Pillar Journal

Absolute Predestination


The… reprinted classic Absolute Predestination 1This article is adapted from an introduction written for Jerome Zanchius, Absolute Predestination (Conway, Ark.: Free Grace Press, 2012). I thank Paul Smalley for his research assistance. brings together the thoughts of two men with very different backgrounds. One was Italian; the other, English. One lived in the sixteenth century; the other in the eighteenth century. One is best known today for his profound theology, and the other for his hymns of praise to God. But both had this in common: they loved the glory of God’s sovereign grace in Christ.

Let me introduce you to these two men and their book.

The Sixteenth-Century Italian Theologian Girolamo Zanchi (1516–1590), or Jerome Zanchius as the English knew him, was a Reformed theologian. He was born February 2, 1516, in Lombardy, Italy. In his late teens and early twenties, he studied classical languages, the philosophy of Aristotle, and the theology of Thomas Aquinas. He did that with the Augustinian monks at Bergamo. In 1541, Zanchi transferred to the monastery in Lucca, where for fifteen months he was mentored by Peter Martyr Vermigli in studying church fathers and Reformers such as Martin Luther, Philipp Melanchthon, Martin Bucer, and John Calvin. When Martyr left the monastery in 1542, Zanchi remained as an instructor. Over time, he converted to Reformed Christianity, though he rejected the names of Lutheran, Zwinglian, and Calvinist, preferring to say, “I am a Christian.”2Joseph N. Tylenda, “Girolamo Zanchi and John Calvin: A Study in Discipleship as Seen through Their Correspondence,” Calvin Theological Journal 10, no. 2 (November 1975): 107. Zanchi fled Italy in 1551 because of the Roman Catholic Inquisition. He traveled through Switzerland, visiting Reformed theologians Wolfgang Musculus in Bern and Pierre Viret in Lausanne before arriving in Geneva.

After listening to Calvin’s sermons and lectures for nine months, Zanchi went to Strasbourg to teach theology and philosophy with Martyr. His first wife, Violanthis, required full-time nursing after repeated miscarriages. Martyr went to Zurich in 1556, leaving Zanchi in the stressful position of teaching in an understaffed academy.3Christopher J. Burchill, “Girolamo Zanchi: Portrait of a Reformed Theologian and His Work,” Sixteenth Century Journal 15, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 191. During this time Zanchi also suffered a wearisome controversy with militant Lutherans in Strasbourg, particularly with his colleague Johann Marbach.

In 1563, he left to serve as pastor of an Italian refugee church in Chiavenna. This work was marked with suffering. The plague killed many people and forced others, including Zanchi, to flee to the mountains. He had to deal with anti-trinitarians, who infiltrated the congregation, and the resentment of a ministerial assistant who tried to take his job.4Tylenda, “Girolamo Zanchi and John Calvin,” 138–40.

In 1568, Zanchi became professor of theology at the Heidelberg University, succeeding Zacharius Ursinus, primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism. His work at Heidelberg quickly drew the attention of Reformed Christians throughout Europe and Britain. He wrote De Tribus Elohim, a work defending the doctrine of the Trinity, and De Natura Dei, a study of God’s attributes, providence, and predestination.

The Reformed professors were expelled from Heidelberg University in 1576 when a Lutheran prince took the throne of the Palatinate. Zanchi went to Neustad to teach at the academy, where he served until his death November 9, 1590.

Zanchi’s writings continued to influence Reformed thinkers after his death. For many years Zanchi was quoted by Dutch, English, and Scottish theologians. William Perkins (1558–1602) included a translation of some of Zanchi’s work as an appendix to his book A Case of Conscience, The Greatest That Ever Was: How a Man May Know Whether He Be the Child of God, or No (1592).5William Perkins, A Case of Conscience, the greatest that ever was; how a man may know whether he be the child of God, or no. Resolved by the word of God. Whereunto is added a briefe discourse, taken out of Hier. Zanchius (London: by Robert Robinson for ThomasMan and Iohn Porter, 1592). At Cambridge University in the late sixteenth century, Zanchi was considered one of the great names of Reformed theology alongside Peter Martyr, John Calvin, and Theodore Beza.6Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans, Or, Protestant Non-Conformists, from the Reformation to the Death of Queen Elizabeth (Dublin: Brice Edmund, 1755), 1:456. Herman Witsius (1636–1708) called him “the very learned Zanchius.”7Herman Witsius, The Oeconomy of the Covenants between God and Man. Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity (New York: by George Foreman, for Lee and Stokes, 1798), 1:63. John Flavel (1628–1691) and Ralph Erskine (1685–1752) cited his work.8The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 3:87; Ralph Erskine, Sermons and Other Practical Works (Falkirk: by Patrick Mair for Peter Muirhead and High Mitchell, 1796), 10:315. Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) referred to him as “the best of Protestant writers in his judgment.”9“Miscellanies,” no. 1261, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 23, The “Miscellanies,” 1153–1360, ed. Douglas A. Sweeney (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 198.

