This document looks through some common quotes from the Church fathers that some Calvinists have used to attempt to argue that an embryonic Calvinism existed in their thoughts. Unsurprisingly enough, a little context seems to disrupt this attempt easily.
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Calvinists realize that the lack of historical precedence for the tenets of Calvinism (especially among the writings of the primitive Ante-Nicene church– before 325 AD) is a real blow to the legitimacy of their theological system. In recent years, however, a few staunch Calvinists have posted on blogs and other internet networking sites the conclusions from 19th century Christian scholar John Gill’s work: The Cause of God and Truth (Michael Horton has also repeated the findings in, Putting Amazing Back into Grace). In these works, the authors have claimed to find embryonic thinking, from the early church fathers, showing the early stages of Calvinistic thought. After producing a recent YouTube video concerning the possibility of apostasy and the purpose of the warning passages in Scripture, a gentleman flooded my comments with a slew of quotes from the early church indicating that they held to the inevitable and unconditional perseverance of all believers.
While there are many more quotes I could address (Calvinists have seemed to find a few for all the TULIP points), interacting with this small sample of quotes will be more than enough to demonstrate the lengths that Calvinists go to find any semblance of Calvinistic thought among the early church. At this point, I’ll let the reader decide if the following sources promote even a trace of Calvinism.
1) Faith, I say, is something divine, which cannot be pulled asunder by any other worldly friendship, nor be dissolved by present fear.
–Clement of Alexandria, Stromata Book 2
From this short statement, Calvinists would have us believe that Clement is suggesting that faith is given irresistibly to the believer and, once given, can never be rejected or rescinded (Perseverance of the Saints). But, is this at all what Clement is referring to? Here’s a broader context wherein the statement is contained.
“For, if it were a mere human habit, as the Greeks supposed, it would have been extinguished. But if it grow, and there be no place where it is not; then I affirm, that faith, whether founded in love, or in fear, as its disparagers assert, is something divine; which is neither rent asunder by other mundane friendship, nor dissolved by the presence of fear. For love, on account of its friendly alliance with faith, makes men believers; and faith, which is the foundation of love, in its turn introduces the doing of good; since also fear, the paedagogue of the law, is believed to be fear by those, by whom it is believed. For, if its existence is shown in its working, it is yet believed when about to do and threatening, and when not working and present; and being believed to exist, it does not itself generate faith, but is by faith tested and proved trustworthy. Such a change, then, from unbelief to faith — and to trust in hope and fear, is divine. And, in truth, faith is discovered, by us, to be the first movement towards salvation; after which fear, and hope, and repentance, advancing in company with temperance and patience, lead us to love and knowledge. Rightly, therefore, the Apostle Barnabas says, “From the portion I have received I have done my diligence to send by little and little to you; that along with your faith you may also have perfect knowledge.”
Clement rightly observes that when faith endures over time it shows that its origin is divine. No Arminian would argue with this point. We completely agree that a divine work is necessary for one to even exercise faith in the first place. God initiates salvation through the proclamation of His holy word (in conjunction with the power of the Holy Spirit), and our individual response to the message determines whether God’s divine and gracious act grows and flourishes in our life. Once faith has shown to be mature, Clement explains, neither the “mundane friendships” of this world nor our weaker moments of fear make void the divine work that God has begun in us. I do wonder how the Calvinist can reconcile Clement’s later statement, “And, in truth, faith is discovered, by us, to be the first movement towards salvation…,” for in their theology the idea of faith being discovered by the believer as a first “movement toward salvation” is rather impossible. Quite simply, the imparting of faith in Calvinism fully regenerates the recipient, with no other movements toward God necessary, and it is certainly nothing the human creature is able to discover on their own.
2) Such a soul [of a Christian] shall never at any time be separated from God
–Clement of Alexandria, Stromata Book 6
From this statement, we are led to believe that Clement taught the inevitable perseverance of all Christans (that apostasy is impossible). A fuller context is germane at this point.
“But such a good conscience preserves sanctity towards God and justice towards men; keeping the soul pure with grave thoughts, and pure. words, and just deeds. By thus receiving the Lord’s power, the soul studies to be God; regarding nothing bad but ignorance, and action contrary to fight reason. And giving thanks always for all things to God, by righteous heating and divine reading, by true investigation, by holy oblation, by blessed prayer; lauding, hymning, blessing, praising, such a soul is never at any time separated from God. Rightly then is it said, “And they who trust in Him shall underStand the truth, and those faithful in love shall abide by Him.” You see what statements Wisdom makes about the Gnostics.”
Far from teaching unconditional perserverance, in the very context of Clement’s statement he gives certain qualifications that, if followed, guard against any present or future separation from God. Namely, those who trust in Him and are faithful in love toward Him (which naturally leads to other Christian fruit such as praising and prayer), need not ever fear any separation from their blessed Savior.
3) God forbid that we should believe that the soul of any saint should be drawn out by the devil
–Tertullian, de Anima, c. 57
Supposedly, Tertullian is teaching that God unconditionally causes His elect to persevere. The context, on the other hand, reveals an entirely different story.
