Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Calvinism In The Patristic Era

Some of you might be interested in some comments I made in another thread:

Richard Coords wrote:

"The relevance of the citation from the appendix is that it confirmed that Irenaeus specifically criticized the Gnostics (Florinus and Blastus) regarding their concept that God is 'the author of sin.'"

But there were far more Gnostics than those two men, and whether the concept of authorship of sin is relevant depends on how it's being defined. You haven't demonstrated how the term was being defined in this historical context. And I've cited Irenaeus' comments on the uniqueness of Florinus' beliefs. You could argue that Irenaeus was referring to the uniqueness of other beliefs held by Florinus, not the belief(s) you have in mind, but you'd have to argue for that exemption, not just assume it.

I don't see how adding Blastus to the discussion furthers your argument. Here's what Eusebius writes about the two men:

"Others, of whom Florinus was chief, flourished at Rome. He fell from the presbyterate of the Church, and Blastus was involved in a similar fall. They also drew away many of the Church to their opinion, each striving to introduce his own innovations in respect to the truth....Irenaeus wrote several letters against those who were disturbing the sound ordinance of the Church at Rome. One of them was to Blastus On Schism; another to Florinus On Monarchy, or That God is not the Author of Evil. For Florinus seemed to be defending this opinion." (Church History, 5:15, 5:20)

There are some similarities. Both were active in Rome, for example. But there were differences as well. Eusebius notes that "each [was] striving to introduce his own innovations in respect to the truth", and he differentiates between the subjects Irenaeus addressed when responding to each of them. Regarding the treatise you keep referring to, on the subject of the authorship of sin, Eusebius tells us that "Florinus seemed to be defending this opinion", without including Blastus. I've already cited Irenaeus' comments on the uniqueness of Florinus' beliefs.

I'm not a Calvinist. And I think there's an element of truth to your argument. There was widespread opposition to some aspects of Calvinism in the patristic era. That fact has some significant evidential value. But you would need to do much more to establish the extent of that patristic opposition to Calvinism. Citing a source like Wikipedia isn't enough, and you would have to address more than the church fathers.

An example I often cite when discussing such issues is the perpetual virginity of Mary. The doctrine was widely accepted among the church fathers, especially from the fourth century onward. But the Biblical evidence is against it, and the concept seems to be contradicted by some early post-apostolic sources (Josephus, Hegesippus, etc.), though sometimes not explicitly. If we limited ourselves to explicit statements from the fathers and generalities asserted in sources like Wikipedia, we might come away with the impression that every mainstream Christian of the patristic era, or almost every one, believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Roman Catholics sometimes cite Jerome to the effect that only a small number of heretics denied the doctrine. But a contemporary of Jerome, Basil of Caesarea, commented that the view that Mary had other children after Jesus "was widely held and, though not accepted by himself, was not incompatible with orthodoxy" (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], p. 495). As far as I know, none of the writings of those men Basil refers to are extant. But Basil tells us that such people did exist. And there's less explicit evidence that the Biblical authors and some earlier post-apostolic Christians held the same view. It would be misleading to limit our evaluation of the subject to explicit statements made by church fathers whose writings are extant. There's more that has to be taken into account.

If you're going to argue that no mainstream Christian believed in some aspect of Calvinism prior to the time of Augustine, you should cite sources who are better qualified than Wikipedia to address such a subject. The same is true with regard to the origin of Augustine's beliefs. It would be better to cite a patristic scholar or historian than to cite a source like Wikipedia. I haven't studied the early history of Calvinist doctrine enough to address these subjects in depth, but I find it doubtful that Augustine's beliefs originated as you've suggested and that no other mainstream Christian held such views earlier. (The fact that Augustine was inconsistent, as you mentioned above, suggests to me that his later beliefs were less related to his pre-Christian life than you've suggested. I think that, overall, his inconsistency works against your view rather than supporting it. And Augustine doesn't seem to have expected his later views to bar him from mainstream Christianity.)

As I said before, Christian theology predates the era of the New Testament. What I mean is that much of what Christians believe is rooted in the Old Testament era. And in that respect, a Calvinist view of an issue like free will or predestination is different than an issue like the perpetual virginity of Mary. We wouldn't expect Jews of the Old Testament era to be commenting on Mary's perpetual virginity. But they did comment on some concepts related to Calvinism. Josephus tells us that the Jewish people held a wide variety of beliefs on such issues, including some that seem at least vaguely similar to Calvinism or what you're attributing to Calvinism. Thus, it's not as though, from a Calvinist perspective, an individual Gnostic like Florinus or the Gnostics in general first corrected a misunderstanding of Biblical theology. Rather, a Calvinist could argue that some extra-Biblical Jews, like those referred to by Josephus, had a correct understanding even earlier.

And the concept of looking for support from extra-Biblical sources, while somewhat significant, isn't as significant as some people make it out to be. It's not as though the Bible is just one document written by one source who only addressed the relevant subject(s) briefly and vaguely on one occasion. Rather, a Calvinist would argue that his beliefs on subjects like predestination and free will are addressed many times in scripture, in many contexts, sometimes explicitly. If he doubts his interpretation of one of the relevant passages in the writings of Moses, he can judge it by other passages in Moses. And passages in the Psalms. And in Proverbs. And in the prophets. And in the gospels. And in Paul. Etc. By the time we get to the church fathers, we've already heard from dozens of Biblical authors and other pre-patristic sources. It's not as though we just have one brief, vague passage in the Bible that nobody commented upon until the patristic era. The Bible and other pre-patristic sources carry more weight than people sometimes suggest as they're attempting to assign too much weight to the patristic sources. Some Protestants do neglect the patristic data, but some of their critics go too far in the opposite direction.

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