Accepting/Rejecting Calvinism (Pt. 13: Calvinism, Church History, and Prevenient Grace)

, posted by jordanjapo

This is from a series of posts which was copied with permission from Jordan Apodaca’s blog, “Thoughts & Anti-Thoughts,” which can be accessed here:

This particular post, which allows comments, can be accessed here:

The Final Frontier

Flashback to about a year and a half ago: I was convinced that Calvinism couldn’t answer the problem of evil; I was convinced that Arminian interpretations of Romans 9 and other key passages were stronger than Calvinist interpretations; I was convinced that a Molinistic account of omniscience and providence were capable of accounting for the biblical texts pertaining to God’s sovereignty in salvation. However, I had this nagging question: “If a Molinistic-Arminian interpretation of Scripture is accurate, why does it seem so novel, so unique?” I had heard multiple times from my college that Calvinism is nothing other than the historic Christian faith.

Even though I had heard (and read myself) that the early church fathers rejected any sort of determinism and attributed all evil and the fall to man’s free will, I was also told that when the issue came to a head with the Pelagius vs. Augustine debates, the church squarely sided with Augustine, and the church sided with Augustine consistently until the Catholic church became corrupt, sometime during the medieval period, and it was this semi-Pelagianism which the Reformers were rebelling against. Thus, when the Reformers fought for a Calvinistic soteriology, they were not inventing anything new, they were simply teaching what the church had historically held to.

And this was bothering me. I am a card-carrying Protestant, which means that I will follow what I believe the Bible is saying even if it contradicts some church authority. And yet I didn’t want to totally discredit church history either. In my opinion, if the church has spoken unanimously on an issue, then the burden of proof is placed squarely on the one challenging the tradition to show that the received teaching is not as faithful. And I genuinely thought I could do that; I thought the case against a Calvinistic soteriology was strong enough to carry that burden of proof.

I for one never accepted the view that the early church fathers ought to be accepted no matter what. Some Arminians are, and I suspect they take that position partly because it helps them justify their claims. I’m personally more of the opinion that the key lessons to learn from church history are to be learned from the councils, in which the church gathered and often came to near-unanimous conclusions on important issues.

Therefore I looked into the debate between Pelagius and Augustine, and I particularly focused on the Council of Orange (the resulting council from their debate). And what I found was surprisingly close to what I believed!

Council of Orange

Note: History is not my strong suit. But so far as I know, what follows is an accurate depiction of the Council of Orange.

First, just to clarify the debate for those who don’t know. Pelagius held that the greatest gift which God had given to man was his free will. He said it was possible for mankind to live a righteous life entirely of his own will; he said there were likely other men besides Jesus who had lived sinless lives; he said that God’s grace isn’t needed to repent — we just need to do it! Thus, Pelagianism is the thesis that mankind is able to come to God and live righteously by their own free will, unaided by any sort of grace, because he is born in a state of innocence and free from sin.

Augustine’s thought is a little more complicated to nail down, partly because his views changed over time. Whereas earlier in his life he spoke like the other early church fathers, he would go on to develop doctrines very similar to modern-day Calvinism. In essence, he would come to argue that man is so ruined by sin that God must work such a mighty work of grace in his life so as to overcome man’s total resistance to God’s will. Salvation is entirely contingent on God’s will; man’s will has nothing to do with it.

To make a long story short: these two duked it out, and Pelagianism was condemned at multiple councils, culminating in the Council of Orange around a hundred years later. More specifically, after Pelagianism had been squarely condemned, the question arose whether or not a Semi-Pelagian position could be endorsed. Semi-Pelagianism would hold that even though man possesses a sinful nature, there is enough goodness for man to lay hold of God’s offer of grace unaided by divine grace. It is this position which the Council of Orange sought to examine. And in the end, they condemned it.

