May 2, 2023

Who Was Gottschalk of Orbais?

6 Min Read

Amid the swirling controversies of the ninth century, there was raised a strong voice for sovereign grace belonging to an unknown German monk named Gottschalk of Orbais (ca. 804–869). Like Augustine before him and Luther and Calvin after him, Gottschalk possessed an overriding sense of the sovereignty of God in salvation, and he brought it to bear upon his turbulent generation. It was in this dark hour of history that this medieval theologian stood in the gap to uphold the banner of the doctrines of grace.

Born at Mentz in modern Germany, Gottschalk was the son of a respected nobleman, Count Berno of Saxony. At the insistence of his father, he conceded to take a lifelong monastic vow while still a young boy. But upon reaching the age of maturity, Gottschalk sought to be released from this commitment and leave the monastery. The church, however, would not release him, beginning a long-standing rivalry between the two.

As a concession, Gottschalk was allowed to move to the monastery at Orbais, in northeast France, where something unexpected occurred. Gottschalk became an avid reader of Augustine (354–430), the most dominant teacher of the early Western church. With the bishop of Hippo as his theological mentor, Gottschalk clearly saw the biblical truths of inseparable relationships between human depravity, unconditional election, and monergistic regeneration. Immediately, these grand truths struck his soul like a lightning bolt, igniting his heart with a burning passion for God. Far from being a mere intellectual pursuit, these God-exalting doctrines transformed his life, infusing him with holy zeal.

Gottschalk began to travel extensively, preaching these truths wherever he went. Soon other monks were convinced to embrace them. The doctrines of sovereign grace now had a new champion. He undertook a pilgrimage to Rome and spread Augustinian teaching throughout Italy, the Balkans, and Bulgaria—but not without conflict.

Summoned to appear before the Synod of Mainz (848), Gottschalk was to give an account of his bold teaching on the doctrines of grace. Before the king and church officials, he confessed his unwavering belief in the sovereignty of God in salvation. He stated his doctrine was true to the Scriptures and consistent with Augustine. But the synod decided against Gottschalk and delivered him into the custody of the most powerful bishop in France, the archbishop of Reims, a man named Hincmar (ca. 806–882).

Hincmar ordered Gottschalk to appear before the Synod of Chiersy (849) where he was charged with heresy. Specifically, he was accused of gemina pradestinatio—double predestination—a step in which he went even further than his teacher Augustine. Not only did God eternally predestine His elect to eternal life, Gottschalk maintained that He also foreordained all reprobates to eternal death. When Gottschalk refused to recant, the synod charged him a heretic and flogged him within an inch of his life. His books were publicly burned and he was imprisoned at Hautvilliers.

Prominent church leaders were outraged at this unjust treatment. Had not Gottschalk merely taught the same essential theology as Augustine? Several men stepped forward to lend their support, including such notables as Remigius, the archbishop of Lyon (d. 875), Florus of Lyon (d. 860), Prudentius of Troyes (d. 861), and Ratramnus of Corbie. These men asserted that Gottschalk was not alone in believing the God-exalting truths of sovereign grace. They stood with him, though Florus counseled him to preach the gospel to the lost, not election.

With such respected churchmen taking this strong stand, the controversy boiled to a fever pitch. At the insistence of the king of Francia, the Synod of Chiersy (849) was convened to sort out this theological dilemma. Tragically, this ill-led session adopted a semi-Pelagian position, and Gottschalk remained imprisoned for the next two decades.

Even in a time when it was unpopular to do so, Gottschalk held fast to the doctrines of grace.

Even in a time when it was unpopular to do so, Gottschalk held fast to the doctrines of grace. The center of gravity of his thinking was his fundamental belief in the supreme authority of God to govern every area of creation and life, including salvation. From this high ground he would not be budged. The following represents his teaching:

Total Depravity

Like Augustine before him, Gottschalk was persuaded that all humanity was in Adam, and when the first man sinned, mankind fell with him into death. In his sinful state, man, he believed, inherits a “total depravity of will and mind. . . [and is] incapable of willing good unless efficaciously enabled by divine grace. He is able only to sin, not to do good.” Gottschalk added: “After the first man fell by free will, none of us is able to use free will to do good, but only to do evil.” That is, man’s will is free, but it has no desire to do good because it is corrupted by sin.

