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Historical Theology, the Early Church, and the ‘Doctrines of Grace’

May 19, 2014

In a recent online discussion, someone asserted that the early church (premillennialists) “spoke vehemently in favor of freewill (what we would nowadays refer to philosophically as “libertarian freewill”) and against the idea that God or fate determined any man’s actions for good or evil. … the ideas that would later be formulated into Calvinism weren’t introduced until the 5th century, by Augustine, who notably rejected Premillennialism around the same time that he rejected the freewill theism of the early Christians.” This person further noted that Calvin (and the other Reformers) heavily quoted from Augustine as an authority, rather than earlier church leaders. The response to information from Steve Lawson’s book, “Pillars of Grace (A Long Line of Godly Men, Volume Two)” was to claim that Lawson performed eisegesis to come up with his claims, and that no one before Lawson had done so.

My impression from reading Lawson’s book is that he did readily acknowledge, and quoted, the inconsistent, “free will” writings from the early church, along with their writings in support of various doctrines now considered a part of the “Doctrines of Grace.” And, that the full development of the “Doctrines of Grace” really did not take place before Augustine. Many of the early writers sometimes contradicted themselves: on the one hand acknowledging God’s sovereignty in election, but at other times advocating “free will.” Mainly this shows that they had not fully developed and “thought out” the details of the doctrines of God’s sovereignty. But Augustine did not simply create the “Doctrines of Grace” as ideas never before known, in a vacuum completely independent of scriptural and/or cultural ideas. And so we certainly do find understanding of “total depravity,” “sovereign election,” “irresistible call,” and even “definite atonement” in the writers as early as the 2nd century, and among those who also affirmed premillennialism.

Regarding the development of all biblical doctrine — historical theology — this is something we find generally true: the ideas are not at first really thought through; but as various errors entered the church, each controversy helped the church leaders at that time further consider and define their views. As Dr. S. Lewis Johnson often described it, in many ways the believers of later generations are the “fathers” and the early writers were the “children”; and this truth is brought out in John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The earliest writers (as also pointed out in Lawson’s book) primarily quoted scripture itself rather than giving detailed commentary as to their specific understanding. The earliest theological controversies (before the 5th century) concerned the nature of Christ and the Trinity, the nature of God. Not until Pelagius, providentially on the scene at the same time as Augustine, did the church have a serious challenge to the doctrine of man and man’s will.

From further research on this question: the general consensus is that the early Church did not have a clear, discernible position either way.  So, while it is true that the Church pre-Augustine was not strongly “Calvinist,” yet it was not strongly Pelagian/ Arminian-style “libertarian freewill” either.  Here is one helpful resource, William Cunningham, Historical Theology: The Doctrines of Grace, with the following important observations:

Calvinists and anti-Calvinists have both appealed to the early church in support of their respective opinions, although we believe it cannot be made out that the fathers of the first three centuries give any very distinct deliverance concerning them. These important topics did not become subjects of controversial discussion during that period; and it holds almost universally in the history of the church, that until a doctrine has been fully discussed in a controversial way by men of talent and learning taking opposite sides, men’s opinions regarding it are generally obscure and indefinite, and their language vague and confused, if not contradictory. These doctrines did not become subjects of controversial discussion till what is called the Pelagian controversy, in the beginning of the fifth century. At that time, Augustine, the great defender of the truth against Pelagius and his followers, while appealing to the early writers in support of the doctrines which he had established from Scripture, and which he has the distinguished honour of having first developed in a connected and systematic way, admitted that many of them had spoken without due care and precision upon these points, but contended that in the main they concurred in his opinions….. That these great doctrines were not very thoroughly understood, were not very prominently brought forward, and were not very fully applied, is but too evident. That they had been wholly laid aside, and that an opposite set of doctrines had been substituted in their room, is what cannot be established.

Also, this 18th century book, free text available online, referenced in Cunningham’s article as an example of attempts by later authors to prove definitive Calvinist teaching in the early Church. Thus we can also know that Lawson was not the first to take up this topic, and good online material from earlier years is available (public domain text) to argue the same basic points; Lawson’s real contribution has been to revisit this issue with a new book on the topic, more accessible for 21st century readers, but the issue itself goes back a few centuries within the Protestant Reformed tradition.

  1. May 19, 2014 at 11:38 am

    What post-apostolic non-canonical authors wrote or did not write must be considered in the light of the following:

    1. The extant writings of post-Apostolic non-canonical authors are not to be considered a source of authority without the implicit denial of sola Scriptura, and consequent embracing of the Romanist doctrine of multiple sources of authority including such “traditions”. Some evangelicals, and especially some of the Reformed, seem to speak out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to the authority or lack thereof of the “writings of the Church Fathers”. “Having their cake and eating it too” on this issue makes them appear quite inconsistent from where the Romanists sit, and understandably so.

    2. The extant writings of post-Apostolic non-canonical authors are not to be considered as the entire picture of what was or was not taught in a given era unless we are able to document that we are in possession of all extant writings or teachings for that era. Due to the destruction of wars, persecutions, fires, the ravages of time, etc. many writings from the first centuries of the church were either destroyed, or did not survive to this day. The best we can say about what we have is that it is an example of what a teacher or teachers taught at a given time in a given place during that era. When such teachings are presented without qualification they are often being used as proof in a very prejudicial assessment of their value.

    3. The extant writings of post-Apostolic non-canonical authors must be judged by the Scriptures, our sole and final source of authority for matters pertaining to faith and practice. Such writings must not be treated any differently than we would treat the works of modern authors, or the sermons of the preachers of our own day. To do otherwise is to deny in practice what we profess to believe about the authority of the Word of God alone.

    Therefore, the way some debates about what post-apostolic non-canonical authors wrote or did not write, taught and believed or did not teach and believe, comes across like “a tempest in a teapot”. Some seem to have a fascination with spinning their wheels over who taught what when outside of the Scriptures beyond an interest in historical theology. In such cases this is not productive since it gets to the point that what they think they really know and can prove about it for a given era gets stretched far beyond the point of credulity.

    • May 19, 2014 at 3:02 pm

      Thanks, John, a good summary of the issue and the debates/rhetoric today in this whole area of historical theology.

  2. Neil Schoch
    May 19, 2014 at 8:55 pm

    A very good point has been raised. Interesting though it may be to look at who believed what and when, only the entire Word of God which we have today, is our authority.
    The ENTIRE Word of God is essential when studying a supposedly “controversial” subject.
    It is so easy to select certain Scriptures only, that suites our individual viewpoint, and ignore others, and I include myself here. I have expressed my beliefs on Calvinism before and therefore won’t do so again.
    God’s blessings to all.

    • May 20, 2014 at 7:29 am

      Thanks for the comment, Neil, and yes, a good point about proper balance and handling of all the scriptures.

  3. September 27, 2017 at 10:42 am

    “total depravity,” “sovereign election,” “irresistible call,” and even “definite atonement”

    which ones? because all the “proof” I have seen of this seems to be taken out of context

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