The Early Church Affirmed Free Will (in the Libertarian Sense) Against the Determinism of the Gnostics

Augustinian sympathizer Alister E. McGrath admits:

‘The pre-Augustinian theological tradition is practically of one voice in asserting the freedom of the human will.’

This is actually true for all the divergent branches of early church theology, in all areas into which the church was carried…Not a single church figure in the first 300 years rejected it and most of them stated it clearly in works still extent.  We find it taught by great leaders in places as different as Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Carthage, Jerusalem, Lycia, Nyssa, Rome, and Sicca.  We find it taught by the leaders of all the main theological schools.  The only ones to reject it were heretics like the Gnostics, Marcion, Valentinus, Manes (and the Manichaens [the followers of Manes and the sect that Augustine had been involved with for nine years prior to his conversion to Catholicism]), etc.  In fact, the early Fathers often state their beliefs on “freewill” in works attacking heretics.  Three recurrent ideas seem to be in their teaching:

1. The rejection of freewill is the view of heretics.

2. Freewill is a gift given to man by God – for nothing can ultimately be independent of God.

3. Man possesses freewill because he is made in God’s image, and God has freewill.”

(Forster and Marston, God’s Strategy in Human History, pg. 296, italics mine- the entire section [pp. 289-344] called “Early Teaching on Free Will and Election” is excellent in documenting early church beliefs in contradistinction to the later radical novelties of Augustinian and Calvinist teachings, among other things).

Also See: Church History and Calvinism

Much of Church History at Odds with Calvinism (Part 2)

Be sure to check out this article at SEA on the comparative lack of historical precedent in Calvinism as well as some insightful discussion on the origins of Calvinistic determinism:

Church History and Calvinism

The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism Part 4: A Litany of Inaccuracies and Misrepresentations

As stated before, Mr. Brown says that his primary objective in writing his short book was for the purpose of clearing up misunderstandings concerning what Calvinists believe.  In the process of doing this he has also engaged in trying to demonize the opposing system of belief: Arminianism.  I say demonize because Brown, like so many Calvinists, treats Arminianism as if it were a total perversion of Biblical teaching that the church has always rejected (which we pointed out in Parts 1 and 2 is a gross inaccuracy).  Since Brown is so concerned with properly representing Calvinism, one would think that he would be equally concerned about fairly representing Arminianism.  Sadly, this is not the case at all.  In the next two posts we will address and set the record straight on several more of those inaccuracies expressed throughout Brown’s book, before getting into a careful examination of his treatment of the so-called “five dilemmas” of Calvinism.

Craig Brown writes,

Each [protestant] church developed its own confession of faith, but they all agreed on the basic doctrines of Scripture and stressed the biblical teachings of Paul as they had been interpreted by Augustine and the early church leaders (p. 17).

As noted in Part 2, Augustine misinterpreted Paul, introducing doctrines into the church that were unheard of prior to him.  Brown is wrong to say that the “early church leaders” interpreted Scripture and Paul in the same way as Augustine [1].  They did not.  They did not hold to unconditional election, nor did they hold to irresistible grace or exhaustive determinism.  In fact, such doctrines were standard features of the Gnostic sects that the early church leaders fought against. [2]  If you read some of the earliest Christian polemics against the Gnostics, you will see that they sound just like  Arminians arguing against Calvinist doctrines!  In fact, the Gnostic sects used many of the same “proof texts” as Calvinists do today in order to defend their peculiar doctrines of exhaustive determinism, unconditional election, and inevitable perseverance (like certain sections of Romans 9 and John 6).[3]  The earliest church writers (the ante-Nicene fathers) combated those claims just as Arminians do today, using many of the same Scriptures and arguments as Arminians continue to urge against Calvinists. [4]  They argued fiercely for a libertarian view of free will (though they did not use the phrase “libertarian free will”) [5].  With this in mind, we can see that Brown’s attempt to say that Augustine and Calvin were simply restoring what the early church has always believed is essentially backwards.

Brown continues,

In his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin put down on paper the doctrines that were the foundation for all Protestant groups at the time of the Reformation- especially the Sovereignty of God in salvation [which is simply a Calvinist catch phrase for the doctrines of exhaustive determinism, irresistible grace, and unconditional election/reprobation] (ibid.)

