Loraine Boettner’s Botched Church History

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The Church history of Loraine Boettner (1901-1990), as such intersects with Calvinism, is a world of fantastical claims not at all grounded in reality. From the Grace Online Library, Boettner is quoted as insisting, “It may occasion some surprise to discover that the doctrine of Predestination was not made a matter of special study until near the end of the fourth century.” That is his first error. He continues: “The earlier church fathers placed chief emphasis on good works such as faith [contrarily, the apostle Paul confesses that faith is not a work, Rom. 4:4, 5], repentance, almsgiving, prayers, submission to baptism, etc., as the basis of salvation.” That is his second error. He qualifies: “They of course taught that salvation was through Christ; yet they assumed that man had full power to accept or reject the gospel.” (link) That is his third error within the very first introductory paragraph. With a faulty foundation he can only continue in error.

Here is an oddity among Calvinists regarding Calvinism and Church history: Loraine Boettner suggests that the early Church fathers do not teach Calvinistic unconditional election, or predestination, and that such is recovered by St Augustine in the early fifth century; yet John Gill (1697-1771), in his The Cause of God and Truth — a faulty historical work used in the relatively recent book touting the doctrine of Limited Atonement, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her — Gill presumptuously intuits, at every occasion of the word “predestination” and its cognates within the writings of the early Church fathers, that such believe and teach a Calvinistic understanding of the subject. If that is true, then Arminius himself also teaches a Calvinistic understanding of predestination! If mere mention of the word presupposes a Calvinistic understanding of the term de facto, then Arminius, as well as the Remonstrants, as well as all Arminians are actually Calvinists.

Boettner would have us believe that the early fathers have little to insist upon with regard to the subject of predestination — i.e., the eternal fate of all people — but that is not the case. The apostolic tradition on the subject of predestination, as such is related to free (orfreed) will; as well as to the salvation experience, granted by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ; and that such is not, as Boettner erroneously concludes, due to any “chief emphasis” upon good works, is evident in the briefly quoted material from the early fathers, stemming from the end of the first century to the beginning of the fourth:

  • All of these persons, therefore, were highly honored, and were made great. This was not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves. Nor are we justified by our own wisdom, understanding, godliness, or works that we have done in holiness of heart. Rather, we are justified by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men. — Clement of Rome (96 CE)
  • Therefore, let us not be ungrateful for His kindness. For if He were to reward us according to our works, we would cease to be. — Ignatius (105 CE)
  • Being convinced at that time of our unworthiness of attaining life through our own works, it is now, through the kindness of God, graciously given to us. Accordingly, it is clear that in ourselves we were unable to enter into the kingdom of God. —Letter to Diognetus (125 CE)
  • A man cannot otherwise enter into the kingdom of God than by the name of His beloved Son. — Shepherd of Hermas (150 CE)
  • No man can know God without both the goodwill of the Father and the agency of the Son. — Irenaeus (180 CE)
  • Christ is present with all those who were approved by God from the beginning. He granted them His Word to be present with them. — Irenaeus (180 CE)
  • Christians have learned that their eternal life consists in knowing the only true God, who is over all, and Jesus Christ, whom He has sent. — Origen (248 CE)
  • It is impossible to reach the Father except by His Son Jesus Christ. — Cyprian (250 CE)
  • No hope of gaining immortality is given to man, unless he will believe on Him and will take up that cross that is to be carried and endured. — Lactantius (304 CE)1

The preceding is but an embarrassingly paltry sampling of early-Church consensus of the issues at hand. There is no unanimity among the early fathers prior to St Augustine in the late fourth, early fifth century to the effect that salvation can be merited by good works, or that predestination, as it relates to salvation, is not a chief concern. As a matter of fact, prior to Augustine’s encounter with Pelagius, Augustine himself, in his earlier writings, maintains a belief in free will — a free will graciously enabled by the Spirit of God to the aid of the depraved. Any Church historian worth his salt will acknowledge that, within his writings one will discover an early and a late Augustine, the “late” Augustine being the result of his engagement with the sans gratia teachings of Pelagius.

