A few days ago, I suggested ChurchFathers.org, and noted that they had a great quote from St. Justin Martyr disproving double-predestination, since Justin, writing in 151 A.D., rejects the possibility of anything like double-predestination as (1) unthinkable – treating it as if it were something a Christian audience would obviously reject, (2) contrary to the justice of God, and (3) contrary to what he and his audience had learned “from the prophets,” that is, the Apostles. To this, a commenter named Russ wrly asked:
I take it they [that is, ChurchFathers.org] don’t have Augustine’s Letter to Simplician up yet?
It’s a clever retort, because in his letter to Simplician (available in full here), St. Augustine argues from his reading of Romans 7-9 that God’s predestination is unconditioned even upon our faith. If Augustine’s right, this is certainly a good source of support for the Calvinist position. But I think Russ is far too hasty here. In fact, I’ve addressed this problem before, when I argued:
I think Protestants can proof-text their way to a cobbled together defense of their position by: (1) separating one view from the ECF’s other views; or (2) misrepresenting/misunderstanding what’s being said, usually by assuming the controversy he was dealing with is the one you want him to be dealing with. I mean, St. Augustine describes the Eucharist metaphorically, at points. If you sever that from his other views on the Eucharist (that is, that It is was It represents), you can sorta-kinda make him a “spiritual Presence” proto-Protestant; likewise, if you take some of his views on predestination, and detach them from his views on free will, he sounds sort of Calvinist.
Obviously, the Church Fathers weren’t infallible, and all of their writings contain flaws somewhere. The difference from a Catholic position is we (a) agree where they agree with one another, and (b) disagree with a minority of their views. Modern Protestantism is forced to reject the Fathers’ consensus on, say, the Eucharist, and take a handful of Fathers’ unique personal positions to make that seem like what was once believed.
This obviously doesn’t apply to all Protestants, but it’s a frequent problem. The joke is that you can do the same thing with politics: you could take a list of views promoted by Lindsey Graham, Kay Bailey Hutchinson, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins – all four of whom are Republican Senators – and cobble together most of the Democratic Party’s platform. This “proves” that Republicans are Democrats as surely as proof-texted Patristics “proves” the early Church was Calvinist.
So why should we prefer Justin’s commentary over Augustine’s? Well, look at the reasons I originally cited:
- It’s got an extremely early date (151 A.D.)
- Justin views the matter as quite clear, and not in any real controversy amongst Christians at this time.
- Justin’s teaching references what was taught to them by the Apostles – that is, this isn’t just Justin’s Scriptural exegesis, but what he’s claiming “we” were actually 1taught by the Apostles.
- Justin’s claim of what the Apostles taught isn’t contradicted, and the early Church upholds Justin as a saint, honoring him as St. Justin Martyr after his death.
Now compare that with Augustine’s letter to Simplician. First, Augustine’s letter to Simplician is written well over two centuries after Justin (I think it’s from the 380s or 390s, but I couldn’t pin down an exact date). To put that into context, “There are one hundred years and the space of time from Washington to Barack Obama between Justin Martyr and Saint Augustine.” And both of them are writing about the teaching of the Apostles. Now, St. John the Apostle died in about the year 100, while Justin was born three years later. Which of these two is more likely to have talked with people who were eyewitnesses of the Apostles? Second, Augustine is doing Scriptural exegesis, and views the matter as anything but clear. In the portion of the letter dealing with Romans 9:10-29, he writes:
You ask that the whole passage be discussed, and indeed, it is rather obscure. But, to be sure, I know your regard for me and am certain that you would not bid me expound that passage unless you had prayed the Lord to give me the ability to do so. With confidence in His help I approach the task.
So he’s prayerfully trying to understand an obscure passage of Scripture, while Justin was proclaiming the clear teaching of the Apostles. Nota bene: Augustine doesn’t pretend to be passing on what was handed on to him. You might say that Augustine is acting here as a theologian rather than a Church Father — instead of simply passing on what Ambrose and others taught him, he’s seeking to understand the more obscure parts of the Faith, things he hadn’t been taught. Frequently, he succeeds in this task (he stands with St. Paul and St. Thomas Aquinas as the three most brilliant Catholic theologians of all time), but seems aware of possible missteps. In fact, in his Revisions (pg. 169 here), he acknowledges that he didn’t fully grasp Romans 7 at the time of his writing to Simplician:
The first of these [books to Simplician] is on that which is written: What, then, shall we say? That the law is sin? (Rom 7:7) up to the point where it says: “Who will liberate me from the body of death? The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24-25). In it I explained those words of the Apostle – The law is spiritual, but I am fleshly (Rom 7:14), and so forth, by which the flesh is shown to struggle with the spirit – in such a way as to see humankind described as being still under the law and not yet under grace (Rom. 6:14). For it was not until long afterwards that I realized that those words can as well – and this is more likely – pertain to the spiritual person.
Granted, that’s a separate part of his letter to Simplician that he’s reconsidered, but it demonstrates my point: that Augustine is making educated guesses as to the meaning of obscure passages from Scripture here, and sometimes (by his own humble admission), gets them wrong.
Third, Augustine is introducing a new teaching: he doesn’t expect Simplican to already know and believe this, the way that Justin expects his audience to. Finally, it’s worth noting that Augustine’s view wasn’t embraced by the Church: in both the East and West, we see Augustine’s contemporaries (and his predecessors) saying quite the opposite. Even Augustine’s own writings (like his later On Grace and Free Will) are in obvious tension with his exegesis here (as referenced above, regarding his Eucharistic teaching, Augustine wrote so much that it’s easy to cherry-pick portions of his teachings to make him say things he never intended). So none of the reasons I cited in my original post for why we should believe St. Justin Martyr are applicable here.
So what’s the opposite argument: why would anyone prefer Augustine’s letter to Simplican over Justin’s First Apology, other than that Augustine agrees with what they already believe? Why in the world would anyone believe that St. Justin Martyr, who claims the Christians heard this teaching from the Apostles is lying, while Augustine, who claims only to be giving it his best shot, is spot-on? Why would we assume that a fourth-centry Church Father speculating from Scripture better knows the mind of the Apostles than a second-century Church Father?