This statement is also inaccurate.  The Reformers were not in agreement with Calvin’s novel doctrines of unconditional election, exhaustive determinism, unlimited atonement (though some scholars maintain that unlike five point Calvinists today, Calvin did not actually teach limited atonement), and inevitable perseverance.  There were many within the protestant movement that found Calvin’s doctrines to be reprehensible, essentially making God into the author of all sin and evil.  The Lutheran church never accepted Calvin’s teaching of inevitable perseverance for the regenerate, and came to reject his essential denial of free will as well.  Even Augustine had held that many regenerate believers fall away from faith into perdition (those who have not been given the “gift of perseverance” by God).  While the protestant church at large agreed with much of what Calvin wrote (those teachings which were in harmony with the five solas of the reformation), Calvin’s doctrines of exhaustive determinism, unconditional election and reprobation, and irresistible grace (doctrines that Brown refers to as “the Sovereignty of God in salvation” above), remained controversial and were rejected, to various degrees, by many key figures during the Reformation movement.

Later, Brown falls into the typical and oft repeated Calvinist blunder of equating Arminianism with Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism:

The beliefs of the Remonstrance [i.e. the Arminians], were not new.  They were a rehashing of the views of Pelagius and Cassian [a semi-Pelagian] in the fifth and sixth centuries, teachings that had been decreed heresy.

Calvinists never seem to tire of drawing this false correlation between Arminianism and the doctrines of Pelagius.  Pelagians denied the existence of a corrupted nature in man, and believed that man could exercise his free will towards salvation apart from any grace of God whatsoever.  Semi-Pelagians believed that God’s grace did intervene, but only after man took the first step towards God unaided by enabling grace.  Arminians believe neither of these things, but rather affirm as fully as Calvinists that, due to man’s depraved state, God’s enabling grace must intervene before any sinner can exercise saving faith in Christ.  The only difference being that the Arminian sees this necessary divine intervention as resistible (i.e. the sinner is capable of resisting this grace and remaining in unbelief or yielding to this grace in faith towards God), whereas the Calvinist sees it as irresistible.  Therefore, Arminianism cannot be rightly called Pelagian or semi-Pelagian, nor can it be rightly called a “rehashing” of either.

James Arminius wrote,

This is my opinion concerning the free-will of man: In his primitive condition as he came out of the hands of his creator, man was endowed with such a portion of knowledge, holiness and power, as enabled him to understand, esteem, consider, will, and to perform the true good, according to the commandment delivered to him. Yet none of these acts could he do, except through the assistance of Divine Grace. But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace (The Works of James Arminius Vol. 1, Wesleyan Heritage Collection CD, pg. 218)

It is obvious from this quote that Arminius gave God’s grace the preeminence in all things pertaining to the salvation of man.  Arminius again states concerning the will of man in his natural state and subsequent total dependence on the grace of God,

In this state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, maimed, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed, and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace (ibid. 470).

Consider also these pointed words by Arminius,

It is that perpetual assistance and continued aid of the Holy Spirit, according to which He acts upon and excites to good the man who has been already renewed, by infusing into him salutary cogitations, and by inspiring him with good desires, that he may thus actually will whatever is good; and according to which God may then will and work together with man, that man may perform whatever he wills.

In this manner, I ascribe to grace the commencement, the continuance and the consummation of all good, and to such an extent do I carry its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will, nor do any good at all, nor resist any evil temptation, without this preventing [i.e. preceding] and exciting, this following and co-operating grace. From this statement it will clearly appear, that I by no means do injustice to grace, by attributing, as it is reported of me, too much to man’s free-will. For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, “is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?” That is, the controversy does not relate to those actions or operations which may be ascribed to grace, (for I acknowledge and inculcate as many of these actions or operations as any man ever did,) but it relates solely to the mode of operation, whether it be irresistible or not. With respect to which, I believe, according to the scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered (ibid. 219).

