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Calvinism -- Ten Little Caveats*

by Bob Moore

Copyright 1998


-- an introduction --

The Early Church Fathers Were Arminian-like; Augustine Made Corrections That Overcompensated

The early church (AD 100-400) was partly right about the doctrine of the way God saves individuals. "Calvinists", beginning with Augustine, made some corrections to the position of the early church Fathers while at the same time making new errors in the process. Since the time of John Calvin, Arminians have shown valid differences between the true Biblical view of the salvation doctrine and Calvin's view. But, since much of the Arminian view falls back on the mediocre view of the post-apostolic church, I have tried to show where continuing reform of both theologies is necessary to be close to the Biblical teaching.

My strategy is to reveal the problems encountered as a result of a Calvinistic commitment to certain Greek philosophical ideas. My ten little reasons for advocating reform of both Calvinism and defective Arminianism will detail these weaknesses in these ten little chapters and finally suggest a direction for us both to head.


Actually from their opponents, Calvinists have adopted a summary of the terms of their salvation doctrine, as they understand it, in the acronym, TULIP. Like other systems of belief, Calvinists have seen the "support" of their doctrine on the lips of Jesus, St. Paul, and others; and from the beginning to the end of the Bible have been able to discount, to their satisfaction, the difficulties that various texts might present.

T. Total Depravity (total inability)
U. Unconditional Election
L. Limited Atonement
I. Irresistible Grace
P. Perseverance of the Saints

Briefly, this is what they mean. Total depravity is the teaching that man is so affected by the fall that he is totally unable to do any spiritual good and it is therefore impossible for him to do anything on his own to contribute to his salvation. They say an unbeliever is an "unregenerate" (not made spiritually alive) man who, because he is dead spiritually, cannot understand spiritual truth. He, therefore, has no capacity to choose God; meaning thereby that he cannot have faith in God until God "regenerates" him and then gives him faith.

Unconditional election: The term "elect", seems, by definition, to refer to someone who is chosen by another. Consequently, they say membership of those who are in this group of chosen ones is not conditioned on the free actions of men.

Limited Atonement states that Christ did not die for the sins of all men, for it he did then supposedly everyone would make it to heaven. Christ's death, they say, was not meant for other than those particular individuals whom He had decided beforehand to save.

Irresistible Grace is their doctrine which maintains that a sinner has no capacity to refuse the special grace of God in bringing him to salvation.

Perseverance of the Saints teaches that no true Christian will fall away and be lost. Or, at the least, it means that those Christians who wind up in the end as Christians, were the ones who persevered and were the only ones meant to be perseverers by God.


After Jesus and the apostles gave to us God's complete revelation of Himself, it was recorded in what we have as the New Testament. As the next few generations began to comment on the New Testament, they began to write things about God's foreknowledge, man's free will, election, and so on. The writings that came forth between about AD 100 and 400 tended to explain that men make totally free moral choices (undetermined by God) and that God elects them (chooses them for His own) based on His ability to foresee the choices that they would make.

Texts such as Romans 8: 29, 30 seemed to support such a doctrine, but given the influence of the Greek-like philosophy of the Jewish intellectual, Philo, during this period, I suspect that the "free" aspect of men's choices became over-emphasized in the teachings of the church fathers. It wasn't until much later that Calvinists explained "freedom of the will" in a way that allowed for God's determination of an individual's free choice. Back then, however, Philo, had written that

man is possessed of a spontaneous and self-determinedwill whose activities for the most part rest ondeliberate choice.... the soul of man alone hasreceived from God the faculty of voluntary movement,and in this way especially is made like to Him, andthus being liberated, as far as might be, from thathard and ruthless mistress, necessity, may justly becharged with guilt [or commended with praise]. [ascited in Benjamin Writ Farley, THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD(Baker Book House, Grand Rapids)]

And on God's foreknowledge Philo leans in the direction of making God's activities dependent on His foreknowledge of all events:

For a mere man cannot foresee the course of futureevents, or the judgments of others, but to God as inpure sunlight all things are manifest. For already Hehas pierced into the recesses of our soul, and what isinvisible to others is clear as daylight to His eyes.He employs the forethought and foreknowledge which arepeculiarly His own, and suffers nothing to escape Hiscontrol or pass outside His comprehension. For noteven about the future can uncertainty be found withHim, since nothing is uncertain or future to God.[Ibid.]


Justin Martyr, a defender of the Christian faith during the mid 100's, comments in his writings that he draws upon his training in Platonist-type philosophy. Justin taught that

... unless the human race have the power of avoidingevil and choosing good by free choice, they are notaccountable for their actions... [Ibid.]

Justin also "touches on the issue of God'sforeknowledge. He understands it to be the meanswhereby God foresees what actions and choices mankindexercises, in light of which God then distinguishes theelect from the non-elect. Thus God delays the finalact of history until the number of those foreknown byHim as good and virtuous is complete .... For thereason why God has delayed to do this, is His regardfor the human race. For He foreknows that some are tobe saved by repentance, some even yet that are perhapsnot born."[Ibid.]

