Shel: This is a well written article by William Birch – http://thearminian.net/2009/01/25/calvinism-and-church-history/ Enjoy! (Bolding and offsets are mostly mine.)
Given the increasing popularity of Calvinism among a younger generation of believers (the Young, Restless and Reformed), very few of them actually pause to consider whether the system should be adopted. Instead, young believers are caught up in a trend, a fad, being carried along by the strong current of popular and charismatic leaders in the Calvinist resurgence such as John Piper, Mark Driscoll, C. J. Mahaney, Mark Dever and John MacArthur. They are taught that only Calvinism exalts a sovereign God and is tantamount to the gospel, and that Arminianism was universally condemned in the history of the church. Both claims are patently false.
Let me offer all Christians of all ages three basic reasons why they should reject Calvinism as a viable option for their systematic theology:
1) historical early Church testimony was undeniably Arminian in nature, not Calvinistic;
2) Calvinism fails its goal to bring God glory through its core doctrines (via emphases upon unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace, to say nothing of exhaustive determinism and the supra- and infralapsarian schemes); and most important
3) Calvinism’s hermeneutic is, in our opinion, seriously deficient (whereas Arminianism appears to be a more objective and exegetical theology — though not infallible — one which takes serious a prima facie interpretation of Scripture).
Dr. Kenneth D. Keathley, Professor of Theology and New Testament at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Molinist Calvinist, acknowledges, “What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy.”1 SHEL: SOLD!!!
When we use the terms “Arminianism” and “Calvinism” referring to the early church, we do so anachronistically, realizing that those terms belong directly to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theologians James Arminius and John Calvin respectively. Hence there were no such doctrines as Arminianism or Calvinism in the early Church.
What we do find in the early Church, however, are core tenets of later Arminian thought present in the theology of the early fathers. Prior to Augustine (354-430 CE), the founder of Roman Catholicism (according to B. B. Warfield2), whose doctrines bred Augustinianism, which later bred Calvinism, early Church fathers were Arminian in essence, soteriologically speaking. Again, Keathley states, “Calvin continued the Augustinian tradition that began when Augustine opposed the Pelagian heresy of the fifth century.”3 Eugene Teselle, Professor of Church History and Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School, admits, “Calvin . . . made much use of Augustine’s writings in thinking about predestination, grace, the unity of OT and NT, the church, and the sacraments. . . .”4 Augustine’s influence cannot be overstated. When one considers the origins of Calvinism, one need look no further than the teachings and influence of Augustine of Hippo himself. We find Calvinism’s roots in Augustinianism, not the apostle Paul, as is assumed by most Calvinists.
Something needs to be acknowledged at this point. Just because one finds one’s doctrines held in the history of the Church is not an inherent indicator of its orthodoxy. Ultimately, Scripture alone dictates what doctrines are or are not orthodox. How one interprets Scripture, however, is another matter altogether; and placing one’s finger on the pulse of early Church fathers in an effort to detect a universal and unified systematic theology is near to impossible. Church historian Robert Louis Wilken states:
- The intellectual effort of the early church was at the service of a much loftier goal than giving conceptual form to Christian belief. Its mission was to win the hearts and minds of men and women and to change their lives. . . . Christian thinkers were not in the business of establishing something; their task was to understand and explain something.”5
One does not find a vast array of theologians in the first and second century of the Church, strictly taken. What one finds are early Church apologists such as Justin Martyr (100-165 CE), whose concentrated efforts were steeped in contending earnestly “for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3 NET Bible).6We are, however, not left in the dark concerning early Church doctrine on salvation. Here is where we find the essence of Arminian thought, and here also is where the void of Calvinistic thought is overwhelmingly obvious. On the contrary, one would not come to that conclusion having read Calvinists such as revisionist Loraine Boettner, who writes:
- The great majority of the creeds of historic Christendom have set forth the doctrines of Election, Predestination, and final Perseverance, as will readily be seen by any one who will make even a cursory study of the subject. On the other hand Arminianism existed for centuries only as a heresy on the outskirts of true religion, and in fact it was not championed by an organized Christian church until the year 1784, at which time it was incorporated into the system of doctrine of the Methodist Church in England.7
This confession is embarrassing for Boettner and other Calvinists who agree with him. From Boettner’s revisionist study of Church history, a Calvinistic understanding of salvation has been around since the beginning of the Church, and an Arminian understanding was not established until 1784. Whatever happened to objective historical studies? The only way to maintain any semblance of truth in Boettner’s statement is to rewrite Church history.
Pre-Augustinian Church fathers taught an Arminian understanding of salvation because that it was they believed Scripture taught. Augustine is the one who deviated from the consensus of the fathers concerning salvation (hence Calvinism is a deviation of early Church theological consensus on salvation). Boettner, being caught in an inconsistency, even alludes to the same thing when he writes, “This cardinal truth of Christianity [unconditional election unto salvation for some] was first clearly seen by Augustine. . . .” If it was “first clearly seen” by Augustine, then how do we account for the first four hundred years of Church fathers who did not “clearly see” an Augustinian (and later Calvinistic) understanding of unconditional election — a “cardinal truth of Christianity” — taught in Scripture? Consider the following statements by the fathers prior to Augustine — statements with which no Calvinist could ever agree:
- Hermas (150 CE) writes: “To those whose heart He saw would become pure and obedient to Him, He gave the power to repent with the whole heart [election based on foreknowledge].”
- Justin Martyr (160 CE) writes: “Lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever occurs happens by a fatal necessity [a denial of exhaustive determinism], 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.”
