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May 05, 2020698Views

The Purpose of Protestantism, Calvinism Considered and Augustine & the Early Church

Jonathan Headington examines the core of Protestantism, determinism inside and outside of Christianity and the ongoing dispute over Dr. Ken Wilson's The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism

For those who have come to Christianity through a process involving study, either for the first time or after a period of unbelief, Roman Catholicism makes a powerful argument. If you're going to arrive at the affirmation of the truth of Christianity after a process involving looking at history, theology and the rest (the moral case, which I discuss here, was what proved unassailable for me), you're likely going to have some conservative instincts. Roman Catholicism claims of itself that it is the same Church established by Christ Himself giving the keys to the first Pope Peter, and that today's Roman Catholicism is the current embodiment of that continuity, and so it is the millennia-enduring organisation with the true authority to interpret the faith, and all other Christian denominations are schismatic deviations that fell away at one time or another from the one true church, or schismatic of those schismatics. Cardinal John Henry Newman once said 'To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant', as anyone who's spent any time at all studying these issues will be aware, as some Roman Catholics can't seem to resist the urge to fill up any even tangentially relevant internet comments section with that quote. This perspective of being Christianity's ancient and genuine form does seem to endure in popular culture too; as the late American film critic Roger Ebert noted when reviewing John Carpenter's Vampires (1998): 'When it comes to fighting vampires and performing exorcisms, the Roman Catholic Church has the heavy artillery. Your other religions are good for everyday theological tasks, like steering their members into heaven, but when the undead lunge up out of their graves, you want a priest on the case.'

So with a view of time and history then, Protestantism might seem at first glance to be just another offshoot bastard heresy from the church with the robust and intuitive claim to authenticity and authority, and its biggest distinction from earlier dissenters such as the Cathars, Lollards and Hussites is that it emerged in, or perhaps even from, a particular set of political and cultural circumstances that made it successful where those others hadn't been. This is certainly the Roman Catholic reading of the Reformation, and also I think the typical reading from medium level understanding of Protestantism's origins. There's almost a waveform when it comes to the levels of understanding of the Reformation, I think. The low level (and perhaps that assumed by unschooled Protestants) is that thanks to the printing press, Martin Luther and others actually got to read the Bible which the Roman Church had been withholding from people so it could keep its indulgence racket going, and that the authoritarian suppression of the true faith, probably at hand since Constantine got in on the act, was finally broken. The Roman Catholic reading is a level up from this and knows that actually the Bible wasn't locked away for fear of undermining their claims, but rather control was over authorising translations so that people didn't corrupt it or subtly add heretical beliefs, either accidentally or intentionally. As such Protestantism does belong in the same category as the myriad other heretical groups, just with the added characteristic that it actually got somewhere.

That Protestantism was just new sets of people creating new doctrines in replacement of those arbitrarily ejected from Rome's old set would seem to carry additional weight by the number of divisions within it that emerged so quickly even at the time. There's been some inflation in the given numbers and it varies depending on who's saying it, but a common and quite powerful line by Roman Catholic apologists is that there are however many thousands of Protestant denominations now, but still only one Catholic Church from which they first split. This would rather seem to dent the idea that Protestants were onto something, when there are innumerable issues which Protestantism and its own subsequent offshoots take a different stance on, be it infant baptism, the nature of baptism, the nature of the Lord's Supper, charismatic continuationism vs. cessationism, predestination vs. free will, church governance and, in further down the line deviations, even the Trinity or whether a guy named Joseph Smith found some golden plates that dropped the bombshell that Jesus Christ nipped over to the Americas at one point. What's more, so many of these denominations have their own bespoke creeds, confessions and statements of faith which members must subscribe to; it can all start to look a lot like a facsimile of what Roman Catholicism does, and so with so many imitators, wouldn't the original have the best claim to being the real deal? With so many different positions all claiming to be biblical (apart from that Joseph Smith one, of course), the Bible alone doesn't seem to offer much agreement and therefore clarity when it comes to what actual Christianity is, and so an infallible interpreter of just what the Bible means and how the Church should operate is required, and that is the same Church which Christ founded and which has endured in an unbroken continuity ever since. Talk about all roads lead to Rome!

It's here that we reach what I think to be the true character and underlying impulse of Protestantism, and that is that it's conservative in nature. The point of Protestantism wasn't to introduce new doctrines in place of the discarded Roman Catholic ones, but rather to retract erroneous innovations and restore the Church to an earlier state before it was corrupted, with the Bible as the only truly infallible source. Some choices were easier than others. For example, it was the monumental Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 that dogmatised transubstantiation. Unlike some more difficult cases, the development of transubstantiation is reasonably well traced to not all that long before this. Berengar of Tours started controversy by speaking against the doctrine in the 11th century, but that it only emerges as an issue so late in Church history makes it difficult to maintain that it was always believed by Christians and the Church just never bothered to promulgate it officially in a council; so too were the withholding of the cup from the laity and priests licking up spilt drops of wine new developments, indicating there was certainly a change in eucharistic understanding. It's only a couple of hundred years earlier in the 9th century that the Frankish monk Ratramnus wrote a treatise titled Concerning the Body and Blood of the Lord which explicitly denies transubstantiation and which didn't seem to generate much controversy or accusations of heresy – purportedly it was this work which convinced Thomas Cranmer against the doctrine. Of course, with that doctrine gone, the issue came up of what the true nature of the Lord's Supper was. Protestant reformers couldn't agree – it was famously the one point between Luther and Huldrych Zwingli on which agreement couldn't be found at the Marburg Colloquy – but whatever the answer, no one thought it was the Roman one.

