Reformed Churchmen

We are Confessional Calvinists and a Prayer Book Church-people. In 2012, we remembered the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; also, we remembered the 450th anniversary of John Jewel's sober, scholarly, and Reformed "An Apology of the Church of England." In 2013, we remembered the publication of the "Heidelberg Catechism" and the influence of Reformed theologians in England, including Heinrich Bullinger's Decades. For 2014: Tyndale's NT translation. For 2015, John Roger, Rowland Taylor and Bishop John Hooper's martyrdom, burned at the stakes. Books of the month. December 2014: Alan Jacob's "Book of Common Prayer" at: January 2015: A.F. Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: 1489-1556" at: February 2015: Jaspar Ridley's "Thomas Cranmer" at:

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

26 August 1349 A.D. The Forgotten Medieval Augustinian, Thomas Bradwardine. Dies at Lambeth—54th of 105 Archbishops of Canterbury

26 August 1349 A.D.  The Forgotten Medieval Augustinian, Thomas Bradwardine. Dies at Lambeth—54th of 105 Archbishops of Canterbury

Dykstra, Russel J.  “Thomas Bradwardine: Forgotten Medieval Augustinian.” PROTESTANT REFORMED THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL (Nov 2000. Vol 34, Number 1).  Accessed 13 May 2007.

Thomas Bradwardine: Forgotten Medieval Augustinian

Russell J. Dykstra

            Thomas Bradwardine is a late medieval theologian of considerable significance who has been all but lost to the twentieth century church. In his day, Bradwardine’s obvious intellectual ability and theological acumen earned him the designation Doctor Profundus and a spot in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.1  His published works include learned volumes on logic as well as on geometry and physics.  The mathematical and scientific works were on the cutting edge of those fields and are still referred to today. His theological magnum opus is a defense of God’s sovereignty, especially over against the Pelagianism of his age – a mammoth work entitled The Cause of God against the Pelagians.

            Despite his evident ability and significant writing, Bradwardine remains largely unknown to the church world today. This is due partly to the inaccessibility of his works, and partly to the paucity of material written on Bradwardine. In the introduction to his work, Bradwardine and the Pelagians:  A Study of his ‘De Causa Dei’ and its Opponents, Gordon Leff laments that “little that is definite or consistent has been said” about Thomas Bradwardine.2  That was in 1957, interestingly enough, the year when two major works on Bradwardine appeared – that of Leff and the scholarly work of Heiko Oberman, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine:  A Fourteenth Century Augustinian.3    Since that time the dearth of material on Bradwardine has continued, and the English reader is severely limited.4

            In spite of this dearth of scholarly publications on Bradwardine, he deserves serious consideration.  From a church historical perspective, he represents a resurgence of a relatively pure Augustinianism in the late Middle Ages.  From a doctrinal point of view, he was one of few who maintained the doctrine of sovereign, double predestination as Augustine had, and as many of the sixteenth century reformers would.  He is a light for the truth in the relatively dark time of the Middle Ages, and that, coming two centuries before the great sixteenth century reformation.  In addition, sufficient connections exist between Bradwardine and John Wyclif to explore possible influences of the earlier Bradwardine on Wyclif, as well as on other subsequent theologians.

            The purpose of this article is to acquaint the reader with Thomas Bradwardine’s thought and to set forth his significance. The question that looms large is the mystery of God raising up a Bradwardine at that time in the history of the church, only to have Bradwardine and his work so soon sink into obscurity. God has promised that His church and His truth shall not fail. The medieval age is a time of severe trial for both the church and the truth. The appalling apostasy, corruption, and idolatry makes one wonder how the church could have survived. A cursory glance at this period might well cause one to conclude that God’s promises failed. Yet God preserved both His people and His truth. Of that, Bradwardine is proof. His significance is that he stands as a beacon of light for the doctrines of sovereign grace in the dark medieval night of Rome’s Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian errors.

Bradwardine’s Life

            The date of Thomas Bradwardine’s birth is disputed. Henry Savile, Bradwardine’s earliest biographer, sets it at 1290, but Walter F. Hook doubts that the date can be set with any certainty.5  Oberman demonstrates that it was almost certainly five or ten years later and, additionally, calls into question Savile’s evidence that Bradwardine was born in Chichester.6  It is clear that the Bradwardine family took its name from Bradwardine, a parish near Hereford.7 

            Virtually nothing is known of Bradwardine’s early life, not even the date of his entering Oxford University.  In Oxford, he studied in Merton College, and he excelled in his studies.  He studied philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy before turning his attention to theology.  In his day Bradwardine was unsurpassed in the science of mathematics, and, as noted above, he published several works in the area of mathematics and physics.

            In 1325 Bradwardine accepted the office of a junior proctor in the University of Oxford. There he was soon involved in a legal dispute that involved the autonomy of the University. The chancellor and proctors insisted that discipline of the University remained with them, not the Church. The king supported this, and a few years afterwards exempted the University from episcopal jurisdiction.8 

            Heiko Oberman, in an introduction to a translation of a section of Bradwardine’s De causa Dei, points out that Bradwardine had a conversion experience in the late 1320s. Bradwardine describes his attitude prior to his conversion:

Idle and a fool in God’s wisdom, I was misled by an unorthodox error at a time when I was still pursuing philosophical studies. Sometimes I went to listen to the theologians discussing this matter [of grace and free will], and the school of Pelagius seemed to me nearest the truth.... In the philosophical faculty I seldom heard a reference to grace, except for some ambiguous remarks. What I heard day in and day out was that we are masters of our own free acts, that ours is the choice to act well or badly, to have virtues or sins and much more along this line.9 

            Bradwardine was so profoundly influenced by this view that – as he relates – “every time I listened to the Epistle read in church and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will—as is the case in Romans 9, ‘It is obviously not a question of human will and effort, but of divine mercy,’ and its many parallels—grace displeased me, ungrateful as I was."10 

            The text (Rom. 9:16) troubled Bradwardine for some time, but he describes his change of heart:

Even before I transferred to the faculty of theology, the text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and, captured by a vision of the truth, it seemed I saw from afar how the grace of God precedes all good works with a temporal priority [God as Savior through predestination] and natural precedence [God continues to provide for His creation as ‘first mover’]….  That is why I express my gratitude to Him who has given me this grace as a free gift.11 

As a result, Romans 9:16 became one of Bradwardine’s favorite texts. He quotes it in De causa Dei more than any other verse of the Bible.

            Eventually this brilliant student became a lecturer in Merton College in Oxford. During that time Bradwardine began writing his chief work, De causa Dei, which was probably completed in 1344 in London.

            In 1335 he left Oxford to serve in the court of Richard (of) Bury, newly appointed Bishop of Durham. Here Bradwardine found one of the richest libraries of medieval England as well as a very stimulating and learned circle of theologians — including Richard FitzRalph, the future Archbishop of Armagh (1360), and Bradwardine’s future theological opponent, Robert Holcot.

