Thomas Bradwardine and the Pelagians

Anyone who felt perplexed – even outraged – the first time they read Romans 9 may identify with Thomas Bradwardine, a 14th-century Archbishop of Canterbury. His age was, like ours, entrenched in Pelagianism, exalting man’s free will and ability to come to God on his own terms. That’s the philosophy he had learned at Oxford, where he “rarely used to hear about grace, except in an ambiguous way.”[1]

            “The whole day I would hear that we are masters of our own free acts,” he wrote, “and that it is in our power to do good or evil, to have virtues or sins.”[2] From a purely rational point of view, he found these teachings “nearest to truth”[3] – as long as he could avoid reading biblical passages like Romans 9.

            “Every time I listened to the Epistle in church and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will,” he continued, “as is the case in Romans 9, … then grace displeased me, ungrateful as I was.”[4]

            At that time, Bradwardine was in his late twenties and nearing the end of his studies in philosophical science. He was a brilliant student, especially in the fields of mathematics and physics, and had already planned to move on to theological studies. Before doing so, however, he had to put to rest these perplexities.

            The process included much study of both Scriptures and the writings of earlier theologians. Finally, after much reflection, he began to see Romans 9 in a whole new light. “Even before I became a theological student, the text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and in a mental representation of the truth I thought I saw from afar how the grace of God precedes all good works in time and in nature.”[5] In other words, everything, including our good works and salvation, proceeds from God as first cause and first mover.

            He saw Pelagianism as an innovation that had derailed the church from the actual teachings of Paul. Calling himself “idle and a fool in God’s wisdom” for uncritically following those prevalent views, he was filled with “gratitude to Him who has given [him] this grace as a free gift.”[6]

            From then on, he set to demonstrate the error of the Pelagians, and Romans 9:16[7] – the verse he had initially found most troubling – became his strongest source of comfort.

Bradwardine’s Life

            By the time he earned his Baccalaureus Theologiae in 1332, Bradwardine was already well respected. He had already lectured as Magister Atrium and had been twice elected procurator - looking after the interests of the university during one of the most turbulent times in its history. He was also well known for his early scientific writings, particularly on physics and speculative geometry and arithmetic.

            In 1335, Richard the Bury, bishop of Durham, invited him to serve at his court. There, Bradwardine found much intellectual stimulation in the company of other theologians (of various persuasions) and in large assortment of books in the bishop’s library – one of the largest of medieval England.

            Three years later, he was appointed chaplain to King Edward III. In this capacity, he spent much time traveling, especially to France. A surviving sermon, delivered after Edward’s victory at Crécy over a much larger French army, show how Bradwardine’s sense of the sovereignty of God had permeated every facet of his life. He reminded the troops that the victory belonged to God and was not due to their abilities or strategies. He also reproved them for their attempts, before battle, to predict the events by astrology or divination.

            Edward appreciated Bradwardine so much that he refused to let him go when the canons of the church elected him Archbishop of Canterbury. He planned to replace him with his chancellor John De Ufford, but the man died of the Black Plague before being consecrated. Since the plague had left limited choices, the king agreed to Bradwardine’s consecration, which took place in Avignon, France, two months after John’s death.

            Bradwardine was certainly aware of the risk of returning to England in the height of the epidemic, but had to answer his call of duty. He contracted the disease shortly after his arrival, and died on August 26, 1349.

Bradwardine’s Legacy

            Bradwardine continued to be remembered as Doctor Profundus, and his main work, De Causa Dei, became an important text for generations, whether the readers subscribed or not to his views. It’s not an easy read, because it’s packed full with quotations from both the Bible and the writings of early Christians, but Bradwardine’s goal was to show that he was not formulating new ideas when he affirmed the total sovereignty of God.

            Bradwardine’s revaluation of Augustinian thought and his answers to the Pelagians of his day have helped to develop a more mature understanding of God’s grace and human free will. His thoughts influenced later theologians such as John Wycliffe and Gregory of Rimini.

            There are fundamental differences between Bradwardine and the Reformers that came two centuries later. For example, he still believed in infused rather than imputed grace and saw justification as a process rather than a one-time act of God. Because of this, he was still far from the Lutheran concept of sola fide.

            On the other hand, he influenced future Reformers by his fervent appeal to turn back to Augustine and Paul and by refuting the common tendency to think of God in human terms. He brought back a sense of the beauty of God’s sovereignty which is far from being oppressive, since it’s based on his unchangeable love, and a sense of the majesty and greatness of a God who is not passive and reactive, but active and unconditionally free.


[1] H. A. Oberman, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, a Fourteenth Century Augustinian, Drukkerij En Uitgevers-Maatschappij, Utrecht, 1957, p. 14.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, p. 15

[6] Ibid.

[7] “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”


Simonetta Carr