Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Extrabiblical, Pre-Reformation Support For Eternal Security (Part 1)

A documentary arguing against eternal security recently came out. It's mainly about the Biblical evidence, but it makes some comments about extrabiblical history along the way. Since it makes some misleading comments about the extrabiblical sources, and advocates of eternal security have handled those sources so poorly, I want to comment on the subject. It's not one of my primary areas of research, but I know enough about the topic to provide some information that significantly undermines the documentary's claims.

The concept that those who are justified won't lose their justification takes on different forms among different individuals and groups. And even people who hold the same form sometimes want to emphasize different things and prefer to use different terms (e.g., "preservation of the saints" rather than "perseverance of the saints"). Eternal security has been a popular designation in recent years, and I've used it in the past, so I'm using it again here.

Though there are differing views of eternal security, there's some overlap among them. To some extent, evidence for one view is evidence for another as well. Even if a view of eternal security held by a particular church father or other extrabiblical figure differs from the view held by a Calvinist, for example, the former can at least provide some degree of precedent for the latter, demonstrate that people in pre-Reformation history would have been more open to a Calvinist view than critics often suggest, and so on. I'll be addressing both partial corroboration and full corroboration. It's more significant if a source expresses complete agreement with eternal security, but it doesn't follow that partial agreement has no significance.

Near the beginning of the documentary, Michael Brown says that forms of eternal security that involve an unrepentant, sinful lifestyle were "unknown through much of church history". David Bercot claims, "before Augustine's novel teachings in the early fifth century, absolutely no one in the early church believed in once saved always saved. I know of no patristic scholar or church historian who disputes that fact.". Joe Schimmel tells us, "that doctrine [eternal security] was found not within any Christian churches at the time. It was found among the Gnostics."

Bercot goes on to cite some comments Origen made about some heretics. I'll address Origen in this post, then move on to other sources in future posts.

Before I get to Origen, though, I want to make some preliminary remarks about some broader issues. The large majority of pre-Reformation Christians didn't produce any writings that are extant.

And some of the sources whose writings we have are anonymous. All of us, including those who reject eternal security, rely on Bibles that are based on manuscripts from unknown sources. Some of the patristic literature comes from unnamed individuals (the Didache, the Letter To Diognetus, etc.). Some of the pre-Reformation sources I'll be citing who supported eternal security aren't named in the records we have, so keep in mind that all of us, including critics of eternal security, accept the use of such sources in other contexts.

There are disagreements about who qualifies as a church father and who doesn't. Tertullian and Origen are prominent examples often mentioned.

Also keep in mind that not every pre-Reformation source commented on whether justification can be lost. Many didn't discuss the topic much or at all. And how we interpret a source will largely depend on factors like what we think that source believed about other, related issues and what those other beliefs suggest about eternal security.

Because of factors like how I interpret Clement of Rome's comments on justification in contexts other than eternal security, what relationship I think Clement had with the apostles, and what I think the apostles taught, I lean toward interpreting First Clement in terms of something like a Calvinist concept of the perseverance of the saints. But somebody who doesn't hold views like mine on issues such as the ones I just mentioned could interpret a passage like section 58 of the document as a contradiction of eternal security. I would interpret that section in line with something like a Calvinist view of perseverance. And I would cite indications of a belief in eternal security elsewhere in Clement, such as his reference to the eternality of the mercy shown to David in section 18. He makes that reference just before discussing David's sinfulness and his turning from his sins in Psalm 51. In the opening of the section, before the citation of Psalm 51, Clement apparently is alluding to 1 Samuel 13:14 and Psalm 89:20, but with the addition of a reference to an eternal mercy. Clement took the initiative to bring it up. How many critics of eternal security would take the initiative to bring up the eternality of God's mercy to David just before discussing his sins? How many would go out of their way to refer to that eternality before citing Psalm 51, which Clement quotes extensively, a passage critics of eternal security cite against the doctrine? Remember, critics of eternal security make such an issue of objecting to the term "eternal" and referring to "conditional security" instead. Clement's framing of his discussion of David makes more sense under eternal security than under a conditional security view. And I've argued elsewhere that Clement's view of justification expressed in sections 32-33 makes the most sense if works are being excluded in a way that supports eternal security. (The comments section of the thread just linked includes some relevant material, so you may want to look there as well rather than just reading the initial post.)

