Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Augustine

Free will

We must believe in free will — we have no choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Hmm. I wonder what he was getting at? Having nothing more to go on to discern a more complex meaning in Mr. Singer’s thought than this fragment, I will say that I agree.

When Moses told the people “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life;” and Joshua later said to the same people “ Choose you this day whom ye will serve,” we must assume that the people really were free to make the choices offered to them.

Yet many Christian denominations, probably most, teach that we do not have free will to choose our own destiny. They magnify the sovereignty of God to the point of saying that if humans can choose whether or not to answer God’s call then we are saying that God is less than almighty.

But if words mean anything, the Bible is offering us just such a choice, from Genesis to Revelation. Where then do people get the idea that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says?

Determinism, the belief that the gods, karma, fate, or whatever you want to call the ultimate power in the universe, have pre-determined every detail of one’s life, has always been part of Eastern religions. It entered Western thought through Zeno, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.

It entered pseudo-Christian thought through Augustine, who laid the intellectual foundation for Roman Catholic policy. Augustine adapted Zeno’s thought, saying that God has predestined some people to be saved, and some to be damned. Since it is not given to mankind to know into which category they fall, the church has the right to compel all people within its territory to be members of the church and to turn the non-compliant over to the civil authorities. And since the church and the civil power were in complete unity, disobedience to the church was treason to the state and must be punished by death.

Since it could not be known who was predestined to salvation or damnation, then one could not discern that by the moral conduct of the person. In fact, those who led a pure and holy life were deemed to be deceived and the worst of heretics. This led to such aberrations in the Middle Ages as girls being led to the executioner because they refused the advances of the priests.

During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin refined the doctrine of Augustine; the essence of Calvin’s doctrine is often described by the TULIP formula:
Total depravity – the depravity of mankind prevents them from choosing to answer God’s call.
Unconditional election – The conduct of the elect has no part in determining their salvation.
Limited atonement – Christ only died for the elect, those predestined to be saved.
Irresistible grace – the grace of God is imparted to the elect, who have no power to resist it.
Perseverance of the saints – The elect can never lose their salvation.

This is the explicit doctrine of the Presbyterian, Reformed and most Baptist churches. Other churches believe much of what Calvin taught, but may be a bit nebulous about the origin of their beliefs.

The problem with believing Calvin’s doctrine is that church pews are occupied by people who believe that they have been born again through the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, but show little evidence of leading a Christian life. The old Westminster Confession got around this by saying that a born again person may take many years to develop an assurance of salvation. The modern teaching is that the new birth and conversion are quite different things, the new birth being instantaneous and conversion being a slow, almost imperceptible process.

The Bible makes no such distinction, the words are used interchangeably. There was a transition period for the disciples who walked with Jesus but did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Jesus told Peter “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” It was only a few days later that Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized. After that, the Apostle Paul says “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

Some may be confused by Paul’s thoughts on predestination. Read the passages as a whole. He is saying that God had predestined that there should be no more division between Jews and Gentiles, but that all could be saved in the same way. He is not speaking of individuals being predestined to salvation. At the end of one long passage on predestination, he writes: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.”

Christianity betrayed

In his book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren*, Leonard Verduin points out that the New Testament church was a complete break with all of preceding human history: “the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely, that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine.”

“It must not escape the reader that this was a novel insight, so novel as to be revolutionary. The world had never seen the like of it before. For all pre-Christian society is sacral. By the word ‘sacral,’ which we shall be using frequently and which we request the reader to impress on his mind, we mean ‘bound together by a common religious loyalty.’ By sacral society we mean society held together by a religion to which all the members of society are committed.”

The New Testament depicts the Christian church as being a voluntary assembly of believers who worshipped God and stood completely apart from the ceremonies consecrated to the deities of the cities and nations in which they lived. Nevertheless, they acknowledged the authority of the rulers of those lands as being authorized by God to rule in all areas of civil society.