            Although he had serious reservations about them, Bradwardine accepted the offered prebends (beneficiaries) to support himself, at least one of which (Lincoln Cathedral) was a sinecure (without care of souls).12

            Bradwardine was appointed (c. 1338) one of the confessors (chaplains) to King Edward III, a king known for his immoral life. He traveled extensively with the king’s entourage.13 

            At the request of King Edward, Bradwardine was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Clement IV in Avignon. Politics played heavily in the matter.  The Pope is reported to have said that if the king of England were to ask him to make a bishop of a jackass, that he could not refuse the request. This so angered some of the Cardinals, that one of them, Hugo, Cardinal of Tudela, took the opportunity at Bradwardine’s consecration (July 19, 1349) to rebuke the pope and insult the English. He sent a clown on a jackass into the proceedings and had the clown ask to be made the Archbishop of Canterbury.14 

            Following his consecration Bradwardine hurried to England, where the black plague was decimating the population. He contracted the disease shortly after his arrival in August, and died on August 26. “During his episcopate of a few weeks duration, nothing was done or attempted of public importance."15 

The Age of Badwardine

            It is well known that philosophy in the late Middle Ages was not only influential, it was also intertwined with theology.  This is the era of medieval scholasticism, when philosophy was pressed into the service of established and accepted theological doctrines.  There were several schools of philosophical thought, each having its distinct position on the question of universals, namely, Are universals real?  Or, In what sense are universals real?  The answer to that question placed the theologian/philosopher in a specific category, which, in some areas of theology, had no little influence on how one formulated specific doctrines.

            In Bradwardine’s day, the philosophy of William of Ockham, fresh and exciting, was having significant influence in certain academic circles.  Ockham was a nominalist who therefore denied the existence of universals.  More significantly, he insisted that all knowledge is intuitive, but that God can place knowledge of a thing into a man’s mind, even when the thing does not exist.16 

            In addition, Ockham maintained that God cannot be known by man intuitively, but only by revelation, and that is known only by faith.  Thus in Ockham’s thought is introduced beginnings of the radical separation between faith and reason which would blossom in the Renaissance.

            One area of special concern for Bradwardine was Ockham’s teaching on the relationship of God to man.  Ockham elevated God so high above His creation that God became virtually detached from and uninvolved in it.   Hence he allowed that man had great freedom in his activity, even an independent position.17   Ockham also maintained that the exalted power of God allowed Him to act arbitrarily in His dealing with men.  Applied to soteriology, it meant that God could save a man in an extraordinary fashion if He so pleased – say by granting merit for a man’s works, which in turn might earn God’s saving grace.

            Ockham was condemned by Pope John XXII and excommunicated.  Yet the pope did not specifically condemn the teachings that Bradwardine considered Pelagian. In addition, Ockham’s philosophy was popular in England and on the continent.

            In such a philosophical climate, therefore, Bradwardine lived and studied. As a result, there are those who insist that Bradwardine was reacting to the philosophy of Ockham with its consequences, particularly that God was not the center of man’s life,18  and that Bradwardine was upholding realism.19 

            However, Bradwardine’s efforts must not be so construed. Bradwardine was astute enough to distinguish between Ockham’s philosophy on universals and Pelagianism.  He titled his work The Cause of God against the Pelagians, and the work gives every indication that Bradwardine was taking specific aim at Pelagianism.  The issue was not epistemology, nor centrality of God in man’s knowledge.  The issue was rather this:  Is God’s grace the sole cause of salvation, or is the cause of salvation to be found in any sense in man?  In fact, Ockham also taught that man was capable of loving God by nature, ex puris naturalibus.20   That puts man first in his works, and able to merit with God.  This is the Pelagianism opposed by Bradwardine.  Notwithstanding that the errors of Pelagius appeared in a slightly different form than Augustine confronted them in the fifth century, Bradwardine was maintaining salvation by God’s grace alone, over against the Pelagianism of his day.

            From a philosophical point of view, then, perhaps a plausible argument could be raised that Bradwardine was maintaining the realist position over against the nominalist position.  That is really beside the point.  This was no philosophical discussion for Bradwardine.   His intent was to maintain the biblical doctrines of God and salvation.  This for Bradwardine was true Augustinianism.

            However, virtually every churchman of the Middle Ages was Augustinian!   At least, most claimed that their views were supported by him.  It often happened that debating theologians on both sides of a particular issue called on Augustine for support (as would Luther and his opponents).  Oft times both were at least formally correct.  There were several reasons for this.  First, Augustine had written a tremendous amount, and that, on a wide variety of topics.  Secondly, Augustine had developed over his lifetime and, not infrequently, changed his views along the way.  Thus theologians could quote the early Augustine supporting one idea, and quote the mature Augustine to prove an opposing position.  Thirdly, medieval scholarship on Augustine and his works was neither thorough nor complete.  Many of his works were not available to the theologians.  Some of his views were simply reported by others, perhaps not accurately.  Other views ascribed to Augustine were actually another writer’s interpretation of Augustine.  In addition, the chronology of his works was not established, so that one could not always know whether it was an early or later work of Augustine.

            Describing this situation, Hook writes, “Augustine was less read than praised; and when he was quoted, the quotations were too frequently taken from abstracts made from his works, apart from the context; consequently, he was frequently misunderstood, and more frequently misinterpreted"21  Joseph Kelly, in his study, “The Knowledge and Use of Augustine among the Anglo-Saxons,” concludes that “the Anglo-Saxon knowledge and use of Augustine were both broad and deep,"22  but notes that the Anglo-Saxons tended to be utilitarian in their use of Augustine.  They quoted Augustine where he addressed the concerns of the day.  He notes specifically that the Anglo-Saxons neglected the anti-Pelagian works of Augustine because they did not meet their immediate needs.  “Retrogression to paganism provided far greater problems than doctrinal deviance among the English Christians, and Augustine’s attacks on heretics met few needs in Early Middle Ages."23 

            Be that as it may, Bradwardine was far more faithful to Augustine than most of his contemporaries. Hook observes that “Bradwardine was a student of the entire works of the great Latin doctor, whom he regarded as the true apostolic logician and philosopher."24  He stood against what he called the “pestiferous Pelagians” of his day.25 

            Pelagians were followers of a fourth century British monk named Pelagius, with whom Augustine did battle.  Pelagius taught that man was neither good nor evil at birth because the fall of Adam did not affect the human race.  Sin was in the act, learned by imitation, and not a part of man’s nature.  Thus man was able to do good or evil, but committing sin did not make man evil, that is, did not make man’s nature depraved; he could subsequently choose the good.  The Pelagians contended that in every man God formed the ability (posse) for keeping God’s law (which gift Pelagius called “grace”), and it was up to man to will and accomplish the good.  By keeping the law of God, man could make himself worthy of salvation, for by these good works he merited a certain righteousness and the right to saving grace.

            Augustine battled this teaching ferociously, and the church of that day condemned the teachings of Pelagius.26 

            However, a modification of the Pelagian error, later called Semi-Pelagianism, arose in its place.  Concerning fallen man, it held that every man was born spiritually sick, nigh unto death, but not dead in sin. Though he would die without the aid of the great Physician, man could yet do good with the assistance of God’s grace, although this grace was resistible.  The Semi-Pelagians attacked especially the doctrine of sovereign, double predestination that Augustine had affirmed in the Pelagian controversy.  They insisted rather that predestination was based on God’s foreknowledge, in the sense that God knew who would believe and who not, and chose accordingly.27 

            Thus the central teaching of both Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism is that salvation is not all of God, but something is left for man to accomplish.  Man is able to merit something with God if he properly uses what he has from God.  This is the Pelagianism that Bradwardine faced in his day – the teaching that man by his works merited with God, and that his salvation in some way depended on his works.  This error finally won the day in the medieval church because the idea of merit was woven into the warp and woof of her theology and sacerdotalism.


