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John Calvin and the Early Church Fathers

July 13, 2016 2 comments

I’m reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, now in book 2 (text available online here), the section on the issue of supposed “free will” and the true nature of the will.  The following observation from Calvin reminded me of a topic I have addressed before, such as in this post about Steve Lawson’s book concerning the history of the “doctrines of grace”  and this later post on historical theology:

Moreover, although the Greek Fathers, above others, and especially Chrysostom, have exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will, yet all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillating, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings.

Throughout this chapter Calvin considers, at some length, what previous scholars believed concerning the human will, even addressing their sub-categories of different parts of what makes up the human will and mind.  After observing that the Greek (pagan) philosophers all held a high view of the human will and human reason, Calvin noted that the Greek early church fathers in particular held a high regard for Greek philosophy.  This agrees with what was brought out in an early church history (Reformed Theological Seminary iTunes University) lectures series, as summarized in this previous post:

Another factor was their background as Greek philosophers, pagan Greeks who only converted to Christianity as adults, and who highly valued Greek philosophy as what helped to bring people to Christianity.  They all had interest in knowledge, the “gnosis,” and at least some of the Greeks were influenced by gnostic and platonic ideas.

Yet, as another response to those who would project the extreme Pelagian view onto the early Church pre-Augustine, to those who bring forth Calvin’s quote about how they were all confused on the subject, later in this chapter Calvin does point out the positive contributions and overall understanding of the early church writers:

The language of the ancient writers on the subject of Free Will is, with the exception of that of Augustine, almost unintelligible. Still they set little or no value on human virtue, and ascribe the praise of all goodness to the Holy Spirit.

 

At one time they teach, that man having been deprived of the power of free will must flee to grace alone; at another, they equip or seem to equip him in armour of his own. It is not difficult, however, to show, that notwithstanding of the ambiguous manner in which those writers express themselves, they hold human virtue in little or no account, and ascribe the whole merit of all that is good to the Holy Spirit.

 

This much, however, I dare affirm, that though they sometimes go too far in extolling free will, the main object which they had in view was to teach man entirely to renounce all self-confidence, and place his strength in God alone.

For this topic, I still consider Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will” as the main “go-to” book, one with great detail concerning the natural human will as not free (Erasmus’ view) but in bondage.  Calvin’s Institutes is another lengthy study of its own, regarding many doctrinal points, and this section contributes good information to the topic, including summary of the views of unbelieving philosophers as well as Christian teaching up to Calvin’s time.

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.

The Doctrines of Grace through the Middle Ages: Steve Lawson’s Pillars of Grace

January 25, 2013 2 comments

Continuing through Steve Lawson’s Pillars of Grace, vol. 2,  I’m now reading through the chapters that highlight a few key Christian leaders of the Medieval period:

  • Early Monastics: Isidore of Seville (early 7th century) and Gottschalk of Orbais (9th century)
  • English Scholastics:  Anselm of Canterbury (11th century) and Thomas Bradwardine (early 14th century)
  • Late Monastic: Bernard of Clairvaux (12th century)

I had heard these names in previous Christian history lessons (such as here), though with very little information about a few, such as Gottschalk and Bradwardine.  Here again, Lawson adds good biographical and historical information on these key figures who, in spite of the spiritual darkness of the Roman Catholic age, understood and believed the truth concerning God’s sovereignty, the doctrines of Grace.

Among the highlights, some interesting details:

Gottschalk had been assigned to a monastery life by his father, and took the monastic vow at his father’s insistence while still young.  Upon reaching adulthood, Gottschalk sought to be free of his vows, appealing his case through several levels of church hierarchy, finally losing and being consigned to be a lifelong monk.  The one reprieve granted him was a transfer to a different monastery, at Orbais in northeast France.  While in the monastery at Orbais, Gottschalk came in contact with Augustine’s writings, and became convinced and excited about the truth of God’s sovereignty over all things including man’s salvation.  The man who had so desired to keep Gottschalk a monk for life (yet allowed him to transfer to Orbais), semi-Pelagian Maurus, later strongly opposed Gottschalk and was instrumental in the subsequent persecution. Gottschalk spent his last twelve years in prison, “imprisoned for life in a monastery and repeatedly tortured him with floggings.”  As Lawson observes, “It is amazing that Gottschalk endured twelve years of this treatment before he died insane, still convinced that an omniscient God cannot logically choose some for salvation without at the same time choosing to reject others, even though they are no more sinful.”