A few decades ago, John Patrick Donnelly argued that Martyr and Zanchi played key roles in promoting Reformed scholasticism.10John Patrick Donnelly, “Italian Influences on the Development of Calvinist Scholasticism,” Sixteenth Century Journal 7, no. 1 (April 1976): 81–101. This movement was said to combine the biblical studies of Luther and Calvin with the philosophical speculations of Aristotle. Its purpose was to provide a systematic defense of the Reformed faith vis-à-vis polemical challenges from other perspectives in Christendom. Whereas Luther and Calvin embraced the biblical paradoxes, Zanchi produced a kind of “Calvinist Thomism” that resolved the biblical teachings into a system similar to that of Thomas Aquinas.11John Patrick Donnelly, “Calvinist Thomism,” Viator 7 (1976): 441–55.

However, further research into Zanchi has shown that though he used some methods derived from Aristotle and Aquinas, he should not be consigned to the dust heaps of abstract philosophical speculation. That is because, first, Zanchi’s ministry was richly biblical. Though he served as a professor of systematic theology in Heidelberg, he was professor of Old Testament in Strasbourg and professor of New Testament in Neustadt. Almost a quarter of his writings are biblical commentaries on Hosea, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, both epistles to the Thessalonians, and 1 John. He worked comfortably in Greek and Hebrew, even drawing upon rabbinical commentaries.

John Farthing draws this conclusion, “Biblical exegesis is prominent, indeed pervasive, in Zanchi’s project. A substantial portion of his writings take the form of biblical commentary, and even when he is working in some other genre Zanchi lives and breathes in dialogue with Scripture.”12J. L. Farthing, “Zanchi, Jerome (1516–1590),” in Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, ed. Donald K. McKim (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Academic, 2007), 1076–77. His writings are characterized by “generous warmhearted spirituality,” not “idle speculation.”13Farthing, “Zanchi,” in Dictionary of Major Biblical Interpreters, 1079.

Second, Zanchi’s ministry centered upon Christ. His writings give extensive attention to Christ; therefore, suggesting that “Zanchi’s theology led to an undervaluation of the role of Christ is simply misleading,” as Christopher Burchill writes.14Burchill, “Girolamo Zanchi,” 206. Farthing says that in his commentary on Hosea Zanchi demonstrates “formidable linguistic and literary skills, a solid grasp of the Catholic tradition, and the fruits of his ongoing conversation with Protestant biblical interpreters, especially Calvin, Luther, and Musculus,” resulting in Christ-centered interpretation.15John L. Farthing, “Holy Harlotry: Jerome Zanchi and the Exegetical History of Gomer (Hosea 1–3),” in Biblical Interpretation in the Era of the Reformation: Essays Presented to David C. Steinmetz in Honor of His Sixtieth Birthday, ed. Richard A. Muller and John L. Thompson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 310–11. Richard Muller writes that even in Zanchi’s theological exploration of the divine attributes, he frequently refers to the Son of God’s deity and saving work.16Richard A. Muller, Christ and the Decree: Christology and Predestination in Reformed Theology from Calvin to Perkins (Durham, N.C.: Labyrinth Press, 1986), 113. After a careful examination of Zanchi’s teaching on predestination, Muller concludes, “Christology and Christ-centered piety pervade his system of doctrine.”17Muller, Christ and the Decree, 121. On Zanchi’s doctrine of union with Christ, see J. V. Fesko, “Jerome Zanchi on Union with Christ and Justification,” Puritan Reformed Journal 2, no. 2 (July 2010): 55–78.

