Sunday, May 07, 2023

The Augustinian Error

I recently enjoyed a week of meetings taken by an ex-Calvinist who had been Reformed for 25 years. He left that movement because his own repeated reading of scripture was clashing with his systematic theology, and the cognitive dissonance eventually forced him to change his thinking. It was a terrific week. He is a gracious man by nature, but extremely thorough in his presentation and utterly convincing.

Not that I needed convincing on that subject …


One of the points he made in the course of the week is that Calvinists often tell us determinism was the teaching of the early church, or at very least that Calvinism is consistent with the teaching of the church fathers. After all, or so they reason, the Bible teaches these things, therefore the fathers must have believed them.

In fact, most historically literate Calvinists concede you cannot find determinism in the church fathers much before Augustine. The Stoic influence on Augustine is obvious if you have ever read Marcus Aurelius; I remember being struck by his determinism when reading Meditations. Stoicism is basically Calvinism with a plethora of gods instead of just one. When Augustine introduced Christianity to deterministic thinking, he did not do us any favors, being at odds with several hundred years of church teaching as well as many of his own contemporaries.

For anyone who remains unconvinced that determinism began with Augustine and not before, Antemodernist has compiled the following list of quotations from “The Days Before Augustine”. It pretty much settles the matter. He says, “Writing in the fifth century, Augustine was nearly as far removed from the first Christians as we today are removed from the Reformers.”

Nearly as Far Removed …

Want evidence of that? Check this out. [All emphasis below is mine.]

Justin Martyr: “In the beginning, He made the human race with the power of thought and of choosing the truth and doing right, so that all men are without excuse before God.”

Justin Martyr: “Neither do we maintain that it is by fate that men do what they do, or suffer what they suffer. Rather, we maintain that each man acts rightly or sins by his free choice. Since God in the beginning made the race of angels and men with free will, they will justly suffer in eternal fire the punishment of whatever sins they have committed.”

Melito: “There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner of life, because you are a free man.”

Theophilius: “If, on the other hand, he would turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he would himself be the main cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power of himself.”

Irenaeus: “But 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.”

Clement of Alexandria:To obey or not is in our own power, provided we do not have the excuse of ignorance.”

Clement of Alexandria: “It is by one’s own fault that he does not choose what is best. God is free of blame.”

Tertullian: “As to fortune, it is man’s freedom of will.”

Tertullian: “This will be the power of the grace of God — more potent indeed than nature — exercising its sway over the faculty that underlies itself within us; even the freedom of our will. We define the soul as having sprung from the breath of God. It is immortal and free in its determinations.”

Hippolytus: “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.”

Origen: “In the preaching of the church, there is included the doctrine concerning a just judgment of God. When this teaching is believed to be true, it incites those who hear it to live virtuously and to shun sin by all means. For they clearly acknowledge that things worthy of praise and blame are within our own power.”

Disputation of Archelaus and Manes: “Rational creatures have been entrusted with free will. Because of this, they are capable of converting from bad to good.”

Arnobius: “If your ‘wisdom’ is so great that you consider the things that are offered by Christ to be ridiculous and absurd, why should He keep on inviting you? For His only duty is to make the enjoyment of His gift dependent upon your own free choice.”

Alexander of Alexandria:Natural will is the free faculty of every intelligent nature, as having nothing involuntary pertaining to its essence.”

Hmm. Doesn’t look much like determinism, does it?

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