Posts Tagged ‘Augustine’

Christian Theology and Classics: Augustine, William Perkins, and Millennial Views

February 13, 2018 3 comments

In the 2018 Challies Reading Challenge, my recent reading has included writings from the 4th and the 16th centuries:  Augustine’s Confessions as a book about the early church, and Volume 1 of the Works of William Perkins, as a book by a Puritan.

Both of these were featured in Puritan Reformed Seminary’s 2017 conference:  Carl Trueman’s talk about Augustine’s Confessions  and Joel Beeke’s summary of William Perkins.  Augustine’s Confessions was an interesting read, my first such reading of early church writings, and I noted the parts mentioned by Trueman:  Augustine as a youth stealing figs from a fig tree; and a much later event that happened to one of Augustine’s friends (who resolved to never go to the gladiatorial games, was taken there by force by his friends; he kept his eyes closed, determined not to look; but the sounds aroused his curiosity so that he looked –and was then ensnared again in the games).  Trueman had noted here, the power of the visual image.  Other interesting parts included references to the other Christian leaders of the time including Ambrose of Milan and his role in Augustine’s later conversion, as well as descriptions about worship services including the singing of hymns.

As others who have read Augustine’s Confessions have noted, the last few chapters are strange, getting into Augustine’s Platonic philosophy, with a lot of repetitive thought as Augustine considered the meaning of time, memory and forgetfulness.  In this tedious reading, I also observed that the Librivox volunteer readers must have had similar difficulty; the majority of the recording, through Augustine’s conversion, was read by one or two authors. Then, for each ‘track’ section of the last few (weird) chapters, it was a different reader for each segment.

William Perkins

Volume one of Perkins is over 800 pages and three treatises. I read a little of the first treatise, all of the second one, and about a third of the last and very lengthy treatise (the Sermon on the Mount).  The first treatise was about biblical chronology and dating of early Bible events; after a while it was too detailed and tedious.  Here I first learned the idea that the Israelite stay in Egypt may have been only 215 years instead of 430 years—the 430 years starting from the time of Abraham instead of the actual time in Egypt.  I have always thought that the stay was 400 years in Egypt, from the narrative reading and my old NIV Study Bible dates.  From checking online articles, though, apparently this is an area of differing views, and some do take the 215 years view regarding the Egypt stay.  At this point, the 430 years in Egypt seems more reasonable to me, given the large population at the time of the Exodus and allowing for gaps in the genealogies, which occurs often even in later Old Testament genealogies.  For further reading and study on this, are these two articles:

The second treatise was of a manageable length and more interesting:  Perkins’ exposition of Matthew 4:1-11 and the parallel account in Luke, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  Good points brought out here include Perkins’ look at the scientific understanding of the human ability to live without food and water, that the human body has a limit of about 14 days­.  This event was supernatural, and necessary for Christ to experience, in similar fashion to the previous 40 days and 40 nights fastings of both Moses and Elijah.  Perkins adds, to any who might reason that ‘why did Christ not do double the length of time, 80 days?’, that Christ also must be shown to be human, and a fast of 80 days would have us question His humanity.  Another of Perkins’ ideas, though, seemed rather strange (again, the first time to hear this idea, for me):  the temptation of Jesus standing on the top of the temple in Jerusalem, was accomplished by Satan’s moving Christ’s body, slowly through the air, from the desert to the actual temple location.  Here again Perkins considers the known natural laws, and reasons that a human body could not physically withstand such flight movement through the air at very high speeds, but that Satan certainly could physically carry Christ a short distance at a slow speed.  I haven’t read other commentaries on this matter, but have always thought of this temptation as done in a vision, not actually there; if Christ were actually there, surely there would have been other people around to notice a man standing up on the top of the temple structure.   But Perkins reasoned that a temptation by vision would not be a real temptation.