In summary, Zanchi labored to unite biblical exegesis with systematic theology to lay a foundation for Christ-centered piety. His works were thus highly valued by Reformed Christians for centuries after his death. He is little known today, largely because most of his work was written in Latin and has never been translated into other languages.

The Eighteenth-Century English Hymn-writer

Many years after Zanchi’s death, the Englishman Augustus Toplady (1740–1778) turned to Zanchi’s writings while studying the mysteries of predestination. Toplady was born November 4, 1740, in Farnham, Surrey.18For Toplady’s biography, see “An Account of the Life and Writings of the Rev. Augustus Montague Toplady,” in The Works of Augustus M. Toplady, new ed. (London: Richard Baynes, 1825), 1:1–140; Thomas Wright, The Life of Augustus M. Toplady (London: Farncombe, 1911); George Lawton, Within the Rock of Ages: The Life and Work of Augustus Montague Toplady (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1983). He never met his father, who was killed by yellow fever in early 1741 while fighting as an English officer in the assault on the Spanish-controlled city of Cartagena (in present-day Columbia, South America).

Toplady was raised in the Church of England and demonstrated spiritual sensitivity already as a child. He experienced the new birth in 1756 through the preaching of an uneducated lay-evangelist, James Morris, in a barn in Ireland. Ephesians 2:13 became unspeakably sweet to him, “But now in Christ Jesus ye who sometimes were far off are made nigh by the blood of Christ.”

Toplady was initially a strong advocate of free will as the determining factor of a person’s salvation. He corresponded with John Wesley (1703–1791) for spiritual counsel. The teenaged convert was strongly expressing his views on freedom of the will when an old man challenged him to stop arguing long enough to ask himself: Did he have any part in obtaining God’s grace? Wouldn’t he have resisted God’s grace if the Spirit left him to his own will? These questions from a Wesleyan brother stabbed him to the quick. After reading more Reformed teachings and noting the humility of Thomas Manton (1620–1677), Toplady saw the truth of the doctrines of sovereign grace and embraced them fully in 1758.

As he was now in agreement with the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, Toplady felt called to enter into that church’s ministry. Ironically, in Ireland he found richer fellowship with Particular Baptists than with many Anglicans. For a time he sat under the preaching of Irish Baptist pastor James Rutherfoord of the Swift’s Alley congregation in Dublin.

Toplady studied the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament and read Reformed divines such as Zanchi. He also published a book of sacred poetry. When he returned to England in 1760, he listened to the preaching of the Anglicans William Romaine (1714–1795) and George Whitefield (1714–1770), and the Baptist John Gill (1697– 1771).19Lawton, Within the Rock of Ages, 39–42. He was ordained in the Church of England on June 5, 1762.

From 1762 to 1768, he served churches in country villages. At first he preached on justification by faith and holiness of life but hesitated to preach the whole counsel of sovereign grace. People liked his preaching but few were converted. When he began preaching predestination as the eternal source of our salvation in Christ, many were angry with him but many others were truly converted to Christ.20Letter XLIX, to the Countess of Huntingdon, Dec. 9, 1774, in The Works of Augustus Toplady (London: W. Row, J. Parsons, J. Deighton, et al., 1794), 6:244–45.

Poor health (tuberculosis) forced him to leave the country and move to London where he continued to minister the Word. In 1775, he became editor of Gospel Magazine, to which he contributed historical sketches, hymns, and meditations. From 1776 to 1778, he preached to crowds of more than a thousand people at a French Huguenot chapel. He died August 11, 1778, at the age of thirty-seven.

Toplady composed many hymns, such as “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” and “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me.”21See Hymns and Sacred Poems… The Whole of the Poetical Remains of the Rev. Augustus M. Toplady (London: Daniel Sedgwick and Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1860), 140–41, 163. J. C. Ryle said Toplady’s writings “supply abundant evidence that he was one who lived in very close communion with God, and had very deep experience of divine things.22J. C. Ryle, The Christian Leaders of the Last Century (London: T. Nelson, 1869), 367. After meeting a young man arrested for theft, Toplady wrote in his personal diary, “Lord, if it be consistent with the counsel of thy will, be the comforter and the salvation of this sinner and his afflicted family. Bad as he is, thy grace can melt him down. By nature, I am as vile as he: yet I am, I trust, a monument of mercy, and a trophy of thy redeeming power.”23Quoted in “An Account of the Life,” in Toplady, Works, 1:17–18.

