Jack Cottrell: Did The Early Christian Fathers Teach Calvinism?

Did the Early Christian Fathers Teach Calvinism?

by Jack Cottrell on Monday, July 25, 2011 at 12:59pm

QUESTION: Some say that the doctrines of Calvinism did not begin with John Calvin, nor even with Augustine (died A.D. 430). Rather, they claim that the TULIP doctrines are present throughout the writings of the church fathers from the beginning. One Calvinist who says this is Michael Horton, in an appendix to his book, Putting Amazing Back into Grace (Baker, 2002). What do you say about this?

ANSWER: I have read a large portion (not all) of the pre-Nicene, Nicene, and post-Nicene fathers, and have done so with my Calvinist and non-Calvinist sensors on full alert. I believe that my conclusion is valid, that the Calvinist TULIP doctrines originated with Augustine and thus were not present in the pre-Augustinian fathers.

I surveyed the texts cited by Horton, and I saw nothing that moves me to change my mind. It is not easy to evaluate the texts that he cites from the church fathers, since he gives no bibliographical data other than a writer’s name and an approximate date. He does not say what English translation he is using, and he seems to have made no attempt to check the translation against the original Greek or Latin version.

I decided to do some checking myself. Under the cited texts that allegedly support “unconditional election,” Horton quotes Clement of Rome, claiming that Clement’s letter was written in A.D. 69 (several decades earlier than most scholars would put it). Part of the quote says, “Seeing then that we are the special elect portion of a Holy God, let us do all things that pertain unto holiness.”

I found this in chapter 30 of Clement’s letter. The Greek says, hagiou oun meris hyparchontes poiēsōmen ta tou hagias mou panta. The fact is that there are no Greek words corresponding to “special elect” in this statement of Clement. The whole concept of election is read into this quotation. Also, we should note that the context of the statement has nothing to do with election.

Another citation from Clement, in support of perseverance of the saints (the P doctrine), is given thus by Horton: “It is the will of God that all whom He loves should partake of repentance, and so not perish with the unbelieving and impenitent. He has established it by His almighty will. But if any of those whom God wills should partake of the grace of repentance, should afterwards perish, where is His almighty will? And how is this matter settled and established by such a will of His?”

I had a very difficult time trying to find the section from which this quote supposedly comes. The closest I saw is in chapter 8. Here Clement cites several OT texts where God declares his desire for wicked Israel to repent, especially using Isaiah 1. Then Clement says, “Desiring, therefore, that all His beloved should be partakers of repentance, He has, by His almighty will, established….” The text ends here; it does not say what God has established; the translation I used adds the words, “these declarations,” i.e., the OT quotations. The Greek text reads: pantas oun tous agapētous autou boulomenos metanoias metaschein estērizen to pantokratorikō boulēmati autou. The “quotation” as cited by Horton does not even come close to what the original is saying. To say that it supports “perseverance of the saints” is pure fantasy; it also ignores the context.

Another ancient document cited several times by Horton is the so-called Epistle of Barnabas, which he dates as A.D. 70 and attributes to “Paul’s sidekick” in the Book of Acts. (Few scholars, if any, agree with this.) He cites this statement from Barnabas as supporting “Human Inability” (i.e., Total Depravity): “Learn: before we believed in God, the habitation of our heart was corrupt and weak.” This translation seems to be correct, but the only thing it establishes is that “Barnabas” believed that the hearts of men are depraved, which is not the same as TOTAL depravity. The citation thus proves nothing.

Horton says the following quote from “Barnabas” teaches Unconditional Election thus: “We are elected to hope, committed by God unto faith, appointed to salvation.” I could find this statement nowhere in the Epistle of Barnabas. But even if it were there, the description of Christians as “elected” is not Calvinism; this is fairly common NT language. The Calvinist twist is to add the word unconditional, and there is nothing of this nature in the alleged quote which Horton attributes to Barnabas.

To cite one more quote, Horton says this statement from Barnabas shows that he believed in Irresistible Grace: “God gives repentance to us, introducing us into the incorruptible temple.” This translation seems to be correct, but again, this is saying nothing more than what is affirmed in the Bible, i.e., that God gives to us the opportunity to repent. (See my book, The Faith Once for All, pp. 199-200.) To say Barnabas is hereby affirming the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace not only reads too much into the statement; it also ignores the context of it.

