The Earliest Church Fathers on Election and Predestination (Part Two: Apostolic Fathers)

Christians have long wrestled with the subject of how God’s plans and actions in salvation interact with human responsibility and choice. And it is common for proponents of any theological system to appeal to the writings of theologians from the early church to support their views. After all, we should pay attention to how those who learned the gospel within a generation or two from Christ’s apostles talk about salvation, seeing as they are closer to the source.

In the previous post, we looked at the writings associated with Clement of Rome, one of the earliest sources outside of the New Testament. Today we’ll turn our attention to the rest of those writings traditionally labelled the Apostolic Fathers.

The Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch (around AD 110)

Ignatius was bishop of the church in Antioch, and was famously martyred in Rome in the early years of the second century. On his way to martyrdom, he wrote seven letters to churches throughout the empire. These letters are primarily situational and practical, and as such they don’t delve too deeply into theological topics like election. But there are still numerous incidental references to it.

In several of the letters’ openings, Ignatius refers to his audience as those who are elect of God. He writes that the church at Ephesus was “predestined before the ages for lasting and unchangeable glory forever, united and elect through genuine suffering by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God” (Ephesians, Salutation). [1] Ignatius seems to take a very high view of God’s action in choosing his church, more so than what we saw in the Clementine writings.

This does not mean, however, that Ignatius thinks God’s actions leave no room for human choice, or that God limits his grace only to a select few. He encourages prayer for all non-believers (“the rest of humankind”), “that they may find God, for there is in them hope for repentance” (Ephesians 10:1). In Ephesians 14:1-2 the bishop speaks of faith and love as necessary conditions for salvation: “faith is the beginning and love is the end. …For the work is a matter not of what one promises now, but of persevering to the end in the power of faith.” Elsewhere he writes that the life of Christ “is not in us unless we voluntarily choose to die into his suffering” (Magnesians 5:2).

We also find again in Ignatius’s writings (as in Clement’s) several statements that seem to imply that individual believers must ratify their elect status through their lifestyle, and can only reach final salvation if they persevere in faith — and, as Ignatius in particular loves to emphasize, if they remain in union with the church under the authority of their bishop! He says in Ephesians 4:2 that church members must work toward unity and mutual submission “in order that [the Father] may both hear you and, on the basis of what you do well, acknowledge that you are members of his Son. It is, therefore, advantageous for you to be in perfect unity, in order that you may always have a share in God.”

Nonetheless, Ignatius affirms that it is by God’s preparative grace that believers can, indeed, do the work of God: “because you are stones of a temple, prepared beforehand for the building of God the Father, hoisted up to the heights by the crane of Jesus Christ, which is the cross, using as a rope the Holy Spirit; your faith is what lifts you up, and love is the way that leads up to God” (Ephesians 9:1).

Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, Letter to the Philippians (around AD 110)

Polycarp was the bishop of the church in Smyrna, a personal friend of Ignatius, and a disciple of the apostle John — quite a strong pedigree for this church father! We have only one surviving document from him — a letter to the church in Philippi, written on the occasion of Ignatius’ death.

Polycarp is very beholden to Paul’s epistles, especially the pastorals. He builds most of the core of his teaching off of Paul’s instructions about church order and leadership qualifications from 1 Timothy. Along with that, he uses Pauline phraseology to refer to salvation, as when he writes: “knowing that by grace you have been saved, not because of works, but by the will of God through Jesus Christ” (1:3).

He also maintains the balance of NT soteriology (and aligns closely with all the other Fathers) by stressing that faith must persevere and bear fruit to be genuine and result in final salvation:

“But the one who raised him from the dead will raise us also, if we do his will and follow his commandments and love the things he loved, while avoiding every kind of unrighteousness…” (2:2).

“If we please him in this present world, we will receive the world to come as well, inasmuch as he promised that he will raise us from the dead and that if we prove to be citizens worthy of him, we will also reign with him — if, that is, we continue to believe” (5:2).

For Polycarp, as it was for Paul, faith is not just mental assent but a continuing loyalty or faithfulness. Final salvation is, again, contingent on perseverance in the faith.

Also I should mention one unique use of election terminology in Polycarp’s epistle. In 1:1, he speaks of Christians suffering persecution (likely with his recently-martyred friend, Ignatius, in mind) as those “confined by chains suitable for saints, which are the diadems of those who are truly chosen by God and our Lord.” In other words, those who are willing to suffer the ultimate test for their faith are seen by Polycarp as having undoubtedly proven their elect status.

