Augustine, Calvin, and Predestination

Slamming St. Augustine often seems to be a kind of leisure sport among some Orthodox, despite its lack of historical pedigree.  We hear much about Augustine’s negative views on sexuality, his horrible views on sin and damnation, his tragic acceptance of the Filioque, and his erroneous views on predestination. He is sometimes made the whipping boy for everything that went wrong in the west (from an Orthodox perspective) so that one might almost imagine that Augustine had never been born the western half of the Christian oikoumene would never had any problems. The problem with such a negative view of Augustine is that it gives the impression that his teaching on these topics were all that the bishop of Hippo ever wrote, when he fact he wrote reams of stuff which were quite unproblematic and wonderful. That is perhaps why the east, though less familiar with his works than the west, applauded him and valued him.

Take as an example of eastern applause the letter that the Emperor Justinian read to the Council Fathers assembled in Constantinople in 553. In this letter he wrote that “We hold fast to the decrees of the four Councils and in every way follow the holy Fathers, Athanasius, Hilary, Basil, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose, John [Chrysostom] of Constantinople, Cyril, Augustine, Proclus, Leo, and their writings on the true faith”. We note Augustine’s inclusion among “the holy Fathers”. And the Emperor was not speaking idiosyncratically. The Council Fathers themselves evidently shared his view of Augustine. In their final Sentence, they said that in their Synod “Several letters of Augustine, of most religious memory, who shone forth resplendent among the African bishops, were read”. These letters had nothing to do with Augustine’s doctrines regarding original sin, saving grace, or predestination, but rather his notion that heretics could be anathematized after death. This reference does show, however, that Augustine was certainly regarded as a holy Father and even as “of most religious memory, resplendent among the African bishops”. The Council Fathers clearly would have had no time for a dismissal of Augustine as a deformed heretic.

No one bats a thousand, including St. Augustine. That is why the Orthodox follow no single Father, but rather the consensus patrum, the broad general agreement among them about the basics. There was much diversity among the Fathers, but an impressive consensus about certain things as well, and it is to this consensus which Orthodox make their appeal and regard as authoritative. We listen for the essential melody of the patristic chorus, and charitably pass over the odd discordant note which all of the Fathers occasionally sound. Like it or not, Augustine retains his place in the chorus, standing as he does with the distinctively African section.

John Calvin, some thousand years after Augustine, also comes in for some heavy denunciation. He is often paired with Augustine as if they formed a set of dogmatic bookends, so that when one begins denouncing Augustine sooner or later he will get around to denouncing Calvin as well. There is a certain kind of irony in this, because although Calvin had a profound admiration of Augustine it is less certain that Augustine would have returned the compliment.   His horror of schism on the part of the Donatists does not bode well for his appreciating the divisions affected by the Protestants.

Since I regard the Protestant Reformation as a glorious and well-intentioned series of mistakes, I will not spend a lot of time lionizing the reformer of Geneva. But even here it is worth saying that there was more to Calvin than his doctrines of sin and predestination. Many people equate “Calvinism” with the doctrine of double predestination, when there was much more to the man than these teachings. He wrote many things, including Bible commentaries which still have value today. It is unfortunate that Calvin has been so thoroughly identified with the doctrine of predestination, as well as with a kind of heartless delight in the damnation of sinners which is quite unfair to the man, and reveals a profound historical ignorance. Indeed, one person objecting to my denial of Universalism once suggested that I must somehow want people to be damned, and he expressed it by saying, “Your Calvinism is showing!” It was as if Calvinism=delight in damnation.

In fact the doctrine of predestination, though an important part of Calvin’s system, is not central to it. As one Calvin scholar wrote, “this [teaching on predestination] must not be taken to be the very centre of his teaching. His earliest writings do not contain any systematic statement of the problem, and although later on he accorded a growing importance to it he did so under the sway of ecclesiological and pastoral preoccupations rather than in order to make it a main foundation of his theology…he only very rarely speaks of predestination except in the four chapters that are devoted to it in the edition [of the Institutes] in 1559.”

For this reason I should like to approach the teaching of the Scriptures on predestination leaving St. Augustine and John Calvin to one side, and thus sitting lightly on historical denunciation of individuals. It is too easy to allow our ad hominem arguments assume an historical dimension, and to assume that fixing the dreaded label “Augustinian” or “Calvinistic” on a disputant somehow settles the argument and disqualifies the person to whom the label is affixed. Labels are rarely helpful, even on the rare occasions when they are used with historical accuracy. Better to leave them out of the discussion and examine the issue on its own merits. For a Christian, this means first examining the Scriptures.

Next: The Scripture’s teaching on predestination




  1. Father! I am looking forward to the next article…but I must say, trying to set aside Calvin’s name in all this is like trying to set aside the escapades of President Clinton in remembrance of the good he has done. You’re generosity far exceeds mine.
    Thank you, though. It will be beneficial to look at this from another angle by “examining the scriptures”.