Jacob Arminius, for example, refers to Augustine, when the occasion is necessary, in defense of his own Reformed theology: “An additional explanation for Arminius’s frequent references to Augustine is that Arminius was convinced that the early Augustine was on his side.”2 (emphasis added) But Calvinists seize the opportunity to underscore the change of mind Augustine encountered in his theological journey — completely neglecting the fact that, had Augustine not been confronted with Pelagius, Augustine would have maintained his views on free will; and Luther, as well as Calvin et al., would not have expounded upon and disseminated the novel theories invented by the “late,” post-Pelagius Augustine of the early fifth century. Does the fact that no one in Church history teaches any semblance of unconditional election, limited atonement, or irresistible grace, prior to Augustine in the early fifth century, bother even one Calvinist from the last five centuries?

The Calvinistic quote, noted by Boettner below, is overtly and abashedly unbiblical — an utterly contrary notion to what the authors of the New Testament collectively teach. “What must I do to be saved?” This eternally-significant question is asked of the apostles Paul and Silas, the answer to which remains, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your whole household.” (Acts 16:31 NRSV, emphasis added) Let us carefully study this passage, especially as we underscore the conclusion of household salvation.

The word believe, πίστευσον, refers to trusting in an object, or a person; or to entrust or to credit toward an object or a person. This, claims Paul, is the condition to one being graciously saved by the regenerative act of God. In other words, faith precedes salvation. Note carefully the tense: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” σωθήσῃ, future passive indicative, you will be in the future saved if you first believe in Jesus. If Boettner and Calvinists are correct, then the apostle Paul is wrong, and what he should have said to the sinner is: “You will be saved if God has unconditionally elected you, and then you will believe on the Lord Jesus, you and your whole household.” But Boettner and Calvinists are not granted license to contort and distort the Word of God in such fashion.

A person is not saved so that he can believe in Christ; but he is saved by the grace of Godbecause he believes in Christ. This is explicitly what the Bible teaches — emphatically and explicitly. (Acts 2:21; 4:12; 11:14; 14:22, 27; 15:9, 11; 16:30, 31; 20:21; 26:18; Rom. 1:5, 16, 17;3:22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 30; 4:5, 9, 11, 12, 16, 22; 5:9, 10; 10:9, 10, 13; 1 Cor. 15:2; Eph. 2:5, 8, 2 Thess. 2:10; 1 Tim. 2:4; Titus 3:5; Heb. 10:39) But the conclusion of the apostle is noteworthy: If the head of the household trusts in Christ as Lord and Savior, then Paul assumes, given the first-century cultural aspect of headship, that the rest of the family will follow the lead of the convert. This indicates that even the slaves of the head of the house will adopt his God and be saved. This is rarely mentioned in evangelical circles and especially Calvinist circles. Why? Because the notion wreaks havoc on the theory of unconditional election. The apostolic tradition regarding salvation remains: a person is not saved to faith, but through faith, as Scripture explicitly teaches. (Eph. 2:5, 8)

Boettner also insists that the early fathers prior to Augustine argue that fallen mortals maintain “full power” of their own free will to accept or reject Christ. Evidently, from Boettner’s view, Augustine corrected this error. The truth of the historical matter is, however, that Augustine changes his views on the nature of free will only having over-reacted to the heresies of Pelagius. Instead of correcting the errors of Pelagius he over-corrects them and invents some of the unbiblical doctrines to which Calvinists today adhere. But the early fathers are far more sound than what the likes of Boettner imagine, not entirely, but far more so than what Calvinists claim. They echo, with St Paul, the truth that one is saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. (Eph. 2:5, 8, 9; Titus 3:5)

Polycarp, in 135 CE, argues: “Into this joy, many persons desire to enter. They know that ‘by grace you are saved, not of works,’ but by the will of God through Jesus Christ. . . . But He who raised Him up from the dead will raise up us also [Rom. 8:11] — if we do His will [Matt. 7:21; 12:50], and walk in His commandments [John 14:15; 15:10], and love what He loved [Eph. 5:10], keeping ourselves from all unrighteousness [Rom. 6:13; 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 John 5:17].”3 I add scriptural references as a means of defending what Polycarp argues. Contrary to the teachings of Calvinists, the inspired authors of Scripture really do insist that, the one who longs to be graciously saved by God, by faith in and union with Jesus Christ, will lead a certain manner of a holy life. Hence to imagine that one is saved because he is convinced that he is one of God’s unconditionally elect is a very dangerous tenet to defend. While no one can be saved by attempts at holiness, or righteousness, no one will be saved merely because he imagines himself as one of God’s elite.

