Church History vs. Calvinism (Part One)

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To say that any semblance of a Calvinistic framework is entirely absent from the teachings of the early Church fathers, as will become evident shortly, is an understatement. Ironically enough, however, John Calvin was not the originator of a predestinarian construction, strictly speaking. The founder of this doctrine was none other than St. Augustine (AD 354-430).

According to Vance, “The influence of Augustine upon history in general and Christianity in particular is incalculable — but not surprising — since, like Calvin, he was an extensively prolific writer. . . . When a modern Calvinist endeavors to substantiate Calvinism by an appeal to men, the first name mentioned is always that of Augustine.”1

Before we examine particular beliefs to which he held, let us first read what were the consensus of beliefs touching election or predestination and free will by some of the early Church fathers. All quotes come from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 285-296:

      Justin Martyr (AD 160) would have been considered a heretic by some Calvinists for his statement, that, “Lest some suppose, from what has been said by us, that we say that whatever occurs happens by a fatal necessity, because it is foretold as known beforehand, this too we explain.

“We have learned from the prophets, and we hold it to be true, that punishments, chastisements, and good rewards, are rendered according to the merit of each man’s actions. Now, if this is not so, but all things happen by fate, then neither is anything at all in our own power.

“For if it is predetermined that this man will be good, and this other man will be evil, neither is the first one meritorious nor the latter man to be blamed. And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding the evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions” (p. 285).

Again,in the same vein, Melito (AD 170) wrote, “There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner of life, because you are a free man” (p. 286).

Theophilus (AD 180), in the same manner wrote, “If, on the other hand, he would turn to the things of death, disobeying God, he would himself be the cause of death to himself. For God made man free, and with power of himself” (p. 286).

In like manner, Tertullian (AD 210) wrote, “As to fortune, it is man’s freedom of the will” (p. 288).

Do you notice any semblance of a Calvinistic systematic thought in any one of these statements thus far? It is safe to say that it would be terribly inconsistent for any one of these men to claim Calvinism for their theology while also making these statements.

      Holding to a foreknowledge view of election or predestination, Irenaeus wrote, “God knows the number of those who will not believe (since He foreknows all things). He has given them over to unbelief and turned away His face from men of this mold” (p. 284).

Clement of Alexandria (AD 195) conveys the same message, writing, “Not only the believer, but even the unbeliever, is judged most righteously. For since God knew in virtue of His foreknowledge that this person would not believe, He nevertheless, in order that he might receive his own perfection, gave him philosophy. However, He gave it to him previous to faith” (p. 284, emphasis added).

Tertullian (AD 207) noted that it is “not the mark of a good God to condemn beforehand persons who have not yet deserved condemnation” (p. 285).

Hyppolytus (AD 225) wrote, “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” (p. 288).

Origen (AD 225) wrote, “A soul is always in possession of free will — both when it is in the body and when it is outside of it” (p. 291).

For early Church fathers such as Clement of Rome, Hermas, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Methodius, the elect were merely the people of God (p. 293-294). To say that a person was elect was nothing more than an identification. Thus the elect are Christians; and thus no one is elect beforehand, by a mere decree, since no one is a Christian prior to faith in Christ Jesus.

These early Church fathers were equally synergistic in their soteriology as well:

      Ignatius (AD 105) stated, “When you are desirous to do well, God is also ready to assist you” (p. 294).

Hermas (AD 150) noted, “To those whose heart He saw would become pure and obedient to Him, He gave power to repent with the whole heart. But to those whose deceit and wickedness He perceived, and seeing that they intended to repent hypocritically, He did not grant repentance” (p. 294).

Again, Clement of Alexandria (AD 195) writes, “A man by himself working and toiling at freedom from passion achieves nothing. But if he plainly shows himself very desirous and earnest about this, he attains it by the addition of the power of God. For God conspires with willing souls.

“But if they abandon their eagerness, the Spirit who is bestowed by God is also restrained. For to save the unwilling is the part of one exercising compulsion. But to save the willing is that of one showing grace” (p. 295).

It appears thus far that the early Church fathers favored an Arminian view of libertarian free will, election and predestination, not to mention God’s interaction with His creatures. That would make Calvinism a relatively new doctrine in the Church and open to suspicion, since new doctrines are typically, always under suspicion. If Calvinism is so painfully obvious, then why did not the early Church fathers see it written in the pages of Holy Writ?

Though Augustine founded the doctrine of unconditional predestination unto salvation, Calvin would articulate and systematize Augustine’s views and impose his philosophical implications of those views into a seemingly air-tight theological construct, which includes Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints (upheld as the sole orthodox version of soteriology by Calvinists at the Synod of Dort, and from which came TULIP theology).

To be continued . . .

1 Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism (Pensacola: Vance Publications, 1999), 39.