Or consider The Martyrdom Of Polycarp. Section 2 refers to persevering under persecution so as to avoid hell. That could be interpreted as a contradiction of eternal security. If you don't persevere, you'll lose your salvation. But it could also be interpreted along the lines of a concept some Calvinists advocate, to the effect that such warnings are a means by which the elect are preserved. In fact, The Martyrdom Of Polycarp uses a lot of language that's reminiscent of Calvinism. There are frequent references to "the elect" and "chosen ones" (16, 20, 22). Section 17 goes as far as to say that "it is neither possible for us ever to forsake Christ, who suffered for the salvation of such as shall be saved throughout the whole world (the blameless one for sinners), nor to worship any other". So, we get a combination of a reference to how it's not possible for Christians to forsake Christ and a qualified reference to the atonement, to the effect that Jesus died for "such as shall be saved throughout the whole world". On balance, The Martyrdom Of Polycarp seems to me to lean in the direction of some form of eternal security, though not by much.

Moving on to Origen, I agree with something Augustine said about him. While addressing advocates of eternal security in his day, Augustine wrote:

"In respect of this matter, Origen was even more indulgent; for he believed that even the devil himself and his angels, after suffering those more severe and prolonged pains which their sins deserved, should be delivered from their torments, and associated with the holy angels." (City Of God, 21:17)

Some of the church fathers and other extrabiblical, pre-Reformation individuals were universalists. If such a "more indulgent" view, as Augustine put it, was known and sometimes accepted, that weakens the notion that the views of eternal security the documentary is criticizing would have been as inconceivable or objectionable to these pre-Reformation Christians as the documentary suggests.

Origen did refer to some heretics who held a form of eternal security. What the documentary doesn't mention is that he also wrote about how he was concerned that certain passages in Romans would lead people he considered Christians to adopt such views. The Roman Catholic scholar Thomas Scheck writes:

"With believers in mind he [Origen] rejects the view that justification is by faith alone, apparently because certain Christians were denying a future judgment based upon works....In 8.2 Origen again shows awareness of persons who do not seem to be heretics, but who do not understand the inextricable link between faith and good works. He refers to them as he expounds Rom 10.9, where it is evident that Origen rejects their theology, insisting that belief in Christ's resurrection and public confession of his lordship profits one nothing if his resurrection is not realized in the life of the believer....Gnostic and even some Christian exegetes used the 'faith alone' formulation to deny the doctrine of a future judgment according to works, but Origen repudiates this tactic." (Origen: Commentary On The Epistle To The Romans, Books 1-5 [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2001], 34-35, 38)

Here are some examples of what Origen wrote:

"In the first place let the heretics who claim that the natures of human souls are either good or evil be shut out. Let them hear that God pays back to each one not on account of his nature but on account of his works. In the second place let believers be edified so as to not entertain the thought that, because they believe, this alone can suffice for them. On the contrary they should know that God's righteous judgment pays back to each one according to his own works." (ibid., pp. 111-12, section 2:4:7 in the commentary)

"For through this [Romans 10:9] it will seem to some that even if a person lacks the advantages of good works, even if he fails to put forth effort for the virtues, nevertheless, by this, that he has believed, he would not perish but would be saved and would possess salvation, even though he would be unable to possess the glory of blessedness." (Origen: Commentary On The Epistle To The Romans, Books 6-10 [Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Of America Press, 2002], p. 139, section 8:2:7 in the commentary)

It's possible that Origen isn't responding to actual orthodox Christians who hold such views. He may only be responding to hypotheticals. But I agree with Scheck's comments quoted above, that it seems likely that Origen is responding to actual Christians, not just hypothetical individuals. For one thing, Origen says, in the second passage, "it will seem to some", so he seems to expect the view to be held by some people rather than just considering it possible that some will hold it. Secondly, given how often these concepts come up in Origen (the two passages above being just two examples, not the only ones), the existence of some people who held those views better explains why Origen addressed the subject so much. Third, as we'll see in later posts, belief in eternal security seems to have existed widely enough in the fourth and fifth centuries to make it plausible that it was held by some people in Origen's day. Besides, even if Origen was just addressing hypotheticals, it would be significant that such hypotheticals came to mind and that he thought they were worth addressing so much. That's relevant to how conceivable and plausible such views seemed at the time.

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