In the 9th century, a debate arose over the doctrines of grace, free-will and predestination. At the centre of that controversy was a monk named Gottschalk of Orbais (ca. 804-869). Born in Mentz, Germany, Gottschalk took monastic vows early in life, moving to a monastery in Orbais, France. There, he studied the scriptures and the writings of St. Augustine. Through these, he was convinced of the Augustinian understanding of the depravity of the human will, the need for God’s electing grace to convert sinners to salvation, and of the particular nature of Christ’s atonement (that, although sufficient for all, it is intended to redeem only the elect).[1]

Armed with these new insights, Gottschalk travelled around Europe preaching the Gospel of sovereign grace to people. Many prominent clerics were convinced of his views, but there were also many others who were opposed to him—not only because of the controversial nature of these teachings, but because of the monk’s own character. Historian Justo Gonzalez writes of him:

While he understood the content of Augustine’s views on predestination better than his contemporaries— and in this he was right— he expounded and defended them with a bitterness that was far from the spirit of Augustine. Indeed, some commentators have declared that he seemed to rejoice over the conviction that his enemies were reprobates condemned to eternal damnation. For a number of reasons, Gottschalk made enemies among his superiors, and when he made his views known there were those who were prompt to attack him.[2]

The most prominent among these opponents was Hincmar, the archbishop of Reims. Hincmar found Gottschalk’s views repugnant, and with the aid of Rabanus of Maur, argued that man cannot be saved or damned apart from the exercise of his free-will. God’s grace can dispose a man towards faith, but cannot efficaciously bring about that faith. He also argued for a universal atonement, affirming that Christ died for all without exception. The two exchanged polemics against one another, with the controversy coming to a climax at the synod of Chiercy (849), where Hincmar had Gottschalk convicted of heresy, flogged, and had his books burned.[3]

Gottschalk was not alone in arguing these views, however. Several notable theologians of his day supported him, and sought to prove them from scripture and from early church writings. These include Ratramnus of Corbie, Servatus Lupus, the abbot of Ferrieres, and Florus of Lyons. Though these theologians reproved Gottschalk for his personal failures, they nonetheless saw his teachings to be divine truth.[4] These theologians produced an array of patristic quotes which demonstrated that their teachings were catholic doctrines and not theological novelties.[5]

One key author that they appealed was the 6th century Spanish theologian Isidore of Seville. In Isidore’s Sentences, Gottschalk found numerous statements in support of predestination. One such quote read: “There is a double predestination, whether of the elect to rest or of the damned to death. Both are caused by divine judgment.”[6] Gottschalk provided these and numerous other quotes in his defense against Hincmar, such that his opponent was forced to concede that Isidore did indeed seem to teach what Gottschalk advocated, and that the only way around this was to argue that his statements did not mean what they appeared to say at face value.[7]

The debate continued until the end of Gottschalk’s life. In 853, Hincmar convoked a second synod at Quiercy condemning Gottschalk’s views. In response, several Predestinarian clergy and theologians convoked their own synods in Valence (855) and Langres (859) affirming “a predestination of the elect to life and of the damned to death.”[8] The Annals of Saint-Bertin even records that pope Nicholas came down on the side of the Predestinarians, stating:

Nicholas, the Roman pontiff, issues a faithful confirmation and catholic determination about the grace of God and free will, about the truth of double predestination, and about the doctrine that the blood of Christ was shed [only] for believers.[9]

Of course, this statement did not settle the matter, as Hincmar argued that the statement by pope Nicholas was of dubious origin, and could not be trusted. And in fact, given the nature of documentation at the time, it is difficult to know if pope Nicholas did utter this statement, or whether he ever truly came down on either side of the controversy.[10]

In the end, Gottschalk’s opponents prevailed, and he was imprisoned in a monastery until the end of his life, when he is reported to have gone mad. However, he left various theological writings behind. The most beautiful of these is a hymn extolling the grace of God:

Freely You created my by Your goodness;

Freely create me afresh, I pray and restore me to life!

Freely You bestow Your gifts, which is why we say they are “by grace”.

O Holy Spirit, You bring instant life to those You breathe into:

Together with the Father and His Son, You thunder forth, govern and give light.

You increase and You quicken the faith

Which You grant to whomever You choose.[11]

Further Reading


[1] Steven J. Lawson, “Gottschalk: Standing on Augustine’s Shoulders,” in Tabletalk Magazine, April 2009: The Church in the 9th Century (Lake Mary, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2009), 10–11.

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, 2nd ed. (HarperOne, 2014), 320.

[3] Lawson, “Gottschalk,” 11.

[4] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 3.: The Growth of Medieval Theology (600-1300) (The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 81.

[5] Ibid., 85.

[6] Ibid., 88.

[7] Ibid., 88-89.

[8] Ibid., 93.

[9] Ibid., 94.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Guy Davies, “Gottschalk of Orbais, a Medieval ‘Five Point Calvinist,’” Exiled Preacher,