Anselm is best known for his improvement on the atonement theory, rejecting the prevailing view of the atonement as a ransom paid to Satan.  In modern times I have seen this idea portrayed in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” in which the Christ figure Aslan pays the penalty for young Edward’s sin that is owed to the evil one (the White Witch).  Anselm’s answer to such a ransom idea puts the focus on God’s sovereignty:

he unequivocally stated that the Devil has no rights over the human race, but is a robber who has taken sinners unlawfully. It is therefore illogical, he argued, to claim that Christ’s atoning work is a means of rescuing us from the Devil. Anselm writes: “I cannot see what force this argument has. If the devil or man belonged to himself or to anyone but God, or remained in some power other than God’s, perhaps it would be a sound argument. But the devil and man belong to God alone, and neither one stands outside God’s power; what case, then, did God have to plead with His own creature?”  Man, he asserted, is God’s own creation and therefore God’s possession, not Satan’s.

Anselm’s theory was still not fully developed, focused on “the idea that God’s honor has been injured by man’s sin. Therefore, God could vindicate His honor either by punishing the sinner or by accepting a suitable payment for man’s egregious sin.”  His view relied on medieval justice theory, with emphasis on God’s honor rather than God’s justice, and no mention of any penalty for man’s sin.  “Although Anselm emphasized sin’s infinite debt rather than God’s justice, and though he said nothing of the lifelong obedience of Christ as an aspect of vicarious satisfaction, the Reformers did not reject his thoughts on the subject, but complemented them.”

Bernard of Clairvaux was a well-known, influential church leader in the 12th century, and a “watchdog of orthodoxy” looking out for false teachers, such as heretic Peter Abelard.  He also was a “mystic” in the original meaning of that word (not its later connotations): the spiritual experience of contemplation.  In this pursuit, the supreme object of contemplation was the triune God in the beauty of His holiness. The mystics sought to know and love Him with their entire being.  This did not include things we often associate with the term — emotional excess and ecstatic experiences — but true meditating on the word of God, a scripture-based focus with expository teaching.  Much of his literary output came from Bernard’s sermons to the monks at Clairvaux. We also note here that Bernard interpreted scripture allegorically, as with his most famous work, 86 sermons on the “Song of Solomon.”  Still, Bernard of Clairvaux was one of a few outstanding medieval thinkers who affirmed the doctrines of grace, God’s sovereignty in election. The Reformers referenced Bernard of Clairvaux and Anselm as teachers before them, who had continued belief in the doctrines of grace, that belief traced back especially to Augustine and (in some measure) to the earliest church fathers.

Arminianism: Error, But Not Damnable Heresy

December 12, 2012 16 comments

On occasion we in Calvinist circles come across someone with a very narrow definition of true Christianity, to the point of saying that Arminians are heretics: as in, not actual Christians.  Aside from the fact that the person may be confusing pelagianism and/or semi-pelagianism with Arminianism, such a view fails to see the difference between a serious error and misunderstanding, versus those we could not fellowship with as Christians.  As S. Lewis Johnson well summed it upWe’re all born Pharisees. We’re born again as Arminians. And the work of sanctification is to bring us to Calvinism.

