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

The Road to Rome?

I came across something funny today, a commenter who shall remain nameless, on a certain Calvinist blog asserted that Synergism eventually “leads to Rome.” Doubtless he’s just parroting Augustus Toplady’s ‘Arminianism – The Road Back to Rome.’ But what exactly do Calvinists mean when they use this phrase? Many Calvinist authors over the years have displayed a talent for spurious correlations, slippery slopes, and just plain mislabeling their opposition. From the ridiculous “Arminians are Semipelagians” canard still pushed by R.C. Sproul among others, to the “Arminianism leads to either Universalism or Open Theism [because no one could possibly believe that atonement is conditional, and God can’t know the future if He didn’t cause it because God can’t do things we can’t easily explain],” I’d say the ‘Road to Rome’ fallacy is the most amusing of the lot. Let’s quantify what is meant here exactly, what does going “back to Rome” entail? Is it perhaps:

1. Becoming part of the Catholic church?

2. Agreeing with Catholic doctrines?

3. Taking on a more Catholic flavor?

4. Becoming more liberal like the Catholics?

Well, it’s doubtless that there have been converts from Arminianism to Catholicism, there are also converts from Calvinism to Catholicism; isolated examples say little about the whole. Simple fact is that Catholics have proportionally few adherents to their religion who weren’t born into it. Yet despite the Calvinist assertion that all roads except theirs lead back to Rome, history has shown quite a few Arminian and Synergist churches and denominations that have been mysteriously very slow in their march back to the city on seven hills. In fact, some appear to be marching backwards in some of the more fundamentalist groups, many of whom who hold to libertarian free will and are simultaneously often among the most vocal opponents of Catholicism. So I guess the journey to the papacy doesn’t necessarily involve becoming a proper Catholic.

So does it imply agreeing with Catholic doctrine? Thus far I’ve not witnessed masses from the Church of the Nazarene lining up to accept the immaculate conception or the primacy of Rome. I’ve had some Calvinists tell me that the denial of ‘once saved, always saved’ by many Arminians is a return to Catholic doctrine, but a doctrine that two parties coincidentally agree upon does not amount to one party accepting the other’s position as a whole. While the soteriology in Catholicism and Arminianism are similar at points, the standard Calvinist view of original sin is much closer to the classical Catholic view (inherited guilt from Adam) than that of most Arminian Evangelicals (inherited sinful nature from Adam, which manifests itself as sin that brings guilt). By that logic one could argue that the Calvinists are the ones heading back to the doctrines of the RCC. The Catholic church does in fact hold some correct beliefs, so which group is more out of synch with them is not a gauge of doctrinal correctness. Hence, such a definition of ‘leading back to Rome’ is extremely selective and indefensible.

The third proposition is downright batty. Lots of churches that accept the idea of libertarian free will and believe that election is conditional (such as in the Charismatic backgrounds Ben and I come from) are very contemporary and far removed from the traditional Catholic services. Again, it could be argued that Calvinists tend to be more like the Catholics in that respect. What about falling into liberalism? Again, many contemporary churches that hold to Arminian or similar theology (Free Methodists, many Arminian Baptists and Pentecostals) reject the World Council of Churches and the ordination of homosexuals just as fervently as their conservative, Calvinist brothers. On the flip side, their Reformed origins haven’t really stopped the PCUSA from degenerating into a very theologically liberal organization. Yet time and again we get hyper-zealous Calvinists who insist that churches that embrace Arminianism are just itching for the chance to swear fealty to the first thing that comes along wearing a funny hat. Suddenly non-Calvinists change from Christians with differing views on predestination, into a global-scale network of Jesuit spies determined to covertly subjugate everything with a pulse to the Pontifex Maximus. There’s enough conspiracy theory nonsense there to make Jack Chick wonder about its proponents’ mental stability.

So we are still left with the question then: In what sense does Arminianism lead to Roman Catholicism? The above reasons being untenable, I think that assertion is based on false dichotomy. Calvinists of this type don’t see Catholicism as just an institution, but an idea, the far end of a bipolar measurement: They see Christianity as divided between the two points on the spectrum, you are either Protestant or Catholic. Since in their view, Calvinism is Protestantism, if you are not Calvinist, you must therefore be leaning towards Catholicism, even if you’ve never thought about saying the first Hail Mary. Of course the way many Calvinists define ‘Arminianism’ finally adds some sense to the equation:

(by Calvinist redefinition)


Arminianism = Semipelagianism = not Calvinism


moving towards Roman Catholicism = moving away from Protestantism = moving away from Calvinism

then if,

Arminianism -> moving towards Roman Catholicism

it reduces to,

not Calvinism -> moving away from Calvinism

Would you look at that, the equation does make sense after all! So in other words, when Calvinists tell you that Arminianism is the road to Rome, they are simply saying that not believing Calvinism leads away from Calvinism. Heavy equivocation in expressing it, but apart from that, the logic makes perfect sense.

