Great New Resource for the Early Church Fathers

Ever had the experience of vaguely remembering the perfect quote from the Church Fathers on a certain topic, only to find that you can’t remember who said it, or where?  Or perhaps you’re just curious as to what the Fathers said on a certain issue, but don’t have time to comb through hundreds of pages of Patristics to find out.  Anyways, there’a  new web resource for you, and it’s got an easy-to-remember web address to boot: www.churchfathers.org.  

The website is young, but promising: it’s got most of the major categories of intra-Christian disputes covered, with excerpts from the Church Fathers on each topic.  Say, for instance, you’re curious what the early Church thought of Apostolic Tradition.  They’ve got that covered, with numerous quotes from various Fathers from 208 A.D. forward to about 600.  I like the idea, although it has to be approached cautiously, to avoid taking the Fathers out of context (so far, that doesn’t seem to be a problem) — there are a few good books which do the same thing as well, and I’ve found them to be an invaluable resource.

Justin Martyr on Double Predestination
One of the great quotes I came across in browsing ChurchFathers.org was this gem from Justin Martyr, part of a longer list on the subject of merit.  This is from his First Apology, written in 151 A.D., in which he says:

“We have learned from the prophets and we hold it as true that punishments and chastisements and good rewards are distributed according to the merit of each man’s actions. Were this not the case, and were all things to happen according to the decree of fate, there would be nothing at all in our power. If fate decrees that this man is to be good and that one wicked, then neither is the former to be praised nor the latter to be blamed.”

In this short statement, Justin raises at least three points which are devastating to the Calvinist notion of double-predestination.  If you’re not familiar, double-predestination is the view that God creates some people for Heaven and some people for Hell, and that the people themselves are literally incapable of doing otherwise.  For the saved, saving Grace is irresistable, so they can’t reject it. For the damned, God refuses to offer them the graces required to be saved, so they can’t accept it.  It’s an affirmation of the very idea that “the decree of Fate” controls everything, although a Calvinist would of course note that God controls Fate.  Here are the three ways in which Justin Martyr refutes this notion:

  1. He argues that merit has to have some sort of role, or else everything is left to “the decree of Fate,” and we’d have no power over our own eternal fates.  Note that Justin brings up this notion of “the decree of Fate” and powerlessness not to refute it as such, but to show what would happen if there was no role left for merit.  It’s roughly equivalent to saying, “that can’t be true, or Calvinism would be right.”  This sort of argument only works if the speaker knows that his audience already realizes Calvinism is wrong.  So Justin isn’t just saying he doesn’t believe in double-predestination, but operates as if even those readers who disagree with him on the role of merit don’t believe in the doctrine, either — he brings up their common rejection of unstoppable Fate to make his case.  Rather, this notion of cold, unstoppable Fate is an ancient pagan notion, seen in Greek plays like Oedipus Rex, and one which Justin seems content that a Christian readership knows to be false.
  2. Justin argues that it can’t be Fate, or there would be no justice: you can’t justly reward or punish someone for something over which they had no control.  So he isn’t just arguing that everyone knows immutable Fate is wrong: he’s saying why it’s wrong.  It eviscerates any reasonable notion of God’s justice.
  3. Finally, he appeals to the Apostles for this claim, arguing that these beliefs come “from the prophets.”  Now, he’s writing in 151 A.D.  There are people alive who likely heard the Apostles in person when they were quite young, and in any case, would have had a firm grasp, we may expect, on what the Apostles did and didn’t teach.  Yet Justin presents this teaching, and presents it as the ancient Apostolic Faith and not an innovation.  And what’s the reaction from all of the other Christians defending the Faith even to their death?  Silence.  There are no scathing refutations about how Justin is perverting Christian beliefs by adding merit and destroying the “true Gospel.” 

Now consider what would happen if a pastor today had written this same passage to Calvinists: how long before there were calls for his job, and dozens of refutations?  Not long: John Piper, for example, has written extensively against N.T. Wright for even approaching the sort of things which Justin Martyr openly declares, and Piper’s hardly alone: you can easily find numerous Calvinist apologists attacking Wright (and others) for the same.  And this ignores the innumerable Protestant resources attacking (real and imagined) Catholic views on merit.  The early Church was no different: we have evidence from the angry writings back and forth between Rufinus and Jerome that Christians then, as now, would attack each other at length for even minor perceived infractions.  And we’re supposed to believe that Justin publicly undermined the Gospel, while claiming he learned a perverted Gospel from the Apostles, and that the early Church’s response was simply to honor him as “Justin Martyr,” as a perpetual reminder that he died for the Faith?  That just won’t do.  Rather, the most reasonable conclusion from this evidence is that Justin Martyr was right.  The Apostles didn’t teach double-predestination, and the early Church didn’t think that they did.

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