More often, the possible exaggerations and errors of Augustine in this matter are cited as a prime example of the fact that even the greatest of the Church Fathers are human and make mistakes. Augustine was himself aware of this, and at the end of his life published his Retractiones and was working on a revised version of his works, rejecting some entirely and modifying others in accordance with his more mature later views.
Had Augustine lived longer, possibly he would have removed many of the more dubious sections of his writings. The time of the Protestant Reformation saw the beginning of the tendency to give the name Augustinianism narrowly to a limited body of pessimistic doctrines about grace, predestination and original sin. The Catholic Church retained an ancestral reverence for Augustine’s name and teachings, but found itself increasingly compelled to disown in controversy specific propositions for which support could be found by its adversaries like Martin Luther and John Calvin in the writings of Augustine himself.
Predestination. A detailed exposition from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12378a.htm
Augustine on Grace and Predestination. An essay by William Most. Technical, but good reading for those sufficiently motivated. http://www.ewtn.com/library/THEOLOGY/AUGUSTIN.htm
Augustine and Predestination. From Rusty Parts Com. Readable! http://www.rustyparts.com/predestination.php AN2341