The Constantinian change swept aside the worship of the old pagan deities and made the Roman Catholic church the only permitted form of worship in the whole empire. The Roman Empire once again became a sacral state and any deviation from the state religion was regarded as subversive of civil order.

It took Augustine to formulate a doctrine for such a return to pre-Christian customs. He introduced the concept of the invisible church – true believers are known only to God. Grace was not a matter of a personal relationship with God, but was transmitted through the sacraments of the church. Therefore it was best if all people in the empire were forced to be members of the state church, through infant baptism, and to attend the worship of this church. The faith, or lack thereof, of the priests had no bearing on the validity of the sacraments. Neither did their moral, or immoral, conduct.

Some Christians may have been relieved at the end of persecution. However, there were many who clearly saw that the Constantinian transformation of the church was a betrayal of all that was taught in the New Testament. And for them the persecution never ended.

*The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin. © 1964 by Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company

Eternal security or insecurity?

Evangelicals of the present day are being taught a doctrine of eternal security, but most are not aware of the dubious foundation and history of this doctrine. Here is how it all began.

In 312 AD Constantine was facing a battle with a rival whose army was twice the size of Constantine’s.  The story goes that the night before the battle Constantine had a dream or a vision of the cross and the words “In this sign conquer.”  The next day he went into battle with the sign of the cross on the shields and standards of his army, and routed his rival.  Thus began the transition of the early church from a body of born-again believers to a state religion.

In 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, granting freedom of religion to Christians in his empire.  In 317 he mediated a dispute between the Donatist church and the Roman church and issued an edict confiscating all the religious property of the Donatists and deposing their religious leaders.  In 325 he summoned the leaders of the Roman church to the Council of Nicaea to establish doctrinal standards for the church.

Constantine favoured Christianity as a means of bringing stability to the Roman Empire, therefore he watched over the church to guide it in the direction he desired.  He died in 337 AD and the Roman Catholic church, the only permitted form of Christianity under Constantine, went on to establish its authority over the Empire, requiring all citizens to be baptized into the church in infancy.

This was contrary to the apostolic faith and required a man of genius to establish a doctrinal foundation to justify the establishment of a state religion form of Chrisitanity.  This man was Augustine of Hippo, Saint Augustine, who lived from 354 to 430 AD.  Augustine was the first to speak of an invisible church, that true Christians are an invisible body known only to God, and no one can know who among the members of the visible church are genuine Christians.

The doctrine of a just war originates with Augustine, also the doctrine that the church has a right to compel people within its territory to be baptized and to prevent them by force from leaving the church.

It was found necessary to develop a new doctrine of the means by which Jesus obtained forgiveness of sins for fallen man.  The Biblical doctrine that He was the second Adam, the Son of God from heaven and the spotless Lamb of God whose sacrifice atoned for our sins was replaced.  The new teaching was that Jesus was one part the son of Mary and one part the Son of God and that it was the son of Mary who died on the cross, then descended into hell and suffered unbelievable torments equivalent to the eternal punishment of all who would ever be saved.  It was at this time that the phrase “descended into hell” was added to the Apostles’ Creed.  The version of the Apostles’ Creed found in the Martyrs Mirror is the original version, lacking this phrase.  Thus the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is based on the belief that Christ has already borne the punishment due to the elect, so there is no way they can ever face damnation.

Augustine taught that God had predestined before the beginning of time those who should be saved and those who should be lost.  The elect were then called by Irresistible Grace, by which they could not refuse the call to salvation.  And to these God granted perseverance, the grace to remain saved throughout their life.  This doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, originating with Augustine, is the basis of the doctrine of eternal security, or once saved, always saved.

Augustine also taught the perpetual virginity of Mary.  This is why many commentators have a problem declaring that James, Jude and Joses were the natural sons of Joseph and Mary and try to develop alternate explanations of who they might be.

Augustine also taught that the sacraments are a means of grace and that they are a means of grace even if the priest administering them is a known sinner.

