The theological implications of Doctor Faustus have been the subject of considerable debate throughout the last century. Among the most complicated points of contention is whether the play supports or challenges the Calvinist doctrine of absolute predestination, which dominated the lectures and writings of many English scholars in the latter half of the sixteenth century. According to Calvin, predestination meant that God, acting of his own free will, elects some people to be saved and others to be damned—thus, the individual has no control over his own ultimate fate. This doctrine was the source of great controversy because it was seen by the so-called anti-Calvinists to limit man's free will in regard to faith and salvation, and to present a dilemma in terms of theodicy.
At the time Doctor Faustus was performed, this doctrine was on the rise in England, and under the direction of Puritan theologians at Cambridge and Oxford had come to be considered the orthodox position of the Church of England. Nevertheless, it remained the source of vigorous and, at times, heated debate between Calvinist scholars, such as William Whitaker and William Perkins, and anti-Calvinists, such as William Barrett and Peter Baro. The dispute between these Cambridge intellectuals had quite nearly reached its zenith by the time Marlowe was a student there in the 1580s, and likely would have influenced him deeply, as it did many of his fellow students.
Concerning the fate of Faustus, the Calvinist concludes that his damnation was inevitable. His rejection of God and subsequent inability to repent are taken as evidence that he never really belonged to the elect, but rather had been predestined from the very beginning for reprobation. In his Chiefe Points of Christian Religion, Theodore Beza, the successor to John Calvin, describes the category of sinner into which Faustus would most likely have been cast:
- To conclude, they which are most miserable of all, those climb a degree higher, that their fall might be more grievous: for they are raised so high by some gift of grace, that they are little moved with some taste of the heavenly gift: so that for the time they seem to have received the seed...But this is plain, that the spirit of adoption, which we have said to be only proper unto them which are never cast forth, but are written in the secret of God's people, is never communicated to them, for were they of the elect they should remain still with the elect. All these therefore (because of necessity, and yet willingly, as they which are under the slavery of sin, return to their vomit, and fall away from faith) are plucked up by the roots, to be cast into the fire.
For the Calvinist, Faustus represents the worst kind of sinner, having tasted the heavenly gift and rejected it. His damnation is justified and deserved because he was never truly adopted among the elect. According to this view, the play demonstrates Calvin's "three-tiered concept of causation," in which the damnation of Faustus is first willed by God, then by Satan, and finally, by himself. As Calvin himself explains it in his Institutes of Christian Religion:
- We see therefore that it is no absurdity, that one self act be ascribed to God, to Satan, and to man: but the diversity in the end and manner of doing, causeth that therein appeareth the justice of God to be without fault, and also the wickedness of Satan and man, bewrayeth itself to their reproach.
The anti-Calvinist view, however, finds such thinking repugnant, and prefers to interpret Doctor Faustus as a criticism of such doctrines. One of the greatest critics of Calvinism in Marlowe's day was Peter Baro, who argued that such teachings fostered despair among believers, rather than repentance among sinners. He claimed, in fact, that Calvinism created a theodical dilemma:
- What shall we say then? That this question so long debated of the Philosophers, most wise men, and yet undetermined, cannot even of Divines, and men endued with heavenly wisdom, be discussed and decided? And that God hath in this case laid a crosse upon learned men, wherein they might perpetually torment themselves? I cannot so think.
Baro recognised the threat of despair which faced the Protestant church if it did not come to an agreement of how to understand the fundamentals. For him, the Calvinists were overcomplicating the issues of faith and repentance, and thereby causing great and unnecessary confusion among struggling believers. Faustus himself confesses a similar sentiment regarding predestination:
"The reward of sin is death." That's hard. ..."If we say that we have no sin, We deceive ourselves, and there's no truth in us." Why then belike we must sin, And so consequently die. Ay, we must die an everlasting death. What doctrine call you this? Che sera, sera, "What will be, shall be"? Divinity, adieu!