Phil Johnson also addressed the issue in this talk (Closet Calvinists: Why Arminians pre-suppose the doctrines of grace) at the 2007 Shepherds Conference (article version, Why I Am A Calvinist, Part 1), noting that “I’m Calvinistic enough to believe that God has ordained, at least for the time being, that some of my brethren should hold Arminian views.”  In God’s great providence, shortly after I observed an online incident (a person calling Arminians heretics) and the follow-up discussion on that issue, I came to this great sermon from Charles Spurgeon in my reading through Spurgeon volume 7, “EXPOSITION OF THE DOCTRINES OF GRACE.”  Here are some good points from Mr. Spurgeon:

 The controversy which has been carried on between the Calvinist and the Arminian is exceedingly important, but it does not so involve the vital point of personal godliness as to make eternal life depend upon our holding either system of theology. Between the Protestant and the Papist there is a controversy of such a character, that he who is saved on the one side by faith in Jesus, dares not agree that his opponent on the opposite side can be saved while depending on his own works. There the controversy is for life or death, because it hinges mainly upon the Doctrine of Justification by Faith, which Luther so properly called the test Doctrine, by which a Church either stands or falls. The controversy, again, between the Believer in Christ and the Socinian, is one which affects a vital point. If the Socinian is right, we are most frightfully in error; we are, in fact, idolaters, and how can eternal life dwell in us? And if we are right, our largest charity will not permit us to imagine that a man can enter Heaven who does not believe the real Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ. There are other controversies which thus cut at the very core, and touch the very essence of the whole subject.

I think we are all free to admit, that while John Wesley, for instance, in modern times zealously defended Arminianism, and on the other hand, George Whitefield with equal fervor fought for Calvinism, we should not be prepared, either of us, on either side of the question, to deny the vital godliness of either the one or the other. We cannot shut our eyes to what we believe to be the gross mistakes of our opponents, and should think ourselves unworthy of the name of honest men if we could admit that they are right in all things, and ourselves right, too! … We are willing to admit—in fact we dare not do otherwise—that opinion upon this controversy does not determine the future or even the present state of any man!

Finally, in beginning to expound on what Calvinists do and do not believe, Spurgeon observed (something also applicable to other doctrinal differences among believers):

We have not come here to defend your man of straw—shoot at it or burn it as you will, and, if it suits your convenience, still oppose doctrines which were never taught, and rail at fictions which, except in your own brain, were never in existence. We come here to state what our views really are, and we trust that any who do not agree with us will do us the justice of not misrepresenting us. If they can disprove our Doctrines, let them state them fairly, and then overthrow them, but why should they first caricature our opinions, and then afterwards attempt to put them down?

Steve Lawson’s “Pillars of Grace” Volume 2: Church History and the Doctrines of Grace

November 21, 2012 4 comments

A few weeks ago I mentioned a special offer for the electronic version of Steve Lawson’s  Pillars of Grace (A Long Line of Godly Men, Volume Two).  (The special offer is over; regular pricing now.)  The “Pillars of Grace” series highlights the doctrinal beliefs known as the “Doctrines of Grace,” sometimes nicknamed Calvinism.  The first volume looked at the doctrines themselves, and volume two traces the history and development of doctrinal thought, from Clement of Rome in the first century to the Reformation, showing that the “Doctrines of Grace” did not originate with John Calvin but are rooted in the church’s history.

The highlights of this book:  It is very easy reading, well organized with clear sentence and chapter structure.  Headings and subheadings are also well put to use, with the same familiar structure from one chapter to the next.  For a book of such size (over 500 pages) this is a pleasant surprise.  I haven’t read anything before from Steve Lawson, and have only listened to a few of his sermons, but now know that his writing style is very approachable for the common layperson.  After the foreword (by J. Ligon Duncan) and introductory chapter, each chapter highlights one of many of the great Christian thinkers.  Each chapter begins with a portrait and quote from that individual, along with a biographical sketch (including the time period, location, and major life events for that man) and that man’s important contributions to Christian theology.  The next section within each chapter describes that person’s theology, with sub-section “Doctrines in Focus” and the specific writings from that individual concerning the various doctrines, which vary from chapter to chapter as appropriate for that person’s writings:  divine sovereignty, radical depravity (original sin), sovereign election, definite atonement, irresistible call, preserving grace, divine reprobation.  A chapter summary, footnotes, and a study guide with several questions, conclude each chapter.