Again, we see that the main point of contention between the Calvinist and Arminian is not the necessity of enabling prevenient grace (grace which precedes faith and conversion and makes a faith response possible), but the question as to whether or not such grace can ultimately be resisted by the sinner.  The Arminian says such grace can and often is resisted, while the Calvinist says such grace cannot be resisted and inevitably leads to conversion.  Therefore, Calvinists like Craig Brown need to stop misrepresenting Arminian theology by trying to compare it to Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism, when it has no more in common with those systems of belief than does Calvinism [6].  Calvinists Robert A. Peterson and Michael D. Williams are a bit more honest in rejecting the typical Calvinist attempt to poison the well by correlating Arminianism with Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism,

Does the antipathy between Calvinism and Arminianism suggest that Pelagius, the arch-opposite of Augustine, is the proper ancestor of Arminianism?  Calvinists have often sought to paint Arminianism in Pelagian colors.  Associating your opponent with a position that the historic faith has repeatedly judged heretical can only help one’s cause.  However, the allegation that Arminianism is Pelagian is unfortunate and indeed unwarranted.  From Jacob Arminius and the ‘Remonstrance Articles’ on, the Arminian tradition has affirmed the corruption of the will by sin and the necessity of grace for redemption.  Arminianism is not Pelagianism….The Semi-Pelagians thought of salvation as beginning with human beings.  We must first seek God; and his grace is a response to that seeking.  The Arminians of the seventeenth century, however, held that the human will has been so corrupted by sin that a person cannot seek God without the enablement of grace.  They therefore affirmed the necessity and priority of grace in redemption.  Grace must go before a person’s response to the gospel.  This suggests that Arminianism is closer to Semi-Augustinianism than it is to Semi-Pelagianism or Pelagianism. (Why I Am Not An Arminian, pg. 39)

Therefore, Craig Brown’s assertion that Arminianism is simply a rehashing of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism reveals again a basic unwillingness (or inability) to accurately research and present the historical data in an seeming effort to paint Calvinism as orthodoxy while making Arminianism to look as heretical as possible (perhaps we should counter that Calvinism is just a “rehashing” of fundamental features of early Gnosticism into a more “Christian” framework).  Such persistent inaccuracies stand against his own testimony to his supposed careful historical investigation in stating,

Above all else, this [book] will be an exciting exploration of the truth of the sovereignty of God.  I have spent a lot of time studying church history, and reading and thinking about divine sovereignty, and I have come to the conclusion that an understanding of this truth is essential if one’s faith is to stand up against the world.  However, most Christians today do not give much thought to this subject.  But if you will approach this journey with an open mind and heart, at the end of this book I believe you will have gone from seeing the relationship between God and man like this:

God      Man

to seeing it more like this:

[in the book is pictured a graphic of “God” in very large bold font, next to “man” in very small font.  Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t allow me to type in larger characters]

(pg. 21)

Not only does Brown prove that the time he has spent reading church history has not prevented him from making numerous erroneous historical claims, but he also proves to have a much distorted view of how Christians generally view God (which is likely due to his inflated view of Calvinism as the purest representation of gospel truth).  The end of his quote would seem to suggest that those who read his book (who apparently are not Calvinists) will naturally begin by seeing God and man as essential equals.  Where does he get this idea?  Basic Christian theology could never come to such a conclusion regardless of whether that theology is driven by Calvinistic presuppositions or not.

Christian theology and Christians as a whole would begin just where Brown says his book will lead them, with a view of a God who is immeasurably greater than man in every respect.  But this is likely more of an attack on Arminianism than anything, since Calvinists are fond of calling Arminianism a “man centered” theology (nothing could be further from the truth).  However, no Arminian would suggest that we view God and man as equals or object to Brown’s second illustration of God as very big and man as very small.  This seems to be yet another attempt, by Craig Brown, to misrepresent and mischaracterize Arminian theology for the purpose of exalting Calvinism to a superior theological position in the minds of his readers.

It should not surprise us, however, that Brown has such a woefully inadequate understanding of what Arminian theology entails, since it becomes clear, throughout his short book, that he has relied on Calvinists, and not Arminians, to teach him and his readers what Arminians believe (in fact, one will search Brown’s book in vain for a single quote from anyone who represents an Arminian view of theology).  This will become even clearer in our next post where we examine still more of Brown’s numerous misrepresentations of Arminian theology.

