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Were the Early Church Fathers Calvinists? – A Brief Reply to Dr. Fernandes

In a recent debate over the five points of Calvinism, Dr. Fernandes said the following:

“Another problem for Calvinism: No one held the Calvinist view of predestination until Augustine.  If the apostles taught Calvinism, then they apparently didn’t consider it important enough to convey this doctrine to their successors.  Until Augustine embraced unconditional predestination in about 380 AD, we know of no church father who was a Calvinist.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard an Arminian make this claim.  And I don’t suppose it will be the last.  Regardless, what should we make of the statement?  Is it true?  Was there not one poor Calvinist running around Macedonia or Italy in the days before Augustine, the first *gasp* Calvinist?

The frustrating thing about this claim is the manner in which it is framed.  If anyone has read through the apostolic fathers, for example, they’ll know that they simply weren’t concerned with expounding the doctrines of sovereign grace, or nearly any other doctrine for that matter!  They wrote letters, not systematic theologies.  They were dealing with false teachers and persecution.  They were trying to survive.  And since the early false teachers weren’t distant cousins of a guy by the name of Pelagius, the issue wasn’t a matter of great concern.  So no, the apostolic fathers weren’t running around with tulips for bookmarks.

That being said, what did they say?  During one my reads through the apostolic fathers, I marked every location that touched on the sovereignty of God, at least in an overt way.  If I have missed one, please let me know.  I likewise kept an eye out for “Arminian” proof texts.  But in all honesty, I’m not aware of any distinctly Arminian statements.  Again, if someone thinks otherwise, please let me know.  At the end of the day, I think you’ll find that while the apostolic fathers didn’t articulate a robust view of the doctrine of unconditional election (either for or against!), they nevertheless held to a very high view of the sovereignty of God, which, of course, provides the necessary substructure for the doctrine.

Want to see what I found?  The following quotes are taken from “The Apostolic Fathers,” second edition, edited and revised by Michael W. Holmes.

1 Clement

1 Clement 0.0, “The Church of God which sojourns in Rome to the Church of God which sojourns at Corinth, to those who are called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ…”

A potentially (it’s a LONG stretch) synergistic statement, 7.5, “Let us review all the generations in turn, and learn that from generation to generation the Master has given an opportunity for repentance to those who desire to turn to him.”

21.9, “For he is the searcher of thoughts and desires; his breath is in us, and when he so desires, he will take it away.”

27.4-5, “By his majestic word he established the universe, and by a word he can destroy it. “Who will say to him, ‘What have you done?’ Or who will resist the might of his strength?”  He will do all things when he will and as he wills, and none of those things decreed by him will fail.”

Ignatius to the Ephesians

0.0, “Ignatius… to the church at Ephesus in Asia, blessed with greatness through the fullness of God the Father, predestined before the ages for lasting and unchangeable glory forever, united and elect through genuine suffering by the will of the Father and of Jesus Christ our God…”

To the Smyrnaeans

4.1b, “But I am guarding you in advance against wild beasts in human form- men whom you must not only not welcome but, if possible, not even meet.  Nevertheless, do pray for them, if somehow they might repent, difficult though it may be.  But Jesus Christ, our true life, has power over this.”

The Didache

3.10, “Accept as good the things that happen to you, knowing that nothing transpires apart from God.”

Barnabas

(This isn’t a copy error) 19.6b, “Accept as good the things that happen to you, knowing that nothing transpires apart from God.”

The Epistle to Diognetus

5.4, [speaking of Christians] “But while they live in both Greek and barbarian cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and follow the local customs in dress and food…”

9.1, “So then, having already planned everything in his mind together with his Child, he permitted us during the former time to be carried away by undisciplined impulses as we desired, led astray by pleasures and lusts, not at all because he took delight in our sins, but because he was patient; not because he approved of that former season of unrighteousness, but because he was creating the present season of righteousness, in order that we who in the former time were convicted by our own deeds as unworthy and, having clearly demonstrated our inability to enter the kingdom of God on our own, might be enabled to do so by God’s power.”

[There are several statements to effect of our needing to persevere in order to obtain the promises, but I won’t reproduce them here.  Any Calvinist worth his salt believes that every Christian must continue in the faith.]