The third work in volume one is a detailed exposition, with many excurses, of the Sermon on the Mount.  The reading is straightforward enough to follow, and similar in style to the later Puritans (who held Perkins in great esteem and were greatly influenced by him), with the outline format of different observations and ‘uses’ for application – as noted by J.I. Packer in his summary lecture series on the Puritans .  Throughout the reading, though, at several points I was turned-off by one particular aspect of Perkins’ views: his anti-millennial interpretations.  This comes out in such places as his exposition of Matt. 5:5 (the meek shall inherit the earth), in which he cites four ways in which the meek are said to inherit the earth.  The last two of these, Perkins considered as the primary ones:  3) inheritance in Christ in which ‘all things are yours, whether it be Paul or Cephas, or the world, things present or things to come’ (1 Cor. 3:21-22) and 4) that the meek will be made kings and ‘rule and reign’ (Rev. 5).  Before that, however, he considers that “if it fall out that meek persons die in want or banishment, yet God gives them contentation, which is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth.”  As a premillennialist (and here I recall Spurgeon’s strong words about this text) such an idea misses the mark:  to say that a poor person being contented with what God gives him or her in this life “is fully answerable to the inheritance of the earth” is to seriously underrate and misrepresent the wonderful future promise of really inheriting the earth.  Elsewhere in the exposition, Isaiah texts about the millennial era are applied to what we have spiritually here and now.  At a point about various views regarding our neighbors and revenge, Perkins writes:  “Now the devil perceiving this to be their [the Jews’] natural disposition, makes God’s doctrine of salvation seem to them a doctrine of earthly benefits, for he caused them to dream of an earthly king for their Messiah, and of an earthly flourishing kingdom under him.”  Such statements reveal the standard European anti-Semitism along with an apparent hatred of the premillennial doctrine itself, implied in the idea that an earthly kingdom is somehow evil, carnal and unspiritual.  Premillennialists recognize the both/and of a future literal, earthly kingdom that is also spiritual in character, and that both physical and spiritual can co-exist, as in us believers today; and that the Old Testament did promise a future literal, earthly kingdom. The Jews had the basic idea correct; their error was in failing to recognize the two-stage purpose of God, the cross and then the crown, what is described in 1 Peter 1:10-11: the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow.”

The criticisms aside, both works — Augustine and William Perkins — are good for overall reading of classic and Reformation-era thought, as both provide interesting ideas and points for further thought.  They both serve the purpose of reading “the classics” of Christian theological works, and variety in reading, to go beyond the comparatively shallow and superficial nature of many modern-day books.

Historical Theology and the Covenant Concept

August 25, 2014 4 comments

I once thought that “covenant theology” had (only) its three theological covenants, whereas (only) dispensationalists taught regarding the historical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, New), with no overlap or combinations in between.  Also I heard the commonly asserted idea, that covenant theology only began in the 17th century.

Though some current day Calvinist-Dispensationalists may take exception to the idea of any theological covenants, it is interesting to note that classic dispensationalism from earlier years recognized the “Adamic/Edenic Covenant” (CT’s covenant of works). Also, the late Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, even in his earlier Dallas-Seminary years recognized in scripture both the “covenant of works” (Edenic) covenant and the theological “Covenant of Redemption,” along with all the historical covenants. The CT side, it turns out, also recognizes the historical covenants, though seeing the historical covenants as the redemptive history outworking of the theological “covenant of grace.” See for example this series on covenant theology, taught at a 1689 reformed, historic premillennial church, which teaches through the three theological covenants AND each of the historical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New).

Variations also exist among different covenant theologians in terms of eschatology, with the (in modern times dominant) amillennial and postmillennial spiritualizing/replacement idea concerning the prophetic texts, as contrasted with the many classic/covenantal premillennialists’ literal understanding of the OT prophetic texts as describing the future millennial age and national Israel’s restoration. Such different approaches clearly relate to the different covenant theologians and their eschatological views, as well seen in examples such as Horatius Bonar’s “Prophetic Landmarks,” (see this excerpt and also this one) written by a covenant theologian advocating the literal, future Israel understanding of the Old Testament prophecies, with very sharp words against the  spiritualizing hermeneutic of his reformed/amillennial contemporary Patrick Fairbairn.

Regarding the development of “covenant theology,” certainly its highly developed form originated in the 17th century. But as pointed out in some online articles, the rudiments of covenants, and the scriptural approach to covenants, goes back to the early church. As with the doctrines of grace, Augustine had a more developed view of covenants than the earlier church fathers, even recognizing the “covenant of works” with Adam, as in this excerpt from Augustine:

But even the infants, not personally in their own life, but according to the common origin of the human race, have all broken God’s covenant in that one in whom all have sinned. Now there are many things called God’s covenants besides those two great ones, the old and the new, which any one who pleases may read and know. For the first covenant, which was made with the first man, is just this: “In the day ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die. “Whence it is written in the book called Ecclesiasticus, “All flesh waxeth old as doth a garment. For the covenant from the beginning is, Thou shall die the death.”