What novelty is there in the effort of an unclean spirit to counterfeit the truth? At this very time, even, the heretical dupes of this same Simon (Magus) are so much elated by the extravagant pretensions of their art, that they undertake to bring up from Hades the souls of the prophets themselves. And I suppose that they can do so under cover of a lying wonder. For, indeed, it was no less than this that was anciently permitted to the Pythonic (or ventriloquistic) spirit—even to represent the soul of Samuel, when Saul consulted the dead, after (losing the living) God. God forbid, however, that we should suppose that the soul of any saint, much less of a prophet, can be dragged out of (its resting-place in Hades) by a demon.
To elaborate as to why Terullian was not teaching anything related to unconditional perseverance of the saints–while living on earth– seems superfluous (and, given how clear it is, would probably be quite embarassing to the Calvinist). Just remember saint– if you lose a loved one, no type of invocation or consultation with them in their otherworldly resting place will be sufficient enough to drag their soul out of Hades. In fact, a demon couldn’t even do it (just in case you were wondering!).
4) For what is of God is never extinguished
–Tertullian, de Anima, c. 4,1
This is essentially a paraphrase from Gill’s book. Tertullian is said to be teaching that the work of God (i.e., salvation) is solely unilateral action, and thus it is impossible for one to fall away from what God unilaterally started. While the exact quote is difficult to find in Tertullian, the following thoughts assuredly provide a basis for Tertullian’s beliefs.
“Hitherto I have confirmed, not solved, the difficulty. I have proved that the soul can be slain. The Gospel cannot he gainsaid but by the ungodly soul. Lo, something occurs to me here, and comes into my mind to speak. Life cannot be gainsaid, but by a dead soul. The Gospel is life, impiety and infidelity are the death of the soul. See then, it can die, and yet it is immortal. How then is it immortal? Because there is always a sort of life which is never extinguished in it. And how does it die? Not in ceasing to be life, but by losing its life. For the soul is both life to something else, and it has its own proper life. Consider the order of the creatures. The soul is the life of the body: God is the life of the soul. As the life, that is the soul, is present with the body, that the body die not; so ought the life of the soul, that is God, to be with it that the soul die not. How does the body die? By the soul’s leaving it. I say, by the soul’s leaving it the body dies…”
In a verbose way, Tertullian speaks of the soul, and that while ungodliness can lead to the death of the soul, there is another aspect in which the soul is immortal, especially for those who have the life of the Gospel. Tertullian concludes that the soul always has a sort of life that is never extinguished (even though it can lose it’s life through ungodliness and the death of the body). What’s clear is that Tertullian is drawing conclusions regarding his beliefs about the soul, not whether an individual could ever once embrace the gospel and then later depart from it. An extreme imagination is required to fit such a short quote into a systematic doctrinal belief like Perseverance of the Saints.
5) It is the will of God that all whom He loves should partake of repentance, and so not perish with the unbelieving and impenitent. He has established it by His almighty will. But if any of those whom God wills should partake of the grace of repentance, should afterwards perish, where is His almighty will? And how is this matter settled and established by such a will of His?
–Clement of Rome, First Epistle to the Corinthians
It would be nice to interact with this quote and determine the real intent behind Clement’s thoughts, but I am not able to do so. Why is this? Well, because the quote is not actually contained in Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. Where is it then? I haven’t the foggiest idea where it originated from, but it is most certainly not a quote from the author it suggests. Needless to say, it’s hard to interact with a quote that cannot be attributed to any known author, and whether the full thrust of it is a complete fabrication is a definite possibility.
The following is an inside perspective of what Clement actually believed (there are some similiarities in terminology to the quote above, but since its import is inhospitable to Calvinist teaching, I highly doubt the Calvinist would propose that the source of the “unknown” quote is from this exerpt).
“… Let us attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of Him who formed us. Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world. Let us turn to every age that has passed, and learn that, from generation to generation, the Lord has granted a place of repentance to all who would be converted to Him. Noah preached repentance, and as many as listened to him were saved. Jonah proclaimed destruction to the Ninevites; but they, repenting of their sins, propitiated God by prayer, and obtained salvation, although they were aliens [to the covenant] of God…
The ministers of the grace of God have, by the Holy Spirit, spoken of repentance; and the Lord of all things has himself declared with an oath regarding it, “As I live, says the Lord, I desire not the death of the sinner, but rather his repentance;” adding, moreover, this gracious declaration: “Repent O house of Israel, of your iniquity. Say to the children of My people, Though your sins reach from earth to heaven, and though they be redder than scarlet, and blacker than sackcloth, if you turn to Me with your whole heart, and say, Father! I will listen to you, as to a holy people.” And in another place He says: “Wash, and become clean; put away the wickedness of your souls from before my eyes; cease from your evil ways, and learn to do well; seek out judgment, deliver the oppressed, judge the fatherless, and see that justice is done to the widow; and come, and let us reason together. He declares, “Though your sins be like crimson, I will make them white as snow; though they be like scarlet, I will whiten them like wool. And if you are willing and obey Me, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse, and will not listen to Me, the sword shall devour you, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken these things.” Desiring, therefore, that all His beloved should be partakers of repentance, He has, by His almighty will, established [these declarations].” (Chapters 7-8)
Ignorance is no longer an excuse. It is the duty of every Calvinist who alludes to the early church to do so with full knowledge of the context of the quotes in which they provide. It is not enough to simply piecemeal quotes from various authors without a meaningful attempt at understanding the author’s train of thought. Until they can prove, from context, that an early church writer shared a similar Calvinist conviction, they should refrain from appealing any of these writers.