The chapters are arranged chronologically, and include overall development descriptions at key points, explaining the overall situation of the church within the overall society at that point in time, and introducing the new sub-groups, such as the “Apostolic Fathers” who had some connection with the original apostles, and the “Apologist Fathers” who first defended the faith in writings to pagan unbelievers.  Later chapters introduce the Latin fathers (Ambrose, Augustine), various early and later monastics (Isidore, Gottschalk, Bernard of Clairvaux), the scholastics (Anselm, Thomas Bradwardine), and the pre-reformers and the Reformers.

Through this great survey, we meet the saints brought up in Christian homes as well as those from pagan Greek backgrounds, and how they came to faith in Christ as adults, such as Josephus (in his mid-thirties) and Cyprian (converted at age 47, and martyred only 11 years later).  Most of the names I had at least heard before, though in varying degrees of familiarity; but I learned more about all of these great Christians, their lives and their writings.  A few were previously unknown to me: Cyprian of Carthage and Gregory of Nazianzus.

One of the interesting things that comes out is that — contrary to the first impression from the foreword and introduction — the Doctrines of Grace as a set of five points of belief, did not all develop at the very beginning of church history but came gradually through several hundred years.  The earliest writers, the apostolic fathers immediately after the canon closed, primarily quoted and used the language of the scriptures themselves rather than develop great commentary.  Later saints showed understanding of some of the various doctrines regarding God’s sovereignty, especially divine sovereignty, radical depravity, and divine reprobation; some of the writers showed particular understanding of other ideas such as definite atonement and preserving grace.  Yet many of the early writers also contradicted themselves especially in the area of free will, something not yet fully systematized and understood: in some places affirming the necessity of the new birth, that apart from the work of God a person could not choose to believe; and yet in other places writing of man’s ability to choose and come to faith in Christ.  Lawson especially considers the context of their writing:  in the face of martyrdom for the faith, needing to explain their beliefs to unbelievers, while also responding to various heresies about the nature of Christ, the early church leaders had higher priorities than developing systematic theologies.  They also lived in a time of gnostics and the Greek passive fatalism, and thus emphasized man’s responsibility, man’s action, which unfortunately led to such not well thought out and even contradictory statements.  Full development of the understanding of the will and its bondage would come later.  The details of doctrinal development attest to the scriptures themselves, as John 16:13 described: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth,” a truth mentioned by S. Lewis Johnson in his “The Divine Purpose” series.

With an overview look at so many great leaders throughout church history, their lives and the particular issues of each time period, and the development of several important doctrines, this second volume of the Pillars of Grace is an excellent addition to studies in church history.

Great Book Offer: Steven Lawson’s Pillars of Grace Series, Volume 2

October 24, 2012 Leave a comment

A great e-book offer available now for only 99 cents:  volume 2 of Steven Lawson’s “Pillars of Grace (A Long Line of Godly Men, Volume Two).”  – This second volume, 562 print pages, highlights the belief in the doctrines of Grace by the great Christian thinkers from the 1st through the 16th century.  From the patristic era to the Reformation, 23 men – from Clement of Alexandria through John Calvin –are highlighted, showing that the five points of what is sometimes called Calvinism have been affirmed throughout church history.

In honor of Reformation Day (October 31), the publisher is offering this special price from now through October 31.

From J. Ligon Duncan’s foreword:

as Dr. Lawson highlights some of the Church Fathers’ comments on the sovereignty of God, radical depravity, sovereign election, definite atonement, irresistible calling, preserving grace, and more, and as we see the church’s theology of grace develop across the boundaries of time, place, and culture, we gain a greater appreciation that the doctrines of grace are not the invention of the sixteenth, seventeenth, or nineteenth century, or the product of one narrow branch of the Christian tradition. Rather, they are part of a common and catholic (or universal) theological legacy. Yes, they were not always fully understood. Yes, they sometimes were obscured or ignored. But the cumulative testimony of history is a powerful witness to their universality.