It is extremely poor scholarship to lay out a string of quotations, as Horton does, with little documentation, with apparently no checking of the wording against the originals, and with no consideration of the contexts of the statements. It is also important to take account of the overall teachings of these writers, which will put the cited quotations into perspective. E.g., while the church fathers certainly speak of Christians as being “elect” or as being predestined to salvation, it is clear from their overall teaching about the subject that they believed God predestines according to his foreknowledge. (See my earlier Facebook note, “When Did Calvinism Begin,” published in early June 2011.)

As a theological student, when I first read the apostolic fathers, I made notations in the margins of all the passages that contradict the doctrines of Calvinism. The margins of my old Lightfoot edition are full of the letters T, U, L, I, and P, indicating statements that show that these writers did NOT believe in the five points. These are the kinds of statements that Horton’s list ignores.

HT: Steve Witzki


For more on this subject see the following posts: https://arminianperspectives.wordpress.com/category/church-history/

7 thoughts on “Jack Cottrell: Did The Early Christian Fathers Teach Calvinism?

  1. Great post! While second hand, it does not place Horton in a very good light. I would like to see Br Cottrell put a good list of those margin notes together. Perhaps he has and I have missed it.

  2. Good post. The above demonstrates how the Calvinist’s handling of the early church fathers is an exercise in cherry picking and question begging–reminiscent of how they handle scriptures. I have read a similar exercise (by Gill, if I recall) posted on the internet which makes the same blunders in attempting to offer up quotes from the ECFs to support an alleged early TULIP theology.

  3. Doubting Thomas,

    I read the one by Gill as well. I completely agree with your assessment of it. I once produced about dozen quotes from the same author’s that Gill quoted to someone who posted Gill as support for Calvinism in the early church fathers. All of those quotes contradicted Gill’s claims. I also found that he had not been careful with context.

  4. Hi, thanks for this expose’. I also encountered the quotations in the back of Dr. Horton’s book (after finding them scattered around on the web), and they are really, really out of context if you can find the context. I’ve e-mailed him regarding the matter, but the auto-response I got back made me surmise my email would probably not be read. Here’s some other examples of misquoting:

    ***QUOTE: “Confession of Dositheus (1672). This is the most recent document of the Eastern Orthodox Church to have received official concilliar Sanction. According to Phillip Schaff, “The occasion for the creed was the work of Cyril Lucaris… Lucaris, with deep sympathies for the Reformed (Calvinist) Churches in teaching “the ancient faith,” aroused hatred from the Jesuits (a Roman Catholic order). Although this is the most recent Orthodox statement, it has been repudiated by many within that communion:
    “We believe that the most good God to have from eternity predestined unto glory those whom He had chosen, and to have consigned unto condemnation those whom He hath rejected.” “(“Putting Amazing Back into Grace”, page 257)***


    “…but not so that He would justify the one, and consign and condemn the other without cause. For that were contrary to the nature of God, who is the common Father of all, and no respecter of persons, and would have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth; but since He foreknew the one would make a right use of their free-will, and the other a wrong, He predestinated the one, or condemned the other. And we understand the use of free-will thus, that the Divine and illuminating grace, and which we call preventing grace [prevenient grace], being, as a light to those in darkness, by the Divine goodness imparted to all, to those that are willing to obey this — for it is of use only to the willing, not to the unwilling — and co-operate with it [etc, will be saved]…But to say, as the most wicked heretics do — and as is contained in the Chapter answering hereto — that God, in predestinating, or condemning, had in no wise regard to the works of those predestinated, or condemned, we know to be profane and impious….we do subject to an eternal anathema those who say and think such things, and esteem them to be worse than any infidels.”
    (“The Acts of the Council of Jerusalem,” p.114-116) (link: http://books.google.com/books?id=G1h5ijh3YcwC&pg=PA114#v=onepage&q=114&f=false )

    The above quote was attributed by Dr. Horton as being from the pen of Orthodox Archbishop Cyril Lucaris, but Cyril was long dead. The church council was actually a response to what was a forgery *perpetrated* under the name of Cyril, as though Cyril had somehow become a Calvinist without any of his friends knowing it! Even Philip Schaff, who Dr. Horton quoted as a source for this, wrote as the very first line he provides on the spurious Calvinistic Confession of ‘Cyril Lucaris’,

    “The Confession of Cyril Lucar was never adopted by any branch or party of the Eastern Church, and even repeatedly condemned as heretical.”