Before ending this post, we need to ask ourselves one more question concerning Brown’s quote above.  What do we make of his claim that, “…I have come to the conclusion that an understanding of this truth [the Calvinist understanding of “sovereignty”] is essential if one’s faith is to stand up against the world?”  What can we possibly take from this?  Is Craig Brown truly suggesting that only those whose faith is grounded in the Calvinist understanding of sovereignty “can stand up against the world?”

This is truly an amazing and bold claim.  Is he really suggesting that only Calvinists, throughout the history of Christianity, have successfully stood up against the world?  Surely he can’t be serious. Is he questioning the faith and ministry of the ante-Nicene fathers (men like Polycarp, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, etc.), many of whom went to their deaths for the sake of their commitment to Jesus Christ?  Is he likewise questioning the faith of men like John Wesley who preached a doctrine of holiness unmatched in the history of the church, who preached well over 100,000 sermons, and whose commitment to Christ is unquestioned by any serious student of history?  Is Craig Brown likewise suggesting that non-Calvinists today possess a faith that is incapable of standing up against the world?  This is plainly contrary to Scripture where John says,

For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world- our faith.  Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? 1 John 5:4

Scripture, contrary to Brown’s claims, says that the faith that overcomes the world is the belief that Jesus is the Son of God.  It certainly does not say that faith in the Calvinistic conception of sovereignty (i.e. exhaustive determinism) is the “faith” or “victory” which overcomes the world.  In his zeal to promote Calvinism, Mr. Brown has essentially added a belief in Calvinism to the simple saving gospel message of faith in Jesus Christ, and has thereby violated one of the fundamental battle cries of the Reformation (sola fide– faith alone).

What could possibly motivate such an outlandish claim as this?  I can only guess as to what Mr. Brown was trying to convey, but it seems inescapable to me that such unguarded and bizarre statements could only serve to further prejudice his readers against anything that is not strict five point Calvinism.

Go to Part 3


[1] Marston and Forster point out that,

“Actually, Augustine can really not be called an ‘early church father’, since he was some 350 years after Paul – further than we today are from King Charles II.  Unlike some key earlier figures, he spoke a different language, struggled with Greek, and knew little or no Hebrew.  It is therefore very surprising that so many writers conclude that he got it right and effectively everyone else before him got it wrong.” (God’s Strategy in Human History, 291)

[2] For example, Marston and Forster write, “…we find striking agreement among early church leaders over the issue of freewill.  The same teaching was held by mainstream and fringe groups, by scholars and ordinary ministers, by the Greek, Latin, and even Syrian traditions- by everyone, in short, except total heretics.” (God’s Strategy, pg. 305- emphasis mine)

[3] For example, Origen (c225) says of the Gnostics who misuse passages such as Rom. 9, “Some of those who hold different opinions [i.e. the Gnostics] misuse these passages.  They essentially destroy free will by introducing ruined natures incapable of salvation and by introducing others as being saved in such a way that they cannot be lost…” (A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, by David W. Bercot, pg. 290)

Likewise, Chrysostom, countering the misuse of John 6 by the Gnostic Manichaean sect (the sect Augustine belonged to for nine years prior to converting to Catholicism), writes,

“The Manichæans spring upon these words [in John 6:44], saying, that nothing lies in our own power; yet the expression shows that we are masters of our will. For if a man comes to Him, says some one, what need is there of drawing? But the words do not take away our free will, but show that we greatly need assistance. And He implies not an unwilling comer, but one enjoying much succor.”

For the full response by Chrysostom on John 6, see here.

[4] For example, Irenaeus (c130-200) made use of Matthew 23:37 in Against Heresies XXXVII:

“This expression, ‘How often would I have gathered thy children together, and thou wouldst not,” set forth the ancient law of human liberty, because God made man a free (agent) from the beginning, possessing his own soul to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God.  For there is no coercion with God, but a good will (towards us) is present with Him continually.  And therefore does He give good counsel to all.  And in man as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice…so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves….