Transubstantiation encapsulates then the Protestant process. Generally the doctrines that we now, in the Protestant-tinged English-speaking world, see as uniquely Roman Catholic such as that, were the ones most easily discarded as recent innovations. Reform within the Roman Catholic Church was impossible as, despite the Second Vatican Council and declarations since (not to mention the current Pope) giving us numerous examples which would seem to suggest otherwise, the Church can't officially go back on something decided in a legitimate council or proclaimed ex cathedra by a legitimate Pope. Admitting any errors from these would leave the whole Roman Catholic notion of authority in ruin, so at most they're carefully worked around.

Reform in the Protestant manner is necessarily an uncertain process. That so many take different positions while all claiming to draw directly from it indicates the Bible does require interpretation, and those nearer the time of Christ and the Apostles would generally seem to have a stronger claim on the correct view, as the corollary of the principle that recent innovations are more likely to be erroneous. With fragmentary records from some eras in Church history and much of it as subject to interpretation as the parts of Scripture itself which they seek to clarify, this is one reason we have different denominations coming to different conclusions on many issues and each usually being able to find patristic support for any side. In theology, it seems you can find something to support just about any position from patristics, and if you're still struggling after that then there's always typology!

For my part, I think the version of the faith which best retained the baby while disposing of the bathwater is Anglicanism, where you can believe we're saved by faith alone but still get a beautiful old church building with stained glass, a choir and a reasonable amount of finery. Being an English nationalist, arriving at the conclusion that the Church of England is the best church is of course quite handy for me, but its Thirty-Nine Articles are laxer in the adherence demanded than more strictly confessional denominations, and so there's a variety of practice (indeed, a lot more variety than I'd like) and more adiaphora allowance within the Church than most others; it's broad enough that there's a churchmanship to suit most. Anglicanism does though give us another lesson to further add to the point that Protestantism was about restoring an older and less corrupted state of the Church rather than starting a revolution. Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer was based on the 11th century Sarum Rite; conversely, the Roman Catholic Church established the standardised Tridentine Mass in the late 16th century, meaning it could be argued that the Church which claims to be the only true and ancient Church was using a liturgy half a millennium newer than the Protestant Church of England's.

So, that the foremost point in reform was to be in line with the Bible, but that that's open to interpretation, is why so many Protestant denominations with differing views on things resulted and why patristic citations and references to ancient practice in supporting positions were so valuable. Roman Catholics too of course claim to be in line with the Bible, but also to have the only legitimate mechanism for interpreting it. Consider for example the central issue of the Reformation, whether salvation is by works or by faith alone. There was seemingly a champion for either side in James or Paul, and it would appear that whichever side you take, if you're going to avoid a contradiction in the Bible then taking the plain reading of one requires finding a workaround for the other (compare James 2:24 with Romans 3:28). Martin Luther in fact gave Roman Catholic apologists an open goal by referring to James as an 'epistle of straw'. This might be the most important case where two opposing views claim apparently straightforward biblical support for their positions, but it's certainly not the only one.

With this process in mind as the essence of the Protestant hermeneutic – that the Bible is the only infallible source for matters of faith and the corollary that earlier views, particularly those from which the Roman Catholic Church deviated much later, can broadly be thought more likely to hold the accurate interpretation of Scripture (and forgive the amount of qualification there, but a formula which captures all the nuances is nearly impossible; the history of views on the atonement or baptism will demonstrate that Protestants don't always seek to conform to the available early Church writings on all things) – we turn then to Calvinism.

Understanding Protestantism as described, it's been tricky for me to reconcile Calvinism with that notion. It's no minor thing either; for reasons I've never been entirely certain of, Calvinism has become synonymous with Reformed as an adjective. Even though Calvinism can claim Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Cranmer and many others among its adherents (though that precise term is obviously anachronistic for some of those), not every reformer of the Protestant Reformation was a Calvinist, and many Protestant churches aren't, and so the association of Calvinism with 'Reformed' appears to me to be a mismatch, albeit one which suits Calvinists themselves. I've long had the common understanding, that Augustine of Hippo around the turn of the 5th century introduced it (which is to say, theistic determinism occasioning predestinarian soteriological election) as part of his dispute with Pelagius and his followers, but while Pelagianism was condemned, Augustine's broader conception was not taken up by most – with the occasional exception such as Gottschalk and the aforementioned Ratramnus – until the Reformation.