    (Creeds of Christendom, p.54 link: http://books.google.com/books?id=gX49AAAAYAAJ&dq=cyril%20lucar%20philip%20schaff%20the%20occasion%20for%20the%20creed&pg=PA54#v=onepage&q=54&f=false )

    So, Dr. Horton not only gets his history terribly jumbled here, he claims that the Orthodox church support Calvinism, using the very paragraph that condemns Calvinism as blasphemous heresy!! That’s about as out-of-context as you can get.

    ***QUOTE: “Justin Martyr (A.D. 150): “Mankind by Adam fell under death, and the deception of the serpent; we are born sinners…No good thing dwells in us…For neither by nature, nor by human understanding is it possible for me to acquire the knowledge of things so great and so divine, but by the energy of the Divine Spirit…Of ourselves it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God…He has convicted us of the impossibility of our nature to obtain life…Free will has destroyed us; we who were free are become slaves and for our sin are sold…Being pressed down by our sins, we cannot move upward toward God; we are like birds who have wings, but are unable to fly.” ” (“Putting Amazing Back into Grace”)***

    Most of this is not from Justin Martyr. Some is from Tatian, and some from Theophilis. It may well be that none of it is from Justin.
    The center quote, “Free will has destroyed us; we who were free are become slaves and for our sin are sold,” is from Tatian, (Address to the Greeks, Chapter 11). The full quote continues: “but we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it.”

    The “bird without wings” portion comes from Theophilis in his books “To Autolycus.” Here’s the quote in context:

    “…wild beasts [were created by God as a typology] of some men, who neither know nor worship God, but mind earthly things, and repent not. For those who turn from their iniquities and live righteously, in spirit fly upwards like birds, and mind the things that are above, and are well-pleasing to the will of God. But those who do not know nor worship God, are like birds which have wings, but cannot fly nor soar to the high things of God. Thus, too, though such persons are called men, yet being pressed down with sins, they mind grovelling and earthly things.” (To Autoclys, Book II, Chapter 17)

    To clarify his position, several paragraphs later he writes:

    “God made man free, and with power over himself. That [loss of immortality], then, which man brought upon himself through carelessness and disobedience, this God now vouchsafes to him as a gift through His own philanthropy and pity, when men obey Him. For as man, disobeying, drew death upon himself; so, obeying the will of God, he who desires is able to procure for himself life everlasting. For God has given us a law and holy commandments; and everyone who keeps these can be saved…” (Ibid, Chapter 27)

    Theophilis seems to think every individual has the ability to turn to God and thus wing their way heavenward, if they but obey the gospel (2 Thessalonians 1:8) and follow the law of Heaven (Mark 12:30-31).

    Justin Martyr – to whom the words are attributed in the book – firmly believed in the free will of man and rejected the idea that any were unconditionally left out of God’s provision of repentance and faith toward him. He wrote:

    “Lest some suppose, from what has been said by us [regarding prophecies], that we say that whatever occurs happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain. . . . And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions.” (ANF, Volume I, p. 177)

    In another place Justin writes that we are born again so as to no longer be children of necessity, but children who have chosen of our own free will to be so born of God (First Apology, 61). Indeed, in many places Justin defends free will, using scripture to combat what he sees as secular, Jewish, or heretical philosophical errors. Anyone who read the entirety of his works as a flow of context, rather than cherry-picking around, would see that this is the case.

    ***QUOTE: Irenaeus (A.D. 198): “God hath completed the number which He before determined with Himself, all those who are written, or ordained unto eternal life…Being predestined indeed according to the love of the Father that we would belong to Him forever.”***

    The first part of this quote is from Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter 33.5. But the context shows he is not talking about predestination to be one of the Elect in a Reformed sense, it’s talking about how many human bodies there are and that God will ensure that there are a corresponding number of souls (Irenaeus presents this as an explanation against reincarnation).