            It is worthwhile to consider briefly the issue of authority, that is to say, what is the authority upon which Bradwardine maintains his doctrinal positions.  From De causa Dei it becomes immediately plain that the main and decisive authority for Bradwardine is Scripture.  This stands to reason in that Bradwardine’s polemic against the Pelagians is a treatise which is theological, not philosophical.  It was noted above that Bradwardine rejected the teaching of the philosophers in Oxford because it was Pelagian. Scripture opened his eyes to the truth of God’s sovereignty in salvation, particularly Romans 9.   Irena Backus notes, “In the preface of De causa Dei Bradwardine says that he sought to elucidate the correct interpretation of the canonical Scriptures (Scripturae canonicase) and of the Catholic doctors (Catholici doctores), seeing that all Pelagians, ancient and modern alike, twist their meaning so as to make it correspond to their heresy."28 

            In fact, Bradwardine maintains that man can know God, not by reason, but only by revelation.  He writes, “O blush with shame, philosophy, and arrogant knowledge, to presume to have the smallest ken of God, so that you, so small, would know Him entirely through your little mind, probe all His secrets, grasp and fully comprehend His whole being."29   In addition, Leff notes, “Accordingly Bradwardine concluded that the highest truth in philosophy was that we cannot by ourselves know God."30

            On the relative (un)importance of philosophy, Oberman points out that “[w]e can no doubt speak of the philosophy of Thomas Bradwardine, as has been done till now, but in this way it was not made sufficiently evident that he uses philosophy in the same manner as a scholar in his days had to use Latin in order to make himself understood."31 

            That important observation of Oberman applies also to the meaning of terms.  Bradwardine will call on Aristotle, for example, not as an authority to back Bradwardine’s main argument.  Rather, he uses Aristotle to set forth the various elements in a concept.32 

            The church fathers, however, were of great importance to Brad­wardine.  He stated explicitly  in De causa Dei that he intended to quote a goodly number of the them in order to demonstrate to the modern day Pelagians that he (Bradwardine) was not alone in his stand.33       Backus describes Bradwardine’s high view of the fathers as follows:

Bradwardine’s attitude to Origen, Jerome and Cyprian is equally subtle. Many excellent theologians have erred, he asserts, this is what distinguishes their writings from the Holy Scripture. There are no ecclesiastical writers greater than Origen, Jerome, Cyprian and the most illustrious Augustine. Yet Origen is frequently criticised by the other three. For he erred most gravely, no theologian ignores it, and the blessed Jerome amended some of his works. However, continues Bradwardine, Jerome frequently corrected himself, Augustine and Jerome often disagree; and Augustine sharply criticises Cyprian for his views on heretical baptism….34 

            Backus noted that “[a]ll in all, the modern reader is struck by Bradwardine’s ‘linear’ and favourable attitude to the Fathers. All ancient Christian writers are fallible, but all constitute auctoritates and so should be taken seriously."35 

            Yet, for all the importance that the Fathers had for Bradwardine, Scripture remained the ultimate authority.  Oberman differentiating between various medieval traditions as to the relation of Scripture and the Fathers, describes the tradition of which Bradwardine was a part.

Tradition I, then, represents the sufficiency of Holy Scripture as understood by the Fathers and doctors of the church.  In the case of disagreement between these interpreters, Holy Scripture has the final authority.  The horizontal concept of tradition is by no means denied here, but rather understood as the mode of reception of the fides or veritas contained in the Holy Scripture. Since the appeal to extrascriptural tradition is rejected, the validity of ecclesiastical traditions and consuetudines  is not regarded as “self supporting” but depends on its relation to the faith handed down by God in Holy Scripture.

        Thomas Bradwardine can be pointed out as one of the first outspoken representatives of Tradition I at the beginning of the fourteenth century. Though his references to the problem of Scripture and Tradition are relatively few and scattered, his emphasis on the exclusive and final authority of Holy Scriptures is quite explicit.36 

            This is the pattern followed in De causa Dei. In his presentation of the doctrine Bradwardine is at pains to demonstrate the truth from Scripture. He does call various church fathers into the discussion in his efforts to explain the passages. However, the goal is ever to gain the right interpretation of Scripture.

Bradwardine's Theology

The cornerstone of Bradwardine's theology is, without question, the truth that God is sovereign. Oberman notes that Bradwardine returns "in the discussion of every problem to his dominant theological idea: the Sovereignty of God." 1

Bradwardine builds his argument for God's sovereignty on two axioms, which serve as a basis for every statement about God that follows. The two axioms are these:

1. God is the highest good, "in comparison with whom nothing is better or more perfect." 2

2. "There cannot be an endless hierarchy in things, but … in the chain of causes there is a first cause."3  Bradwardine writes, "God makes all things, and moves all things. In every formation, in every motion, there must be some ... immovable mover; else the process would be endless." 4

This God, being the first cause, always existed and, being perfect, is immutable. God "cannot change for the better because he is already perfectly good. Neither can he change for the worse, because he is necessarily perfect, and therefore cannot cease to be so."5 

Based on these truths, Bradwardine proceeds to set forth forty corollaries against the same number of heresies previously condemned by the church. This serves two purposes. First, Bradwardine proves that he is orthodox and a faithful theologian of the church. Secondly, he shows that all these heresies contradict these basic truths about God. The implication is that all heresies will deny these central truths.

Bradwardine maintains not only the greatness of God, but also that God is far greater than the creature. Leff comments (critically) that "theologically, on the contrary, the whole spirit and purpose of De causa Dei is only too concerned with emphasizing the infinite chasm between God and his creatures."6  Bradwardine insists on the incomprehensibility of God's being and works, but, contrary to Ockham, he denies that God is thus arbitrary.

Bradwardine rejects the teaching that the actions of God are "contingent," but rather defends the proposition that His actions are "necessary." However, this necessity arises from within God Himself. Oberman explains: "God is unchangeable love and this love gives direction to His will, and thus the idea of God's will as without norm has been rejected."7

God's absolute sovereignty derives from His being the Creator of all things. Writes Bradwardine, "Thus Thou truly art my God…. Nothing else is necessary in an absolute way or exists by itself; yea, by itself nothing exists, but out of Thee, through Thee and to Thee, for in no other way can anything exist."8  God not only created all, He continues to govern and sustain all.

Since God is sovereign, His will "is universally efficacious and invincible, and necessitates as a cause."9 Bradwardine insists that nothing can defeat or make void God's will. He argues that the frustration or vanquishing of God's will could only arise from the created wills of either men or angels. However, that necessarily means that "the will of the creature must be superior … to the will of the creator: which can by no means be allowed." 10

Many a theologian pays lip service to the sovereignty of God, yet most flinch when it comes to God's control over the actions of men, especially their sins. Distinctions are made between God willing sin and God permitting sin. Faced with this question, Bradwardine does not retreat from the conviction that God is sovereign in all and over all. He insists that even when God only permits (voluntas permittens) sin, God is in some way yet actively willing. He draws the conclusion, "Therefore God does not merely permit but actually wills to be done all that is done."11  He maintains that, somehow, all things good and evil fit into the counsel of God. As to the actions of the creatures, if God does not will it, the action will not be performed.

Yet Bradwardine goes farther than this. He insists that no creature can act apart from God, not only because God must will the action, but also that God must give the power to the creature to act. God authors, man does, Bradwardine maintained.12  This applies to all the actions of men, both good and evil deeds. Bradwardine certainly understood that the manner in which God works is entirely different in the good and the evil deed. Nonetheless, God is involved in the action as a coeffector.

Does God then become responsible for evil? Bradwardine rejects that notion, but even then is careful not to detract in any way from God's sovereign control. He insisted that "all things that happen, happen of necessity." 13 However, Bradwardine does not use the word "necessity" as an antonym for "freedom" but rather as the opposite of "contingency," for he will not allow any contingency in God. Bradwardine called upon a distinction made by Augustine between necessitas invita and voluntaria, that is, a necessity upon man that is involuntary versus a necessity that is in some way voluntary. The first idea, Bradwardine rejects; the second, he asserts. Oberman's evaluation is that "this conception of necessity can become the basis of a doctrine of coefficiency according to which God works supremely, but in such a way that the freedom of will is maintained." 14

Yet the objection was raised against Bradwardine that since God wills sin, God is responsible for it. However, Bradwardine teaches that God wills sin, not in the sense that God wants sin as an anarchist wants lawlessness to cover the land. Rather God wants sin to be, even as God wants natural disasters to occur. The sin committed by man is not the end or goal of God when God wills that sin will occur. Sin is rather the means God uses to accomplish another goal, and that, a good one.