With this in mind, that theistic determinism in Christianity was a flash in the pan dalliance by a single theologian (albeit one of the most significant in Church history) around 400 years after Christ that not many people took up until well over a millennium later, it's tough to regard it as the authentic Christian viewpoint. It of course has its own scriptural proofs and rebuttals. The middle chapters of the Paul's Epistle to the Romans (chapter 9 in particular) are cited by Calvinists who say it refers to salvation, while opponents say Paul is answering a Jewish objector in a narrower context, but there are other verses from both the Old and New Testaments on either side. In John 15:16, Christ says 'You did not choose Me, but I chose you'; non-Calvinists argue this refers to the disciples, and not election to salvation. The most famous verse of all, John 3:16, refers to God sending his son for the world; Calvinists argue that 'world' in the original context means both Jews and Gentiles together, rather than all individual people. 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God desires all men to be saved, but the Calvinist response is it means all types of men, and not all individual men. In numerous places in the Old Testament, God seems to express regret on some occasions and changes his mind in others. In Jeremiah 32:35, God says that not only did He not command child sacrifices to idols, but that it never entered his mind. The Calvinist response to anything like this is that God has a secret will and a revealed will, and that whenever something comes up which seems to conflict with His predetermination of all things, that's God acting out His revealed will and doesn't impact that fact of His secret will. Of course, if God literally saying that He neither commanded something nor that it even entered His mind is explained away like this, it raises the question of what could possibly have been put in the Bible that would have made theistic determinism falsifiable for the Calvinist.

That's just a smattering of the contested verses between Calvinists and non-Calvinists, but as with Paul and James on justification, whichever side you opt for means you can take the plain reading of some verses but require a workaround for others. With that in mind, it's worth knowing what the interpretation was on these matters in the early Church from those who were closest to the Apostles and even possibly those who knew them.1 Was Augustine really the first to introduce determinism? That he's such a big name and known for being Calvin before Calvin would seem to suggest it, but then even without that aspect he'd still be a titan of Church history. As with so many subjects, it would be one in the back of my mind that I planned on getting to one day and really digging into.

Fortuitously though, counter-Calvinist Leighton Flowers' YouTube channel Soteriology101 published a video in February 2019 titled Was Augustine the first to introduce "CALVINISM" into the Church?, and being the exact question I had wondered about for some years, naturally I gave it a watch. In the video, Dr. Ken Wilson discusses his dissertation, which specifically looked at the question of Augustine's shifting position on free will, which he affirmed earlier after his conversion to Christianity but later changed his mind on; in with that though was analysis of the early Church on the subject, and also what appears to be the source of Augustine's deterministic view. When it comes to the early Church, Wilson says that this is almost unique as a subject as there seems to have been full agreement with the anti-Calvinist interpretation until Augustine came along, and that we have free will was taught universally – that whether we are saved or damned is not predetermined by God, and that the universe as a whole is not deterministic. The source for Augustine's deterministic outlook is presented as his pre-conversion Manichaean faith, a dualistic and Gnostic-influenced religion which both teaches determinism and also has its own elect. Having imbibed that mindset and knowing the Scriptures cited by Gnostics to affirm determinism, Augustine introduced it into Christianity and also became the major source which Luther and Calvin could cite to support their views.

At the end of the interview, Flowers suggested to Wilson that it could prove useful to many people if he reworked his dissertation into a popular level book, and Wilson did just that. The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism is a manageable volume of around 120 pages and also heavily footnoted. Wilson runs through a summary of Stoicism, Gnosticism and Manichaeism on the subject and then takes us on a whirlwind tour through many early Church Fathers where they were relevant to the topic, noting how their particular stances worked and who they were refuting. Their work was typically directed against Gnostics, including the omni-refuted Marcion, but a few other familiar names appear, such as Celsus who was rebutted by Origen on this issue among others.

A repeated theme among the fathers seems to be that mankind retains the ability to choose good owing to the imago dei (image of God), which sounds like it could prove tough to counter for TULIP's total depravity (more on TULIP later). Descriptions of their views also particularly seem to refute the concomitant subject of Augustinian original sin, this tough form of which is another doctrine which he is particularly credited in popular understanding for introducing, and an often noted effect of which seems to be to condemn dead babies to Hell as inheritors of Adam's sin through some kind of spiritual epigenetics; it ties in with Calvinist soteriology as the cause of total depravity in everyone, and it means wrinkles in God's specific and exacting salvific election plan don't appear with babies getting into Heaven just from the misfortune of dying before they could understand or contemplate the Gospel. Of course, God already determines baby death as much as anything else in Calvinism, but them then being condemned to subsequent eternal torment is the icing on what I should think any honest contemplation renders a very disturbing cake.2

After this, the latter two-thirds of the book are focussed on Augustine himself. Firstly Wilson gives a quick overview of the narrower thesis of his work, which is that Augustine went back and edited two of his earlier works, adding passages contrary to his theology of the time when they were originally written (and are highly disharmonious even with the works they've been inserted into), but which agree with his later proto-Calvinism. After this it gets into the real substance of what was Augustine's process for changing his mind. It seems it stems from the question of why infants are baptised and walks a syllogistic path through baptism being regenerative or even fully salvific, infants therefore having inherited the damnable full brunt of Adam's sin (giving us the Augustinian original sin doctrine) and therefore mankind's total depravity which requires unilateral action on God's part to overcome (thusly, election), plus full divine determinism to hold the thing together. That the root of this comes from a belief in the legitimacy not only of infant baptism (and a great many Calvinists are Baptists) but also particular notions regarding its efficacy that scarcely any Calvinist today would subscribe to should surely cause some doubt. In Matthew 7:17, Jesus say that a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit, and if the root of Calvinism is, as Wilson describes, in an argument based on a point of theology which practically every Calvinist now would consider to be inherently fallacious, then one would think the repercussions on their system would be devastating. Would the sovereign God of Calvinism have the true understanding of His universe be reasoned to from a false premise?