    1. How felicitous to encounter a charitable and, indeed, realistically full and balanced treatment of St. Augustin, that great father of the Eastern as well as the historic Western church … and my “church-name” patron, given and joyously taken on the occasion of my Orthodox chrismation.

  2. Anybody interested in Calvin and predestination might want to consult Stefan Zweig’s “ Castellio against Calvin”: When Calvin accused Castellio of theft in order to get rid of that troublesome opponent, Castellio replied that even if it were true that he had committed theft, that could not possibly be held against him, having been predestined to steal.
    Furthermore, the cruelty, injustice and lack of charity displayed by Calvin, as documented in that book, should make any serious consideration of his teachings obsolete: You know them by their fruits.

  3. I used to be a Calvinist (Presbyterian). I’m now converting to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, but I still have family in that particular tradition.

    I’m not sure if this would clarify anything, but it seems to me their real focus is in a logical system beginning with the absolute sovereignty and glory of God. Starting from this focus, they must make man as low as possible. Total depravity of man (man’s inability to do any good. All “good” deeds are tainted by sin whether it’s hidden pride or more obvious.) is induced. I suppose God is most glorified, in their understanding, when man is most humiliated which means wholly evil and hating of God. So, their logical system is based on their love and zeal for God’s glory and sovereignty, not really a sadistic hope in the damnation of the “non-elect”.

    I now see that Calvinism is a false teaching, but these people aren’t judgemental individuals who would love to watch God punish those whom He has not chosen. Rather they would love to see God glorified in His perfect justice.

    I now tell my kin in that tradition that we can know God’s mercy because we have experienced it. But what is God’s justice? We haven’t really experienced God’s justice before (or none of us would be here) so why have a whole system of Theology around it?

    Let’s pray for the Calvinists.

    1. Happy to welcome you home to Orthodoxy! As you have discerned, my main point was not to defend either Augustine or Calvin’s doctrines (or even them personally), but only to suggest that fairness to them demands that we see them and their writings as they really were in their totality, and not equate them with a particular doctrine, or to indulge in character assassination. It is the same with Origen: we must see him as he was, and not simply equate him with an odd belief in universalism under the name of “Origenism”. Origen had much more to say than the doctrines for which he was later condemned.

  4. With all due respect and out of love I must say, Fr. Farley, I am more and more confused by your articles, especially as they often do not line up with the overall mind of Orthodox teaching or the bulk of writings by others on Ancient Faith. So far, your articles are the only ones that have given me concern. While it is not our way to demonize people and there was perhaps more to these two men, indeed the seeds of heresy were sown by the writings of Augustine. And Calvin – his actions and writings speak for himself and he most certainly did promote the abhorrent idea of double predestination. There was little of the love of Christ in him as evidenced by his actions. He was a tyrant who shut down anyone who sought to have an opinion opposite his, or who disagreed with him, putting men out of work, running their reputations. He banned activities in his efforts to legalize what was moral instead of encouraging the true life we should live out of love as did our Lord and as does Orthodox Faith. He lifted himself up as a prophet. Indeed what is seen is spiritual pride. The devil especially loves to catch us in spiritual pride. It is as if there is a trace of Western theology somewhere that you feel the need to defend. Or, a disconnect between what you say and what you actually mean to get across.
    For example: first was the article with a hook entitled “Worshipping with Muslims” and a photo of what appeared to be a Muslim Imam with an Orthodox priest in a sanctuary. I read the article to see if the Ancient Faith I am coming into, that I have believed for decades but was never able to join, actually participates in the offering of the Divine Liturgy with a Muslim Imam. The article has nothing to do with worshipping with Muslims. A story is told about a group of Muslims who prayed earnestly for God to reveal the true God to them, saw Jesus, became believers and were killed. These believers would then enter into eternal salvation. But then the article joltingly shifts to universalism. And when readers comment you point them to a verse taken out of 2 chapters which put it into context which would seem to promote universalism if people are behaving in the way God wants through the law. Please review what you are writing carefully and critically.
    Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

    I would recommend to those interested in Western Reformed theology to read Robert Arakaki’s balanced writings here on Ancient Faith.

    1. Suzie: Thank you for your comments. A full exegesis of Romans 2 is beyond the capacity of this comments section, but I did want to clarify that Paul in Romans 2 is not espousing universalism (i.e. a belief that all will be saved), but saying that Gentiles who did not have the benefit of revelation/ the Law could still find salvation if they were sincerely seeking God in righteousness and truth. Also, I think you are conflating my recent post “A Presence that was Not Theirs” (which refers to Muslims in 1868 praying that God would reveal Himself to them and becoming believers) with a different earlier post “Worshipping with Muslims”, in which I addressed the question of whether Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God (and in which I said they did not worship the same God and that therefore joint Christian-Muslim worship services were to be avoided).
      Fr. Arakaki’s blog is indeed very fine, and like you I am happy to commend it to those thinking about the differences between Reformed theology and Orthodoxy. As I said in my piece, since I regard the Reformation as a series of mistakes, I am reluctant to praise John Calvin. But our critique of Calvin or of any historical figure is better served if we place them in their historical context and strive to be fair. This is especially difficult to do if we find their theology abhorrent (as I do Calvin’s theology), but this only makes the task all the more important.