Toplady was a vigorous writer in the cause of Reformed theology. This period of English history held bitter controversy over God’s sovereignty in salvation. Wesley had split with Whitefield by preaching that the God of predestination is “worse than the devil.”24John Wesley, Free Grace (Bristol: S. and F. Farley, 1739), 24. Though the two men were personally reconciled, the Evangelical movement in England was divided. Toplady engaged in this debate against Wesley and his followers with fierce emotion and keen scholarship.25On the debate see Cecil Proctor, “Toplady on Predestination,” The Churchman 77, no. 1 (Mar. 1963): 30–37, Cman_077_1_Proctor.pdf (accessed May 8, 2012).

Toplady’s Publication of Absolute Predestination.

Toplady often visited with John Gill, who was also an ardent defender of the doctrines of grace. After Toplady translated a piece by Zanchi on predestination, Gill urged him to publish it.26Wright, The Life of Augustus M. Toplady, 33–34. Some years later Zanchi published his work under the title The doctrine of absolute predestination stated and asserted: with a preliminary discourse on the divine attributes. Translated, in great Measure, from the Latin of Jerom Zanchius: with some account of his life prefixed (1769).27Jerome Zanchius, The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted: with a preliminary discourse on the divine attributes. Translated, in great Measure, from the Latin of Jerom Zanchius: with some account of his life prefixed, trans. Augustus Toplady (London: Joseph Gurney, 1769).

Toplady took Absolute Predestination from Zanchi’s “On the Predestination of the Saints,” which was part of his Miscellany in Three Books.28Zanchi wrote Miscellaneorum Libri Tres in Strasbourg to defend his views against Marbach but its publication was delayed until 1566. The most popular of Zanchi’s writings, it was reprinted in 1582, 1592, 1603, and 1605, and then included in his Opera (Works). See Burchill, “Girolamo Zanchi,” 198–99. However, Absolute Predestination is more than a simple translation of Zanchi’s treatise. We noted already that the subtitle read, “Translated, in great Measure.” Toplady explains in his preface,

Excellent as Zanchy’s original piece is, I yet have occasionally ventured, both to retrench [abridge] and to enlarge it, in the translation. To this liberty I was induced, by a desire of rendering it as complete a treatise, on the subject, as the allotted compass would allow. I have endeavoured, rather, to enter into the spirit of the admirable author; than with a scrupulous exactness, to retain his very words.29Augustus Toplady, preface to Jerome Zanchius, The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted, trans. Augustus Toplady (Perth: by R. Morison Jr., for R. Morison, J. Guthrie, and Vernor and Hood, 1793), 3. This edition is henceforthcited as Zanchius, Absolute Predestination (1793).

Muller notes that Toplady’s translation of Zanchi is generally accurate, but it omits much of Zanchi’s work and adds Toplady’s work. The section on divine attributes was probably written by Toplady because it is not part of Zanchi’s original work. In the work on predestination, Toplady omits all of Zanchi’s prologue and first chapter to add what are probably his own definitions in chapter one, sections 1–6. In section 7, Toplady begins to draw from Zanchi’s second chapter. He uses less than half of this chapter, however, and omits all the citations of church fathers such as Aquinas, Augustine, and Prosper. He uses more of Zanchi’s material in subsequent chapters.30Richard A. Muller, personal email correspondence with author (May 4, 2012).

The resulting book is actually a dual composition of Zanchi and Toplady that flows together. Historical theologians should consult a Latin edition for an exact copy of Zanchi’s work, but a modern Christian will benefit from this classic statement of the biblical doctrine of predestination. Henry Atherton said that for the purpose of declaring the Reformed truth of sovereign grace, this is “the best translation of Zanchy and the best of Toplady.”31Henry Atherton, introduction to Jerome Zanchius, The Doctrine of Absolute Predestination Stated and Asserted, trans. Augustus Montague Toplady (London: Sovereign Grace Union, 1930), unpaginated.