There's a run through the verses Augustine relies upon, and how many are the same as those cited by Gnostics and Manichaeans, but also the interesting point that, because Augustine lacked capability with the Greek language, he was therefore reliant on potentially flawed Latin translations (if, as Wilson says, a poor translation of Romans 5:12 was critical to Augustine's new conception of original sin, one thinks that ought to spell the end for its credibility). 1 Timothy 2:4 is subject to multiple interpretations and explanations from Augustine over his later years, suggesting he's trying to find ways to fit it in with his conclusion, rather than applying it in the fullness of its own intended meaning. Wilson's dissertation Augustine's Conversion from Traditional Free Choice to Non-free Free Will, of which this book seeks to be an abridged summary, is frequently cited as well as having more detailed argumentation on particular points, which makes it tempting, though it carries a €94 price tag which ameliorates that temptation somewhat.

The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism is a fascinating read, though my level of knowledge means I can only approach it at the level of a learner rather than as a scholarly critic. Based on what's presented and how it's presented, it would seem to be an open-and-shut case, and so deal a huge blow to Calvinism for those who agree that it's unlikely a correct doctrine that was previously alien to the Church would emerge four centuries after Christ from a convert who held similar ideas in a different faith before his conversion and then would only be adopted by a handful of people for the following 1,100 years until it really took off.

It's here that James White, theologian and apologist extraordinaire, enters the picture. White is a steadfast Calvinist who's debated just about every possible subject within the Christian faith at some point, as well as the occasional Muslim and atheist, all while also being a prolific broadcaster on his YouTube webcast The Dividing Line. He's had frequent run-ins and exchanges with Leighton Flowers over the years since they debated Romans 9 in 2015, and while they each occasionally make sure to mention that they recognise the other as a brother in the faith, the outside observer can't help but get the impression that there's no love lost between the two men. Particularly as rebutting Arminians (a term that some object to but is the most useful and common shorthand to refer to non-Calvinists collectively) is one of White's semi-frequent activities on his show in a segment called Radio Free Geneva, when I originally heard that Ken Wilson was making his thesis into a book, I rather hoped a copy would find its way to White one day so we could hear his thoughts on it. It took a while, but be it through free will decisions or God's providence, that has come to come to pass and for weeks now there have been numerous segments by White and ripostes by Flowers (plus one video where he got Wilson back on to respond) based around Wilson's thesis and original dissertation. I know these are serious subjects potentially of eternal consequence that get to the very core of the nature of God and man's place in His universe, but I find it loads of fun to listen to. That it's happening and resulting in so much entertaining content at the same time as COVID-19 is busily tearing down the world means it provides a welcome, enjoyable and stimulating distraction; perhaps that timing scores a point for the side which sees God's absolute sovereignty in how His universe plays out!

It's been a long and sprawling analysis that shows no sign of concluding yet, though both White and Wilson have agreed to a debate once the world returns to a state where it would be possible, so perhaps the refutations and counters will continue on until that event provides a climax to the whole exchange. One of White's particular methods of rebuttal is to point to early Church writings from which can be inferred a deterministic perspective (or, if you prefer, imply God's absolute sovereignty) to falsify the assertion that nothing like it existed before Augustine. At the very least, it would show Wilson is overplaying his hand to claim that the pre-Augustine Church was united on the question; it's not to say that everyone agreed with the Calvinistic side, but Augustine's contribution was being the first to really systematise a proto-Calvinistic interpretation, not being the first person to introduce or infer determinism at all. It's not some big controversy in the early Church as it would be later because it wasn't their focus; that was, of course, Christology, as well as dealing with persecution both directly and with the issues it created for the Church such as Novatianism. 1 Clement has been a major example with its references to the elect; the Epistle to Diognetus, another. There has also been the question of the Essenes and the Qumran community, and the influences on them of Stoicism or, as White asserts, just the plain reading of Isaiah (the oldest complete scroll of which was discovered there).