Irenaeus writes: “No one, indeed, while placed out of reach of the Lord’s benefits, has power to procure for himself the means of salvation. So the more we receive His grace, the more we should love Him.”4 Receiving the grace of God, receiving Jesus Christ Himself, is a condition to being the recipient of God’s salvation and graciously regenerative act (John 1:12, 13, 16; 3:3, 5, 8, 15, 16, 17, 36; Rom. 2:5; Titus 3:5). No, this is not Calvinism, this is the New Testament. Moreover, we come to belief in Christ not by our inherent free will. Tertullian, in 198 CE, writes: “We make petition, then, that He supply us with the substance of His will and the capacity to do it — so that we may be saved both in the heavens and on earth. For the sum of His will is the salvation of those whom He has adopted.”5

I can quote ad nauseum from the fathers to this effect with few exceptions (Clement of Alexandria comes to mind, who is not Arminian, but Semi-Pelagian). Here is the fact of history with regard to Calvinism, unconditional election, limited atonement and irresistible grace: The early fathers prior to Augustine do not receive from the first-century apostles, such as Paul, Silas or John, any conception of unconditional election, limited atonement, or irresistible grace. What this informs us is that the undeniable fact that neither Paul, Silas, nor any other New Testament author (since God’s Spirit will not inspire contradictions) teaches doctrines of unconditional election, limited atonement or irresistible grace, else they would maintain their traditions. These false teachings derive from Augustine, who over-reacts to Pelagius, and over-corrects his errors. Luther, Calvin, and many others read from Augustine and assume his teachings to be orthodox.

Arminius, however, challenges Augustine, refusing to allow any single, fallen man to dictate what should be believed by all: “Arminius’s reception of Augustine included on the one hand positive references to ‘what was said by Augustine in a beautiful way,’ and on the other hand more aggressive formulations, such as ‘Where is your acumen, Augustine’ and ‘We do not rely upon his authority.'”6 Arminius’ teachings are “nearly the universal view of the early church fathers [excepting early semi-Pelagianism] and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy [i.e., the Eastern tradition].”7 Arminius favors the pre-Augustinian fathers, his theology being a recovery of early-Church teachings, and his attempt being the reforming of the Reformed community to ad fontes — back to the sources from which Calvinists, due to a reliance upon the Augustinian tradition, regretfully drifts.


1 A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003), 574-75. Concerning election, or predestination in particular, we view the following: “Day and night, you were anxious for the whole brotherhood, so that the number of God’s elect might be saved.” — Clement of Rome (96 CE) “For those who are elected by God to eternal life will be spotless and pure.” — Shepherd of Hermas (130 CE) “When the number is completed that He had predetermined in His own counsel, all those who have been enrolled for life will rise again.” — Irenaeus (180 CE) “[When] the predestined number of men will be fulfilled, men will afterwards abstain from the generation of children.” — Methodius (290 CE) (293-94) The language the ancients use, however, is contextualized in the Person and Atoning Work of Jesus Christ, the Elect One of God, in the foreknowledge of God; all who are in Christ, from the eternal mind of God, are counted the elect of God. One is known for one’s elect status by his relation to Jesus Christ. Moreover, the ancients were advocates of corporate election, not unconditional election: see “The Early Church on Corporate and Not Unconditional Election.”

2 Aza Goudriaan, “‘Augustine Asleep’ or ‘Augustine Awake’? Jacob Arminius’s Reception of Augustine,” in Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe: Jacobus Arminius (1559/60-1609), eds. Th. Marius van Leeuwen, Keith D. Stanglin and Marijke Tolsma (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 56.

3 A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 575-76.

4 Ibid., 576.

5 Ibid., 577.

6 Goudriaan, 52.

7 Kenneth D. Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.