The book, an octavo of 134 pages, originally sold for a mere two shillings. It passed through three British editions and two American editions by 1807.32Donnelly, “Italian Influences,” 99. Zanchi’s book is thoughtful, balanced, and biblical. Toplady is razor sharp but has a tendency to dip his pen in acid. For example, he wrote in his preface, “Arminianism, therefore, is atheism.”33Toplady, preface to Zanchius, Absolute Predestination (1793), 10. He may have condemned the theological system but not its adherents, however; Toplady prayed for Wesley and his followers and did not regard them as reprobates.34Lawton, Within the Rock of Ages, 105, 107–108.

Absolute Predestination hardly ended the debate. In 1770, Wesley published an abridged version of Toplady’s work, which he altered (as he was wont to do). He went so far as to add the horrifying caricature of Calvinism in his abridgement, “The elect shall be saved do what they will: The reprobate shall be damned do what they can.” Wesley inserted Toplady’s initials after this gross misrepresentation, implying these were his thoughts. This was morally reprehensible. The forgery did not endear Wesley to Toplady.35J. Maycock, “The Fletcher-Toplady Controversy,” London Quarterly and Holborn Review 191 (July 1966): 228.

The two men continued to spar. Toplady wrote A Letter to Rev. Mr. John Wesley relative to his pretended Abridgement of Zanchius on Predestination (1770), and Wesley responded with The Consequence Proved (1771). Toplady then wrote More Work for Mr. John Wesley (1771), to which Wesley’s ally Walter Seldon responded with The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Predestination (1771). Toplady next produced the scholarly two volumes of Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England (1774), and Wesley published Thoughts upon Necessity (1774). Toplady then wrote The Scheme of Christian and Philosophical Necessity Asserted (1775).36Lawton, Within the Rock of Ages, 101–111. When Toplady heard a rumor that Wesley had died, he put the publication of his Scheme on hold, intending to remove all references to Wesley. When the rumor of Wesley’s death proved false, Toplady’s book was published without revision.37Lawton, Within the Rock of Ages, 114.

Wesley’s assault on election (“do what they will”) was a serious misrepresentation of Reformed doctrine. Toplady (and Zanchius and all sound Reformed divines) believed that election produces sanctification, saying the elect will be converted to faith and repentance, practice holiness, and persevere to the end.38Zanchius, Absolute Predestination (1793), 70. Toplady preached, “According to our church, God’s election leads the van; sanctification forms the centre; and glory brings up the rear.”39Quoted in Lawton, Within the Rock of Ages, 115. Wesley’s actions remind us that the greatest obstacles preventing men from seeing the biblical basis and beauty of the doctrines of grace are not Scripture verses and arguments cited by Arminians but false caricatures and prejudices against Calvinism.

Historical controversies aside, Absolute Predestination remains a helpful explanation of the Reformed doctrine of election and reprobation. Toplady said Zanchi’s work was “from beginning to end, a regular chain of solid argument: deduced from the unerring word of divine revelation, and confirmed by the co-incident testimonies of some of the greatest lights that ever shone in the Christian church.”40Toplady, preface to Zanchius, Absolute Predestination (1793), 2–3.

Absolute Predestination is not milk for babes; it is meat for grown men and women. But it is good meat; nutritious, wholesome, spiritual food for the soul. After reading it, one will see the clear teachings of Scripture on election and reprobation and many objections wisely answered.

A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on,
My person and off ’ring to bring.
The terrors of law, and of God
With me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood
Hide all my transgressions from view.

The work which His goodness began,
The arm of His strength will complete;
His promise is Yea and Amen,
And never was forfeited yet.
Things future, nor things that are now,
Nor all things below or above,
Can make Him His purpose forgo,
Or sever my soul from His love.

My name from the palms of His hands
Eternity will not erase;
Impress’d on His heart it remains,
In marks of indelible grace.
Yes, I to the end shall endure,
As sure as the earnest is giv’n;
More happy, but not more secure,
The glorify’d spirits in Heav’n.41Toplady, Hymns and Sacred Poems, 140–41.

Puritan Reformed Journal – JANUARY 2013
Volume 5 • Number 1
Written by Joel Beeke