      1. Forgive me for my boldness, but I would like to encourage all of us in the truth: we are members one of another and, therefore, let us love one another. Levying public criticism against someone else and then defending oneself are actions that stirs strife and division. Forgive me for the admonishment, my dear brethren, but I hope that we can avoid such things, especially in public where the evil one can capitalize on our smallest mistakes and sow deceit in the hearts of heterodox Christians so that they say, “Orthodoxy is false; look at their strife”, even if that is not actually the case! And who knows how other Orthodox may respond, particularly the neophytes. Will they imitate the actions we model to the world? I fear that they would. We know such things happen and are unavoidable, so I am merely hoping to remind us to be cautious with our words in these public discussions. Should not everything we say be gracious and seasoned with salt, and should we not only say that which edifies, as the great St. Paul exhorts us to do? But who am I? Dust and ashes, a worm and no man, so I apologize for any offense I may cause; my intent was to be loving and destroy the enemy’s snares by reminding us of the only way to the kingdom of God: humility.

        1. Theophan,
          I appreciate the manner in which you express yourself. Your point is well taken. The only thing I have to say is at the risk of responding in a harsh, defensive, manner Father chooses to address controversial subjects and offer another angle from which to view them. I see this as very a helpful means to learn regardless if I agree or disagree. Though not an excuse for poor behavior, it is almost inevitable that a strong response is going to occur when dealing with these subjects. You are correct that we have to be mindful of how we come across not only to non-Orthodox and neophytes but especially for the well-being of our own souls.
          I’d like to add, I appreciate Hektors’ comment where he reminds us of the primary motive of Calvinist theology, that being the glorification of God. I needed to be reminded of that because my mind (heart) is clouded with terrible memories of the experience of people who followed Calvinsitic teachings, that somehow incorporated these teachings to condone sinful behavior. I got caught up in it as well, and it took a very long time and a lot of pain and guilt to work through, not to mention forgiveness. But God is good…He knew exactly what I needed to heal and led me to Orthodoxy. I am grateful for Hektors’ reminder to pray for the Calvinists, as it is a proper, Christlike approach.

          1. Paula: like you, I appreciate Theophan’s reminder that everyone keep the discourse civil. That said I have no problem with the comments made so far. As you said, when one deals with controversial topics, one must expect some reaction. My main point was that in dealing with historical figures some of whose writings we find problematic, we must still take care to be balanced and fair, and not to let our distaste for some of their views become the lens through which we see them. All good scholars know this and try to put historical figures in their historical context. On a personal level regarding Calvin, I have a dear friend whose is a devout Calvinist as well as a scholar and the main effect that his Calvinism has on him is to give him a respect for Scripture and a zeal for saving souls. I still retain my distaste for Calvinism and know other people whose belief in what they call “eternal security” has led them to harmful conclusions. But painting all Calvinists with the same brush is neither helpful nor fair, and so I am glad that you are avoiding that all-too-easy approach.

  5. “I do not come into this pulpit hoping that perhaps somebody will of his own free will return to Christ. My hope lies in another quarter. I hope that my Master will lay hold of some of them and say, “You are mine, and you shall be mine. I claim you for myself.” My hope arises from the freeness of grace, and not from the freedom of the will.”

    Charles Haddon Spurgeon

    “It is no novelty, then, that I am preaching; no new doctrine. I love to proclaim these strong old doctrines that are called by nickname Calvinism, but which are truly and verily the revealed truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus. By this truth I make my pilgrimage into the past, and as I go, I see father after father, confessor after confessor, martyr after martyr, standing up to shake hands with me . . . Taking these things to be the standard of my faith, I see the land of the ancients peopled with my brethren; I behold multitudes who confess the same as I do, and acknowledge that this is the religion of God’s own church.”

    (Spurgeon’s Sovereign Grace Sermons, Still Waters Revival Books, p. 170)

    My contention is this Mr Harvey : that could you manage to destroy Calvin, that you will then have to destroy Spurgeon, and if you could destroy Spurgeon, that God, whose Name as a remembrance to His flock is “I AM THAT I AM”, will raise a legion of such preachers against you.

    Calvinism, as you call it, makes you keep your eye on Calvary, whereas any other doctrine would invite to take a quick look, and then merrily send you off to do its bidding.

    1. It is true that Mr. Spurgeon would find some western fathers willing to shake his hand over predestination (assuming they overlooked his considerable heterodoxy regarding other things). But he would find little welcome and hand-shaking from the fathers, confessors, and martyrs in the east. With respect, Mr. Spurgeon’s “pilgrimage into the past” would hold more surprises for him than he bargained for.

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