This is an apposite moment to back up and look more closely at what we mean by Calvinism. It's a simple concept, and yet has many interwoven complexities. In the narrow case, it refers to salvation, and that God Himself chooses who is saved and who is damned, and while salvation is by faith, He decided who would and wouldn't have faith in the first place, and it's not a free choice man makes even though to man it seems like it. The expanded definition generally agreed upon is the TULIP acronym which summarises the early 17th century Synod of Dort, decades after Calvin himself. Adherents to the whole thing are known as five-point Calvinists, but some reject some of the points and there can be four-point or even three-point Calvinists. Each point has its own proofs and counters; the L, which stands for limited atonement, might be the most contested one, which in addition to its own scriptural citations for either side has all sorts of questions tied in, such as sufficiency vs. efficiency, double payment and Trinitarian harmony. And you can even have Calvinism without TULIP's L anyway, which is called Amyraldism. There are as well the various lapsarianisms, which is to say views on the logical order of God's decrees, which to a neophyte can seem like a weirdly pointless set of hypotheses, but are fiercely contested among sufficiently fervent Calvinists, and in that way seem to me to be a mirror of the differing eschatological millennialisms at the other end of time.

The broader meaning though when we discuss Calvinism is simpler, and that is divine determinism. Any religion that's deterministic and has salvation will necessarily have an equivalent of the elect and the reprobate, as was the case for Gnosticism and Manichaeism, but the soteriological conclusions stem from the absoluteness of the deterministic premise. Divine determinism necessitates that every atom and molecule in the universe at every moment in time has been predetermined by God; he has decreed our every thought and action, that I would type this and that you would read it, and he's determined every argument made for Calvinism yet also every case brought against it. He didn't just determine what the perfectly true version of Christianity would hold (whichever that turns out to be), but also every detail of every other version, whether it be a slight deviation or deeply heretical, as well as every last detail of every other faith, and determined who would believe in what. The enormity of what theistic determinism entails I think can get lost in the narrower discussions about the hypothetical extent of the atonement or the total depravity of man. When a Calvinist argues with a non-Calvinist, do they ever stop and think that every word and argument the other person is making, no matter how erroneous or ignorant, was decreed by God just as much as their own words and thoughts? If they do stop and consider it, their doing that was determined by God too!

I elaborate on determinism there because of the other argument White makes against Wilson's thesis: that Manichaean determinism is so different from Christian determinism that it's fallacious to claim that, because Augustine first believed the former and would go on to be possibly the first orthodox exponent of the latter, there's a causal link between the two. White's gone into fascinating detail on Manichaeism and its own concept of grace specifically to emphasise how different it is from Christianity, but while these vast differences in the mythology and practical aspects of course make it dissimilar in most ways, can a distinction be drawn between the determinisms in this way? If your life, thoughts, actions and everything else in the world around you are being meticulously determined by the wacky god of Manichaeism and your free will is illusory, it's quite possible to lose the craziness but still be left with the fundamental notion that things are all still determined, and attach that to a different God who you come to believe in instead.

While I'd had the occasional nebulous cosmic thoughts as a child that everyone probably does about the nature of being, I first encountered a fully explained form of the determinism vs. free will debate in my unbelieving teens trying to get up to speed on some philosophical basics. While I was aspirationally pretentious enough that I really tried to have a good go at finding something to latch onto in existentialism for a bit, the determinism question didn't make much of an impact on me. Whether free will was genuine or illusory, it seemed to me that in the practical world feeling like I have agency and actually having agency were indistinguishable, as the results would be the same. To seriously contemplate determinism would be to fall into inaction and despair, and as it felt like I had the choice not to do so, that rendered the issue moot for me. A few years later at university, I had one friend for a time who in the early inebriated hours more than once confided in me how the question of determinism played on his mind, expressing that recursive paradox ('But then I'd be determined to be thinking that I'm determined, but then my thinking that I'm thinking that I'm determined is also determined...'). For my part it all sounded too much like post-modernist deconstruction of reality itself (not to mention being a bit like the by now dreaded existential angst) to have much appeal to me as a serious question, though I could see it genuinely bothered him.

My attempt to reassure was the same pragmatic view I'd previously taken on it, that we feel like we have free will and the world around us operates as though we do, and that there's nothing to be gained from getting caught up in such a metaphysical mire anyway. Maybe this boils down to 'I dunno', or you could call it hypothetical compatibilism based on the principle that we don't know if determinism's true, but even if it is things all operate as though we do have free will – though I'm loath to associate myself too closely with compatibilism, or 'cope-patibilism' as I think it could appropriately be called, seeming to me to be a bit of linguistic sophistry which just redefines free will into alignment with a concept with which it is definitionally opposed; a mere moving of philosophical furniture, rather than finding an answer to the question as it stands. I suppose the point is that our minds are so geared toward living as though our actions are free and determined by ourselves (seriously, try living as a determinist for a day – what would you even do?), that applying them to the purely logical deduction that the universe is playing out in the only way it could (and us with it) can't gain us anything, and if we try to do anything with it, it would set us on a course of action or inaction which we then would very much still feel like we had the power to avoid.

