400 years after Dort: Why does the human-centric view of salvation persist?

Segment 4 | The philosophical antecedents of Arminianism and Calvinism

When we study history to understand exactly where we inherit the philosophical ideas that shape our worldview, it helps us better understand what we believe and why.

Post-Enlightenment, modern secular thought has co-opted the word “philosophy” as any worldview that is sustained independently of religious thought. By and large, in our culture we’ve accepted this secular hijacking. However, Christians know that philosophy in its most general sense is not at all opposed to biblical thought. Christianity itself is nothing less than a philosophy. In the most literal definition of the word, philosophy means “love of wisdom.” The Bible decrees, (Proverbs 9:10) “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight,” so from our biblical perspective we can even go so far as to say that the only true “philosophy” begins with divine revelation and continues in personal, Spiritual illumination.

Arminianism and Calvinism often are understood as opposing schools of thought. They are drastically different in many areas, yet they both attempt to explain the same concept, which is how fallen human beings receive redemption. Most students of church history probably are aware that the ideas that surfaced in the Arminian Remonstrance and the Synod of Dort were not new. These were old ideas that simply found new formulation as the 17th-century circumstances demanded.

Yet, it might be surprising to some readers to learn just how far back these ideas may be traced. Even though the Five Points were not actually written by Calvin, let’s make no mistake that the Five Points were Calvinistic through and through. Yet, the Christian pastors and theologians who taught in the tradition of Calvinism only configured these five points in response to the challenges to Calvinism made by the Five Articles of Arminian Remonstrance.

Philosophical continuity between Paulinism, Augustinianism and Calvinism
This circa 1645-1650 painting depicts Augustine with the flaming heart that would become his emblem. image: Philippe Champaigne, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Neither the followers of Calvin nor did Calvin himself pull the ideas of Calvinism out of thin air. The systematic way that John Calvin, in the 16th century, understood the sovereignty of God in salvation, essentially reiterates the theology of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), in the early fifth century; and before Augustine, the theology of Paul the Apostle, in the first century. Therefore, underpinning Calvinism is Augustinianism, and at “the heart” of Augustinianism — an intended reference to the pierced, flaming heart, which is Augustine’s symbol as one of the esteemed Doctors of the Church — is Paulinism; which is the gospel of a sovereign, merciful, just God who effectively, ultimately redeems his elect people in Christ.

Here are just a few quotations from Paul the Apostle; Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo; John Calvin, the great Protestant Reformer; and finally to the Synod at Dordrecht, that clearly establish continuity of thought in the matter of God’s sovereignty in salvation. They all assert that God chose his elect people not because he peered into the future and saw those who would choose salvation, but simply because of grace.

(Ephesians 1:3-6) “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

(II Timothy 1:9-10) “Who [God] saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel …”

“We were elected and predestinated, not because we were going to be holy, but in order that we might be so. … God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, predestinating us to the adoption of children, not because we were going to be of ourselves holy and immaculate, but He chose and predestinated us that we might be so. Moreover, He did this according to the good pleasure of His will, so that nobody might glory concerning his own will, but about God’s will towards himself. He did this according to the riches of His grace, according to His good-will, which He purposed in His beloved Son; in whom we have obtained a share, being predestinated according to the purpose, not ours, but His, who works all things to such an extent as that He works in us to will also. Moreover, He works according to the counsel of His will, that we may be to the praise of His glory. [Philippians 2:13] For this reason it is that we cry that no one should glory in man, and, thus, not in himself; but whoever glories let him glory in the Lord, that he may be for the praise of His glory. Because He Himself works according to His purpose that we may be to the praise of His glory, and, of course, holy and immaculate, for which purpose He called us, predestinating us before the foundation of the world. Out of this, His purpose, is that special calling of the elect for whom He co-works with all things for good, because they are called according to His purpose, and the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. [Romans 11:29]” (On the Predestination of the Saints, Augustine, Book 1, Chapter 37)

“There is no more illustrious instance of predestination than Jesus Himself … If any believer wishes thoroughly to understand this doctrine, let him consider Him, and in Him he will find himself also. The believer, I say; who in Him believes and confesses the true human nature that is our own … Therefore He predestinated both Him and us, because both in Him that He might be our head, and in us that we should be His body, He foreknew that our merits would not precede, but that His doings should.” (On the Predestination of the Saints, Augustine, Book 2, Chapter 67)

