‘As If Augustine Had Said’: Textual Interpretation and Augustinian Ambiguity in a Medieval Debate on Predestination

“As If Augustine Had Said”: Textual Interpretation and Augustinian Ambiguity in a Medieval Debate on Predestination

By Jenny Smith

Past Imperfect, Vol.19 (2016)

Detail of a historiated initial ‘Q'(uoniam) with Augustine in a bishop’s mitre holding a bishop’s staff and a heart – British Library MS Burney 290 f. 2

Abstract: In ninth century Francia, a rebellious monk named Gottschalk of Orbais (808-868) ardently defended his theory of divine predestination, much to the vexation of the Frankish Church, whose leaders eventually denounced him as heretical and imprisoned him for the remainder of his life. In an effort to disprove Gottschalk, his perhaps most prominent opponent, Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims (806-882), frequently cited elements of ecclesiastical tradition in an attempt to show that western Catholic orthodoxy opposed the theory of predestination that Gottschalk espoused.

While most scholars have analyzed Hincmar’s writings by focusing on his citation of the patristic church father Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430), such an approach ignores the problematic nature of Augustine’s stance on predestination, which was largely ambiguous, hence the ability of both Gottschalk and Hincmar to reference his writings as proof of their argument. While Augustine at times limited his stance to merely suggesting that God had bestowed eternal life on some individuals, at other times he was more explicit, defining predestination in terms of a twofold decree of salvation for some and damnation for others. Such ambiguity created a nebulous definition of predestination by the time of the ninth century controversy and allowed Gottschalk to weaken Hincmar’s arguments by likewise citing Augustine to support his own assertions. This in turn forced Hincmar to extend his arsenal of ecclesiastical tradition beyond citation of Augustine in order to refute Gottschalk.

This paper reevaluates a sample of Hincmar’s writings in the 840s and 850s to argue that he sought to make explicit what Augustine had left unclear regarding predestination by appealing to common standards of orthodoxy in the forms of additional patristic authors, conciliar judgments, and liturgical practices. This analysis reveals both the prominence of ambiguity in ninth-century predestination thought as well as the role of ecclesiastical tradition in forming medieval views on orthodoxy, however fluid such a label remained.

Click here to read this article from the University of Alberta

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

Smartphone and Tablet users click here to sign up for
our weekly email

medievalverse magazine