Bradwardine presents a number of arguments to prove that God uses sin for a good purpose. First of all, this belongs to the perfection of God's sovereignty. That is, "God's sovereignty is much more perfect when it extends over the good and the evil than over the good."15  Secondly, Romans 8:28 teaches that God uses all things for good to the elect. This "all things" would necessarily include sin. Thirdly, Bradwardine teaches that sin, by way of contrast, accentuates the beauty of the good in this life. In this connection, he refers to the beauty of the star, which beauty appears only in the darkness of night. Fourthly, God wills sin as a punishment for previous sins.16 

Gordon Leff is highly critical of Bradwardine's doctrine of God's sovereignty. He writes:

By means of His will, Bradwardine eliminates any autonomous activity on the part of God's creatures; the divine and the created become merged; the barrier between the natural and the supernatural is overlaid by the sheer physical presence of divine power amidst His creatures. Duns Scotus, through this theory of God's will as knowledge, drew a more exalted picture of man as a consequence. Bradwardine, on the other hand, uses this concept to depress the merits and powers of His creatures: God's presence everywhere, far from exalting them, is a measure of their dependence upon Him. They have nothing in their own right; God alone is their raison d' etre17

In The Cause of God, not only does Bradwardine explicitly reject determinism, he refutes it. Nonetheless, Leff maintains that Bradwardine's theology is essentially determinism. He is convinced that Bradwardine leaves man with no freedom. Again, Leff writes:

God has a triple relation to His creatures, as their cause (efficient, formal and final), as their conservator, and as the senior co-actor in all that they do. Bradwardine has by these tenets fashioned so strong an instrument of divine power that its application leaves no room for the slightest freedom in the actions of his creatures. God's activity, by the principle of divine participation, has been extended into the whole of creation. 18

Leff virtually ridicules Bradwardine's efforts to solve the tension between God's sovereignty over sin and man's freedom as a thinking and willing creature who is responsible for his own sins. He concludes:

Bradwardine seems finally to be caught in his own system. The delicate balance established between sin and God's will is too precarious to maintain. As the work proceeds, sin comes more and more within the area of God's will, so that in these latter references God is causa actus peccati. The route to this position is hesitant and (almost) illicit. From the first, the conflicting tenets allow of no satisfactory explanation; and Bradwardine turns now to one door, now to another, like a man who has become imprisoned in his own house. We miss the incisive progress from position to position; and the final words of Chapter 34 seem almost a relieved admission that he has tried his best and that he can say no more: "I would prefer on so important a question to hear the great rather than, as one so small, reply."19 

It is telling that while Leff sees this conclusion very nearly as an admission of failure, Oberman views it as evidence of Bradwardine's humility. Oberman correctly concludes that Bradwardine "has succeeded in not making God the author of evil, in spite of pressing the divine operation in the deep of sin very far. It should, however, be admitted that he does not make it easy for critics to believe in his orthodoxy."20 

This significant issue, namely, God's sovereignty over sin and man's culpability for his sins, is a question with which theologians have struggled for centuries. It is impossible to arrive at a complete solution with all the details fixed. At some point the believer must admit that he cannot penetrate farther into the mystery. Such an admission is not due to a failure in the theological system. Rather it is due to the fact that man cannot comprehend the ways of God. He can set forth the truth of the Bible that God is sovereign over all; that God cannot sin; that man is guilty for his sins. The theologian may go as far as he can to give a rational explanation to these truths. However, at some point he is forced to stop and admit that he can go no farther, as did Bradwardine.

In this respect, Bradwardine is not different from Augustine. Augustine did not face the question in the same form. His concern was the sovereign right and power of God to change one sinner and not another. How was it that God worked in a man the will to believe, and yet did not override the freedom of man? Augustine answers, "Now, should any man be for constraining us to examine into this profound mystery, why this person is so persuaded as to yield, and that person is not, there are only two things occurring to me, which I should like to advance as my answer: 'O the depth of the riches!' and 'Is there unrighteousness with God?'" And then Augustine concludes with what his English disciple may well have been consciously imitating, "If the man is displeased with such an answer, he must seek more learned disputants; but let him beware lest he find presumptuous ones." 21

Bradwardine obviously did not shrink back from maintaining the absolute sovereignty of God over all, including the sins of men.

This insistence on God's sovereignty Bradwardine maintains in the doctrines of salvation, starting with a vigorous defense of sovereign, absolute, double predestination. He grieves that "those pestiferous Pelagians deny predestination."22  In a prayer included in the Cause of God, Bradwardine describes the folly of the Pelagians.

Yet I know, O Lord, I know, and it is not without grief that I tell Thee, that there are certain proud Pelagians, who prefer to trust in man, and so in themselves. For they say that if God can elect or damn a man nobody has any certainty. But, they add, we can have certainty if predestination and damnation depends on our free will, and we alone are free masters of our deeds without God; then we shall prosper and only then can we trust and hope.

O, vain children of men… 23

The issue Bradwardine faces is twofold. First, what is the relation of predestination to foreknowledge? And secondly, what is the relation of predestination to works? The answer of the Pelagians of Bradwardine's day to the first question is the same given by the Semi-Pelagians of the fifth century - namely, that predestination is based on God's foreknowledge. God elected based on His foreknowledge of the faith and works that men do. That brings in the second question, and the answer of Bradwardine's opponents is that predestination is based on the works that men do.

Hence one of the first tasks Bradwardine faces is to define the foreknowledge of God and to determine the extent of it. Not unexpectedly, Bradwardine maintains that the knowledge of God is both absolute and determinative. He writes, "It is certain, that God has a knowledge of all things present, of things past, and of things to come: which knowledge is supremely actual, particular, distinct, and infallible."24  God's knowledge is not dependent on the creature, nor does God obtain His knowledge of all things as men do. God is omniscient and knows His creatures eternally. Bradwardine teaches that if God be dependent for His knowledge on His creatures, then God is neither the highest nor the first. 25 But, he insists, "God himself is the first and the last, the beginning and the end."26  In fact, he avers that "the knowledge of God is a cause of the thing known and not vice versa."27  Bradwardine agrees with Augustine that "God knew all his creatures both corporeal and incorporeal, not because they exist; but they therefore exist, because he knew them," adding this significant address to God: "No incident can possibly arise which thou didst not expect and foresee, who knowest all things: and every created nature is what it is, in consequence of thy knowing it as such."  28 Obviously, the reason why God has this knowledge is simply because God is sovereign and what God wills eternally is what happens.

This is significant for the question of the relationship of foreknowledge and predestination. For Bradwardine, they are one and the same. God's foreknowing the people He would bring to heaven is due to the fact that God wills it, and will accomplish it.

Fully in harmony with that, Bradwardine rejects the notion that predestination is in any way based on the works of men. On the contrary, Bradwardine maintains that predestination is the cause of the grace that men receive. Oberman notes that this is the "the main motif of his doctrine of predestination: predestination does not happen on account of human works, but on account of the gracious will of God."29 

Leff indicates that Bradwardine faces all the arguments in that regard.