Sovereign Election

Gottschalk further affirmed the doctrine of unconditional election. Gottschalk believed that God has “elected a world from out of the world.” He wrote: “Before all worlds and before whatever God did from the beginning, He foreordained to the Kingdom whom He willed.” God cannot and will not alter His saving decree: “God the immutable, immutably predestined before the foundation of the world all His elect by His free grace to eternal life.”

Definite Atonement

But, unlike Augustine, Gottschalk taught a specific death by Christ for the elect: “Our God and master Jesus Christ [was] crucified only for the elect.” It has been said that Gottschalk provided the first clear articulation and defense of a particular redemption in church history. Although men previous to him had made strong statements about the basic aspects of this doctrine, Gottschalk first demonstrated the strong relationship between predestination and the extent of the atonement. Gottschalk wrote, “Christ died only for the elect,” asserting that Christ died exclusively and triumphantly for the sins of His people.

Irresistible Calling

Gottschalk was convinced that the new birth is all of God. The Holy Spirit must draw the sinner to faith in Christ. He wrote: “We run in a way that befits our salvation when we are drawn by God.” He believed that the Holy Spirit brings life to spiritually dead sinners, grants saving faith to the elect, and that He recreates elect souls. In a hymn, Gottschalk wrote, “O Holy Spirit, You bring instant life to those You breathe into . . . Together with the Father and the Son, You recreate Your elect souls, And when they are recreated, You also glorify them.”

Preserving Grace

Gottschalk held that all those whom God elects are eternally secure, never losing their salvation: “Those who have been foreordained to the Kingdom cannot perish.” In this teaching, Gottschalk was consistent with Augustine.

But where Gottschalk most notably went beyond his mentor Augustine was in the doctrine of reprobation. While Augustine held to single predestination, that God chooses His elect and merely passes over the non-elect, Gottschalk explicitly taught that “predestination is double, whether of the elect to peace, or the reprobate to death.” That is, God foreordains the non-elect to reprobation, not as a just condemnation but because God willed to do so. He believed that the damning decree lies in God: “The precise number of the non-elect is specified by an eternal decree of God, a predestination to death, which runs parallel to the decree of election to life.”

Gottschalk advanced an infralapsarian position, arguing that God’s decree to elect came after His decree to permit the fall, rather than before (supralapsarianism). That is, mankind’s evil at the fall was the reason for reprobation: “God Himself by His righteous judgment immutably predestined to everlasting death all the reprobate, who on the day of judgment will be condemned on account of their own evil deserts.” In other words, God predestined some to reprobation because He knew them to be sinners. But it should be clarified that Gottschalk did not believe that God predestined anyone to sin. All transgression is the sole responsibility of man, not God.

According to Gottschalk, reprobation was not a specific decree, as in supralapsarianism, but a subject of foreknowledge. In his own words, Gottschalk asserted:

I believe and confess that God foreknew and foreordained the holy angels and elect men to unmerited eternal life, but that He equally foreordained the devil with his host and with all reprobate men, on account of their foreseen future evil deeds, by a just judgment, to merited eternal death.

Gottschalk died on October 30, 869, having spent the last twenty years of his life in prison, suffering “murderous scourgings.” Sadly, he is said to have gone mad shortly before his death. Viewed with contempt by the religious establishment, Gottschalk was denied a Christian burial and was laid to rest in unconsecrated soil.

To the end, Gottschalk maintained a deep conviction as to God’s sovereignty. The truths of sovereign grace were both the cause of his suffering and his comfort in suffering. Many joined with Gottschalk in testifying to those truths, but he alone was persecuted as a heretical teacher, as the opposition felt he alone was dangerous to their church system. But though his enemies assailed him, Gottschalk has been vindicated by champions of the faith as a martyr to the truth.

Let us pray that God will bring about a resurgence of such God-centered doctrine in His church again. This remains the need of the hour.

This article is part of the Reformed Figures collection.