A few years later in the same century,Irenaeus writes basically the same thing claiming thatin the Bible is set forth the ancient law of humanliberty, because God made man a free [agent] from thebeginning, possessing his own power, even as he doeshis own soul, to obey the behests of God voluntarily,and not by compulsion. For there is no coercion withGod .... And in man, as well as in angels, He hasplaced the power of choice ....But if some had beenmade by nature bad, and others good, these latter wouldnot be deserving of praise for being good, for suchwere they created; nor would the former bereprehensible, for thus they were made [originally].But since all men are of the same nature, able both tohold fast and to do what is good; and, on the otherhand, having also the power to cast it from them andnot to do it, --some do justly receive praise...; butthe others are blamed.... [Ibid]

Origen, during the same time period assures his readers that one's fate is always determined by the use of one's will and that God is the knower of all choices but never their cause. [Ibid.]


Just before AD 400 Ambrose was continuing to emphasize man's free will in his work, _Jacob and the Happy Life_. In this milieu came the teachings of Pelagius around AD 400. He taught that men are born essentially good and are capable of doing what is necessary for salvation. Augustine confronted the Pelagian idea in what amounted to a change in his own views. From scripture he saw that the traditional "free moral choices" which the church fathers and Pelagius had presented as self-determinedly free, were not nearly as free as they were making them out to be. Augustine recognized that his predecessors had not adequately explained how the will is in bondage and a slave to lusts and ignorance and not free to choose God apart from the grace of God.

Augustine decided that the old view where God "elected" souls _on the basis of foreseeing_ their free moral choices was inadequate. That view seemed to make man the determiner of his own salvation and God the one who "passively" put his stamp of "elect" on the ones who would choose to be saved. This view, thought Augustine, failed to grasp the depths of corruption of human nature (caused by original sin) and it did not seem to require much of God's grace in the matter.

In responding to all this Augustine argued that God's role in salvation is total. Election, he said, is _not based on what God foresees_ but is based on the mystery of His unsearchable will. The omnipotent Creator simply decides to graciously redeem some of Adam's posterity, while allowing the rest to suffer the punishments of sin which they justly incur as a fitting consequence of Adam's fall and in which they continue willfully to concur by virtue of their own free will.

Man's inability, Augustine derived from scripture, but the doctrine of a God uninfluenced by the actions of men probably owes its origin to the "Unmoved Mover" of Aristotle whom Augustine had studied in Carthage before his conversion. Scripture itself would not evoke Augustine's conclusion that God does not actually respond to man. I will treat this more in depth in chapters to follow.

At that time, we, the Church, condemned Pelagius' view as heretical but backed off a bit from accepting Augustine's view in its totality.


For the next 1100 years the church taught a semi- Augustinian view of things. The church believed (as I do in a certain sense) that God's predestination and calling were rooted in God's foreknowledge. This teaching, strengthened by Thomas Aquinas (c. 1270), seemed to be a continuation of the view of the second and third century fathers. We also believed during this 1100 year period that those under the influence of the church (usually initiated by infant baptism) would be given the grace to believe and that, if they believed, God's "efficacious" grace cooperating with our wills, would enable us to obey God.

As the length of time we held this view seems to indicate, it was probably a view very close to the truth. However, because of the influence of semi-Pelagian views in the church there was an erosion of the justification-by- faith view. Much was taught about salvation that required the initiative of man. The grace of God and the will of man were both involved in salvation, but in a sense where good works were becoming a necessary part.

In response, the church was reformed beginning with the challenges of men like Thomas Bradwardine, Gregory of Rimni, John Wycliffe, and John Huss of the 14th century and culminating with men like Luther and Calvin of the 16th century. Calvin accomplished a swing away from semi- Pelagianism that brought his followers all the way back to Augustinianism.


Because some of Augustine's philosophical training seems to have wrongly influenced his ideas about God, he was moved to introduce a new basis for the reason of the election of Christians; that is, election not based on what God foresees, but based on the mystery of His unsearchable will. I will urge in chapter seven that the post-apostolic fathers did have a slight misunderstanding regarding God's foreknowledge of believers, and, I will also show why Augustine's attempted correction of the post-apostolic fathers was misleading.

The post-apostolic fathers' apparent reliance upon Philo's equation of "foresee" with the Biblical word, "foreknow" gave undue precedence to one particular meaning (among other meanings) of that New Testament word. It implied that the future existed, somehow, for God to observe it, yet without God having determined it. It favored God's all-knowing over His all-powerfulness (as if one might dominate the other). This may have been what roused Augustine to reverse the prominence; favoring God's all- powerfulness as the determinant in the election of believers. Thenceforth the Calvinists have thought of God's foreknowing and all-powerfulness as virtually synonymous. As we proceed through the chapters ahead I will lead up to another, more Biblical reason why believers are elect according to the foreknowledge of God (1 Pet. 1:2).

What I intend to do in the following chapter is to demonstrate that the Calvinist has gotten a distorted idea of what God is like because his idea is based on listening to what uninspired man has had to say about God. It has served to skew his concept of God in non-biblical ways. If we limit ourselves to hearing what God has to say about Himself we will learn what He is really like.


* Caveat:  a warning or explanation to prevent misinterpretation.