Bradwardine rejects in turn Cassian's solution that God gives grace to some without preceding merit and to others only if they have merited it; the semi-Pelagian plea of making merit the ground for grace; the theory that men can prepare themselves for grace and that then God will freely award them grace; and finally that consent by man to God's grace is the cause of his conferring grace. 30

Since Bradwardine has firmly established that God is sovereign, also as creator and redeemer, he does not need much additional evidence to reject the notion that man merits election. He points out that if God saved not graciously but based on some cause outside of himself, that would mean that God's foreknowledge was not certain, but that is impossible.31  Bradwardine also uses Ephesians 1 to demonstrate that election is all of grace, for there would be no praise and thanksgiving to God for election if it were based on man's works.

Bradwardine defines predestination as "God's prevolition, or pre-determination of his will, respecting what shall come to pass."32  He does not limit that predetermination of God to the final state of men. He includes all that the future holds. Bradwardine teaches that there are two aspects of this predestination. The first includes all that God has determined for the man's life on earth, including grace, merits, and wiping out of sins in the present. Everything God determined eternally for the elect He brings to pass. The second aspect of predestination has to do with the future life, and includes glory and reward. The two fit together in that the life of each elect person is intended to bring him to glory and the specific reward God had determined for him.

Bradwardine maintains that predestination is of two kinds (gemina), that is, election and reprobation. Here Bradwardine faces fiercer battles. As is true today, so also in the fourteenth century, many fancied themselves follows of Augustine because they maintained a doctrine of election of one form or another. Reprobation is another matter. If it be allowed as a doctrine at all, surely (so the enemies of reprobation declare) it must be maintained that reprobation is based on the evil works of men. God rejects the guilty. If it be unfair and cruel to harm someone without provocation or just cause, does not reprobation ascribe to God injustice and cruelty? Would a just God reprobate and predestine anyone "to eternal fire unless it were done on the account of preceding guilt"?33 

Bradwardine, however, did not compromise on this cardinal truth of sovereign, unconditional, double predestination. He writes plainly, "All those to be saved or damned … he willed from eternity to be saved or damned, … and this by no means by a conditional or indeterminate will, but by his absolute and determinate will."34  In order to demonstrate that God is just, Bradwardine carefully distinguishes, on the one hand, the reason for reprobation, namely, God's sovereign, unconditional decree, and, on the other hand, the basis for the reprobate being punished. He writes, "God … punished no one apart from his own temporally preceding and eternally lasting fault (culpa); however, God did not eternally reprobate anyone on account of fault, as a cause antecedently moving the divine will, but on account of certain final causes."35 

Let the enemies of the truth marshal their arguments (and they did). Bradwardine is ready. They point out that John 1 states, "He gave them power to become the sons of God" and conclude that, since it is by predestination and grace that men become sons of God, "this lies within their own free power and occurs in no other way than by merits acceptable to God."36  This text, he replies, teaches the opposite. The text obviously says that those referred to in John "did not make themselves sons of God. God does this."37  He then proceeds to quote church fathers and philosophers to refute their claim, making heaviest use of Augustine.

Another argument claims that on the basis of the Psalm 69, "Let them [the sinners] be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous," it is plain that the works of men merit their being reprobated. Bradwardine notes first how impossible is that interpretation.

If this is understood with superficial literalness, we must concede that predestination and reprobation are subject to change; it would imply that someone who was previously elected and not reprobated is now reprobated and not elected. If someone can at any time be erased from the book of the living, this contradicts everything which previously has been shown. 38

Then Bradwardine presents the proper interpretation, presenting Augustine's supporting exposition - "Brethren, let us not take this to mean that God would have enrolled someone in the book of life and then erased him out of the book…."39 

Quoting the fathers - ancient and medieval - and expounding the Scriptures, Bradwardine boldly sets forth the truth. Interestingly, he teaches that God has a deeper purpose in reprobation than the mere destruction of the reprobate, namely that they serve the good of the elect. Oberman summarizes the profit for the elect:

1. For the profit of the elect, as in them God's power is revealed.

2. To keep the elect on the path of the law: with fear and trembling they will work out their salvation.

3. So that now the elect also learn to be thankful for the particular grace granted to them. 40

Bradwardine insists that "because [God] chooses to predestine and create one of His creatures for the service of another creature," that removes from God the charge of being cruel or unjust. Adding, "This is particularly true, since He punishes no man with eternal damnation unless such a man deserves it, that is to say, unless through his sins he deservedly and justly requires eternal punishment." 41

And yet, that is not the final word. Bradwardine is quick to point out that the purpose of predestination is exactly the exaltation of God's name. God created and predestined both elect and reprobate "for His own service, praise and glory."42 

Bradwardine ends where he began - God is sovereign. He writes that,

since God is omnipotent, completely free Lord of His whole creation, whose will alone is the most righteous law for all creation-if He should eternally punish the innocent, particularly since He does it for the perfection of the universe, for the profit of others, and for the honor of God Himself, who would presume to dispute with Him, to contradict Him, or ask, "Why do you do this?" I firmly believe, no one! "Has the potter no right over the clay to make of the same lump one vessel for honor and another for menial use?"43 

Anyone who maintains sovereign predestination will inevitably face the charge that this doctrine eliminates the need for preaching the gospel to all. Bradwardine heads off the charge. He insists that "God instructs all to come to Christ, not so that all will come, but because otherwise no one would come."44  In fact, he asserts that "God operates in the heart of man with that call…not that they hear the gospel in vain, but thus the hearer is converted and believes."45 

Salvation by Grace

     In harmony with the doctrines of the sovereignty of God and sovereign predestination, Bradwardine insists that salvation is of grace. By that he means both that salvation is a gracious, that is, unmerited gift, and that salvation is worked by the power of God’s grace. In the preface to The Cause of God he complains, “How many, today, O Lord, with Pelagius, oppose Thy freely given grace… and believe that only by their free will can they gain their salvation.”1 

     A key issue that he faces in this connection is the matter of merit. The doctrine of merit was deeply ingrained in the church in Bradwardine’s day. It was a significant part of Pelagius’ theology in the fourth century. Pelagius insisted that natural, fallen man is able to do good. He maintained that there are three aspects to a good work of man – the ability, the will, and the act itself. He taught that God graciously made man with the ability to do good (part of God’s grace given at creation), and that man – also after the fall – has the will and the power to do good works. The only additional grace needed is an external grace given through the good influence of the example of Christ and by the preaching of the law. Thus man can do good and in fact merited saving grace by so doing.

     Even though Augustine had effectively rejected Pelagianism, the Semi-Pelagianism that arose after Augustine still maintained that fallen man, being sick but not dead, has the power to do good. That teaching had taken over in the church, with the result that it was commonly assumed that fallen man has a free will, and can do good that will merit with God. “Do what is in you” the theologians urged (Facera quod in se est), that is to say, without grace, do whatever good you can, and God will reward you. This notion “was as strong in the early fourteenth century as in any other period of high and late medieval theology.”2 

     In addition, the scholastics had made distinctions in the merit that man supposedly could obtain. According to many medieval theologians, merit of condignity was a merit earned by man which is rewarded on the basis of justice, that is, God judges that a deed truly earned merit, and gives to the doer a reward commensurate with the work performed. Merit of congruity, on the other hand, was not a merit based strictly on justice, but a merit that God conferred graciously. It was this latter merit that was supposedly conferred when the sinner, apart from grace, would “do what is in him.” Hook notes that the fourteenth century theologians imagined that they had avoided the errors of Pelagianism by denying the merit of condignity, and affirming only that of congruity.3 

     Over against this, Bradwardine insists that man cannot do good apart from the grace of God. By God’s grace, Bradwardine means not grace as Pelagius taught, namely, an external influence, but rather a grace working in the man. Yet even with that position Bradwardine remained a man of his times, and was not able to eliminate all traces of merit from his theology as Luther and the Reformers would do some 200 years later.