But the point often overlooked by Calvinists is that although Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism were fully condemned, Augustinianism was not fully endorsed. Rather, a semi-Augustinian position seems to be what’s put forward in the Canons of the Council of Orange. They agree with Augustine that man is dead in his sins, and cannot come to God of his own will. However, they do not assert that God’s grace to sinners is irresistible or that man’s will has no part in his salvation, as Augustine and later Calvinists would argue. In my best analysis, I would say that the Canons are compatible with both Calvinism and Arminianism, though in my opinion it leans more toward an Arminian interpretation than a Calvinistic one.

You can read the Canons in their entirety here, though I will list some evidence for my claims below.

Outline of the Canons

There are 25 Canons (which are all short paragraphs) as well as a conclusion. They can be grouped accordingly:

  • Canons 1-2 affirm original sin. “If anyone denies that it is the whole man, that is, both body and soul, that was ‘changed for the worse’ through the offense of Adam’s sin, but believes that the freedom of the soul remains unimpaired and that only the body is subject to corruption, he is deceived by the error of Pelagius and contradicts the scripture which says…”
  • Canons 3-8 deny that man can draw near to God for salvation apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. “If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, ‘What have you that you did not receive?’ (1 Cor. 4:7), and, ‘But by the grace of God I am what I am’ (1 Cor. 15:10).”
  • Canons 9-20 all assert, in various ways, that man, being ruined by sin, is unable to do good apart from God’s grace, and thus God must first work in man before he can come to God. “Grace is not preceded by merit,” “No mean wretch is freed from his sorrowful state, however great it may be, save the one who is anticipated by the mercy of God,” “as often as we do good, God is at work in us and with us, in order that we may do so.”
  • Canons 21-25 examine the relation between God’s grace and man’s will. “Concerning the will of God and of man: men do their own will and not the will of God when they do what displeases him; but when they follow their own will and comply with the will of God, however willingly they do so, yet it is his will by which what they will is both prepared and instructed”; “Concerning the love with which we love God. It is wholly a gift of God to love God. He who loves, even though he is not loved, allowed himself to be loved. We are loved, even when we displease him, so that we might have means to please him. For the Spirit, whom we love with the Father and the Son, has poured into our hearts the love of the Father and the Son (Rom. 5:5).”
  • The Conclusion states: “The sin of the first man has so impaired and weakened free will that no one thereafter can either love God as he ought or believe in God or do good for God’s sake, unless the grace of divine mercy has preceded him.” “We also believe that after grace has been received … [such] persons have the ability and responsibility, if they desire to labor faithfully, to perform with the aid and cooperation of Christ what is of essential importance in regard to the salvation of their soul… We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may… do what is pleasing to him.”
  • It then issues an anathema, that is, a proclamation of something which is heresy to believe: “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.”

Putting this together, we see four strands:

1. Sin has left man in a ruin, unable to seek God, unable to reach out to God to beg for forgiveness. (This is abundantly clear from the above.)

2. God must, therefore, act first in order for man to receive salvation. (Again, this should be clear.)

3. However, this “first act of God” is not described as being an irresistible work that is identical to man’s being saved; it is described in terms of “preceding” man’s faith (see the Conclusion bullet point above). In fact, the conclusion also argues that man must seek to labor “with the aid and cooperation of Christ” in order to receive salvation. In essence, what we have here is the doctrine often called prevenient grace, which simply states that God must work first in the heart of sinners before they can seek God. Again, though, this grace is not “automatic.” That is, it does not follow from the fact that God bestows prevenient grace that the person is automatically sin. They must make use of that grace to trust in Christ. God provides the initial spark of light by which men can properly see and understand the truths of the Gospel, but man must lay hold of that grace and trust in Christ for salvation at that point. I think this is wonderfully conveyed in Charles Wesley’s hymn “And Can it Be.”

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

First, we see that we are dead in sin. “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night.” We are by nature and by our sin imprisoned.
Second, God shines a light into our dungeon, causing our chains to fall and our hearts to be free.
Third, he rises, goes forth, and follows God.

