July 10 is the 503rd anniversary of John Calvin’s (1509 – 64) birthday. Many blame Calvin for coming up with a novel and unbiblical theology that centered on predestination. I think that, not only was Calvin’s theology eminently biblical, but it wasn’t novel either. I’ve looked before at similarities between Calvin and Thomas Aquinas. On this his birthday, consider a few quotes comparing Calvin’s so-called “5 Points” with select quotes from the early Church Fathers.
Justin Martyr (A.D. 150): “Mankind by Adam fell under death, and the deception of the serpent; we are born sinners…No good thing dwells in us…For neither by nature, nor by human understanding is it possible for me to acquire the knowledge of things so great and so divine, but by the energy of the Divine Spirit…Of ourselves it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God…He has convicted us of the impossibility of our nature to obtain life…Free will has destroyed us; we who were free are become slaves and for our sin are sold…Being pressed down by our sins, we cannot move upward toward God; we are like birds who have wings, but are unable to fly.”
Origen (A.D. 185): “Our free will…or human nature is not sufficient to seek God in any manner.”
Irenaeus (A.D. 198): “God hath completed the number which He before determined with Himself, all those who are written, or ordained unto eternal life…Being predestined indeed according to the love of the Father that we would belong to Him forever.”
Clement Of Alexandria (A.D. 190): “If every person had known the truth, they would all have leaped into the way, and there would have been no election…You are those who are chosen from among men and as those who are predestined from among men, and in His own time called, faithful, and elect, those who before the foundation of the world are known intimately by God unto faith; that is, are appointed by Him to faith, grow beyond babyhood.”
Augustine (A.D. 380): “Here certainly, there is no place for the vain argument of those who defend the foreknowledge of God against the grace of God, and accordingly maintain that we were elected before the foundation of the world because God foreknew that we would be good, not that He Himself would make us good. This is not the language of Him who said, ‘You did not choose Me, but I chose you’ (John 15:16).”
LIMITED (PARTICULAR) ATONEMENT
Irenaeus (A.D. 180): “He came to save all, all, I say, who through Him are born again unto God, infants, and little ones, and children, and young men, and old men…Jesus is the Savior of them that believe; but the Lord of them that believe not. Wherefore, Christ is introduced in the gospel weary…promising to give His life a ransom, in the room of, many.”
Tertullian (A.D. 200): “Christ died for the salvation of His people…for the church.”
Eusebius (A.D. 330): “To what ‘us’ does he refer, unless to them that beleive in Him? For to them that do not believe in Him, He is the author of their fire and burning. The cause of Christ’s coming is the redemption of those that were to be saved by Him.”
Anselm (A.D. 1033): “If you die in unbelief, Christ did not die for you.”
Ignatius: “Pray for them, if so by they may repent, which is very difficult; but Jesus Christ, our true life, has the power of this.”
Athanasius (A.D. 350): “To believe is not ours, or in our power, but the Spirit’s who is in us, and abides in us.”
Jerome (A.D. 390): “This is the chief righteousness of man, to reckon that whatsoever power he can have, is not his own, but the Lord’s who gives it…See how great is the help of God, and how frail the condition of man that we cannot by any means fulfill this, that we repent, unless the Lord first convert us…When [Jesus] says, ‘No man can come to Me,’ He breaks the proud liberty of free will; for man can desire nothing, and in vain he endeavors…Where is the proud boasting of free will?…We pray in vain if it is in our own will. Why should men pray for that from the Lord which they have in the power of their own free will?”
PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
Clement Of Alexandria (A.D. 190): “Such a soul [of a Christian] shall never at any time be separated from God…Faith, I say, is something divine, which cannot be pulled asunder by any other worldly friendship, nor be dissolved by present fear.”
Tertullian: “God forbid that we should believe that the soul of any saint should be drawn out by the devil…For what is of God is never extinguished.”
Many of these quotes (and many more) can be found here. They are discussed more fully in Michael Horton’s Putting Amazing Back into Grace (Appendix) and John Gill’s The Cause of God and Truth (Part 4).
Some will no doubt raise the charge of cherry-picking these quotes out of context. They would argue that if you went back to read these quotes in context, you would find many elements of the Fathers’ theology that did not fit squarely with Calvin’s articulations in the Institutes.
To this I completely concede the argument. I agree that, for at least much of the patristic theology, these quotes were situated within (for example) an ecclesiology that is different from later Reformed thought. But just because there are later differences does not deny the presence of these quotes from history. Reformed theology is certainly a modification of the earlier periods, but no more so than Tridentine or Vatican II. The question is which is the more biblically faithful modification?
The presence of such quotes as those listed above in the corpus of the Church Fathers suggests that Calvin’s work was not novel, but instead that he was drawing on the same biblical data that the Fathers saw. Calvin may have reached other conclusions on the sacraments, liturgy, and the Church and her authority, but it will not do historically to maintain that the sovereignty of God in salvation is something that Calvin dreamed up in Geneva.