     By the fourteenth century, the scholastics’ systematizing of the doctrine of grace had resulted in many fine distinctions, and Bradwardine used the accepted terminology.4  He speaks of created grace and uncreated grace. Uncreated grace is in God’s being, and is His favor towards men. Bradwardine insists that uncreated grace is the cause for God electing those whom He did. Created grace, on the other hand, is a power that God works in man.

     Concerning this “created grace,” Bradwardine holds that it consists of two parts, a preparatory grace (gratia gratis data) and a saving grace (gratia gratum faciens). The created grace is necessary for a man to do any work that God will reward. Hence it follows that no man can do a work that will merit grace. If he does a good work, he already has grace operating in him. In this connection, Bradwardine rejects also the good that unbelievers supposedly do by cultivating a good habit. Without grace, such “good” can only be considered evil.

     In addition, Bradwardine is clear that the saving grace of God is indeed saving. It (gratia gratum faciens) is even irresistible grace.

     However, Bradwardine also teaches that this created grace, as preparatory grace, is not limited to the elect. In this Bradwardine is not unlike Augustine, who had the faulty notion that baptism conferred grace to everyone baptized, a teaching that would produce much corrupt fruit in the medieval church’s theology and practice.

     Concerning the doctrine of justification, Bradwardine teaches “justification by grace alone without preceding works.”5  This flows out of predestination, in the way of grace, not because there is cause in man. God determines the works they will do, gives them the grace to perform the works, and then rewards them in heaven. This is language that sounds like the cry of the Reformation of Luther almost 200 years later. However, Oberman notes the significant difference between Bradwardine and Luther in this connection, namely, that Bradwardine did not add “sola fidei” (by faith alone). Bradwardine teaches that man is justified by grace without preceding work. It is commendable that he sees faith as the root of good works, which are the result of God’s grace. But he does also view good works as necessary for the completion of justification and remission.6 

     Yet it should be noted that although Bradwardine thus allows for the merit of condignity, he does not view it as an accomplishment of man. Forgiveness of sins, which also implies remission of punishment, is not because of merit, but out of grace.7  Bradwardine says explicitly, “We must conclude with St. Augustine, then, that our merits are God’s gifts, and when he rewards them, He crowns them not us.”8 


The Sacrament of Penance

     Even as Pelagius and his followers were difficult to pin down, so errors of the “Modern Pelagians” of Bradwardine’s day had to be ferreted out and refuted. Their craftiness was especially evident in connection with the doctrine of penance. Key to this is the notion of attrition. Medieval theologians used the term attrition to describe a sorrow for sin that is not caused by love for God but fear of punishment. Many theologians taught that attrition was the first step of true penance, leading to contrition, confession, and satisfaction in the sacrament of penance. 

     Interestingly, Bradwardine addresses those who despaired of forgiveness either because of the gravity or the multitude of their sins. Bradwardine emphasizes the possibility and reality of the forgiveness of sins. His argument is that man’s sins are finite, but the mercy and grace of God are infinite. Thus he reassures the penitent believer that the one who truly repents and confesses his sins may be (to a high degree) assured of forgiveness and his own salvation.9 

     Bradwardine faces the question of the relation between man’s repentance and God’s grace. The Pelagians are of the opinion that man first repents, thereby meriting grace and justification. Over against this, Bradwardine defends the position that God first infuses grace into the sinner, which brings the sinner to repentance.

     Bradwardine rejects the notion that attrition is true repentance. If it exists, it does not merit grace, but is a “pre-effect” of grace, most likely caused by the preaching.10  In addition, even true repentance is not satisfaction or a condition by which one obtains forgiveness. If it were, God’s forgiveness would not be merciful, but only an act of rigid justice.11 

     At the same time, Bradwardine insists that God demands a perfect contrition. This over against the Pelagians, who thought that even a tepid repentance merits remission of guilt and punishment, both eternal and temporal.12  Bradwardine also maintains that God brings about the repentance.

     Concerning the act of repentance, Bradwardine teaches that the whole act is God’s work. It begins with an infusion of God’s grace. Oberman explains, “Where light comes, darkness disappears; infused grace extinguishes sin” immediately.13  The result is a contrite heart. Next comes oral confession. However, Bradwardine does not hold that oral confession is essential for remission. Bradwardine views confession as simply naturally following from the grace of contrition. He illustrates this with the story of the healing of the ten lepers. “One goes to the priest just as the ten lepers were sent to the priests by Jesus, namely, in order to show the healing and not in order to obtain it.14 

     Bradwardine maintains that sins are not remitted through absolution by the priest, “but only God” takes away sin.15  In fact, according to Bradwardine, God has already performed the work by infusing grace.

     However, Bradwardine leaves room for works as a part of satisfaction. He does this by distinguishing between the remission of the guilt of sin and removal of the punishment of sin. First of all, through repentance “guilt is completely taken away; but according to the sin committed the punishment remains to be completed.”16  God’s infused grace produces these works and God accepts them and grants merit.17  Yet Bradwardine holds that good works do not obtain remission, but good works inevitably follow true repentance. He writes, “A contrite heart is a sign that sins are dismissed, just as exterior satisfaction [good works] is a sign of a contrite heart.”18  It is important to keep in mind that the whole of this work, “infusion of grace, justification and forgiveness, is founded on God’s predestination” before any previous merits.19 

     It is disappointing then that in the end Bradwardine defends the Church’s doctrine of penance and works of penance as satisfaction of the temporal punishment for sin. He even allows that temporal “punishments can be remitted for present and future by indulgences which are drawn from the superfluous wealth of good works of the Church”20  and that absolution by the priest is necessary. Oberman explains this conclusion – apparently a contradiction with his teaching on penance – as the influence of the spirit of the age, namely, that having set forth a number of positions, the theologian would often bow to the teaching of the Church.21 


Bradwardine’s Doctrine of Sin

     It is incontrovertible that Bradwardine strove to maintain the doctrines championed by Augustine against the Pelagians. And, though the emphasis in Bradwardine’s theology was necessarily different from Augustine’s due to development of the lie and the various approaches of the “Modern Pelagians,” to a large degree Bradwardine was a faithful disciple of Augustine. This is not true, however, in one crucial doctrine, namely, sin. In this area Bradwardine had a serious weakness.

     Bradwardine’s weakness begins with his failure to recognize the serious consequences of original sin. With Augustine, he sees all that exists as being good, in that it was created by God and has form and existence. Evil is the privation of the good. Sin is, then, not in the act itself, but in the motive. For proof of this, Bradwardine argues that, for example, homicide is not a sin as such, for then it would be wrong to execute a murderer. But this leads Bradwardine to conclude that a violation of God’s law done in ignorance is not sin because the motives were not evil. That, Augustine did not say. In fact, Augustine insisted that sins of ignorance are a working out of the horrible depravity of man because of Adam’s fall.

     Bradwardine does not give evidence that he has a grasp of the horrible effect of Adam’s fall. He speaks of the result of the fall usually in terms of the punishment that God put on man. That is correct, as such, but it is wholly inadequate. Oberman notes that the difference between Bradwardine and Augustine is that Bradwardine does not have a view of sin as a profound debt and a turning away from God. Oberman adds, “It is obvious that where Bradwardine emphasizes too little the seriousness of sin, this must also have consequences for the understanding of God’s overwhelming love in His grace.”22 

     This weakness is evidenced in that Bradwardine does not contrast the horrible depths of sin with the greatness of grace. He rather finds the great contrast between grace and merit. No doubt this emphasis is due largely to the contest he faces with the “Modern Pelagians” holding forth the ability of man to merit God’s grace. Yet it is also plain that Bradwardine had not experienced the intense spiritual struggle (over sin) of an Augustine, or of a Luther. Therein too may lie one of the reasons that Bradwardine’s monumental defense of the truth of sovereign predestination had so little lasting effect. The Cause of God is a brilliant and scholarly treatise to which the learned of his day reacted. In contrast with that, Luther’s works address the common believer.