Even Augustine’s more limited (compared to later ages) understanding of covenants limited his thinking, as Ligon Duncan observes in his “History of Covenant Theology“:

That is why Augustine, with as good as an answer as he gave to Pelagius, didn’t quite solve all the issues related to original sin because Augustine did not have a fully worked out Covenant Theology.  Augustine was a realist in his view instead of a federalist in his view of the imputation of Adam’s sin, and so Augustine got up to a certain point and he was stymied. Some of the errors in his theology are related to that distinction with regard to the imputation of Adam’s sin.

Yet the basics were there, what he had learned from the even earlier Christian teachers.  Ligon Duncan’s article explains the early church use of the historical covenants: as part of their understanding and ability to respond to the early heretics. Irenaeus, in “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” expounded God’s redemptive plan as “unfolded in covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the New Covenant, and Christ.” Justin Martyr, Tertullian and others likewise explained their thinking, their apologetic, on the basis of these covenants set forth in scripture. Their covenantal thinking helped in their responses to the gnostics, by showing the continuity of scripture, that the God of the Old Testament is the same God in the New Testament, and Christ is that same God. Their response to unbelieving Jews, who denied that Christians were the legitimate heirs of the Abrahamic promises, was similarly based on the historical covenants and the Abrahamic promises.

As we know, the early Reformation emphasized a return to the original languages of the scriptures and early Christian writings. Through this, the 16th century Reformers (a century before the Dutch and the full development of Covenant Theology) including especially Zwingli, rediscovered the covenant concept. Several of the 16th century reformers use the covenants as an organizing principle, especially Zwingli and Bullinger. Calvin taught the unity of the covenants for a covenantal framework to understand the sacraments and argue against the Catholic teaching. Other 16th century reformers followed with important contributions toward the development of full covenant theology.

The articles mentioned above give more details regarding the development of covenant theology from the early church up to the 17th century, for a helpful part of historical theology and the development of Christian theology that we have inherited from those who went before.


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

May 19, 2014 5 comments

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.

Premillennialism Found Wherever Christianity Is First Introduced

January 17, 2013 14 comments

Non-premillennialists’ protests to the contrary, the historical record of Christianity is quite clear, that for the first 300+ years the Christian church was premillennial — and no other views were held during that time.  Yet even this week, in the comments at Sam Storms’ post at the Gospel Coalition, someone claimed that all three views (amillennial, postmill, and historic premill) were around in those years. In another online discussion a few weeks ago, people claimed that both the non-literal allegorizing hermeneutic and actual amillennialism were around before Augustine — that Augustine merely “systematized” amillennialism.

To set the record straight, a few quotes regarding the early Christian church:

John Walvoord, on a study through the early history of eschatology:

The importance of Augustine to the history of amillennialism is derived from two reasons. First, there are no acceptable exponents of amillennialism before Augustine, as has been previously discussed. Prior to Augustine, amillennialism was associated with the heresies produced by the allegorizing and spiritualizing school of theology at Alexandria which not only opposed premillennialism but subverted any literal exegesis of Scripture whatever. Few modern theologians even of liberal schools of thought would care to build upon the theology of such men as Clement of Alexandria, Origen or Dionysius. Augustine is, then, the first theologian of solid influence who adopted amillennialism.

From Mal Couch’s History of Allegory:

Origen’s allegorical interpretations, including his views on Bible prophecy, gained wide acceptance in the church of his day. His influence, followed by Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity and Augustine’s teaching in the fourth century, are usually cited as the principal causes of premillennialism’s eventual replacement by amillennial eschatology.

The allegorical hermeneutic developed before Augustine, and amillennialism from allegorical hermeneutic? Yes.  Actual amillennialism before Augustine? No.

Augustine did not merely systematize something already in existence.  He continued the allegorical approach to scripture, started by questionable men, and applied that approach to eschatology, bringing about the amillennialism (in his “City of God”), making such an allegorical hermeneutic “acceptable” in the early stages of what became the Roman Catholic Church.