The Epistle of Barnabas (between AD 70 and 132)

The document traditionally called the “Epistle of Barnabas” is actually an anonymous tract that appears to have been composed to demonstrate how Christians are distinct from mainstream Judaism and, in fact, the true beneficiaries of the Jewish scriptures and covenants. With that focus, the concept of election comes to the fore in a few places.

A couple of passages in Barnabas connect election to God’s foreknowledge of those who would believe in Christ. The first is in chapter 3:

“So for this reason, brothers and sisters, the one who is very patient, when he foresaw how the people whom he had prepared in his beloved would believe in all purity, revealed everything to us in advance, in order that we might not shipwreck ourselves as proselytes to their law” (3:6).

The last phrase is significant, in that it brings up the danger of returning to traditional Judaism as a way in which the elect could potentially “shipwreck” their faith (compare Hebrews 6:1-6; 1 Timothy 1:19). But also note that God’s work of preparing people through Christ (“his beloved”) is involved in their coming to faith. The other passage that mentions God’s foreknowledge is 6:14, which speaks of God fulfilling the prophecy of Ezekiel 11:19 and giving new hearts of flesh to those “whom the Spirit of the Lord foresaw.”

The phraseology here in Barnabas is quite pregnant, and leaves open to interpretation how much emphasis we should give to God’s work of preparing people vs. his foreknowing of people’s faith. However, other passages in Barnabas make quite clear that human volition is a major deciding factor.

In keeping with the rest of the Apostolic Fathers, the author of Barnabas once again displays the idea that final salvation can be missed if Christians do not persevere in faith and good works, or if they fall into error. Indeed, Barnabas is even more extreme on this point.

The author himself is merely “hoping to be saved” (1:3). Believers should “give very careful attention to our salvation, lest the evil one should cause some error to slip into our midst and thereby hurl us away from our life” (2:10). In 19:1 he says that “if any desire to make their way to the designated place, let them be diligent with respect to their works.” And in 21:6, he says we must be “seeking out what the Lord seeks from you and then doing it, in order that you may be found in the day of judgment.”

To drive the point home, the failures of Israel in the OT are held up as the key example of the danger of apostasy — even for those who are called! — in chapter 4:

“Let us never fall asleep in our sins, as if being ‘called’ were an excuse to rest, lest the evil ruler gain power over us and thrust us out of the kingdom of the Lord. Moreover consider this as well, my brothers and sisters: when you see that after such extraordinary signs and wonders were done in Israel, even then they were abandoned, let us be on guard lest we should be found to be, as it is written, ‘many called, but few chosen'” (4:13-14).

Thus Barnabas, perhaps more than any other of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, seeks to enforce the idea that the believer’s calling is conditional and must be maintained through much effort in order to ensure final inclusion among the elect (compare 2 Peter 1:10).

The Shepherd of Hermas (between AD 90 and 154)

The last text we’ll examine today is The Shepherd of Hermas, a complex writing that contains a mix of apocalyptic and allegorical visions intended to promote ethical living in the church. The Shepherd was one of the most popular Christian works in the first few centuries of the church, though we know little about its author other than that he appears to have been a Gentile freedman living in or near Rome and involved with the church there.

Some of the earliest Church Fathers (including Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen) treated Hermas as authoritative Scripture, and even Athanasius (who was highly influential in shaping the canon as we know it) encouraged new believers to read it as discipleship material. (The analogy I’ve often heard is that The Shepherd of Hermas is a bit like an ancient equivalent to The Pilgrim’s Progress.)

Seeing as it focuses more on Christian ethics and growth in virtue, Hermas does not discuss the topics of election or predestination in any great detail. But when the topic of salvation is discussed, the emphasis is almost entirely on the side of human volition. Indeed, one of the most striking teachings of the book is that if people “repent with all their heart, they will be enrolled with the saints in the books of life” (Vision 1.3:2). [2] According to Hermas, God gives repentance to those he foresees are “about to serve him with all their heart” (Similitude 8.6:2). Thus, there is no doubt that whoever wrote Hermas believed salvation was contingent on human choice.

