God’s Servant: Gottschalk of Orbais (Double Predestinarian and Martyr)

The Man

Gottschalk’s name means “Servant of God,” and as a servant of God’s truth he lived and died. To suffer as he did for the doctrine of sovereign double predestination, he had not only in name but also in heart to be God’s servant.

Born around 803,1 Gottschalk anticipated Calvin’s teaching by 750 years with his emphasis on the doctrines we know as limited atonement and double predestination. He also, though not alone, believed a symbolic or figurative presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, a view that would be lost in Romish theology and would only be revived by the Swiss Reformers.

He is known as Gottschalk of Orbais (a commune in northeastern France) only because he spent part of his adult life in a monastery there. He was German by birth, though the place of his birth is also not certain. His father was a nobleman from Saxony in eastern Germany.

He was given by his parents, probably around age 10, to the Benedictine monastery of Fulda in western Germany. The Fulda monastery was an important educational center at that time. There Gottschalk would have learned Latin and would have studied in Latin the Bible, the fathers, and the classics. Perhaps it was there he first came into contact with Augustine’s view of predestination.

In any case, Gottschalk sought to be released from his monastic obligations and obtained release in 829 at the Synod of Mainz. By 835, however, Gottschalk was a monk again, now in Orbais. Schaff suggests that this came about through the machinations of the Abbott of Fulda, Rabanus Maurus, though Gottschalk did not return to Fulda but transferred to Orbais. Rabanus Maurus would become one of his chief opponents and, as Schaff suggests, the enmity of Rabanus Maurus toward Gottschalk seems to date from this period.2

At Orbais Gottschalk became “an enthusiastic defender of the doctrine of double predestination…in the joyous conviction that it was in accordance with the doctrine of the church.”3 He promoted his views both in writing and in the course of several missions to Italy and to the Balkans. Thus he brought down on himself the wrath of Rabanus Maurus, then Archbishop of Mainz.

Through the influence of Rabanus Maurus, Gottschalk’s teaching was condemned at the Synod of Mainz in 848 and he was whipped, made to swear he would not return to the area, and sent to Reims and to his ecclesiastical superiors. There another of his enemies, Hincmar of Reims, had him condemned at the Synod of Chiersy in 849, where he was deposed from the priesthood, whipped again, compelled to burn his written self-defense, and imprisoned.

However, there were those who supported him, and much controversy swirled around his views. Gottschalk himself continued to write from prison, defending himself especially in his Shorter and Longer Confessions. Whether his principal theological work, On Predestination, was written during this time is uncertain, but in all three works he unashamedly defends the biblical and Augustinian view of predestination.

All his efforts to clear himself were in vain and Gottschalk died, still in prison, in 868. He was buried without last rites in unconsecrated ground, a martyr for the truth. His enemies spread many lies about him, including the charge that he was demon-possessed. Many of those lies persist in the available information concerning Gottschalk, but he stands to be judged now only by God Himself, a good and faithful servant of God and of God’s truth.

For many years, except for a few fragments, only his Shorter and Longer Confessions were known, but in 1931 other of his writings were discovered and are now available in translation.4 His most important works besides the two confessions are his Reply to Rabanus Maurus, Confession of Faith at Mainz, Tome to Gislemar, Answers to Various Questions, On Predestination, On Different Ways of Speaking About Redemption, and Another Treatise on Predestination.

The Controversy

Though Gottschalk’s views of the Lord’s Supper also anticipated the teaching of the Protestant Reformation, he is remembered especially for his doctrine of predestination, in particular his teaching that predestination is double, including not only the election of some but the reprobation of others. He says:

Just as God, by free grace has unchangeably predestinated all His elect to life eternal, so likewise the same unchangeable God, by a just judgment has unchangeably predestinated all the reprobate, who in the day of judgment are damned on account of their evil merits, to merited eternal death.5

His views anticipate those of John Calvin and those who agree with him, and are a remarkable testimony against the prevailing and pernicious idea that the doctrine of sovereign, double predestination was an invention of the Protestant Reformers and their successors, especially of Theodore Beza, the English and Dutch high Calvinists and the Synod Dordt. Gottschalk learned what he believed from the writings of Augustine, and is an important link between that esteemed father and the Reformers, as well as those who hold the biblical doctrine of predestination today.