If then it were not in our power to do or not to do these things, what reason had the apostle, and much more the Lord Himself, to give us counsel to do some things and to abstain from others?  But because man is possessed of free will from the beginning, and God is possessed of freewill in whose likeness man was created, advice is always given to him to keep fast the good, which thing is done by means of obedience to God.” (quoted in Chosen But Free, by Norman Geisler, pg. 151)

Likewise, Arnobius of Sicca (c253-327) made use of Rev. 22:17, described a sort of universal prevenient grace, and argued forcefully against any notion of God irresistibly inclining man’s will towards faith and obedience (a key feature of the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace),

Against the Heathen: 64 “I reply, does not He free all alike who invites all alike? Or does He thrust back or repel anyone from the kindness of the Supreme who gives to all alike the power of coming to Him?  To all, He says, the fountain of life is open, and no one is hindered or kept back from drinking…

65. “Nay, my opponent says, if God is powerful, merciful, willing to save us, let Him change our dispositions, and compel us to trust in His promises.  This then, is violence, not kindness nor bounty of the Supreme God, but childish and vain strife in seeking to get the mastery.  For what is unjust as to force men who are reluctant and unworthy, to reverse their inclinations; to impress forcibly on their minds what they are unwilling to receive, and shrink from…  

Bardaisan of Syria (c154-222) echoes the objections of numerous early church fathers  against the fatalistic God of the Gnostics (in this case, the followers of Marcion) who would thereby be ultimately responsible for all that His creatures did (including sin),

Fragments: “How is it that God did not make us that we should not sin and incur condemnation?” – if man had been made so, he would not have belonged to himself but would have been the instrument of him that moved him…And how, in that case, would a man differ from a harp, on which another plays; or from a ship, which another guides: where the praise and the blame reside in the hand of the performer or the steersman…they being only instruments made for the use of him in whom is the skill?  But God, in His benignity, chose not so to make man; but by freedom he exalted him above many of his creatures.

Likewise, Methodius of Olympus (c260-martyred 311) saw such theistic determinism as making God the author of all sin and evil,

The Banquet of the Ten Virgins xvi: Now those who decide that man is not possessed of freewill, and affirm that he is governed by the unavoidable necessities of fate…are guilty of impiety toward God Himself, making Him out to be the cause and author of human evils.

(All quotes taken from God’s Strategy, pp. 300, 302)

Cyril of Jerusalem (c312-386) argued in his Lecture, IV 18-21, for freewill and against the Gnostic concept of one being controlled irresistibly by one’s nature alone (another key doctrine of Calvinism today),

“Know also that thou hast a soul self-governed, the noblest work of God, made after the image of its Creator, immortal because of God that gives it immortality, a living being rational, because of Him that bestowed these gifts: having free power to do what it willeth…There is not a class of souls sinning by nature and a class of souls practicing righteousness by nature; but both act from choice, the substance of their souls being of one kind only and alike in all…The soul is self-governed: and though the Devil can suggest, he has not the power to compel against the will.  He pictures to thee the thought of fornication: if thou wilt, thou rejectest.  For if thou wert a fornicator of necessity, then for what cause did God prepare hell?  If thou wert a doer of righteousness by nature and not by will, wherefore did God prepare crowns of ineffable glory?  The sheep is gentle, but never was it crowned for its gentleness; since its gentle quality belongs to it not from choice but by nature.” (quoted in Chosen But Free, pp. 154, 155)

[5] “Augustinian sympathizer Alister E. McGrath admits:

‘The pre-Augustinian theological tradition is practically of one voice in asserting the freedom of the human will.’

This is actually true for all the divergent branches of early church theology, in all areas into which the church was carried…Not a single church figure in the first 300 years rejected it and most of them stated it clearly in works still extent.  We find it taught by great leaders in places as different as Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Carthage, Jerusalem, Lycia, Nyssa, Rome, and Sicca.  We find it taught by the leaders of all the main theological schools.  The only ones to reject it were heretics like the Gnostics, Marcion, Valentinus, Manes (and the Manichaens [the followers of Manes and the sect that Augustine had been involved with for nine years prior to his conversion to Catholicism]), etc.  In fact, the early Fathers often state their beliefs on “freewill” in works attacking heretics.  Three recurrent ideas seem to be in their teaching:

1. The rejection of freewill is the view of heretics.

2. Freewill is a gift given to man by God – for nothing can ultimately be independent of God.

3. Man possesses freewill because he is made in God’s image, and God has freewill.” (God’s Strategy, pg. 296- the entire section [pp. 289-344] called “Early Teaching on Free Will and Election” is excellent in documenting early church beliefs in contradistinction to the later radical novelties of Augustinian and Calvinist teachings, among other things).