    I cannot find the second part of the quote, but if it is genuine, this does not matter because Irenaeus’ definition of ‘predestination’ does not carry the specific implications that a Calvinist definition does, and indeed is opposed to them. Elsewhere, Irenaeus writes:

    “Man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff.” (Against Heresies, Book IV, 4.3)

    This is very consistent with his views expressed in a multitude of other places, but especially in Against Heresies, Book IV, chapters 29 – 41.

    ***QUOTE: Origen: “Our free will…or human nature is not sufficient to seek God in any manner.” (“Putting Amazing Back into Grace”)***

    I cannot find this quote anywhere. And since it has no source quoted, that makes it difficult. But Origen would have never written this. Consider this quote from Origen:

    “This also is clearly defined in the teaching of the Church, that every rational soul is possessed of free-will and volition; that it has a struggle to maintain with the devil and his angels, and opposing influences, because they strive to burden it with sins; but if we live rightly and wisely, we should endeavour to shake ourselves free of a burden of that kind. From which it follows, also, that we understand ourselves not to be subject to necessity, so as to be compelled by all means, even against our will, to do either good or evil. For if we are our own masters, some influences perhaps may impel us to sin, and others help us to salvation; we are not forced, however, by any necessity either to act rightly or wrongly, which those persons think is the case who say that the courses and movements of the stars are the cause of human actions, not only of those which take place beyond the influence of the freedom of the will, but also of those which are placed within our own power.” (De Principiis, Preface, #5)

    And also,

    “…those who are foreknown by God are those upon whom God had placed his own love and affection because he knew what sort of persons they were…In order that you might know that the cause of each person’s salvation is not placed in the foreknowledge of God but in one’s own purpose and actions, observe Paul as he expresses fear… That we may be good or evil depends on our own will; but that the evil man should be appointed for punishments of some sort and the good man for glory of some sort depends on the will of God.” (Commentary on Romans, Thomas Scheck translation, p.89, 91, 118)

    Now Origen had some weird ideas – but he was also brilliant, a native Greek speaker, and wrote commentaries on most of Scripture. And we have a commentary he wrote on Romans, cited above. Romans does not receive a Reformed treatment in any way whatsoever. Instead, Origen points us toward 2 Timothy 2:20-21 for a clearer answer, and deems that the cause of election is the foreknowledge of God – based on the future libertarian actions of man.

    Other quotes in the book from Cyprian, Tertullian, etc, I have not been able to locate in source materials, but even a passing acquaintance with their writings would show that many of them were hearty *opponents* of unconditional election. Other verse-by-verse commentaries on Romans such as by Ambrosiaster (I’m waiting on my English translation to arrive in the mail, but this is what I’m told), and John Chrysostom likewise do not present a Reformed view of Romans 9. Indeed, the normal academic Reformed narrative of history generally admits that Augustine was the first to ‘recover’ the Calvinist perspective on grace. Consider Calvinist Loraine Boettner:

    “The earlier church fathers…taught that salvation was through Christ; yet they assumed that man had full power to accept or reject the gospel…a kind of synergism… [The] cardinal truth of Christianity [i.e., unconditional election] was first clearly seen by Augustine…” (“The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination”, chapter 28)

    So, is Dr. Horton really that ignorant of what many educated Calvinists admit, and really that ignorant of the patristics whom he quotes in his book? And, really that incautious in failing to look up his sources? And if so, does this imply anything about the way Calvinists often jump around in Scripture, cherry-picking a verse here and there, and not following the flow of the whole story or argument? I suspect it is indeed a symptom of the same malady.

  5. Micah,

    Thanks for doing this extra research and sharing it here. I have noticed the same thing in looking at Gill’s prooftexting of the early church. He takes passages out of context, assumes a Calvinist meaning to words like “election” or “predestination” or “perseverance” and ignores the other things they say which contradict his conclusions. There really isn’t any support for Calvinism in the early church (that I have seen) and their abortive attempts to find some, to date, only serve to affirm that reality.

    God Bless,

  6. Seems pretty desperate to me, and ironic given how much boasting about exegesis many of them seem to pride themselves of. The truth is Calvinism was an overreaction to Pelagianism. Anyone who buys into either system as a whole is guaranteed to be in deep error. Less so with the Arminianism position, which seems to be closer to what the bible plainly teaches. I don’t necessarily buy into that system as a whole either.

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