13 Comments Post a comment
  1. St. Paul was the essence of a ‘Calvinist’! ;) Btw following Roger Nicole’s acrostic, Grace is:

    1. Obligatory (indispensable)
    2. Sovereign (in choice)
    3. Particular in (redemption)
    4. Effectual (in operation)
    5. Lasting (that is secure)

    Indeed the Doctrines of Grace are more intertwined with the ordo salutis, but yet always more than the temporal order.

    August 5, 2011
  2. olivianus #

    Mr. Brown,

    If man has the freedom to choose outside of a sovereign decree, how can the future be something real that God can foreknow? If man can choose against the decree then the future is not something objective and real. This elimates the possibility of foreknowledge.

    August 6, 2011
    • Greetings Mr. Olivianus,

      In this post I was primarily concerned with what the apostolic fathers thought about God’s sovereignty. It appears to me that you are interested in raising the question of Open Theism, which is a subject that didn’t register at all on their radar. But never mind the fathers, for the time being. Your question is important.

      Here it is crucial to remember the careful balance of the Westminster Confession of Faith when it talks about God’s sovereign decree, which I believe best describes the overall teaching of the Bible on this matter. You can read it here (See chapter III): http://www.reformed.org/documents/wcf_with_proofs/

      Now if you are interested in exploring the subject of God’s foreknowledge further, I would recommend the following resources. “Freedom of the Will,” by Jonathan Edwards. He has a chapter refuting those who assert that God does not possess exhaustive knowledge of the future. As for a more recent work, I would recommend John Frame’s “No Other God,” or his larger work, “The Doctrine of God.” John Piper also has an excellent volume entitled, “Beyond the Bounds.” Those will help answer your question.
      If, however, you remained convinced of Open Theism, I doubt that I will be able to persuade you otherwise. Although, I have found that some who cling to Open Theism for its theodicy can be shown that it doesn’t help the situation. And if that peg can be pulled out, they are, perhaps, more open to chucking the position. And I can tug on that peg, if you like.

      August 6, 2011
  3. Jared Olivetti #

    Good stuff, Austin. Thanks for digging into the patristics for us–the general line of study and questioning could make a really great book or PhD thesis…

    August 6, 2011
  4. Greetings,

    Good blog. Just recently introduced to it. Thanks for the good work and the clear presentations.

    Just a small annoyance, if you will: the spelling of Dr. Phil’s name. Please note how Dr. Fernandes spells his name (Portuguese origin), not Fernandez (Spanish origin). The EZ on the end of an Iberian surname indicates “son of” (as the Scottish “Mac” does).

    This small matter is only important to those of us of Iberian heritage, so it’s not a big deal (in light of the worthy discussion above), but I mention anyway.

    Thanks again for your ministry.

    Henry Fernandez, pastor
    Bryce Avenue Presbyterian Church (PCA)
    Los Alamos, New Mexico

    August 9, 2011
    • LoL, thanks pastor Fernandez. Since I listened to the debate, I just guessed at the spelling. So thank you for clearing that up! I should have looked it up. Since I’m a big white mix of who knows what, it didn’t even cross my mind :-)

      Glad to have you aboard!

      Austin

      August 9, 2011
  5. Austin,

    Muchas gracias! Obrigado (that’s Portuguese for thanks!). I appreciate the effort!

    Blessings on the good work.

    Henry

    August 9, 2011
  6. David Fitch #

    Although I’ve only worked my way up to the Latin Fathers, it would seem Steven Lawson’s magnificent book “Pillars of Grace: A Long Line of Godly Men” would put to rest the argument that the doctrines of grace didn’t appear until Augustine.

    August 11, 2011
  7. Sean McDonald #

    Regardless of what one may think of him (and I ordinarily hesitate to recommend him), Gill masterfully treats of the early fathers on Calvinism in Part IV of his “Cause of God and Truth.” http://books.google.com/books?id=Dsw8AAAAcAAJ&pg=PA404&dq=gill+%22since+those+doctrines+which+are+commonly+called+calvinistical%22&hl=en&ei=I3aKTq1w4tXRAaTwydME&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

    October 3, 2011
  8. Reblogged this on Urban Reformed Blog.

    May 14, 2012

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