[6] Writing over a thousand years before Arminius, Jerome (c347-420) sounded very “Arminian” in opposing the Pelagians (affirming genuine free will in man that is completely dependent on God’s gracious enabling power),

Letters CXXXIII It is in vain that you misrepresent me and try to convince the ignorant that I condemn freewill.  Let him who condemns it be himself condemned.  We have been created endowed with freewill; still it is not this which distinguishes us from the brutes.  For human freewill, as I said, depends upon the help of God and needs His aid moment by moment, a thing which you and yours do not choose to admit.  Your position is that once a man has freewill he no longer needs the help of God.  It is true that freedom of the will brings with it freedom of decision.  Still man does not act immediately on his freewill but requires God’s aid who Himself needs no aid.

Against the Pelagians, Book 111, 10: But when we are concerned with grace and mercy, freewill is in part void; in part, I say, for so much depends upon it, that we wish and desire, and give assent to the course we choose.  But it depends on God whether we have the power in His strength and with His help to perform what we desire, and to bring to effect our toil and effort. (God’s Strategy, pp. 303, 304)

The Five Dilemmas of Calvinism Part 2

Augustine: The Greatest Theologian?

I have decided to take my time with this book as there is so much that Mr. Brown gets wrong in my opinion.  Much of this series will interact only briefly with the content of the book and use certain comments as springboards for interaction and reflection.  One thing I just can’t get past is Mr. Brown’s unqualified claim that Augustine was the greatest theologian of the early church.  This seems false to me on several levels.

First, we must wonder why this claim is made.  It is rather well known that Calvinism is a developed form of Augustinian theology.  Calvin was a huge fan of Augustine and essentially systemized his theology.  He called Augustine “…the best and most faithful witness in all antiquity.” Some Calvinists even prefer to call themselves Augustinians.  Luther was an Augustinian monk and also drew heavily from Augustine in developing his theology.  So there is a real sense in which Augustine might be called the father of the Reformation based solely on the influence his writings had on some of the key figures of the Reformation (though not all reformers followed Augustine).  It makes sense then that a Calvinist like Mr. Brown would think of Augustine as the greatest theologian of the early church.  But there are several problems with such a claim.

Augustine may well be said to have been the most influential theologian on later developments of Christian thought, but being influential does not necessarily equate to greatness.  Augustine also had a great influence on the Roman Catholic Church.  In fact, he has been called the father of Roman ecclesiasticism.  Many of the doctrines that the reformers found unacceptable in Rome had either their origin in Augustine or were embraced by Augustine as sound doctrine:

– No salvation outside of the Catholic Church

– The merit of penance for earning forgiveness

– Perpetual virginity of Mary (Augustine called those who oppose this teaching heretical)

– Mary was innocent of actual sin

– Marion worship

– Purgatory

– Saints as intercessors

And unfortunately some of the reformers followed Augustine in Catholic doctrines such as the divine right to persecute heretics and make converts by force (Augustine used Luke 14:23 as justification for these doctrines, and was followed in actual practice by reformers like John Calvin), and the belief that all unbaptized children who died in infancy would be consigned to eternal fire (based largely on Augustine’s belief that salvation was impossible outside of the Catholic church).  Based on these historical facts we conclude with Anderson (quoted by Samuel Fisk),

Sir Robert Anderson, in The Bible and the Church, declares that nearly all the errors prevalent in Romanism can be traced back to Augustine.  He says, “The Roman church was molded by Augustine into the form it has ever since maintained.  Of all the errors that later centuries developed in her teaching there is scarcely one that cannot be found in embryo in his writings.” (Calvinistic Paths Retraced, pg. 95)

Augustine: Theologian of the early church?