Bradwardine’s Influence and Significance

     Determining the influence of Bradwardine and his thorough refutation of Pelagianism is difficult and puzzling. On the one hand, the work was apparently widely disseminated and discussed. Courtenay notes that Bradwardine’s work “was being cited in Paris within a year or two of its completion in 1344.”23  He adds that


Bradwardine’s thesis quickly became a cause celebre at Oxford and, later, at Paris.  Few theologians did not take up the challenge and attempt to protect the freedom of man from what looked to them like a thoroughgoing, predestinarian, even predetermined view of the divine plan. It made Bradwardine a household name among the educated, inside and outside the university, and put forward a particular interpretation of Augustine that had its own long and interesting history.24 


That, in fact, seems to have been the most notable effect – a negative reaction to the doctrines Bradwardine propounded. The church of that day was, at best, Semi-Pelagian, and Bradwardine’s theology did not find wide acceptance. Most seemed to ignore it. A number of theologians reacted against it, though most of them did not identify Thomas Bradwardine’s theology as the object of their attack. Oberman demonstrates conclusively that Bradwardine’s contemporary and fellow Mertonian, Thomas Buckingham, attacked the theology of The Cause of God in his Questiones. The subtitle reads:


Questions treated by Thomas Buckingham, late Chancellor of Exeter Cathedral, showing that there is a Catholic middle course between the errors of Pelagius, Cicero and Scotus and that eternal predestination, preordination and prevolution are consistent with freedom of will and human merit.25 

     At certain points Buckingham even takes the words of Bradwardine from The Cause of God but adds the word “non” to take the opposite position from Bradwardine.26  A contemporary (Thomas of Cracow) claims that Buckingham taught for a time in Paris and there “made a name for himself as a critic of Bradwardine.”27 

     John Baconthorp (d. 1348), in his Commentary on the Sententiae, did attempt to set forth Bradwardine’s meaning, and in a sense therefore defended Bradwardine. The trouble was that he did not capture the true meaning of Bradwardine, nor was he uncritical of his theology.28 

     Another contemporary reaction to Bradwardine is found in John Rodington, particularly in his Quodlibet de Conscientia. Bradwardine’s influence is seen in that Rodington does hold to predestination, but in effect denies the sovereignty of God and allows that man can merit eternal life without grace. It is especially in the area of merit and man’s will that Rodington was reacting against Bradwardine’s theology.29 

     The controversy did not die out immediately. Uthred of Bolden (d. 1397), a member of the Benedictine Order, writes of the fact that the friars and monks were disputing over such topics as predestination and free will, which discussions became so heated that the Bishop of Canterbury imposed silence on the men in 1368.30 

     W. A. Pantin notes another interesting fact from fourteenth century England. Manuals for parish priests included the Regimen Animarum. In this manual, the second section deals with the instruction that the parish priest ought to give to his people. In the chapter on the virtue of faith is inserted the whole of St. Anselm’s treatise on God’s foreknowledge and free will. Pantin wonders if this might “be an echo of the controversies that were being raised about this time by Bradwardine and Buckingham, and does it represent the intellectual preoccupation of the schools rather than the practical needs of the average parish? But possibly the fourteenth-century layman was worried by such questions.” In support of this, Pantin points to Chaucer’s reference to Bradwardine on predestination and free will in The Canterbury Tales.31 

     Another interesting question is the relationship between Bradwardine and a contemporary, Gregory of Rimini. Gregory was born in the 1280s at Rimini. He later lectured in the University of Paris. He too was an avowed Augustinian, maintaining double predestination from eternity not based on any merit of man. With Bradwardine, he rejects the existence of merits of condignity.

     He apparently knew Bradwardine’s work because he did criticize it twice in his commentary on the Sententiae, and that at points where Bradwardine was in fact weak, especially on the importance of the Fall and the character of sin.32  Both men combated Pelagianism, but Oberman concludes that they did so independently of each other.

     Thus it seems that Bradwardine’s The Cause of God produced a sharp reaction, but realized no significant or lasting effect on the church or her doctrine. Two reasons may be adduced for this fact. The first is that Bradwardine was a scholar, primarily a man of the universities. Courtenay writes that “ it may be one of the distinguishing features of a Hus or a Martin Luther that they carried the seriousness of the academic debate in the classroom into the streets.”  On the other hand, “Bradwardine’s tenacious and provocative Summa de causa Dei circulated within university circles in England and on the continent.”33 In that same connection, Alister McGrath points out that Bradwardine, unlike Gregori of Rimini, was not a member of a religious order, which order might have promoted Bradwardine’s views. In addition, he notes that the Hundred Years War would isolate Oxford and give the advantage to Paris as a center of theological study.34  Perhaps those were factors. One could point out the obvious fact that Bradwardine died in his prime, thus snuffing out any possible influence he might have had as Archbishop of Canterbury.

     However, the material reason why Bradwardine’s efforts effected no change must be traced to the doctrine he propounded. Recall the state of the church in the fourteenth century. The church was corrupt in doctrine and practice. The sacerdotal system and the hierarchy were stifling. The doctrinal support for both was the Semi-Pelagian doctrine of merit. In turn, the doctrine of merit was based on the free will of men and the notion that man has a necessary part in his salvation. These doctrines were well established in the church, and are doctrines always pleasing to man. Man wants to be able to point to something he has contributed to his salvation. Bradwardine’s teaching demolished all bases for man to boast. For that reason, the theology of Bradwardine would never be accepted. William Cunningham notes that Bradwardine


deplores bitterly the general prevalence of Pelagian error over the church, and earnestly appeals to the pope to interpose to check it, addressing him in these words: “Rise, Peter, why art thou sleeping?” But Peter did not find it convenient to hear him, and continued to sleep; and, in consequence, the Pelagian heresy, in its grossest and most injurious forms, prevailed generally over the whole church in the beginning of the sixteenth century.35 


     Even so, it is worth exploring the possibility that God used Bradwardine in a different way, namely, to assist others later in history when God determined to reform His church. The first instance of such possible influence is on John Wyclif. Wyclif (c.1329-1384) was a theologian and scholar of Oxford, in Merton College, as Bradwardine had been. Many church historians point to the influence of Bradwardine on this later pre-reformer. Toplady is representative, writing that Bradwardine “was in some sense, Dr. Wicliff’s spiritual father: for it was the perusal of Bradwardine’s writing, which next to the Holy Scriptures, opened the proto-reformer’s eyes to discover the genuine doctrine of faith and justification.”36 

     Oberman is more cautious. While noting that Wyclif himself reveals that he had a high regard for Bradwardine when he refers to Bradwardine as one of “two pre-eminent doctors of our order,”37  Oberman warns that the question of “influence” is a most difficult one, well nigh impossible to substantiate unless the individual personally describes the influence in his writings. Thus, while almost all agree that Wyclif was influenced by Bradwardine, opinions differ as to the extent and nature.

