Jesse Morrel has recently released a video where he argues that Calvinism is rooted in ancient gnostic theology. While many of you know that I am against Calvinism, I don’t completely agree with Morrel’s assessment of the history and I want to go through it and explain why. First of all, here is the video:
So, as an Arminian, what do I think of this presentation?
Where Morrell Gets It Right
First of all I have to laud Morrell with his appeal to the Early Church. He is also absolutely correct that the Ante-Nicene fathers, or even the early Nicene fathers had no trace of determinism within their theology. Morrell takes great pains to make this point, and I completely agree with him up through mark 15:45.
The appeal to the early church fathers is more than a simple appeal to tradition. Many of these men personally knew the apostles, or personally knew men who personally new the apostles. Therefore, they are more likely to know what the apostles thoughts on certain matters and what the apostles meant when they wrote the NT, than later theologians. It is this proximity to the Biblical authors that give them such authority, and this authority is warranted.
He is also completely right that this is quite embarrassing for Calvinists. The only places where the early church really addresses the topic of free will and determinism, before Augustine, was in their anti-gnostic writings. It is also very clear that they held to libertarian free will (LFW). Now, they did not fully build up a free will theology, discussing the extent or nature of corruption, since their writings were mostly polemical, but they clearly took a side. This is an embarrassment to Calvinists, as well it should be.
Secondly, I also have to laud his appeal to Scripture (mark 27:42). His point that the Bible clearly expects people to be able to choose between walking the right path and straying from the path is perfect. I think more Biblical points could be made in rejection of Calvinism (and in my case the proof of Arminianism), however not if you want to focus on free will in particular, which Arminianism doesn’t really do. His introduction to Scripture though shows that he is not merely considered with defending the existance of free will, but rejecting the notion that human being lost their capacity to do good on their own. It is actually questionable whether Augustine completely abandonned the notion of free will, and while the Scriptures that Morrell appeals to in order to demonstrate that we are free moral agents are spot on, his introduction to them ignores the nuances of both Augustine’s thought as well as others who believe in an inherited sin nature.
Being Chummy With Pelagius
So, I’m watching the video and just enjoying quote after quote of the early church fathers supporting free will, and then we get to mark 15:45, where he suddenly quotes Pelagius between Ireneaus and Origen. I almost choked on my popcorn. I said to myself, “Did he just quote Pelagius as if he were recognized as a representative of the early church?”, to which myself responded, “Yup!” I was aghast.
Then he took a step back. At 19:02, after a quote from the unfortunately named Dr. Wiggers, he explains that believing in free will is not the same thing as being a Pelagian (which he seems to say in rejection of Dr. Wiggers’s comment). So when he distances himself from Pelagius here, I say, “Hoorah!”, but it seems to be somewhat half-hearted.
Throughout the rest of the video, it is quite clear that Morrell’s intention is to exonerate Pelagius, which he mostly does by discrediting Augustine. Indeed, the little story he tells in the beginning about a condemned man later exonerated seems to demonstrate this. He even continues to quote Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum (a follower of Pelagius) as reputable sources. So why distance himself on the one hand, yet embrace him with the other?
I would suspect that it is because Morrell identifies himself as Semipelagian. I would argue that this is confirmed by his dissing of Arminianism at the end of the video. Though he may not like the title (maybe calling himself a biblicist or some other meaningless term), it is clear that he sees Pelagius at least as someone “on the right track”. However, is he right? Is his historical analysis complete?
I would say that there are two major historical facts which are conspicuously missing from Morrell’s presentation: The Council of Orange and Augustine’s Platonism.
The Synod of Orange
So, from mark 34:12 to mark 35:15, Morrell argues that the doctrines of Augustine were accepted by those with ecclesiastical power, and anyone who believed in free will was persecuted, like in the times of the Spanish Inquisition. Thus, Augustinianism spread throughout the church. Indeed, a most unexpected argument, but was this really the case?
Answer, no. In 431 AD (that’s right! AD, not CE!), an ecumenical council was held at Ephesus. The council did proclaim Pelagius a heretic, and anathematized his teachings. However, it also distanced itself from Augustine himself. One of the problems with the appeal to the Augustine/Pelagius debate that generally happens is that it oftens results in a false dichotomy, that the church had to accept either Augustine or Pelagius. However, the truth is that it did neither. Certainly Augustine was favored, but the council renounced the extremes that it felt Augustine could lead to, such as double predestination or antinominalism. It also did not declare Augustine to be correct. It just didn’t condemn him like it did Pelagius. This is an incredibly important distinction which is often ignored.
According to The Story of Christianity by Justo L. Gonzalez,
Augustine’s views, however, did not gain wide acceptance. He was accused of being an innovator… Through a process that took almost a century, Augustine was reinterpreted, so that theologians came to call themselves “Augustinian” while rejecting his views on irresistible grace and predestination. In 529, the Synod of Orange upheld Augustine’s doctrine of the primacy of grace in the process of salvation, but left aside the more radical consequences of that doctrine (Vol 1, [Peabody, MA: Prince Press, 2004] p. 215).
These new “Augustinians” are sometimes referred to as Semiaugustinians. Likewise, in the midst of this 100 year process, there was also a group which arose defending a modified view of Pelagius, who came to be called Semipelagians (who were also condemned at the Synod of Orange).
