Saturday, September 09, 2006

Origen, and the Nature of God's Sovereignty

Sometimes it is assumed by Evangelicals that Augustine represents the views of the majority of the Church Fathers when it comes to the issue of divine determinism of all things vs. human beings having some choice about their own fate and destiny. Historically speaking this is not so.

Indeed, Augustine who so profoundly influenced both Luther and Calvin represents only one opinion amongst the Church Fathers on this matter, and so far as I can tell it is a minority opinion. I mention this because it is often assumed or argued that an Augustinian reading of terms like election, foreknowledge, and the like in the NT was either the only way those ideas (especially Pauline ones) were read in church history, or are even the only valid way those terms were and should be understood. This is simply false. It is of no little importance that prior to Augustine, and during the time of the dominance of the Greek Fathers, for whom the Greek NT was still a living language, the Augustinian approach is not how such ideas were understood by the two foremost exegetes of the third-sixth centuries A.D.-- Origen and Chrysostom. Here is a brief excerpt from one of Origen's Commentaries, in which he discusses this mattter.

. “God does not tyrannize but rules, and when he rules, he does not coerce but encourages and he wishes that those under him yield themselves willingly to his direction so that the good of someone may not be according to compulsion but according to his free will. This is what Paul with understanding was saying to Philemon in the letter to Philemon... Thus the God of the universe hypothetically might have produced a supposed good in us so that we give alms from ‘compulsion’ and we would be temperate from ‘compulsion’ but he has not wished to do so.” (Hom. On Jer 20.2). Let's be clear about what Origen is saying. He is not just saying that humans do not feel compulsed to do X or Y. He is saying that they are not predetermined to do X or Y by God.


Unknown said...


It is refreshing to hear from the other Fathers, even though Augustine has plenty of good things to say.

A question: Was Origen responding or reacting to someone in particular when he qualified that God was neither tyrant nor one who coerces?

Ben Witherington said...

Chrysostom was not a universalist at all. About Origen it could be debated. Origen was writing a commentary on Jeremiah when he said this. I don't really know that he was reacting to anyone in particular. The Alexandrian school (which included Clement) do not seem to have had any budding Calvinists he might react against.
And yes Jesse, you are write about Augustine-- I like both the City of God and his Confessions

Bill Barnwell said...

Thanks for this post. I would agree that there is positive and negative aspects of Augustines theology. Would you agree that Augustine is responsible for popularizing, or at least influencing the following:

1. Strict determinism
2. Amillennialism
3. A arguably negative view of sex and positive view of sexual asceticism that has influenced some Catholics and Protestants (though that tradition certainly predates Augustine).

I wouldn't consider any of the above all that positive, though his literary works are indeed impressive and should be read by any serious students of historical theology and church history.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I used to say that I held to prevenient grace in the sense that, by God's grace he enables a sinner to choose to receive or reject God's grace, in the gospel of Christ by its proclamation? Otherwise, apart from that prevenient grace, no sinner would ever choose God on their own?

Ted M. Gossard said...

Of course, I believe no sinner would ever choose God on their own. That is just part of my previous thinking on prevenient grace.

Ben Witherington said...

Well, yes to what you have suggested Bill about Augustine, and Ted I find your posts puzzling. In effect you are saying that a lost person would never choose to be rescued. Or a lonely person would never choose to be loved. Frankly, that's simply not true to life at all. And if the greatest being of all wants to love me, why would I not respond positively, grace or no grace? Now having said that, I do think that we are saved by grace through faith, but one can argue that God only gives prevenient grace to those he knows will respond positively. Thus we are back to square one.


yuckabuck said...

To add to Bill Barnwell's listing of Augustine's legacy, we could perhaps include his teaching that "concupicense" (the desire to sin, roughly similar to what Paul called the "flesh/ sinful nature") is physically passed on through the generations through the act of procreation. (I think my translation of City of God has something like "seminal transmission.") Following from this idea, later Roman Catholic doctrine deemed a virgin birth to be not good enough to ensure that Jesus was born without sin or concupicense. Therefore an "immaculate conception" of Mary had to be posited in order to ensure the sinlessness of Christ.

yuckabuck said...

Perhaps off topic-
Does anybody know why everytime I would check in on Dr. Witherington's blog, I would only see up to Monday's post; and then all of a sudden tonight (Saturday) three other posts show up in which others have been commenting on for several days?
Obviously Dr. Witherington didn't just post three times in the last 2 hours, with each posted dated differently, and then 40 people also all comment in the last hour. So the problem must be on my end.

David Johnson said...

How is amillinnialism in the same class as strict determinism and a negative view of sex? Why is it a negative in the first place?

Ted, your thinking shows a tendency towards Augustinian and Calvinistic thought: "No sinner would ever choose God on their own" is a classic conclusion of Augustinian/Calvinistic theology. To deny it, one must certainly deny total depravity (I do) and perhaps original sin as well (I do).