Mr. Brown calls Augustine “the greatest theologian of the early church” (pg. 15 emphasis mine).  This can be misleading as Augustine converted to Catholicism in AD 387.  Prior to this time he was for nine years a member of the Gnostic Manichaean sect.  As a young convert Augustine embraced those doctrines which had universally been held by the early church. Among these doctrines was the belief that man was endowed with a measure of free will in the strict libertarian sense.  Augustine strongly defended the freedom of the will in many of his writings.  This was nothing novel as all of the church fathers before him also held that man was endowed with libertarian free will (though they would not have called it “libertarian” free will) by God and that without this freedom of the will moral accountability was impossible.

Pelagius followed all of the church fathers before him in affirming the freedom of the will but sadly took the doctrine too far in insisting that man could live a sinless life apart from the grace and power of God and turn to God of his own will without God’s initial intervention.  Augustine opposed Pelagius and his followers and likewise went too far in the other direction in order to win the debate.  Augustine slowly began to promote a deterministic theology which essentially denied free will altogether.  The later Augustine continued to develop these doctrines and in so doing came to advocate the idea of irresistible grace and unconditional election.  These doctrines were novel and unheard of among the Ante-Nicene fathers .  Yet such teachings were evident in the Gnostic heretics that the Ante-Nicene fathers wrote against.

It didn’t escape Pelagius’ notice that Augustine seemed to be falling back into the philosophies of the Gnostic sect he once embraced in order to deny free will.  He accused Augustine of smuggling in Manichaean beliefs of fatalism and unconditional predestination into his theology.  It has been argued that Augustine basically molded the two gods of Manichaean philosophy (one good god and one evil god) into one God who determined and caused all that is both good and evil.  While the Pelagian and semi-Pelagian teaching that one can turn to God apart from God’s prevenient grace was condemned in later church councils, so were the deterministic features of Augustine’s later theological developments.

It becomes clear then that Augustine did not represent the teachings of the earliest church fathers in his theological developments which would later be embraced and systematized by John Calvin.  The earliest church fathers, some of whom were taught by the apostles themselves, rejected determinism, irresistible grace, unconditional election, and inevitable perseverance as features of Gnostic heresies rather than the apostolic teachings of the church. Only after Calvin (following Augustine) did such teachings begin to be readily embraced by professing Christians as orthodoxy. 

Calvin held Augustine in the highest esteem and often relied upon his writings whenever he encountered difficulties in interpreting Scripture. Augustine, however, was not a strong exegete of Scripture and was ignorant of the original languages of the Old and New Testament (Greek and Hebrew).  Some of his strange doctrinal developments may be directly related to faulty translations of the latin Vulgate that Augustine relied on and studied.  It is significant that the earliest church fathers, many of whom spoke Greek as their native language, never found the doctrines of determinism, unconditional election, limited atonement, or inevitable perseverance in the teachings of the apostles and word of God as a whole.  Rather, they used those same Scriptures to rigorously oppose the “heretics” who promoted many of the same teachings that Augustine and Calvin later came to hold as orthodoxy.  Based on these facts it seems safe to say that Mr. Brown has overstated things just a bit when he writes,

Augustine was the greatest theologian of the early church.  He spent much of his life defending the orthodox or true faith against heresies.  Fighting these battles helped him codify the doctrines that were taught by Jesus and Paul in Scriptures (pg. 15).

The irony is obvious.  While Brown tells us that Augustine preserved the Christian faith against heresies, history seems to tell quite a different story.  It might have been more accurate if Brown had said something like this,

Augustine was one of the most influential theologians of the fourth and fifth century.  He spent most of his life developing Catholic doctrines that the later reformers found abhorrent and have been rejected by Protestant believers throughout the centuries.  In his battles with the Pelagians he introduced strange doctrines to the church which were held by the earliest Christian writers and disciples of the apostles to be heretical.  Augustine’s theology of determinism, irresistible grace, and unconditional election misrepresented and perverted the teachings of Jesus and Paul in Scriptures.

So it seems that Mr. Brown is either largely ignorant of much of church history or he has deliberately painted Augustine in a positive light for the sake of promoting his Calvinism as the purest form of historical Christianity.  In our next post we will examine Mr. Brown’s many misrepresentations of Arminian theology.