All this had been the non-theistic, materialistic form of determinism, following on that from the expansion of the singularity that's misleadingly known as the Big Bang and the influence of subsequent quantum fluctuations, all patterns of matter, whether in a star or a rock or a human brain, would have only ever been able to play out in the one way in which they did, continue to do and will in the future, and all the universe that we see and every decision we personally make according to the particular firings of particular synapses can only have been this way. I recall that I may have considered whether a potential creator god would actually still be bound to following set actions according to its composition or nature (thoughts possibly inspired by learning that, in Buddhism, whether there are gods or not is an open question, but they too would still be condemned to the same struggle to reach Nirvana as those on the material reincarnating plane), and that all its subsequent creations would be determined too from that god's own state, whether or not the god would be aware that it itself was in a deterministic existence. That's as far as it went for me with any regard to theology though, if it even qualifies for that category at all.

Fast forward another couple of years when I was getting into the religious stuff, and I learnt about Calvinism. The finer details of TULIP of course required study, but knowing that Calvinism meant 'Christian determinism' went a lot of the way to getting what it was about; once those two words were put together, I knew it meant God determined everything, and the soteriological extension was that He in fact ultimately caused people to live the lives they did and take the actions they took, and with that chose them for salvation or damnation. Most of TULIP is necessarily the case just from the combination of Christian soteriology and divine determinism – unconditional election, irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints all stem from the immutability of God's choice in this matter. Limited atonement doesn't directly follow and you can be a theistic determinist without it, but the idea is that there's perfect correlation between who God saves and the action taken to accomplish it, and so is a result of man's having no real choice in his salvation, meaning the scale of the atonement is matched to exactly and only those for whom it's intended. Total depravity is the outlier as it's part of the larger system, and ostensibly represents something distinct from determinism other than the fact that it is something determined by God (as a repudiation of Pelagianism in any form, one could see in total depravity Calvinism's devotion to Augustine's theology beyond determinism alone), though it is somewhat linked. Because man is depraved and completely unable to do anything to accomplish salvation even down to having faith unless God has elected him to it, like limited atonement it stands for the exactness of what God does in Calvinistic salvation. Unless God has chosen someone to be saved, which if He has He will do perfectly, man's total depravity/total inability means he won't get a single step towards salvation otherwise. There is either perfect 100% salvation or complete separation from it. God's absoluteness and exactness in all that He does in combination with His determining of all things are what come together to make Calvinism.

While the finer points take time to understand, once one does, it's not all that complicated to see how it works and how propositions flow from the premise. While not in an intellectually rigorous form of the faith, I knew enough from my upbringing that there's Heaven, Hell and salvation in Christianity, and so even before digging into it in detail, knowing that Calvinism is Christian determinism made three-fifths of TULIP obvious and uncomplicated statements that directly follow from the concept, even though my prior understanding of determinism had been mostly based around it as a godless construct. If you switch out the Big Bang's determination of things according to the inevitable combinations of matter and physics for God's determination of things according to His exact will and add salvation as a concept, then you've gone most of the way to understanding Calvinism. Knowing also the implication of being a person in the former case's situation, fatalistically recognising that free will is an illusion, also informs what the implication is for being a person in the latter situation. For the reprobate the situation renders them just as powerless and the fate even worse: to be the object of God's eternal wrath without there ever having been a chance for any other outcome. It's not all necessarily hunky-dory for the elect either; there are what's known as Hyper-Calvinists who, realising the philosophical implications of Calvinism, refuse to evangelise, knowing that God will save His elect no matter what they do, so why bother – besides, what they will or won't do is determined already.

Assurance can be a tricky issue for anyone, but it has an added dimension for the Calvinist. The saints will persevere, but how do you know if you're really a saint and not destined to fall away? Holding Calvinist positions is no guarantee of actually being elect. Staunch Calvinists have fallen away and apostasised; a big stir was made a couple of years ago when Derek Webb, former member of Christian band Caedmon's Call, left the faith, and he quite plainly explains how when people tried to convince him otherwise he'd point out that if he's elect he'll return to it and if not they're wasting their time and he's incapable of responding positively (dead in the grave with Lazarus as he puts it, which is a common Calvinist analogy and demonstrates his Reformed credentials). Matthew 7:21-22 is one of the most haunting parts of Scripture, and many honest Christians have struggled with that passage upon encountering it. Many people may claim full assurance, but then among those people are mutually exclusive groups who'd each consider the other hellbound. A bit like genuine or illusory free will, the thing with assurance is you can't really know whether it's false assurance. Add in Calvinism's added stipulation that whether you actually make it or not is entirely predetermined and there's nothing you can do about it, and an honest appraisal suddenly doesn't look all that different from the nihilistic anguish that my old friend felt considering a non-theistic deterministic universe, except with the added terror of eternal consequences. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote that the Puritan culture of New England 'regarded human existence itself as a ghastly risk, and, in the case of the vast majority of human beings, an inconceivable misfortune'. Perhaps that was merely a reflection on conditions of the time, but those most impeccable Calvinists always had an eye on the eternal. All things considered, that appears to me to be a quite rational view to derive from the Calvinist claim.

