It has been noted by some Calvinists that Calvinism was the dominant theological position of the Church throughout its history. For example, Calvinist Loraine Boettner writes:
- The great majority of the creeds of historic Christendom have set forth the doctrines of Election, Predestination, and final Perseverance, as will readily be seen by any one who will make even a cursory study of the subject. On the other hand Arminianism existed for centuries only as a heresy on the outskirts of true religion, and in fact it was not championed by an organized Christian church until the year 1784, at which time it was incorporated into the system of doctrine of the Methodist Church in England.
Did you catch that? From Boettner’s “study” of Church history, a Calvinistic understanding of salvation, namely unconditional election unto faith, has been around since the early days of Christianity, and an Arminian understanding wasn’t established until 1784. Whatever happened to objectivity? The only way to maintain any semblance of truth in Boettner’s statement is to rewrite Church history!
As will be shown in the following, pre-Augustinian Church history has always favored an Arminian understanding of salvation; it was Augustine (ca. 354-430) who deviated from the Church fathers. Boettner, in his inconsistency, even alluded to the same thing when he wrote, “This cardinal truth of Christianity [an unconditional election unto salvation for some] was first clearly seen by Augustine . . .”2 (emphasis added). If it was “first clearly seen” by Augustine, then how do we account for the first nearly four hundred years of Church fathers who did not “clearly see” a Calvinistic understanding of salvation, a “cardinal truth of Christianity,” taught in the Bible?
The legacy of Calvinism, then, having derived its soteriological foundation from Augustine, is one of deviation and novelty, not in any manner whatsoever built upon the historical teachings of the authors of the New Testament and the early Church fathers. Apparently, historically speaking, the “man-made doctrines” charge usually leveled against Arminians actually belongs in the lap of Calvinists.
When early Church fathers used terms such as “predestination” or “election,” they did not have in mind a Calvinistic (unconditional) understanding of those terms (especially given the fact that Augustine was the first, as even Boettner admitted, to propagate Christian fatalism, a.k.a. Calvinism). And let it also be noted that Arminians use and believe those biblical terms without employing a Calvinistic (unconditional) understanding or interpolation.
Concerning free will, election and predestination, and synergism (the doctrine that the human will can and must cooperate with the Holy Spirit in order for a person to be saved, a grace of God which is not irresistible, Rom. 2:6, 7; 1 Cor. 15:1, 2; Heb. 12:25; Jas. 1:12, 13; 2 Pet. 3:9),3 compare and contrast Arminius’s and Calvin’s theology, and then note the consensus of early Church fathers on those related issues. You will be forced to conclude that they promoted Arminius’s sentiments, not Calvin’s (nor Augustine’s), thus proving that Church history promotes an Arminian, not a Calvinistic, understanding of Grace. Arminius writes:
- In the very commencement of his conversion man conducts himself in a purely passive manner; that is, though, by a vital act, that is, by feeling, he has a perception of the grace which calls him, yet he can do no other than receive it and feel it: But, when he feels grace affecting or inclining his mind and heart, he freely assents to it, so that he is able at the same time to withhold his assent. . . .
Sufficient grace must necessarily be laid down; yet this sufficient grace, through the fault of him to whom it is granted, does not [always] obtain its effect: Were the fact otherwise, the justice of God could not be defended in his condemning those who do not believe.4
On the other hand, Calvin argues:
- And the interference of divine providence goes to the extent not only of making events turn out as was foreseen to be expedient, but of giving the wills of men the same direction. . . . [I]f we lend an ear to the many passages of Scripture which proclaim that even in these matters the minds of men are ruled by God, they will compel us to place human choice in subordination to his special influence.
And now, from the book A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, various Church fathers will weigh in concerning their take on the issue at hand:
- Hermas (ca. 150) writes: “To those whose heart He saw would become pure and obedient to Him, He gave the 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” (294).
Justin Martyr (ca. 160) writes: “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. . . . And again, unless the human race has the power of avoiding evil and choosing good by free choice, they are not accountable for their actions” (285).
Tatian (ca. 160) writes: “We were not created to die. Rather, we die by our own fault. Our free will has destroyed us. We who were free have become slaves. We have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God. We ourselves have manifested wickedness. But we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it” (86).
Melito (ca. 170) writes: “There is, therefore, nothing to hinder you from changing your evil manner of life, because you are a free man” (286).
Irenaeus (ca. 180) writes: “But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will, and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff” (286).
Clement of Alexandria (ca. 195) writes: “God ministers eternal salvation to those who cooperate for the attainment of knowledge and good conduct. Since what the commandments direct are in our own power, along with the performance of them, the promise is accomplished” (294-5).
And also: “Therefore, all having been called, those who are willing to obey have been named ‘the called.’ For there is no unrighteousness with God. . . . To these, prophecy says, ‘If you are willing and hear me, you will eat the good things of the land,’ proving that choice or refusal depends on ourselves” (293).
And also: “We . . . have believed and are saved by voluntary choice” (287).
Tertullian (ca. 207) writes: “I find, then, that man was constituted free by God. He was master of his own will and power. . . . For a law would not be imposed upon one who did not have it in his power to render that obedience which is due to law. Nor again, would the penalty of death be threatened against sin, if a contempt of the law were impossible to man in the liberty of his will. . . . Man is free, with a will either for obedience or resistance” (288).
Origen (ca. 225) writes: “The apostle in one place does not purport that becoming a vessel to honor or dishonor depends upon God [Rom. 9:21-22]. Rather, he refers everything back to ourselves, saying, ‘If, then, a man purges himself, he will be a vessel to honor, sanctified, fit for the Master’s use, and prepared for every good work’ [2 Tim. 2:20-21]” (295).
Hippolytus (ca. 225) writes: “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” (288).
Cyprian (ca. 250) writes: “The liberty of believing or of not believing is placed in free choice” (292).
Methodius (ca. 290) writes: “God is good and wise. He does what is best. Therefore, there is no fixed destiny” (294).
Lactantius (ca. 304-313), in those years, writes: “He who gives commandments for life should remove every method of excuse — so he can impose upon men the necessity of obedience. Not by any constraint, but by a sense of shame. Yet, he should do it in a way to leave them freedom, so that a reward may be appointed for those who obey. That is because it was in their power not to obey — for it was in their power to obey if they wished” (292).
The Disputation of Archelaus and Manes (ca. 320) reads: “Rational creatures have been entrusted with free will. Because of this, they are capable of converting” (293).
Alexander of Alexandria (ca. 324) writes: “Natural will is the free faculty of every intelligent nature, as having nothing involuntary pertaining to its essence” (293).
A cursory reading from Church history, as Calvinist Loraine Boettner instructed us to take, evinces an Arminian and not a Calvinistic understanding of God’s Grace, Free Will, Election and Predestination, as well as Synergism. Arminians do not have to rewrite Church history in order to demonstrate that we stand in line with and are firmly rooted in the orthodoxy of the early Church fathers, we just need to show others the words of the fathers themselves.
1 Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1932), 2.
2 Ibid., 365.
3 A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1998), 294.
4 James Arminius, “Certain Articles to be Diligently Examined and Weighed,” The Works of Arminius, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:721-722.
5 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 194.