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