Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
In a series of radio sermons, broadcast in the forties, Rev. Herman Hoeksema called predestination “the heart of the gospel.” This precious truth of predestination was first taught in the church in the fifth century by Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, who developed this doctrine of Scripture in his controversy with the Semi-Pelagians. The Roman Catholic Church, while claiming Augustine as one of its saints and while professing to be faithful to Augustine’s teachings, rejected Augustine’s doctrine of double predestination. The Roman Catholic Church committed itself to Semi Pelagianism, and this became the dominant and official view of this church, a position which continues to the present.
Not only did the Roman Catholic Church reject Augustine’s doctrine of double predestination, but, far worse, it persecuted and killed an ardent defender of this doctrine about three hundred years after Augustine died. This is the story of a relatively obscure monk by the name of Gotteschalk, who gave his life in defense of a Scriptural truth which has been the confession of every Reformed and Presbyterian church at some time in its history. And it is a confession of those who today also are faithful to the Word of God. That one man in the dark and dreary Middle Ages was willing to give his life for that truth is inspiration to all God’s people who confess that God is sovereign also in election and reprobation.
Gotteschalk was born in the home of a German Count, Bruno by name, in 806. His name, appropriately, means, “Servant of God.” Little did his parents, when giving him that name, realize how appropriate it was. When he was still a young child, Gotteschalk’s parents gave him to the Hessian monastery of Fulda as an oblate, i.e., as a gift to God.
When Gotteschalk was about 23 years old, he rebelled against a monastic life and asked permission to be released from the monastery. His appeal was made to the Synod of Mainz which met in 829, which Synod granted his request. However, Rabanus Maurus, the abbot of the monastery, disagreed with the decision of the Synod and appealed to the emperor. He succeeded in his efforts to keep Gotteschalk in the monastery, but became the lifelong enemy of this faithful servant of Christ. Gotteschalk was, however, transferred to the monastery in Orbais, France, in the diocese of Soissons in the province of Rheims. Here he was ordained to the priesthood.
Determined to make more of his life than remaining a mere monk, Gotteschalk applied himself to the study of the writings of Augustine. During his study of Augustine, Gotteschalk was surprised to learn that the Bishop of Hippo had taught a sovereign and double predestination, a doctrine quite different from what was taught in the Romish Church. After studying the Scriptures, Gotteschalk became convinced that Augustine had faithfully set forth the truth of predestination, and he became an ardent and vocal preacher of this doctrine.
In his excitement over this discovery, he discussed the issue with his fellow monks and succeeded in persuading many of them of the truth of his position.
About this time (837-847), Gotteschalk began a series of lengthy travels throughout the Mediterranean world, visiting Italy, Caesarea, Constantinople, and Alexandria, along with other places. Wherever he went, he preached and taught his views on predestination. He was confident, though perhaps naively so, that the church, after hearing him out, would agree with him and alter its Semi-Pelagian position. He corresponded with scholars, debated with theologians, preached to people, and spoke of his views at every opportunity. He considered his views so essential to an understanding of Scripture and the true gospel that he could scarcely speak of anything else.
In 846 and 847 Gotteschalk found a home with Bishop Noting of Veronica in Italy. This was the beginning of his troubles. He discussed predestination with Bishop Noting, pointing out how Augustine had taught sovereign and double predestination and how these views obviously agreed with the Scriptures. But Bishop Noting was alarmed. He wrote a rather lengthy letter to Rabanus Maurus, Gotteschalk’s old enemy, to acquaint Maurus with what Gotteschalk was teaching and preaching. Maurus, who by this time had become archbishop of Mainz, decided to silence his monk once and for all. He called a Synod in Mainz (or Mayence) to meet on October 1, 848, at which Synod the German emperor was also present. Maurus himself presided. Gotteschalk was asked to present his views, which he did “in the joyous conviction that it was in accordance with the one doctrine of the church.”¹
It is striking that Gotteschalk, in his defense of his views, not only boldly and courageously defended double predestination (election and reprobation), but also insisted that: Christ died on the cross of Calvary only for the elect.