That doesn’t mean God’s grace is absent from the discussion. God is said to have, in his mercy, “instilled righteousness in you in order that you may be justified and sanctified from all evil and all perversity” (Vision 3.9:1; cf 4.3:5). However, and in keeping with every other writing thus far, perseverance in this sanctity is necessary in order to reach final salvation (Vision 1.3:4; 2.3:2; Mandate 7.1; 8.7-12; Similitude 6.1:3; 8.8:2; 8.11:1). Mandate 10.2:5 even warns that continued sin might cause the Holy Spirit to leave a believer! According to Similitude 8.6:3, God’s seal on believers can be broken. Hermas mentions apostasy and blasphemy against the Spirit as being the unforgivable sins (Similitude 6.2:3; 9.26:5; cf. Hebrews 6:1-6; 1 John 5:16).

In Vision 3 chapter 8, Hermas sees a vision of different Christian virtues personified as women building a tower. The first and foundational virtue is Faith, and “through her God’s elect are saved” (Vision 3.8:3). However, the other virtues are described as also being necessary in order for one to be included in the church and final salvation. Faith must be supplemented with and expressed through a life of virtue (compare 2 Peter 1:3-11; see also Vision 4.2:4; Similitude 9.13:2).

In a later passage, Hermas is told to go and preach “to all people, in order that they may repent and live to God, for the Lord in his compassion sent me to give repentance to all, though some, because of their deeds, do not deserve to be saved” (Similitude 8.11:1). In other words, the offer of salvation is universal. In that same verse, we’re told that God “wants those who were called through his Son to be saved,” implying in context that even those who are called could miss salvation if they don’t repent in time (much like in Barnabas).

Thus, we may notice a trend in each of the writings from the century after the New Testament was written: all of these Christian thinkers viewed the believer’s calling and election as something that was contingent on their choices. One’s willingness to live a life of obedience to God in Christ and to persevere in the faith was the deciding factor, and even the most sincere believer could be at risk of failing to attain final salvation by committing apostasy.

While none of the Apostolic Fathers writes in any kind of detailed, systematic fashion about how election works or whether God’s initial justification of a Christian is unconditional, they unanimously assert the contingency of final salvation. And their understanding of God’s offer of repentance is that it is genuinely universal, extended to all people and effective for those who believe (which is foreknown by God).

When we turn in a future post to look at the early Christian Apologists from the second century, such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, we will see an even more explicit emphasis on this universal offer of salvation and the freedom of humanity to accept or reject it. Indeed, in the face of the prevailing Greek notions of Fate, the Christian Apologists’ constant refrain will be that every person is responsible for his or her own choices, “for there is no coercion with God.”

[1] All quotations of the Fathers are from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Baker Academic, 2009).

[2] The Shepherd of Hermas is divided into three sections — the Visions, the Mandates (or Commandments), and the Similitudes (or Parables). Citations of Hermas typically include references to these divisions, with chapters and verses in each Vision, Mandate, or Similitude (e.g., Vision 1, chapter 3, verse 2).

Categories: Apocrypha & Church Fathers, Calvinism/Arminianism, Historical Theology

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3 replies

  1. This era was before a fullblown Christian theology regarding the divine attributes was worked out, which resulted in recognition God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and omnibenevolent. If God is indeed omniscient, he knows who will be saved and who not, that by his own omnipotent, unalterable decree.
    Predestination is something I used to doubt but, only lately after admitting to myself that divine grace can be nothing BUT this, logically, I am left with assent to the doctrine.
    It’s disavowal makes God less than God, and tends to turn us into our own redeemers.


    • What you call a “fullblown Christian theology” is but one of several more developed Christian approaches to predestination, and one that attempts to cut the Gordian knot of how God’s omnipotence intersects with human responsibility but ends up causing just as many problems as it solves. Not the least of which is how an unconditional decree can be reconciled with the biblical data regarding God’s desire that all would repent and be saved, and that each person is responsible for their faith or unbelief (unsatisfying Calvinist attempts to get around these issues notwithstanding).

      “It’s disavowal makes God less than God, and tends to turn us into our own redeemers.” Wholeheartedly disagree. It means God is love and judges each person in fairness according to their deeds (i.e., the biblical portrait of God). Far better to admit we do not and cannot in this life hope to understand fully how election works in hand with human choice, and should not develop overly complicated, extrabiblical systems to try and fit every piece together. Or, at the very least, we must hold those particular doctrinal systems with a very open hand.



  1. Biblical Studies Carnival 186 for August 2021 | Brent Niedergall

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