- Tatian (160 CE) writes: “We were not created to die [a denial of supralapsarianism]. Rather, we die by our own fault. Our free will has destroyed us. We who were free have become slaves. We have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God. We ourselves have manifested wickedness. But we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it.”
- Melito (170 CE) writes: “There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner of life, because you are a free man.”
- Irenaeus (180 CE) writes: “But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will [classical Arminian thought], and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff.”
- Clement of Alexandria (195 CE) writes: “God ministers eternal salvation to those who cooperate for the attainment of knowledge and good conduct. Since what the commandments direct are in our own power, along with the performance of them, the promise is accomplished . . . Therefore, all having been called, those who are willing to obey have been named ‘the called.’ For there is no unrighteousness with God . . . To these, prophecy says, ‘If you are willing and hear me, you will eat the good things of the land,’ proving that choice or refusal depends on ourselves . . We . . . have believed and are saved by voluntary choice.”
- Tertullian (207 CE) writes: “I find, then, that man was constituted free by God. He was master of his own will and power . . . For a law would not be imposed upon one who did not have it in his power to render that obedience which is due to law. Nor again, would the penalty of death be threatened against sin, if a contempt of the law were impossible to man in the liberty of his will . . . Man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance” [a denial of irresistible grace].
- Origen (225 CE) writes: “The apostle in one place does not purport that becoming a vessel to honor or dishonor depends upon God [Rom. 9:21-22; a blatant rejection of Calvinistic thought]. Rather, he refers everything back to ourselves, saying, ‘If, then, a man purges himself, he will be a vessel to honor, sanctified, fit for the Master’s use, and prepared for every good work’ [2 Tim. 2:20-21].”
- Hippolytus (225 CE) writes: “The Word promulgated the divine commandments by declaring them. He thereby turned man from disobedience. He summoned man to liberty through a choice involving spontaneity — not by bringing him into servitude by force of necessity [rejection of irresistible grace].”
- Cyprian (250 CE) writes: “The liberty of believing or of not believing is placed in free choice.”
- Methodius (290 CE) writes: “God is good and wise. He does what is best. Therefore, there is no fixed destiny” [a denial of unconditional election].
- Lactantius (304-313 CE), during those years, writes: “He who gives commandments for life should remove every method of excuse — so He can impose upon men the necessity of obedience. Not by any constraint, but by a sense of shame. Yet, He should do it in a way to leave them freedom, so that a reward may be appointed for those who obey. That is because it was in their power not to obey — for it was in their power to obey if they wished.”
- The Disputation of Archelaus and Manes (320 CE) reads: “Rational creatures have been entrusted with free will. Because of this, they are capable of converting” [a thought made also by Charles Finney].
- Alexander of Alexandria (324 CE) writes: “Natural will is the free faculty of every intelligent nature, as having nothing involuntary pertaining to its essence.”8
A “cursory reading” from Church history, as revisionist-Calvinist Loraine Boettner instructs us to take, evinces an Arminian and not a Calvinistic understanding of God’s grace, free will, election and predestination, as well as synergism vs. monergism, in its strictest sense. Arminians do not have to rewrite Church history in order to demonstrate that we stand in line with and are firmly rooted in the orthodoxy of the early fathers, as do some Calvinists (i.e., Boettner). We simply need to show others the words of the fathers themselves. While Scripture alone will always dictate what a Christian should believe, it is obvious from early Church history (the first four centuries) that nothing resembling Calvinism was thought to be biblical.
The first of three main reasons why orthodox Christians should abandon Calvinism is because its core doctrines (emphases upon unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace, to say nothing of exhaustive determinism and the supra- and infralapsarian schemes) were not taught in the early Church prior to fourth- and fifth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo. Calvin and modern-day Calvinists stand historically in a long tradition, not of early Church fathers, but of the aberrant doctrines of Augustine, whose theological errors include the subjective and dangerous allegorical hermeneutic, the heresy of baptismal regeneration (and even necessary for the salvation of infants), the false idea that martyrdom could replace baptism, the apostolic succession of bishops beginning with Peter, the false teaching of the intercession of dead saints and adoration of relics, the false teaching of purgatory, the idea that the worst sin behind the fallen human condition is sexual intercourse, and was considered by him to be sinful unless used solely for procreation, the allowance of polygamy if it was solely for propagation, and the heresy that God’s grace is distributed through the sacraments.9
While I do not think that Calvinism should be rejected solely because of Augustine’s many theological errors, not related to the doctrine of soteriology, certainly his authority and credibility is hampered by those many, many errors. I no more consider him an authority on orthodox Christian teaching than I do Origen.
Why do men such as Piper, Sproul, MacArthur et al. advocate a Calvinistic theology? Clearly, they do so because they believe the Bible teaches a Calvinistic theology. At the same time, however, rarely does anyone mine Calvinism from a prima facie reading of Scripture: a Calvinistic presupposition must first be in place before anyone can derive that system from the pages of the Bible. But do not miss the overarching point of this post. Prior to the teaching and influence of Augustine in the fourth and fifth century, early Church fathers did not teach any semblance of a neoPlatonic-Augustinian (to borrow B. B. Warfield’s admission of Augustine’s theology10), and later Calvinistic, philosophically-theological construct. Historical verity belongs to Arminianism.
1 Kenneth D. Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.
2 B. B. Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1956), 313.
4 Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith, ed. Donald K. McKim (Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1992), 18.
5 Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), xiv, 3.
6 Ibid., 4-7.
7 Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1932), 2.
8 A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 285-86, 288, 292-95.
9 Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 2002), 55.
10 B. B. Warfield, 319.