Even aside from the original church history in Rome, though, we can look at the pattern of early Christianity in any society where it is first introduced.  Here, we find that in parts of the world that were unreached by the later Roman Empire and Roman Catholicism, countries in which the Christian message was only recently received, the young believers in these countries — with no outside influence, only their Bibles to guide them in their understanding of biblical doctrine — are premillennial.

John MacArthur has mentioned this in reference to recent Russian believers. Jesse Johnson also recently noted this, in reference to the mission work being done in a closed country in the Himalayas:

Nevertheless, this nation’s believers have been protected from much of what has damaged evangelicalism in the West. There are no Catholics in the country (that we know of), and the charismatic movement is only beginning to creep in. All of the believers are baptistic, premillennial, and evangelical—and they arrived at those positions without any real influence other than the Scriptures.

If the other millennial views are really viable, and really valid interpretations of God’s word, then surely the young believers in these other countries — unaffected by our Judeo-Christian Western European heritage — would have reached those same conclusions. If the non-literal, allegorical understanding of amillennialism or postmillennialism were that obvious in the reading of the scriptures, why do believers in these other countries fail to see it?

Early Church History (Pre-Reformation): A Believers Chapel Series

April 14, 2011 1 comment

I recently listened to the first half of Dan Duncan’s (Believers Chapel Dallas) Church History series:  15 messages for the pre-Reformation period.  He started this series in 2009, and is still teaching the second part, forward from the Reformation.  (At this writing, 14 more messages are available, up through Calvin part 4.)

Over the years I’ve picked up different aspects of Church history, from evening classes at local churches, as well as assorted articles on different topics, but this is the first church-class series I’ve seen that goes into fairly good depth especially concerning pre-1500, and that presents history from the evangelical, Calvinist premillennial viewpoint.  The lessons generally center on topics, such as the canon of scripture, martyrs, the heretics, bishops and popes (beginning of that system), and pastors and teachers (highlighted four men from the 4th and 5th centuries).  Additional sessions discuss Arius, Athanasius, and Augustine (three sessions).  Unlike most church history series, this one included two messages for the “Dark Ages.”  While I tend to disagree with his broad brush labeling of the full thousand year period as the “Dark Ages,” Dan Duncan did point out that it wasn’t all dark, and brought out several highlights from the period, including Anselm (11th century), a German monk from the 9th century, and Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century), as well as a brief history and proper perspective of the Crusades.

What standard Augustinian Reformed churches won’t address, this series points out:  the replacement theology inherent in the Crusades (the Holy Land is now for us Christians who have replaced the Jews), specifics of what Augustine taught both good and bad, and that Catholicism formed from Augustine’s ideas.  Other past series I’ve experienced would teach a great deal concerning the Jerusalem war of A.D. 70 and the subsequent Bar-Kokhba revolt ( A.D. 130), but omit many of the early church history characters, only briefly discuss Augustine, and primarily teach the Reformation.  This series really doesn’t say a lot about the destruction of Jerusalem (a topic well known in many church history series but really not part of that history), except in passing comments about the spread of Christianity to the Gentiles in the Roman Empire.  Typical Reformed church history series will not mention Augustine’s connection to amillennialism and Catholicism — or if they do, uphold Augustine as on a par with inspired scripture.  In this series Dan Duncan devotes a full message to Augustine’s later years, the formation of his amillennialism, and a (brief) discussion of Augustine’s exegetical errors with reference to Revelation 20.

Even this series is a general overview, of course, and books always provide more details than can realistically be taught within a weekly church class.  Even two lessons to cover the whole Medieval period omits much —  though I expect the series will cover a little more, since one of the later messages (in the Reformation section) is titled “Forerunners.”  The lesson on the martyrs only discussed the majors among “the ten” persecutions, omitting the particular incident I personally appreciate: the martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicitas and a few others in Carthage in 202. Yet Duncan does teach about the Montanists (early Pentecostals) and Tertullian’s joining them, pointing out both their good and weak points; Perpetua and Felicitas were “almost certainly” Montanists as well.  Through this series I also learned about the modalists (original version of today’s oneness Pentecostals, who deny the trinity and say that God changed modes, from Father to Son to Spirit), and reviewed other important early theological battles concerning Christ’s human and divine natures as well as Arianism and Pelagianism. I also appreciated the additional information concerning Anselm and Bernard of Clairvaux, men I had a little familiarity with.