Review: ‘The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism’

A Review of Ken Wilson, The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism, Regula Fidei Press, 2019, 121 pages, paperback.

I was sent this book by a former student a while back and I promised that I would review it. The book has and will cause controversy with Calvinists because of its thesis. That thesis is that Augustine’s theological turnabout from the generally accepted views of God and the human will was mainly influenced by the determinist worldviews he had imbibed before he was a Christian. This will ruffle the feathers of some of my readers. With that said, let us continue.

The author is an M.D. and evangelical Christian who has earned a D. Phil from Oxford University with a dissertation on Augustine’s Conversion from Traditional Free Choice to ‘Non-free Free Will’: A Comprehensive Methodology. This book, the author stresses, is only a partial presentation of the data in his bigger study (IV-V).

This book is a “popular” version of the Oxford dissertation and is still somewhat of a challenge for the average reader. I appreciate the work as a good piece of historical theology. I do not find the idea surprising that no previous theologian of the early church taught divine determinism and compatibilist freedom. I have taught Church History at Seminary level, and in pouring over the standard works and biographies, as well as reading from the sources (e.g. Epistle of Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocians) one does not encounter these doctrines (I would be very interested if someone could show me where that assertion is incorrect btw). In fact, Wilson avers, you encounter just the opposite, a uniform insistence upon “traditional free choice” or what we would call libertarian freewill (19-20).

Let me be clear, Wilson’s most controversial point is not only that no orthodox writer before 412 taught Augustine’s doctrine of Divine predetermination, it is that there were those who did teach it; the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists, and the Gnostic-Manicheans. Wilson claims that these groups employed the very same texts and interpretations to teach their deterministic views as Augustine would later use.

Please understand what is being claimed here. Wilson is not saying that Augustine agreed with Stoic/Manichean exegesis per se, only that his prior familiarity with it influenced his conclusions when pressed for answers in his debates with Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum.

Despite the reading I have done I do not consider myself to be well read enough in Patristics to know whether Wilson is right or wrong in his main points. All I can say is that I think it is uncontroversial to state that the later Augustine introduced theological determinism into soteriology at the turn of the 5th century A.D. This can be found in many books and articles even by Reformed authors. What is “new” is the opinion of where Augustine derived his later teaching, and when.

Now before continuing I should say two things. The first is to point out the obvious, namely that even if Wilson is right in his assertions it does not mean that Augustine was wrong. That is to say, Augustine’s doctrines of predestination and compatibilism (i.e. that human will is compatible with God’s foreordination of all things) may yet be biblical. The second point that I would make is that anyone familiar with the early Church Fathers ought to be aware that they sometimes held what we would consider erroneous views of baptism (that it was necessary for salvation or inclusion in the Church), and of eternal security (that is, they did not hold to it), and occasionally of the Persons of the Trinity (especially concerning the Divine economy). Wilson’s book then should not be seen as a refutation of Augustinianism/Calvinism, and therefore should not be countered theologically but historically. It is a documentation of Augustine’s possible (read probable) influences. Those influences are Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, and Manicheanism; all of which were explored in depth by the pre-Christian Augustine and all of which were strongly deterministic in orientation. Further, Wilson claims that the way these three groups interpreted the Scriptures is directly reflected in later Augustine’s theology. Wilson has developed an acronym, DUPIED, meaning “Divine Predetermination of Individuals’ Eternal Destinies.” (5).

It might be objected that the author’s purpose in writing the dissertation was to prove his beliefs, and I believe it was. The author is an adherent of free grace theology (although he has written against the Zane Hodges/Bob Wilken brand as heresy). But even if that is the case the real question is whether he succeeded in doing so. What makes Wilson’s scholarship noteworthy is that he appears to be one of the very few Patristics scholars who have carefully read Augustine’s theological works in chronological order. The outcome of carrying out this daunting task is that Wilson shows how the great Western Father revised much of his corpus after 412 A.D. (and his Pelagian controversy) to reflect his new understanding. These revisions are particularly relevant in the case of his 396 work Ad Simplicianum 2.5-22 (3, 49-53, 91-94) because it has been thought on the basis of that work that Augustine held to his mature doctrines prior to the Pelagian affair.

This book is well organized and documented although it does have a rushed feel about it; no doubt because the writer had not intended to produce a trimmed version of his dissertation. For all that it presents a cogent and compelling argument. Wilson moves from philosophical precursors (Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism) in chapter 1 to Christian authors prior to Augustine in chapter 2, then on to early Augustine (386-411) in chapter 3, and then to the later Augustine in chapters 4 through 7. A Conclusion with Appendix and Timeline closes the book.

Each chapter is quite short. The first one surveys the relevant teachings of the pagan systems which (once?) influenced Augustine. Chapter 2 runs through a succession of Church Fathers and scholars to show that “Not even one early church father writing from 95-430 CE – despite abundant acknowledgement of inherited human depravity – considered Adam’s fall to have erased human free choice to independently respond to God’s gracious invitation.” (34). Chapter 3 is on Augustine’s earlier doctrine. Things start hotting up in chapter 4 with Wilson’s assertion that, among other things, Augustine emphasized God’s power above His justice (65-66), especially in the election of certain ones to salvation. Chapter 5 is entitled “Augustine Resorted to Manichaean Interpretations of Scripture.” A longish sample of Wilson’s conclusion is pertinent:

“Augustine had earlier taunted the Manichaeans for inventing a god who damned persons eternally when those persons had no ability to do good or choose good (Contra Faustus 22.22). Augustine converted back to a Manichaean proof-text interpretation of Eph. 2:8 wherein God regenerated the dead will and infused faith ( 17). Augustine reverts to his prior Manichaean training with their interpretation of multiple scriptures…He now accepts and teaches the very interpretations he had previously refuted…This scenario is precisely why early church policy forbade any prior Manichaean from becoming a Christian bishop and why charges of Manichaeism had been brought against the early Augustine before ordination.” (78-79 cf. 110-111).

The sixth and seventh chapters compare pagan (especially Stoic) determinism with Augustine and go on to ask when and why he converted to determinism. The author quotes Harvard philosopher Harry Wolfson as saying Augustine’s “doctrine of grace is only a Christianization of the Stoic doctrine of fate.” (86). Whether Wolfson was right is beyond my ability to judge, but Wilson supplies plenty of information.

In conclusion I think that The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism, although it is a popular version of a scholarly tome, demands to be taken seriously as a piece of historical research. Again, let not the Reformed reader commit the logical faux-pas of dismissing the book because of Wilson’s own theology and positions (of which I am not in complete sympathy myself). Let the counter arguments be along historical lines, citing the sources.

It has to be admitted that because of the author’s clear animus against Augustinian-Calvinism his book is not likely to find a willing audience among those with Reformed sympathies. I wish a more dispassionate tone would have been adopted in places. However, facts are facts, and Wilson has marshalled a lot of them (at least it looks like it). When he states that he is “unaware of even one Patristics scholar who would agree” that the early Church taught anything like the points of TULIP (112 n. 11), he has by that time mounted a considerable array of witnesses to back it up.

2 thoughts on “Review: ‘The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism’”

  1. Very interesting. I am very little acquainted with the church fathers, or of Augustine himself, for that matter. Nevertheless, I’ve long disagreed with the essential nature of the Augustinian thesis. It is heartening to see a scholarly attempt at putting his work in context. I wonder if anyone will take on the challenge of refuting Wilson.

    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

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