Here are the questions that the post brings to my mind, however: to what degree is openness theology a new development? Should the church in toto adopt some form of openness theology as regards understanding God's sovereignty, what would be the ramifications, if any?

To some extent, it's a novelty for me to read about "prevenient grace," coming as I do from a church heritage that denies original sin. It seems as though there's a tendency here to view grace not only as that which saves one from sin, but also as that which God gives to a person that they may have faith and thus be given grace to be saved. This seems to me a rather convoluted soteriological construct that circumvents all human choice. I understand the desire to make God completely and totally responsible for the salvation of the saved, but does it really take away from God's work to say that I am the one who chooses to believe in the one He sent? Is this not the very work God requires?

john doyle said...

Despite his influence in the early church -- or perhaps because of it -- Origen was condemned by the Church as a heretic. Three centuries after his death, Origen was convicted of being a universalist and an Ebionite (a belief that God created all things, including Christ). It's not clear whether Origen himself subscribed to these views, but many of his followers did. In effect, Origen was anathemized for being the original source of what would later come to be regarded as a heretical position. I guess being the first cause of something was a bigger responsibility, for good or ill, back in those Greek-influenced days.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Augustine speaks frequently about freedom of the will, and he flatly denies the kind of determinism the Stoics held to. They saw our choices determined by earlier events, and Augustine very clearly denies that. He does think of God's providential plan in a fairly strong sense, but it's not deterministic. What causes us to act for Augustine are desires for certain results, and those are not like past events pushing us. They are more like future events attracting us toward them, inclining us to seek them.

He also very plainly endorses what modern philosophy calls a libertarian view of freedom. He held that two exact duplicates, with the same internal state and same prior causes, might choose different things. This is plainly incompatible with strict determinism. It's harder to see how he fits this with a strong view of God's sovereignty, but there's no way you can accurately call him a determinist given this kind of statement.

As for his views on sex, I know of nowhere where he takes a negative view on sex. His general ethical views include the idea that the fall has made us enslaved to the passions in some ways. There's nothing wrong with emotion per se, but it's bad if it controls us to the point of reason not being able to evaluate something as wrong. We do what we most strongly desire, and when reason helps us see which things we should desire most then we are truly following God's ways.

An unfortunate consequence of the fall, Augustine then says, is that reason cannot control our sexual organs. We respond involuntarily to our desires without being able to control our body parts directly. He believed that Adam and Eve would have been able to dictate to their body parts when to be aroused. As it is, we just have to control our limbs to prevent our sex organs from doing bad things. We can't control them directly.

None of this requires a negative view of sex or of sexual pleasure. It simply means that our sexual desires don't operate in the ideal way that he conceives of reason controlling our passions. I don't think he's got things entirely right here, but his view does not amount to a negative view of sex. He saw sex as good, and he saw sexual pleasure as good. What he saw as bad was that the organs act involuntarily.

As for amillenialism, why is that not suppposed to be all that positive? Isn't it good to believe the truth? :)

David Johnson said...

The thing about Augustine is that, technically, he might not accurately be described as a determinist, but the effect of his ideas was to move Catholic theology in a deterministic direction. Augustine's formulation of the doctrine of original sin meant that for him no human being could choose to do a single good thing on their own--all of that is, of course, the result of God inflicting upon humanity the curse of original sin when Adam rebelled and rejected the grace of impassibility that God had given him in the Garden. So Augustine held that every good choice a person makes is only enabled by a grace given to them by God for that choice--a grace that God had planned to give them from eternity, knowing precisely which graces would "entice" them to the good, and knowing from eternity who would accept what graces. Of course, Augustine refused to classify these graces as 'irresistible.'

So Augustine might not himself be a strict determinist. But his extreme fatalism concerning the human capability to choose the good (I would add here that to admit of human ability to choose the good is not the same as saying that human beings can save themselves), coupled with the dependence of his theology upon specific graces of God in every human choice for the good, directed theology in deterministic directions for well over a thousand years.

An interesting note about Augustine's theology: he almost gets the nature of temptation completely backwards. Since man cannot do anything but choose the evil, no man can truly be 'tempted' to do evil. And since, in order to make a single good choice, man is dependent upon the 'enticing' graces of God, God could be seen as the tempter, in a way.

Ben Witherington said...

This is a useful discussion of Augustine, and it is quite clear how Augustinianism developed. Luther was an Augustinian monk. There is a differences between mechanistic determinism )i.e. that caused by previous events), and divine determinism which Augustine does indeed seem to ascribe to. Augustine was the one who made it 'orthodox' to believe in a-millenilaism. This was already the opinion of Eusebius who did not like what he called chiliasm-- the belief in the 1,000 year reign.

yuckabuck said...

Here is an article that seems to be saying the same thing on Augustine's views on saex and the fall as Jeremy Pierce did:

Ted M. Gossard said...