     One major problem in identifying possible influence of one man on a later is the fact that a theologian’s writings are greatly affected by the issues of the day. Oberman notes what while Wyclif was only one generation younger than Bradwardine, “in that very period new problems were raised and new developments took place, which were of such great significance for the history of Christian thought, that in reality the distance between Bradwardine and Wiclif is considerably greater than that between Wiclif and the Reformation.”38  The issues of Wyclif’s day involved the doctrines of the church, Scripture, and the Lord’s Supper, of which little or nothing is found in Bradwardine’s The Cause of God.

     While that is admittedly true, it is also a fact that Wyclif’s doctrine of the church was greatly determined by the doctrine of predestination, which in turn led him to differ with the hierarchical view of the church maintained by medieval theologians. This is a crucial point, because Wyclif, and later Hus, would define the church in terms of the elect members rather than the magisterium – the clergy. The doctrine of sovereign predestination is the foundation of that position. In addition, Wyclif shared the profound reverence for the Scriptures possessed by Bradwardine. No doubt also, Wyclif’s high regard for Augustine was fostered by Bradwardine. All this would lead one to conclude that God did use Bradwardine to teach Wyclif.

     Oberman’s skepticism on the question of Bradwardine’s influence on the Reformation is justified. Still, he notes the similarities in that, for example, Bradwardine, Wyclif, and Luther all maintained the sovereignty of God. They held to the view that all things that happen, happen of necessity. They all emphasized predestination. And he adds adroitly, “insofar as Bradwardine’s theology meant a return to a Boston, he undoubtedly took part, together with Wiclif, in defining the climate of thought at the end of the Middle Ages and in this more general way prepared for the reformation.”39 

     There remains one additional, fascinating aspect of Bradwardine’s possible influence to discuss, and that is his influence in connection with the battles against Arminianism in sixteenth and seventeenth century England, and thus indirectly on the Synod of Dordrecht (1618-19).

     That Bradwardine had a following in late sixteenth and early seventeenth century England is evident from the fact that his monumental work was republished at that time. In fact, Bradwardine had supporters in some very high places. The printing of Bradwardine’s The Cause of God was made possible by George Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury (1562–1633). Abbot was “deeply committed to the propagation of his understanding of the predestinarian views of Augustine, Bradwardine, and Calvin. He rightly feared that that position was losing acceptance among some of the members of the more learned classes.”40 

     In those days, the relationship between the Dutch and the English was close. Abbot was well aware of the rise of the Arminian threat in the Netherlands and had early set out to undercut it. In 1611, he persuaded King James to oppose the appointment of the “undogmatic and tolerant Conradus Vorstius [to]… the professorship at Leiden as the successor to the recently deceased Arminius.”41  His efforts were successful.

     Abbot had been appointed to help with the translation of the KJV (1604-1611). He was on the subcommittee to translate the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation. Sir Henry Savile was a fellow member on this subcommittee, and a skilled mathematician who had already done some printing. Abbot urged Savile to prepare a critical edition of Bradwardine’s works. The volume was ready for publication in 1618 (even dedicated to King James), in time to be of assistance for the work at the Synod of Dordt. In addition, Abbot sent his chaplain to represent him in the Netherlands.

     Bradwardine was well known to the Calvinists and the English opponents of Calvinism. At least one such opponent called Bradwardine an “enemy of God.”42 

     Sad to say, Archbishop Abbot lost the battle against Arminianism in England. The tide was clearly against the doctrines of sovereign grace. By 1622, Abbot, disturbed about the debates and discussions taking place, joined with King James in a terse publication intended to quell the so-called Arminian controversy. It reads as follows:


That no preacher of what title soever, under the degree of a Bishop or Deane at the least, do from henceforth presume to preach in any populous auditorie, the deepe point of predestination, election, reprobation; of the universalitie, efficacie, resistabilities, or irresistabilitie of God’s grace, but leave those theames to be handled by the learned men, and that moderately, and modestly, by way of use and application, rather than by way of positive doctrine, as beeing itter of the schooles and universities, than for simple auditories.43 


Though Archbishop Abbot held to the fight until his death in 1633, it was clearly a losing battle.

     Still, at least one English church historian believes that Bradwardine’s theology “is substantially expressed in Articles 12, 13, and 17 of the Reformed Church of England.”44  Toplady uses Bradwardine extensively in his long defense of the proposition that the Church of England historically stood in the line of the Calvinistic reformation.

     What possible influence Bradwardine’s 900-page work may have had on the formulations of the Synod of Dordrecht cannot be known. However, the case of Abraham van der Heyden makes it obvious that there was influence on some Reformed men in the Netherlands.

     Abraham van der Heyden was a preacher in the Netherlands who took up the defense of the doctrines of grace after the Synod of Dordt by criticizing the catechism of the Remonstrants (published 1640) constructed by Johannes Uytenbogaerd. Van der Heyden was answered by Simon Episcopius, a former professor of van der Heyden at the University of Leiden. Van der Heyden then replied in greater length. He consciously relied on Bradwardine in his works. Both Uytenbogaerd and Episcopius ridiculed van der Heyden’s use of Bradwardine, a “popish bishop of Canterbury who lived 250 years ago.” Such scorn did not result in van der Heyden’s distancing himself from Bradwardine in the defense of the doctrines of Dordt. On the contrary, van der Heyden unashamedly titled his second work, De causa Dei.

     It is plain that Bradwardine’s The Cause of God enabled van der Heyden to trace the line of the truth back to Augustine. “With the exception of references to Episcopius, whose work van der Heyden was specifically answering, references to Augustine outnumber even those to Calvin, the next most frequently cited authority, by four or five times.”45 

     Any serious evaluation of Bradwardine’s significance affirms that predestination is a central element in his theology, if not the cornerstone. Not since Gottschalk of the ninth century, and Augustine before him, had any theologian maintained this “hard doctrine” so faithfully or emphatically. Gottschalk died a martyr for the sake of this truth; Bradwardine did not. Several factors (in God’s providence) account for Bradwardine’s escape from condemnation. The first is the papal schism that greatly weakened the power of the papacy in Bradwardine’s day. The second factor is that Bradwardine was in England, where the power of the Romish church was often mitigated by English nationalism. In addition, Bradwardine was held in high regard among the universities in Europe and in the churches in England. That King Edward would choose Bradwardine to be his personal chaplain and secretary demonstrates Bradwardine’s high standing.

     These seemingly ineffectual stands for the truth of sovereign grace by Gottschalk and Bradwardine lead one to ponder the purposes of God. Not that anyone may sinfully question God’s wisdom or ways in all his dealings with men. Yet there is a legitimate investigation into God’s purposes, insofar as they can be determined by the study of history. It is obvious that God had similar purposes in Gottschalk and in Bradwardine. Both men were but briefly lit candles for the truth that Augustine developed. Both men had opposition, and ultimately the message of both was squelched.

     From a negative point of view, God revealed clearly that the church after Augustine did not want the truth of sovereign, double predestination. With Gottschalk, it was declared with a vengeance. If anyone thought that the martyrdom of Gottschalk was not conclusive, that perhaps the schoolmen returned to the essence of Augustine, the rejection of Bradwardine by the universities and churchmen indicates otherwise. There was no room for that truth in the context of works-righteousness firmly maintained by the church of that day.

     From a positive point of view, as has been noted, God was preparing the way for the reformation of His church. And yet only a part of the way. In many respects the reformers would have to go much farther than Bradwardine.

     Nonetheless, God upholds His truth. It is a comfort to the Reformed man and the church today to know that God maintained the truth also of sovereign predestination even in the darkest times of the high Middle Ages. The lesson of Bradwardine is clear. It should not surprise anyone in the twenty-first century that the church world at large spurns the doctrine of sovereign predestination. Unbelief hates that truth especially, because predestination maintains that God is sovereign. Thus the church must take comfort in the historical reminder that God will maintain His truth to the end.

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