Calvinists assume that step two guarantees step three. Wesley didn’t; he was not a Calvinist by any means. He would have argued that God’s shining of his light into our dungeons is prevenient grace, and that our rising to follow him is of our freed will. (Emphasis on freed.)

4. Lastly, the Council adamantly denies what Calvinists like John Piper explicitly affirm: “We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.” This is clearly saying that if anybody sins or goes to hell, it is not because God ordained them to it! It is because they chose to it for themselves. Why then do people sin? Because they resist God’s prevenient grace. So it is Calvinists, who believe God predestines sinners to hell for his glory, who are being rebuked in this canon. And indeed, this is not the only time that this vile doctrine has been condemned. Gottschalk was a later thinker (about 300 years after the Council of Orange) who was vigorously condemned by the church for trying to argue that God predestines sinners to hell.

I thus conclude that church history does not give any support to the popular slogan (and it is nothing more than a slogan) that Calvinism is simply the historic understanding of the Gospel. It is a hyper-Augustinian view of the Gospel. But the church has never embraced a hyper-Augustinian view; it has embraced a semi-Augustinian view. And a semi-Augustinian view is compatible with Arminianism, but not Calvinism.

A Few Objections Answered

1. First, one may object that I am using church history as an argument at all. Remember, this is a response to the Calvinist claim. If a Calvinist chooses to argue “Okay, you’ve convinced me that Calvinism is not the historic Christian understanding of the Gospel, but I still will argue for it on Biblical grounds,” then I say go ahead! I agree that our final authority is Scripture. However, I do think that church history does give a slight advantage to Arminians in case of tie breakers.

2. Second, some who know the Canons from the Council of Orange may object that I omitted various key phrases pertaining to the relation between salvation and baptism. For example, it states: “We also believe and confess to our benefit that in every good work it is not we who take the initiative and are then assisted through the mercy of God, but God himself first inspires in us both faith in him and love for him without any previous good works of our own that deserve reward, so that we may both faithfully seek the sacrament of baptism, and after baptism be able by his help to do what is pleasing to him.” This reflects what I think was an error in the early church, namely a tendency to conflate salvation with baptism, and to view baptism as having the effect of removing original sin. This is something which most Calvinists and most Arminians already agree, however, so I felt no need to directly address it as it came up.

Conclusion: Hyper-Augustinianism and Reformation(s), A Theory of Church History

Instead of seeing Calvinism as the historic Christian faith, I notice something totally different. It seems to me that whenever the Christian majority begins to slip toward Pelagianism in a severe way, it is common for Christians to swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and embrace Calvinism.

It happened with Augustine: it seems as if his debates with Pelagius led him to an extreme view on the relation between God’s grace and man’s will. Similarly, during the Reformation, I think it is plausible that Calvin and Luther so elevated God’s grace and so lowered man’s will as a direct response to the strange teachings of the Catholic Church. And again today, many churches in America are filled with a Pelagian Gospel, which often seem to imply one can turn to God, of his own will, whenever he so pleases, apart from the grace of God. And again, many today have responded to this by over-reacting.

But we also see throughout history that soon enough, the church finds its balance. After Augustine, we have the Council of Orange. After Luther, we have Philip Melancthon. After Calvin, we have Arminius. And after today’s Calvinists, I think we will have a resurgence of Semi-Augustinian/Arminian theologians and pastors.

I truly thank the Calvinists. They have raised the bar of intellectual thought; many Christians, like myself, cared nothing for theology until passionate Calvinists got a hold of them. They have raised the bar for seeing God’s preemptive role in salvation; before hearing Calvinists preach, I had no idea that it was the Spirit who gave sight while I was still blind in my sin! In short, they have awoken many Christians from their slumber, and I attribute the resurgence of Calvinism to the sovereign hand of God!

But I do not see it as the end of God’s modern-Reformation, if you will. I think God intends to purify it to a healthier balance, a balance which I am happy to call Arminianism.