Maybe I've been too Calvinized in my thoughts or theology over the years.

I do need to do more reading and study on Paul's words from the OT in Romans: "There is none who seek after God." Is this just descriptive of humanity in general, apart from those who choose to respond to God's grace? That is more where you seem to be in your thinking(?).

I was simply taking Paul's words as in line with a certain interpretation of us being dead in our sins. And apart from a work of the Spirit of God, not being able to respond to God's grace. But because of the Spirit's striving with us, that awakens us, in a sense, to be enabled to respond to God's grace. But in no way coerces that response. Is that clearer as to what I was thinking?

Bill Barnwell said...

David, I didn't mean to imply that those three issues were related or of the same class, but that Augustine was influential in shaping views on the three subjects. I said that it wasn't "positive" mainly because I don't think he was right in these areas, but these are issues we are all hashing out in our churches, literature, and even on this blog!

This may be another case similar to Origen, where the followers of Augustine were worse than Augustine himself on some matters. But I think the evidence is fairly compelling that Augustine believed in an early variant of what we now call "Calvinism" and that his writings influenced particular individual election, and also "double predestination."

As to his take on sex, I think Augustine probably dealt with some lasting guilt on his previous sexual shortcomings, which by his own account were many prior to his conversion, and that this influenced his later thinking. Sexual asceticism was around before Augustine, and perhaps I'm wrong about this, but I would say that Augustine at least contributed in some part to later ideas that sex was only appropriate for conception purposes (I know some Catholics who still feel this way today), that original sin was basically transmitted through the sex act, etc. Like I said, Augustine himself may not have held to all of this, but I think he probably did contribute in some sort, even if unintentionally. I'll defer to Dr. Witherington and some others on here that are probably better read on Augustine.

With amillennialism, I actually think we should listen to their arguments and that they make some good points but other points that aren't so persuasive. The early church for the most part held to a non-dispensational form of premillennialism and it's almost certain that Augustine is largely responsible for popularizing amillennialism. I guess this isn't "bad" if you agree with Augustine here. Like I said originally, I think there is positive and negative aspects of Augustine that need to be sorted through.

David Johnson said...

Another important aspect of Augustine's legacy, aside from issues of eschatology and divine sovereignty, is the solidification of the Catholic Church into the dominant sociopolitical reality of post-Roman Europe. Of course, others (such as Athanasius) contributed as well, but Augustine lived at just the right time (De Civitati Dei was written in 410, the same year as Alaric's sack of Rome) and was influential enough to almost ensure that it happened. He was comfortable using the remaining power of the Roman Empire (which were rapidly becoming the powers of the Church itself) to persecute those he saw as heretics. It amazes many today that the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries was marked by so much persecution and strife among the various nations of Europe, but the church (not just the Catholic Church) was simply trying to retain and exercise powers that it had held unquestionably since the time of Augustine.

Peter Kirk said...

Another doctrine of Augustine's which was at least partly novel was his particular teaching on original sin.

Specifically, he taught that all humans have sinned in Adam. And he did this on the basis of his Latin translation (he knew little Greek) of the last part of Romans 5:12, which read in quo. He understood in quo as meaning "in whom", i.e. in Adam. And indeed it has become a commonplace of theology that all humans, or unredeemed humans, are "in Adam", by analogy with how Christians are "in Christ".

The problem with this is that the Latin in quo is a misleading translation of the Greek here, ef' ho. The Greek does not mean "in whom". Literally it can be translated "on whom" or "on which", but according to Cranfield "By far the most probable explanation" is that it means "because", as in RSV, NIV etc (KJV "for that" probably means the same).

In fact Augustine's translation was not wrong, for in quo probably can mean "because". But it was a misleading translation, because its more basic meaning, "in whom", is one which cannot be the real meaning of the Greek.

There is thus no proper biblical justification for the teaching that all people sinned "in Adam", or even as far as I know that anyone is in any sense to be counted as "in Adam". This idea came into theology from Augustine's misunderstanding of a misleading translation.

This shows the importance of theologians getting a good grasp of the original biblical languages, and not relying on translations.

Ken Wieske said...

Peter Kirk,

So nice to recognize your name from the Biblical Hebrew email list!

Regarding your comment on Augustine's translation of Romans 5.12, your analysis of the Greek is correct.

You question whether there is any basis at all for post-fall humans to be considered "in Adam" in any way. The Scriptures certainly do teach this, as in the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15 verse 22.

Paul clearly states that all mortal men are "in Adam" (and yes, that's what he says in Greek too!)

Although Augustine was sub-par in his Greek skills, I highly doubt that his entire doctrine of original sin reposes upon one translation error in one verse. There are plenty of other Scriptures (including the very context of Romans 5) which make the connection between Adam, sin, death, and the whole of fallen humanity. I expect that Augustine took them into account, and not just Romans 5.12.