Justin Martyr the Calvinist?

Regular readers of this blog will know I am an advocate of the Vincentian Canon. This principle, advocated by Vincent of Lérins, during the early to mid fifth century, in the Commonitorium, was given to help readers determine the “truth of [the universal] faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity.”

That principle is:

all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. (chapter 2)


Justin the Philosopher by Theophanes the Cretan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The word “faith” has a range of meanings. Here it is taken to mean the doctrine and practices of the church, rather than the loyal trust in God made by an individual. Vincent goes on, in chapter 31, to write:

what has been handed down from antiquity should be retained, what has been newly devised, rejected with disdain

Based on this principle, a solid reason for rejecting the Reformed teachings on the doctrines of grace; as captured in the acrostic TULIP, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Canons of Dort; is their novelty. These doctrines, based on extant writings, are not held by theologians prior to Augustine.

Some Reformed teachers, even Calvin himself, admit that they have trouble finding Reformed soteriology before Augustine.

Moreover although the Greek Fathers, above others, and especially Chrysostom, have exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will, yet all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillating, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings. (Institutes Book 2, chapter 2)

The confusion among the early church, according to many Calvinists, is the result of a lack of controversy on the subject of soteriology. This, coupled with other controversies (the divinity and incarnation of Christ), prevented theologians from refining and articulating the Reformed doctrines of grace.

These early church leaders were making clear statements regarding the doctrines of grace, though stated in embryonic form. Yet, at the same time, they often contradicted themselves. In one place, we see them speak of sovereign grace. But then, two paragraphs later, they will follow up with [contradictory] statements as they affirm free will. They do so seemingly unaware of the contradiction. It would not be until the beginning of the fifth century that a controversy with a British monk named Pelagius would force Augustine to respond with careful theological statements to define the relationship between sin and grace. (interview with Steve Lawson)


 Calvinists and anti-Calvinists have both appealed to the early church in support of their respective opinions, although we believe it cannot be made out that the fathers of the first three centuries give any very distinct deliverance concerning them. These important topics did not become subjects of controversial discussion during that period; and it holds almost universally in the history of the church, that until a doctrine has been fully discussed in a controversial way by men of talent and learning taking opposite sides, men’s opinions regarding it are generally obscure and indefinite, and their language vague and confused, if not contradictory. These doctrines did not become subjects of controversial discussion till what is called the Pelagian controversy, in the beginning of the fifth century. (Historical Theology by William Cunningham)

In reading these comments, we find some Calvinists reluctantly admit that the early church prior to Augustine didn’t teach the Reformed doctrines of grace. I would suggest that the confusion that these Calvinists find, should not be attributed to the theologians of the early church, which clearly held to a variety of synergistic views, but rather to the Reformed reader looking for monergism. The proposed contradictions stem, not from the ancient author, but from the presuppositions of the Reformed reader coming to these texts with different definitions and understandings of many terms, for example sovereignty and foreknowledge.

Other Reformed teachers, knowing that there are good reasons to adopt the principle found in the Vincentian Canon, attempt to disprove the assertion that the early church was synergistic prior to Augustine.  Instead of accepting the idea that it took a fifth century controversy to allow the doctrines of grace to be established, they attempt to demonstrate the early church (prior to Augustine) did in fact hold and teach TULIP, or something very close to it.

It is this the latter group that will be the focus of this multi-part post, with specific attention being paid to the assertion that Justin Martyr, a second century theologian, was a proto-Calvinist.

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