The commonalities are why I don't think it's a compelling argument from White that one determinism is completely unlike another. While Manichaeism has some crazy nonsense and outright obscenity that's absolutely of another category from anything Christian (White has detailed some of its particularly outlandish stories and doctrines, including infanticidal goddesses and excremental grace), determinism seems to me to be an underlying and extractable concept from the systems it appears in, and a transferable mindset when apprehending others. From my limited philosophical understanding, I managed to quickly understand its application to Christianity when I first learnt about Calvinism, even without having Romans 9 exegeted to me. Those were more different kinds of determinism as well, the first being an entirely non-theistic one and so one without related soteriology; Manichaeism does have salvation and an elect and so, for all its manifold differences, was more similar to Christianity than the understanding of determinism that meant I had no trouble comprehending Calvinism's meaning. Perhaps it will turn out to be that Wilson could be accused of overstating the case from the early Church by saying no one orthodox ever taught determinism before Augustine (we shall wait and see), but a similarly unnuanced representation comes from White too when he suggests that the accusation is that Calvin just copied Augustine, Augustine wholesale imported Manichaeism into Christianity and so Calvinists are secret Manichaeans, as Manichaeism's deterministic elements are inseparable from the rest. The information about Manichaeism is fascinating and White is a skilled and compelling communicator of it, but when he adds that this is the core of Wilson's accusation against Calvinists, I don't think it's a fair representation. Determinism, from my experience, is as adaptable a concept as can be when it comes to applying it to different systems of belief.

And if it really is the case that this did start with Augustine (and it looks that way in some sense, even if just in that he systematised it and pushed it more than anyone else before), isn't it a massive coincidence that the guy who held a deterministic theology while not a Christian was also the first guy to notice that Scripture teaches determinism after he did become a Christian? The fact he wasn't a determinist initially once he converted to Christianity – he would adopt it later as a Christian, as was the subject of Wilson's original thesis – would seem to obviously indicate that it wasn't a part of Christian understanding in the context Augustine lived in at least, but that he himself would introduce it while combatting Pelagianism suggests it was a mindset he couldn't shake and had perhaps continued to wrestle with internally. Indeed, in his Retractationes, Augustine says: 'I laboured on behalf of the free choice of the human will, but the grace of God won out.'

When the alternative is that Augustine believed in determinism, dropped it once he converted to Christianity, but then became possibly the first to discover independently of that former view that determinism is also actually the real teaching of Scripture despite hardly knowing Greek, then I can see why White has to find a distinction between the two. While I'm open to being convinced, it looks like a tough case to make and it's not there for me so far. Indeed, that my attitude to determinism now in the Christian context may be roughly similar to where it was when first learning about it as a non-theist could show that it's something you can easily carry with you between overarching belief systems, but I hope confessing that doesn't undermine my prior reasoning!

For one more piece of evidence as to the underlying transferability of the deterministic mindset, I'd like to submit this debate on the existence of God between Christian apologist Braxton Hunter and atheist Matt Dillahunty. In it, in complete opposition to Calvinist notions, Hunter invokes free will in his case for Christianity while Dillahunty is a materialist determinist. Having become so used now to listening to Calvinists on how their view of God is higher, hearing Dillahunty use familiar terms like compatibilism (a concept I discussed briefly earlier in the non-theistic deterministic context, but also one which Calvinists regularly employ) in discussing free will against his Christian opponent felt odd, but many fundamental issues and questions in determinism are similar whatever form it takes. It would be interesting to see how White would tackle Dillahunty on this area in such a debate, though as White is a presuppositionalist, if the subject did come up we may be left wanting when it comes to a full philosophical elaboration of their similarities and differences on it. (To see Dillahunty engage a presuppositionalist, check out this debate against the legendary Sye Ten Bruggencate.)

I must give Calvinism its due though: there is certainly a philosophical consistency to it. The natural conclusion from God's characteristics (all powerful, all knowing, omnipresent, eternal and unmatched) is that whatever He creates He can only have had full control over. There is an appeal to mystery required on the part of the non-Calvinist as to how all these characteristics can be true and yet God's creatures be making free decisions. As with all theology though, we ultimately run into the question of theodicy. The problem of evil, it seems to me, is unanswerable in this life. Brought up among what I can best describe as charismatic general baptist evangelical types, though the terminology never came up, the outlook was always implicitly Arminian, and so 'God gave us free will' was a phrase occasionally heard and the universality of the Gospel proclamation a perspective always implicit. The answer to why evil happens then was always free will, though it occurred to me eventually that this raises another question. If God's all good, surely anything he creates can't be less than good, and so how can their free will ever choose something bad? You can push things back to the Fall, where the serpent's temptation is first cause of evil in this world, but even if you leave aside how something created all good can be tempted into doing bad, you still have the wickedness of the serpent, and so the question's just pushed back another stage to Lucifer's own fall, the real proximate origin of evil. Wasn't Lucifer all good? How, then, could he ever do evil? In a closed system, good trees should only be giving forth good fruit all the way down, and as God is unmatched and the Creator of everything else, a closed system is what we're talking about. The more nuanced William Lane Craig answer to theodicy is that God might choose to allow evil (and Craig is not a Calvinist, so we're still operating on allow rather than decree) because it would bring about a greater good. How letting evil into an all good cosmos increases good, let alone over the option of just creating more good, doesn't make much sense to me – you don't increase something by proportional diminishment – but at this point the concept feels like a tenuous platonic form anyway, rather than reality as we experience and understand it.