John Calvin was a follower of Augustine, he strove to reform the church by emphasizing the doctrines first taught by Augustine.  The followers of Calvin are not only found in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, but also in the Southern Baptists, and other Baptist and evangelical denominations.  Churches vary in how strongly they teach Calvinism, but the most straightforward teaching is five point Calvinism, encapsulated in the TULIP formula:
T – Total depravity, man is so completely depraved that he has no ability to choose to be saved.
U – Unconditional election, salvation is not dependent on the conduct of the one who is saved.
L – Limited Atonement, Christ died only for those predestined to be saved.
I – Irresistible grace, man has no power to refuse the call to salvation.
P – Perseverance of the saints, those who are predestined to salvation can never be lost.

Many sincere Christians today believe that a person who has once given his heart to the Lord can never again be lost.  If one approaches the Bible with a predetermined belief that it teaches the unconditional eternal security of believers, it is possible to select verses to support this view, but such an interpretation is not apparent if one takes an unbiased approach to the Bible as a whole.

Proponents of this view are forced into a corner when trying to explain real life examples of those who have led overcoming Christian lives for years and then made choices that led them away from God.  Such people were never truly saved in the first place, they maintain.  If that would be the case, on what basis can anyone know that they are saved?  It appears to me that people who say such things have chosen a doctrine of eternal insecurity.

Early Church History

The first recorded separation of the Christian Church occurred in A.D. 251.  Novatian, bishop at Carthage (near the location of the present day city of Tunis) in North Africa, insisted that members who had renounced Christ during the persecution of Diocletian could no longer be recognized as members of the Church of Christ.  He was the first to use the term Cathar,.  A network of small affiliated congregations spread through Western Europe, Asia Minor and Africa.  Members of these churches were called Cathari (pure ones) and members of the larger body Catholics (universal).  Anyone who transferred from the Catholic churches had to be rebaptized.  Novatian is believed to have been martyred about 258 during the persecution of Valerian.

In A.D. 313 Donatus became bishop of the non-Catholic church in Carthage.  He believed they were the true church and required all new members to be baptized, including those who had been baptized in the Catholic Church.  He rebuked thr Catholic bishop for handing over Scriptures during persecution.  Donatus lived until 355, and when the Emperor Constantine supported the Catholic Church, Donatus asked the question “What has the Emperor to do with the church?”  In 394 AD there were 310 Donatist bishops.

Most historians consider Novatian and Donatus and the churches they led to be unrelated historical events.  Those known in later eras as Paulicians, Bogomils, Albigenses, Waldensians and Mennonites are also considered to be unconnected.  By and large, these names have been given by their opponents in the state churches, who have also lumped groups of varying doctrines together under one label, in order to condemn the pure Christians with the errors of others who had in truth departed from the true faith.  It must be remembered that church history has generally written by the persecutors, who endeavoured to destroy all the writings of those they persecuted.

Constantine’s purported conversion and ensuing military victory took place in 312.  As he ruled the whole empire from Rome, he also favoured the bishop of Rome as the supreme head of the Catholic church.  Thus began the Roman Catholic Church and all the familiar pretensions of the papacy.

Augustine of Hippo became a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in 396 and devoted his life to developing a theology to counter the influence of the pure church.  Among the doctrines formulated by Augustine are the following:
– the predestination and perseverance of the ‘fixed number of the elect’,
– the true church is invisible (no man can discern who is truly among the elect),
– the church is a mixture of wheat and tares,
– mankind is absolutely incapable of doing any good,
– the church believes for the Christians,
– grace is received through the sacraments,
– therefore babies must not be deprived of the grace provided by baptism,
– corruption of the priest does not affect the validity of the sacraments,
– coercion of dissident Christians is an act of loving correction.

During the Reformation of the 1500’s, the Lutheran, Reformed and Anglicans all carried Augustine’s doctrines over into the new churches.  Calvin further developed these doctrines into a form of predestination that makes grace almost impersonal, it affects whatever it touches almost mechanically.

Information for this summary is taken from Eerdman’s Handbook to the History of Christianity, © 1977.

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