Under the heavy-handed influence of Maurus, Gotteschalk was condemned and his views were branded as heresy. Maurus handed Gotteschalk over to Hincmar of Rheims, the metropolitan bishop of Gotteschalk. The accompanying letter read in part:
We send to you this vagabond monk, in order that you may shut him up in his convent, and prevent him from propagating his false, heretical and scandalous doctrine.²
Hincmar, though a rather learned man, was also arrogant and cruel. He determined not only to keep Gotteschalk confined to the monastery, but to elicit from his monk a retraction. To accomplish this, Hincmar called a Synod at Chiersy which met in 849. The results of this Synod were fatal for Gotteschalk and his views. Gotteschalk steadfastly and courageously refused to recant, even in the face of the cruel threats of Hincmar. The Synod condemned him. They adopted decisions which included such heretical teachings as conditional reprobation,³ a universal atonement, and a desire on God’s part to save all men.4 The Synod deposed Gotteschalk from the priesthood, ordered his books to be burned, ordered him to be shut up in a monastery, and had him publicly whipped.
But the cruel Hincmar was not yet finished with his “rebellious” monk. Evidently unable to tolerate any disagreement with his position, he was determined to force Gotteschalk to recant. Within the walls of the monastery Gotteschalk was whipped so severely that he nearly died. But as he lay on the floor of his torture chamber, bloody and near death, he continued to refuse to retract his position. Event the rage of Hincmar could not elicit from this saint a denial of what he believed to be God’s truth. The treatment of Gotteschalk was so cruel that it was protested by some leading clerics of his day.
Utterly defeated by the courage of Gotteschalk, Hincmar allowed the saint to languish in prison. While imprisoned Gotteschalk, after recovering somewhat from the cruel treatment he received, composed two confessions in which he clearly stated his views. In these confessions, which have come down to us, he gave expression to his firm conviction that the truth of God would stand. He affirmed his faith in double predestination, in the particular atonement of his Savior, and in God’s sovereign purpose and will to save in Christ only those who were ordained to eternal life; while at the same time he confessed his belief that the wicked are sovereignly reprobated to hell in the way of their sins against God?
After twenty years of imprisonment, Gotteschalk died at the age of 62 or 63 in the year 868. Hincmar forbad that he be buried in consecrated ground, and the last indignity of dying outside the church was heaped on him. He died faithful to the end, a noble martyr for the cause of the truth. He died for a faith which was not again to be heard in the church until the time of Luther and Calvin some 700 years later.
With the martyr’s death of Gotteschalk, events took an ominous turn in the Roman Catholic Church. The church had officially condemned the truth of Scripture and had, on its highest ecclesiastical levels, condoned heresy. The result was that from that point on the church gave official sanction to false doctrine and stretched the wings of her protection over those who opposed the truth, while destroying God’s servants who defended the truth and fought for it with the courage and boldness of faith. The church set herself on a path which was to continue through the centuries until Europe ran red with the blood of countless martyrs. Crushed by the cruel and despicable Inquisition, the church of Christ could barely survive. And when God brought Reformation in the sixteenth century, the pages of the history of the Reformation were written in the blood of the saints which still cries out for vengeance.
Our Belgic Confession describes the false church as that institution which “persecutes those, who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness and idolatry” (Art. XXIX). Nor has Rome changed her position in the least. She is prevented in our day from carrying out her wishes; she hides her cruelty behind a mask of benevolence as she speaks of “erring brothers”; but given the right circumstances, and they may very well come, her fangs shall once again be bared, and those who stand for the truth shall have to endure the full fury of her hatred of God.
Gotteschalk was a lonely voice in a barren wasteland. His courage was great and his death a martyrdom. Hans vonSchubert is correct when he writes concerning Gotteschalk: “It is not only our right but also our obligation to regard this German Calvin as one of The first heroes of the history of our faith.”6
1. See Prof. Kurtz, Church History (Funk & Wagnalls, New York, 1988). Vol. I, p. 546.
2. Quoted from McClintock & Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, Vol. III.
3. That is, that God reprobates only on the basis of foreseen unbelief—a doctrine later taught by the Arminians and condemned in our Canons of Dordt.
4. This doctrine, God’s desire to save all men, later became an integral part of the well-meant offer of salvation. It is important to note that Gotteschalk emphatically taught that Christ’s atonement was only for the elect and that God’s desire to save was limited to those for whom Christ died. The proponents of the well-meant offer do not have history on their side.
5. These Confessions of Gotteschalk can be found in translation in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, Vol. XII, No. 1. They are appended to an article written by Rev. Ronald Hanko on the life and teachings of Got&chalk.
6. Quoted from Louis Praamsma, De Kerk Van Alle Tijden (T. Wever, Franeker, 1979). Deel I, p. 240. The translation is mine.