“Others, not versed in Scripture, and deserving no approbation, so wickedly assail this sound doctrine that their insolence is intolerable. Because God chooses some, and passes over others according to his own decision, they bring an action against him. But if the fact itself is well known, what will it profit them to quarrel against God? We teach nothing not borne out by experience: that God has always been free to bestow his grace on whom he wills. …
Augustine wisely notes this: namely, that we have in the very Head of the church the clearest mirror of free election that we who are among the members may not be troubled about it; and that he was not made Son of God by righteous living but was freely given such honor so that he might afterward share his gifts with others. …
Now it behooves us to pay attention to what Scripture proclaims of every person. When Paul teaches that we were chosen in Christ ‘before the creation of the world’ [Eph. 1:4a], he takes away all consideration of real worth on our part, for it is just as if he said: since among all the offspring of Adam, the Heavenly Father found nothing worthy of his election, he turned his eyes upon his Anointed, to choose from that body as members those whom he was to take into the fellowship of life. Let this reasoning, then, prevail among believers: we were adopted in Christ into the eternal inheritance because in ourselves we were not capable of such great excellence.
This Paul also notes, in another passage, when he urges the Colossians to give thanks because God has made them fit to share the inheritance of the saints [Col. 1:12 p.]. If, to make us fit to receive the glory of the life to come, election precedes this grace of God, what will God find in us now to move him to choose us? Another statement of Paul’s will express even more clearly what I mean. ‘He chose us,’ says he, ‘before the foundations of the world were laid’ [Eph. 1:4a], ‘according to the good pleasure of his will’ [Eph. 1:5, Comm.], ‘that we should be holy and spotless and irreproachable in his sight’ [Eph. 1:4b, conflated with Col. 1:22]. There Paul sets ‘God’s good pleasure’ over against any merits of ours.” (Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin, Book 3, Chapter 22, Section 1, “Election is not from foreknowledge of merit but is of God’s sovereign purpose.”)

“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He has out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect and the foundation of salvation. …
This election was not founded upon foreseen faith and the obedience of faith, holiness, or any other good quality or disposition in man, as the prerequisite, cause, or condition on which it depended; but men are chosen to faith and to the obedience of faith, holiness, etc. Therefore election is the fountain of every saving good, from which proceed faith, holiness, and the other gifts of salvation, and finally eternal life itself, as its fruits and effects, according to the testimony of the apostle: he hath chosen us (not because we were, but) that we should be holy and without blame before him in love (Eph. 1:4).” (The Canons of Dort, “First Head of Doctrine: Of Divine Predestination,” Articles 7, 9)

Paul, Augustine and Calvin all taught double-predestination, which means that God elects some people to eternal salvation and reprobates the rest to eternal condemnation. Reprobation is the converse of election, though scholars disagree as to whether God is active in reprobation, as he is in election. Most scholars admit it is best to allow the matter to remain shrouded in mystery rather than try to understand exactly how it works.

Philosophical continuity between Epicureanism, Pelagianism and Arminianism

Arminianism, on the other hand, basically inherits its ideas from philosophers and theologians who went before. As mentioned, Arminius in the 17th century disagreed with and protested Calvin’s position on God’s sovereignty and the moral aspect of human free will in respect to salvation. Dr. Needham observes:

“Arminius and his followers questioned the Augustinian understanding of grace that had been the reigning orthodoxy up till then within the Dutch Reformed Church. They were perhaps not so much innovators as representatives of an alternative tradition of Erasmian humanism that had always been present within Dutch Protestantism. If we remember Erasmus’ dispute with Luther summed up in Luther’s Bondage of the Will, we get a taste of the Arminian challenge to Calvinism.” (“Overview of the Seventeenth Century,” Tabletalk, April 2017)

Long before Arminius was a British monk named Pelagius (A.D. 360-418), who was a contemporary of Augustine of Hippo. Pelagius, like Augustine, observed that the church of his time had been infected by moral indifference. In Pelagius’ own effort to help counteract that lawlessness, he actually used one of Augustine’s earlier texts, On the Freedom of the Will, as a sourcebook. Later, when Augustine had a more full, faithful appreciation of God’s sovereign choice in salvation, he addressed the emergent problem of Pelagianism in his On the Predestination of the Saints.

Roman marble bust of Epicurus. image: public domain

Though Pelagius was one of the first known theologians of Christianity to teach a libertarian view of free will, his conception of free will in salvation actually may be traced back even further than Pelagius, to the Greek philosophers of the fourth and third century B.C., specifically the Atomists, and even more specifically, Epicurus (341-270 B.C.).

The Atomists argued a type of pluralism, in which the universe fundamentally is many, instead of one. There were at least five major proponents of Atomism, all with different specific positions on the makeup, number and activity of the atoms. Epicurus was a type of quantitative atomist, in which his “uncuttable” atoms, or elements, all had the same qualities, except for weight. These atoms roamed through a void and collided with each other to form objects. In Epicurus’ particular atomic view, reality is composed entirely of empty space and these “uncuttables.”

Because Epicurus’ atoms had the quality of weight, they tended to fall in the same direction, downward in space. Naturally, they fell straight down in lines parallel to each other. We must ask, how did these atoms ever collide to form macroscopic objects? Epicurus theorized that occasionally an atom would “swerve” from its vertical path. This swerve was entirely uncaused, and accounts for the conglomeration of atoms into objects.