The controversy then as now was especially over the doctrine of reprobation, that is, whether God sovereignly and unconditionally decrees not only the eternal salvation of some but also the eternal damnation of others. Gottschalk was not alone in teaching double predestination, but he was less speculative, being more biblical and more forthright than others, and the only one who suffered for his belief.

In defending the doctrine of double predestination, Gottschalk, like those who followed in his steps, appeals not only to the fathers but to Scripture. He says:

But now it is time, Lord, to be subject to the truthful testimony of the divine books in which it is taught without reservation and declared without ambiguity, that the reprobate are predestinated to the torment of eternal fire. And so I resolve first of all to speak the truth by setting forth the testimony of Thy invincible truth, O Lord Jesus Christ.6

In this, too, he was a forerunner of the great Protestant Reformation and its return to the Word of God.

Notable in his defense of the doctrine of predestination, particularly the doctrine of reprobation, is his careful avoidance of any suggestion or language that would make God the author of sin. Though he is not always as clear as he might be concerning the relationship between reprobation and sin, he repeatedly insists that the reprobate are “damned on account of their evil merits, to merited eternal death.”7 That is what the Canons of Dordt stated 750 years later:

And this is the decree of reprobation which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares Him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous judge and avenger thereof (I, 15).

Equally notable is His rejection of the idea that there are two wills in God, one for the salvation of the elect only and another for the salvation of everyone:

All whom God will to be saved, without doubt are saved: neither are any able to be saved, except those whom God wills to be saved: neither is there anyone whom God wishes to save and who is not saved, because our God has done whatsoever He has willed.8

Belief in sovereign reprobation cannot be reconciled with a will of God toward the salvation of all, and Gottschalk is proof of that some 750 years before the Reformation.

Believing in double predestination, Gottschalk followed that doctrine through to its logical and biblical conclusions, rejecting the Pelagian doctrine of free-will and holding the doctrine of limited atonement. In reference to the latter, he says:

All those wicked and sinners for whom the Son of God did not assume either body or language, and for whom He did not shed His blood; neither has He been crucified for them in any sense.9

Any high Calvinist must love the man for his clear teaching and for his willingness to stand for the truth and suffer for his stand; but he is important too—important as one through whom God preserved the truth in a time of spiritual darkness. Wycliffe is called the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” and perhaps Gottschalk lived too long before the Reformation to deserve that name. But he is all the more remarkable for being a shining light in the darkest hours of the long night that preceded the morning of the Reformation. What a testimony he is to God’s faithfulness and abiding love for His church!

Gottschalk was largely forgotten in the centuries that would follow, and his writings disappeared until recent times. Bishop James Ussher would publish his two confessions in the 1600s, but his treatises on predestination were lost until the 1900s. Calvin, to the best of my knowledge, makes no reference to Gottschalk, though he derived his views of predestination from the same source at Gottschalk. Nevertheless, he stands in a long line of those for whom the teaching of God’s Word was all-important, even though the majority thought otherwise.

Servant of the truth, he truly was a servant of God, and should not be forgotten by those who serve God and God’s truth today. As one who loved the truth, Gottschalk fits the description of I Corinthians 13:7, for such love “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” And, like Abel, “he being dead, yet speaketh.”

1 The year of his birth is given variously from 800 to 808.

2 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1910), 4:525.

3 J. H. Kurtz, Church History (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1888), 1:546, 547.

4 Gottschalk, Gottschalk and a Medieval Predestination Controversy: Texts Translated from the Latin, trans. and ed. V. Genke and F. Gumerlock (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2010).

5 Gottschalk, “Fragmenta Omnia” in Jean P. Migne, ed., Patrologia Cursus Completus…, Patrum Latinorum (Paris: Petit- Montrouse, 1852), 121:368 (translation mine).

6 Gottschalk, Long Confession in Migne, 351 (translation mine).

7 Gottschalk, “Fragments” in Migne, 368 (translation mine)

8 Gottschalk, “Fragments” in Migne, 366 (translation mine).

9 Gottschalk, “Fragments” in Migne, 367 (translation mine).