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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.

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.

All the Fitness He Requires? Spurgeon the Evangelist

July 12, 2012 5 comments

Steve Lawson well described Spurgeon the Evangelist, as in this message from the 2012 Shepherd’s Conference.  Through the last few years of reading Spurgeon sermons that has been the biggest impression of Spurgeon: sermons that show true Calvinism with its great evangelistic zeal, as in the well-known sermon, Compel Them to Come In.

Spurgeon Sermon #336, “Struggles of Conscience” from September, 1860, is another interesting one that shows Spurgeon’s great zeal in tearing down any obstacle in the way of a person coming to Christ, including the thought that a person doesn’t “feel” the greatness of their sins, doesn’t feel a particular type of repentance as was characteristically defined in the Puritan age.

In our day the evil has taken another, and that a most extraordinary shape. Men have aimed at being self-righteous after quite an amazing fashion; they think they must feel worse, and have a deeper conviction of sin before they may trust in Christ. Many hundreds do I meet with who say they dare not come to Christ, and trust Him with their souls, because they do not feel their need of Him enough; they have not sufficient contrition for their sins; they have not repented as fully as they have rebelled! Brothers and Sisters, it is the same evil, from the same old germ of self-righteousness, but it has taken another and I think a more crafty shape. Satan has wormed himself into many hearts under the garb of an angel of light, and he has whispered to the sinner, “Repentance is a necessary virtue. Stop until you have repented, and when you have sufficiently mortified yourself on account of sin, then you will be fit to come to Christ, and qualified to trust and rely on Him.”

While reading along I thought of the well-known hymn “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy”, sung often at the local church.  One verse ends with the line “all the fitness He requires, is to feel your need of Him.” The teaching at the local church, in the standard Reformed Baptist tradition, occasionally points out that part of that hymn, and how this is the only fitness necessary to come to Christ.  Spurgeon at this point was clearly going further, arguing against any “standard” of what we must feel when we come to Christ.

In the very next paragraph Spurgeon answered my question about that hymn, with the full story even there:  that particular hymn only includes the first part of the line.

Let me counsel you, then, to never quote part of a hymn, or part of a text—quote it all!—
“All the fitness He requires
Is to feel your need of him—
This He GIVES YOU,
It is His Spirit’s rising beam!”

So that particular misunderstanding has been with the church for some time (that particular version of the hymn dates to 1759). The modern-day gospel-lite evangelical view is probably in the opposite direction from Spurgeon’s day, but (at least some) Reformed churches today continue the Puritan tradition of reacting in the opposite extreme.

Spurgeon’s point here is well-taken, a clear distinction in understanding the “feeling” someone has upon coming to Christ:

And I think I know the reason of its great commonness. In the Puritan age, which was noted certainly for its purity of Doctrine, there was also a great deal of experimental preaching, and much of it was sound and healthy. But some of it was unscriptural, because it took for its standard what the Christian felt, and not what the Savior said—the inference from a Believer’s experience, rather than the message which goes before any belief. Those excellent men, Mr. Rogers, of Dedham, who has written some useful works, and Mr. Sheppard, who wrote The Sound Believer, and Mr. Flavel and many others give descriptions of what a sinner must be before he may come to Christ, which actually represent what a saint is, after he has come to Christ! These good Brothers have taken their own experience—what they felt before they came into the Light of God—as the standard of what every other person ought to feel before he may put his trust in Christ and hope for mercy.

There were some in Puritan times who protested against that theology, and insisted that sinners were to be bid to come to Christ just as they were—with no preparation either of feeling or of doing. At the present time there are large numbers of Calvinistic ministers who are afraid to give a free invitation to sinners. They always garble Christ’s invitation thus—“If you are a sensible sinner you may come.” Just as if stupid sinners might not come! They say, “If you feel your need of Christ, you may come.” And then they describe what that feeling or need is, and give such a high description of it that their hearers say, “Well, I never felt like that,” and they are afraid to venture for lack of the qualification.

Mark you, the Brothers speak truly in some respect; they describe what a sinner does feel before he comes, but they make a mistake in putting what a sinner feels, as if that were what a sinner ought to feel! What the sinner feels, and what the sinner does, until he is renewed by Grace, are just the very opposite of what he ought to feel or do! We are always wrong when we say one Christian’s experience is to be estimated by what another Christian has felt.  No, Sir, my experience is to be measured by the Word of God! And what the sinner should feel is to be measured by what Christ commands him to feel, and not by what another sinner has felt!

List of Bible Books and Sermon Series

June 29, 2010 5 comments

Since I enjoy book-by-book and verse-by-verse Bible teaching, especially in MP3 sermon format, I have created an Excel file to help organize the available resources, for future Bible study.  My list includes each book of the Bible and associated Bible teachers who taught through part or all of that Bible book.  For each teacher I list the number of messages in the series, and note if the series covered only part of the book.  For my purposes I looked at several preachers that I’m familiar with.  The list includes John MacArthur and S. Lewis Johnson, as well as the other teachers at Believers Chapel, plus material from preachers affiliated with John MacArthur (Don Green, Steve Lawson, Bruce Blakey, Lance Quinn), and a few other recommended names including Mark Hitchcock, Thomas Constable, and Ray Stedman.

A few observations from the complete list:

  • John MacArthur has the greatest number of messages, and the most complete coverage of the New Testament.  He actually has preached through all of the New Testament books (gospel of Mark still in progress), yet I did not include his sermons for books covered early in his ministry, especially since better series exist for those books, from more mature (better delivery style) preachers.
  • S. Lewis Johnson has the most coverage for the minor prophets — and when you include Dan Duncan, Believers Chapel has the most extensive coverage for all the Prophets:  all books except Lamentations, Nahum and Zephaniah.  Believers Chapel also generally has the most coverage for all the Old Testament: most of the history through the time of King David, plus most of the prophets, and decent coverage for Proverbs and even some Psalms.
  • Thomas Constable has audio sermons available for several Old Testament books, but in many cases the complete series are only available with payment for audio CDs.  Yet Constable also has a complete 66 book commentary of the whole Bible, in PDF format.
  • Thomas Constable, plus Ray Stedman and Mark Hitchcock nicely fill in some of the spots neglected by others, such as Ruth, Esther, 1 Samuel 1-15 (pre-David),  Nehemiah, Job and Ecclesiastes.  Yet a few gaps exist, books I could not find audio sermons for, including the Kings and Chronicles and some of the smaller Old Testament books.  Further study of those books can always be done with material from J. Vernon McGee, or through print resources such as commentaries from Thomas Constable and Alexander MacLaren.

Click the following link to see the actual list:

Bible Teaching Series List