Calvinism doesn't have that issue, it's far more straightforward. God decreed evil, and if you can't handle that, then tough Titus 3:9. Incidentally, if there's a distinction between decreed and created, caused or authored, then I can't figure it out, particularly in light of the absoluteness of God in His aforementioned characteristics, though I've seen Calvinists balk especially at the latter two terms, perhaps because even they grow uncomfortable at what is really entailed by the system when stripped of its arbitrary definitional distinctions (and the use of decreed but rejection of authored really does seem to me to be a distinction without a difference), but I'll generally stick with decreed as it's the word with which they're comfortable. God is glorified by creating evil men who do the evil He created them to do and then damning them to eternal torment for doing that evil that He made sure they can't not have done. Some non-Calvinists are of course concerned that this impugns the character of God, and I'm not surprised. Brasher Calvinists will say that anyone who can't get to grips with this can't handle a truly sovereign God (though of course, seldom adding that it's because God decreed for them not to be able to handle what they consider a truly sovereign God), rather than just not being able to handle a God who actively decrees every bad thing ever, but I think the implications ought to make anyone feel uneasy and require circumspection before asserting. I wouldn't want to get this one wrong.

There are two things both sides hold: that God is all good and also the all powerful ultimate creator of everything else, but they come to radically different answers when it comes to how evil therefore exists. On the Arminian side of things God allows the freedom of his creatures and that they choose to do wrong is evil's cause and therefore God remains all good, whereas the Calvinist has God decreeing all things, including evil, and therefore God remains all powerful. Both sides have their logical issues that ultimately require an appeal to mystery to hold together. A gentle observer may think the issue is one of emphasis; a more forthright one that this is the return of Epicurus to remind us that you can have an all good god or an all powerful one, but not one who is both, and Arminians and Calvinists have just picked different options. Both sides would fiercely object to the idea that they have any less a view than the other on God's goodness or power respectively, however much that might seem to be the crux of the divide. The Arminian will say God's allowing free will doesn't make him any less powerful, but doesn't their version of God have things happening that He didn't intend and just making the best of what He can from what people choose? It's easy to characterise that as something less than all powerful. On God's goodness, Calvinists emphasise the Holiness of God, which is to say His judgement against sin. Many verses attest to God hating evil, perhaps most clearly Psalm 45:7, and God deals justly with sin and the sinful who are an affront to His holiness. But didn't God decree all evil and sin in Calvinism? Did He do so just to emphasise how much He detests something that wouldn't exist anyway if He didn't decree it in the first place, and so He could show how much He detests the thing which wouldn't exist had He Himself not decreed it, He created creatures who He made sure couldn't not sin so He could torture them for eternity for sinning? Some Calvinists might squirm at the phrasing, but a consistent one should be able to say 'Amen!' to that. That there would likely be objections to the characterisation (which, while a rather indelicate way of putting things, does follow from the Calvinistic premise) demonstrates that it's easy to see how that God might appear to be less than completely good.

There's a tendency on the part of some of those on either side to go all in and suggest that the other side's version of God is less than God or not worthy of worship or the like. Whenever I hear someone on either side say that, I'm a little shocked that they go that far. Though I do lean strongly Arminian, that's a level of certainty on the subject I can't imagine having. Deuteronomy 29:29 says that the secret things belong to God, and I think both the reconciliation of God's attributes with the existence of evil and the reconciliation of God's attributes with man's apparent free will could well belong in that category as unrevealed to us and should be chalked up to mystery in this life. Of course, that depends on the truth of the scriptural witness, and more learned men than I have zealously advocated both sides based on the same Bible and continue to do so. If the early Church really had a uniform interpretation on the subject, it would be a powerful argument. That White, Wilson and Flowers are contesting this point so stridently and both sides seek to claim the early Church for their own view indicates that they recognise the potential persuasiveness of it. As for me, I continue to watch with keen interest the ongoing back-and-forth. Maybe the outcome of this dispute will prove to be the decider for me; if nothing else, it's welcome entertainment during this troubled time.

 


1 Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome are thought to have known the Apostles; Polycarp too, though only a single letter of his survives (the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians which, significantly to the James/Paul question, states that salvation is by grace and not by works). Polycarp was, though, the tutor of Irenaeus of Lyons, whose Against Heresies is a vital source for what we now know about Gnostic practice and beliefs. It's fascinating to see who knew who in the early Church – for another relevant example, Augustine was converted and baptised by Ambrose of Milan – and also what issues they addressed and when, so often issues which are still disputed among Christians today.
2 The Roman Catholic Church adopted Augustine's view of original sin (thought not his determinism), and from this stems the idea of Limbo, where dead unbaptised infants go; not Heaven, but not Hell either at least. Despite the doctrine's fame as a uniquely Roman Catholic construct, it has never been the Church's official teaching. The Church's most recent addressing of the issue is the International Theological Commission document The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptised.

Jonathan Headington

Co-founder & Editor of Excvbitor and YouTuber at Headhunters Media

 

Twitter: @IonathanRex

 

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