[For an excellent treatment of the philosophical reasoning that lead Augustine to embrace novel doctrines and the negative influence these doctrines had on later theological developments see God’s Strategy in Human History by Forster and Marston.]

Go to Part 1

Go to Part 3

Augustine the Libertarian

Some refer to Calvinism as Augustinianism.  John Calvin took the teachings of the later Augustine and systematized them.  The only major difference between the later Augustine and Calvin’s theology is the doctrine of perseverance.  Augustine believed that one could be truly regenerated and yet not be granted the gift of perseverance.  Calvin denied that one who was truly regenerated could fail to persevere.  But what about the early Augustine?

The early Augustine had a theology that was little different than the theology which had dominated the church since apostolic teachings.  Augustine held to a libertarian view of human freedom and only began to move away from that view when embroiled in debate and controversy with the Pelagians.  In these debates his theology began to shift.

Calvinists might claim that this shift was due to theological maturity and greater insight into Biblical truths once overlooked.  Another possibility is that when trying to counter the Pelagian arguments regarding free will Augustine went too far in the other direction and began to fall back into some of the gnostic determinism which he had abandoned upon his conversion to Christianity from the Manichaean sect.  Augustine’s later redevelopment of much of his theology was the direct result this overreaction to the Pelagian controversy.  I prefer the latter explanation.

So what did the early Augustine believe concerning the will?  He agreed with the consensus of the chruch Fathers before him.  He held to a libertarian view of free will and argued for it along the same lines as many Arminians do today.

Compatibilists often tell us we are “free” if we are not coerced by external factors and do what we “want” to do.  The part that they often leave out of the conversation is that they believe that our “wants” are causally determined by internal factors.  Somehow, compatibilists think that if you make the shift from external to internal the problem is resolved and we can be truly free even if our will is controlled by internal factors (motives, desires, etc.).  And since we do what we want to do (i.e. we are not forced to do such things “against our [causally determined] wills” ) we are rightly held responsible by God and man for our actions.  What would Augustine think of such arguments?

Thomas Williams in his introduction to Augustine: On Free Choice of the Will writes,

A libertarian such as Augustine would not be convinced by this sort of reasoning.  These philosophers still insist that my choices are determined; the fact that they are determined by internal rather than external factors is inconsequential.  It is not better to be a hand puppet than a marionette.  Besides, to a libertarian, this view is just a dodge.  To see why this is the case, suppose that I have made a choice that was determined by my state of character at the time of the choice.  Call that state of character S.  How did I acquire S?  If we admit that determinism is true, we must say that, given the laws of nature and causal factors at work both inside and outside me, S is the inevitable result of some prior state R.  And how did I acquire R?  It was the result of some prior state Q, which in turn was the result of prior state P and so on.  And thus we trace the causal chain back in time, eventually reaching a point before I was born. But how can I be responsible for choices that are assured causal results of states of the universe [or eternal decrees if you will] that existed before I was born?  For obviously I have no control over things that happened before I was born.  The fact that this causal chain eventually wormed its way inside me, so to speak, determining my choices from within, no longer seems to guarantee my freedom.  It is with such considerations in mind that Augustine rejects the view (known as ‘compatibilism’) that determinism is compatible with human freedom and moral responsibility; and since he is convinced that human beings are in fact free and responsible, he must reject determinism as well. (pp. xii, xiii) 

Augustine, like Arminians, believed that if our choices were determined by factors which we could not control then we could not be held responsible for our actions (even if we did those actions “willingly” since the will itself has been causally determined by factors beyond our control).  If the will has been causally determined then it is not helpful to say that because we do things “willingly” we should be held responsible for those actions.  Augustine agreed with the consensus of the early church Fathers that such a view could not make sense of moral responsibility.

Calvinists tend to get hyped up when Arminians accuse them of making puppets of people with their deterministic view of the will.  Yet those same Calvinists will happily describe us as inanimate and helpless clay in the hand of the Potter who has the right to shape us however He pleases (which misunderstands what was being expressed in Jer. 18, Rom. 9, and related passages).  If we object to their determinism then we are sternly rebuked for being like pots who are talking back to the Potter.  And yet, the Potter apparently formed and shaped us just so that we would indeed talk back to Him.  Strange theology indeed.