Those in Glass Ivory Towers Shouldn’t Throw Stones

I would like to get some opinions on the following two quotes by James White. The first comes from his debate with Dave Hunt and the second comes from his website. Maybe I am wrong, but I detect a bit of inconsistency here. It seems to me that he is quite comfortable using virtually the same tactics he rebukes Dave Hunt for in Debating Calvinism.

Am I reading this wrong? I know that Mr. White often plays the misrepresentation card so I want to be cautious here. That is why I am asking what you think.

Here is Mr. White on Dave Hunt comparing Calvinism to Roman Catholicism via Augustine:

Hunt’s entire presentation is an attempt to poison the well through poor argumentation. He is saying:

1. Augustine was Roman Catholic.
2. Calvin cited heavily from Augustine and respected him.
3. Therefore, Calvinism is suspect by association with Catholicism through Augustine.

(Debating Calvinism, pg. 244)

Below is a post from Alpha and Omega with a few observations of mine concerning White’s comments:

The Arminian01/05/2004 – James White

A fine young fellow that I’ve been seeing a lot of lately (has something to do with my lovely daughter, I do believe) showed me a periodical titled “The Arminian.” I was first amazed that there are still folks left on planet earth that willingly, gladly, without a word of remonstrance, accept the name of themselves.

Does Mr. White really feel this way? Does he think it incredible that there are people who would still call themselves Arminians today?

But what was far more interesting was the fact that there was an article in it by Steve Witzki written against “eternal security.” You can see the article Here. Right at the beginning you will find the author quoting James Akin, staff apologist for Catholic Answers, from the debate notes he posted on his website from our radio debate from many years ago. This is the same debate where Akin misidentified various elements of the Greek language, as we documented in a previous Dividing Line broadcast.

Notice how James White doesn’t say anything about the argument Steve Witzki was making regarding the total lack of historical precedence for the Calvinistic understanding of perseverance. He doesn’t deny that Calvin invented a doctrine that was unheard of prior to Calvin himself. Instead, he tries to undermine Akin’s credibility by pointing out that he made some mistakes with Greek grammar.

What was so strange is that this Arminian writer seemingly has no problem borrowing from a Roman Catholic when he is arguing that church history stands opposed to a belief in the perfection of the work of Christ.

The reason Steve Witzki references James Akin is because Akin did considerable research looking into the origin of the doctrine. This research included calling numerous Calvinist Seminaries and speaking with Calvinist professors asking them if anyone taught this doctrine prior to Calvin. The answer was always “No”. This is the point that Mr. White should have addressed in this article, and not the issue of any blunders on Akin’s part concerning the Greek language. Oh, and BTW, the belief in perseverance from a synergistic perspective is in no way analogous to opposition to “a belief in the perfection of the work of Christ”.

Of course, would the author likewise follow Akin’s historical arguments on such topics as the Mass, purgatory, or the Marian dogmas? We think not.

Oh good, so Mr. White gives Mr. Witzki a little credit.

But for those who get all upset when I point out the confluence of Arminianism and Roman Catholicism (based upon the centrality of synergism to both systems), please take up your complaint with Mr. Witzki.

And what exactly was the point of all this? Wasn’t it to cast doubt on Arminianism by pointing out how it is similar to Catholicism? Does it matter that Arminianism and Catholicism have similar synergistic views of salvation? Does it matter that James White agrees with Roman Catholics on the doctrine of the Trinity? Maybe he will say that the belief in the Trinity predates the RCC, and he would be quite right about that. It is just as true that a belief in synergism predates the RCC as well, which was one of Witzki’s main points. What does not predate the RCC or John Calvin is the Calvinistic understanding of Perseverance, and this was Steve’s and Jimmy Atkin’s main point. So just what have we learned from Mr. White? Could someone please explain?

How about this:

1. James Atkin is a Roman Catholic.
2. Arminian Steve Witzki cited James Atkin.
3. Therefore, Arminianism is suspect by association with Catholicism through James Atkin.

Sound Familiar?