So this claim that Augustinianism became this overpowering force is simply not true. It is possible that there was some Spanish Inquisitioning going on after Ephesus, however I suspect that this manifested as pockets of suppression rather than something widespread throughout the church. If everyone who believed in free will was defrocked, then how come Semiaugustinianism, a free will position, eventually won out?
And what of Semiaugustinianism? What became of that teaching? Well, after the reformation it began to be propagated by Philip Melchathon in Lutheran circles, and James Arminius in Reformed circles. So it is the Arminians who really can claim the victory when referring back to the Augustinian/Pelagian debate, not Calvinists.
Now what exactly did Pelagius teach? It is important to remember that Pelagius was not condemned because he believed in free will. It is also important to note that he did not theorize free will for theodical reasons (like Arminians and Semiaugustinians). Instead, his reasons were ethical.
Pelagius believed in what is often referred to today as legalism: the belief that one must live righteously in order to receive eternal life. He rejected the idea that a person who lived a mostly sinful life could graciously be forgiven of all those crimes. This was considered unjust, and the acceptance of this would lead to licentiousness. Indeed, he lived an extremely ascetic and recluse lifestyle, and insisted that others should do likewise. Instead of teaching freedom, he taught subjugation.
Alistar McGrath summarizes:
[According to Pelagius] God has made humanity, and knows precisely what it is capable of doing. Hence all the commands given to us are capable of being obeyed, and are meant to be obeyed. It is no excuse to argue that human frailty prevents these commands from being fulfilled. God has made human nature, and only demands of it what it can endure. Pelagius thus makes the uncompromising assertion that since perfection is possible for humanity, it is obligatory. [Historical Theology, (Oxford, UK: Blackwell publishing, 1998)pp 81]
It was this harshness that Augustine was most earnest in defeating, and rightfully so. Salvation is of faith, and this is a gift! Pelagius missed this, and was so busy beating the air that he neglected the joy that the Lord promised. Whether Pelagius believed in full blown Pelagianism or actually in Semipelagianism (it is hard to tell due to the fragmented nature of what we have of his writings) is irrelevant. Both deny the necessity of inital grace (Pelagianism denied the need for grace at all). Both demand the living of a pure life. Both insist on a bleak and unctuous existence. Both were rightly considered as heresy.
The other major problem with the video is the supposed obviousness of Manicheanism being the origin of Augustine’s views. He says this most explicitly starting at mark 32, but it is his principal argument throughout the video. However, is it true?
Well, maybe. It being obvious certainly isn’t. This is actually a highly disputed point. It is widely recognized that these doctrines started with Augustine. To the historically knowledgeable, this is indisputable. However, there are two possible origins: his history with the Manicheans or his continued Platonism (or maybe the Bible, but I personally strongly doubt this one). I therefore don’t really have a problem with the fact that he argues for one of these two opinions, but he does so without recognition that not everyone agrees with him, and then treats it as if it is obvious. Well, of course it’s obvious if you only mention the evidence that supports your opinion.
Now, I happen to be of the opposite opinion. I believe that Augustine’s thoughts come more from Plato. It is important to note that there is no peculiar doctrine of the Manicheans that Augustine teaches. Determinism and even criticism of the human condition were common in the ancient world and were something that gnostics had in common with Plato. In fact the list of Manichean doctrines that Augustine continues to reject is significant: dual deterministic deities, the inherent evil of the cosmos, events determined by causal outflow of spiritual events (as opposed to Augustine’s view of God’s intentional planning), the incorporeal resurrection of Jesus, and the list goes on and on. Morrell even admits to this (mark 35:16), but despite the fact that the differences outweigh the similarities, he chooses to emphasize the latter. Calling Augustine “Semi-Gnostic” is like calling a lime a “semi-cucumber” because they are both green and have seeds. However his use of the prefix ‘semi-‘ is consistent with how Calvinists use it, so I’ll give him that. It wasn’t a simple matter, as Morrell puts it, that he agreed with Mani (the founder of Manicheanism) in principle, but disagreed with the explanation. There was a fundamental difference in his cosmological and epistemological understanding which made Augustine at his core a Christian.
Personally, I think it is more likely that Augustine was merely applying certain Platonic philosophies (only some of which were deterministic). This can easily account for Augustine’s determinism and his view of man. It is also much more forgivable; Christian teachers had been openly appealing to Plato since Origen. It is even doubtful that his deterministic views were as extreme as Luther or Calvin. In many instances he still seems to hold on to some kind of notion of free will.
Now, there are enough scholars who disagree with me that I am not going to insist on my interpretation, especially since I am no expert on Augustine. Indeed, I was recently pointed to this dissertation which argues that Manicheanism influenced Augustine apologetically, which I think is a more tenable argument than Morrell’s argument. However, there are enough who do agree with me that I am not embarrassed by such an opinion, and I do consider the degree in which Morrell insists on his view inappropriate.
While Morrell makes some good points, his overall argument is overstated, and his defense of Pelagius misguided. Like many others, he treats the Pelagius/Augustine debate as a false dichotomy, where one must side with one or the other. However, history didn’t do that, and theology doesn’t demand it. One does not have to defend Pelagius and his defective views on man’s nature and salvation in order to believe that God has ordained freedom to the human will. While directorially the video is very well done, the content needs considerable work.