Interestingly, according to Epicurus, this “swerving” from the natural path also accounts for human “free choice.” Human beings have the ability to act apart from causal determination, because the atoms that comprise our bodies sometimes inexplicably, unpredictably swerve.

On this connection between Greek Atomism and human “autonomous reason,” I now defer to a few observations by a renowned Christian philosophy and apologetics professor, Dr. John Frame:

“Epicurus is probably the first philosopher to identify human freedom with causal indeterminacy, and to make this indeterminacy the basis of moral responsibility. This view of freedom is sometimes called libertarianism or incompatibilism. A number of theologians have advocated free will in this sense, including Pelagius, Molina, Arminius, and the recent open theists. But the question must be posed: how does the random swerve of atoms in my body make my acts morally responsible? If I walk down the street and some atoms in my head swerve and collide, making me rob a bank, why am I to blame? I didn’t make them swerve; indeed, the swerve had no cause at all. It seems more plausible to say that the swerve happened to me, and therefore that I am not responsible for its consequences. It is like a chemical imbalance in my brain, making me do strange things. It is an odd kind of determinism, rather than freedom. Should we not say, then, that such a swerve precisely removes our responsibility?
The question of responsibility leads us to think of ethics. Writing after the time of Plato and Aristotle, Epicurus is eager to apply his atomism to moral questions. One wonders indeed what sort of ethics can emerge from such a thoroughgoing materialism.” (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame, pp. 58-59)

“In his view of human nature as well, Justin [Martyr] moves away from Scripture toward a philosophical concept. He rightly seeks to reject Stoic fatalism and to defend human responsibility. But to do that, he appeals to the view that the human will is entirely indeterminate, entirely independent of God or of any other cause. In this sense, he adopts a view of human free will (autoexousion) that was to damage many later theological systems, such as Pelagianism and Arminianism. This view is sometimes called libertarian freedom. This notion is inconsistent with the Bible’s teaching about God’s sovereignty (Rom. 11:36, Eph. 1:11).” (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, p. 92)

“Traditional Arminianism teaches (1) that man has libertarian freedom, so God does not control all things, and (2) that God nevertheless foreknows everything that comes to pass. Arminians think (2) is important in the doctrine of salvation. They do not want to maintain, with Calvinists, that God chooses (elects) people to salvation merely by his own power. Rather, they want to affirm that God foreknows how each person will respond (freely) to his offers of grace and prepares his blessings accordingly. But if God foreknows everything that happens, he thereby renders every event certain.” (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, p. 449)

“Libertarian freedom was, arguably, the chief view of freedom among the church fathers, following suggestions of Greek philosophers such as Epicurus. The medieval thinkers were somewhat inconsistent or ambiguous in their views of freedom, but Luther and Calvin rejected libertarianism, as did Calvin’s successors. The Socinians and Arminians, however, embraced libertarian free will.” (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, p. 451)

Dr. Frame also points out overlap between the libertarian free will of Epicurus and that of more recent secular philosophy:

“Free choice, for Kant, is the libertarian concept that we have seen in Epicurus and in many of the church fathers. Augustine opposed Pelagius’s use of it, but later medieval (as Duns Scotus) and more recent (Arminius, Molina) thinkers embraced it. But … Kant rejected any proof of freedom. Freedom, like God and immortality, is a regulative, not constitutive, concept. Kant recommends that for our moral health we should act ‘as if’ we had libertarian freedom.” (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, John Frame, p. 265n23)

Since ancient Greece, this type of “libertarianism” has trickled into Christianity: it was the position of some church fathers, including Justin Martyr (A.D. 100-165) and Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-220); Pelagius, the opponent of Augustine; and later, the Jesuit Luis Molina (1535-1600); Fausto Sozzini (1539-1604) and Lelio Sozzini (1525-1562); obviously, Jacob Arminius; and present-day Arminians, open theists, and process theologians. Other modern scholars, such as Alvin Plantinga, Norman Geisler and Roger Olson, follow in the libertarian-free-will school of thought that we can fairly say characterizes Arminianism.

In the view of Calvinists, when we consider whose “free will” actually dominates salvation, what Arminianism amounts to is salvation that is effected by the choice of human beings, rather than God: hence, we label it human-centered salvation, as opposed to God-centered salvation.

If we are to be honest that a God-centered soteriology (doctrine of salvation) has become the minority report in Christianity, and if we are to tackle the question of why anthropocentric salvation seems to be the majority report in Evangelicalism, we have to take into account not only its philosophical roots, but what the Bible reveals about basic, fallen human nature — a nature that insists on its own autonomy and arrogates itself as master of its own destiny.

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church history, epistemology, Reformation, soteriology