Augustine on the Election of Christ

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In my series Reforming Calvinism, I have been proposing ways in which the five points of Calvinism (TULIP) can be brought into greater harmony with Scripture. In recent entries, I have been specifically addressing the doctrine of ‘unconditional election’, proposing corrections to the traditional Reformed understanding that, in my view, bring it into greater conformity with the biblical and Reformation principle of solus Christus. In doing so, I have also been hoping to offer a ‘third way’ capable of moving beyond the typical impasses between classic Calvinism and Arminianism. In response to my last post on Ephesians 1, someone commented that such a ‘third way’ probably does not exist. My extremely brief reply was that such a way does indeed exist and can be historically found, at least in seminal form, in the writings of some of the church fathers and the Protestant Reformers.

To provide just one example, I would like to quote a section from Augustine’s Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance which proved particularly influential to John Calvin in his own formulation of the doctrine of election. Here is Augustine describing the primacy of the predestination of Jesus Christ as the Mediator between God and humanity:

But there is no more illustrious instance of predestination than Jesus Himself, concerning which also I have already argued in the former treatise; and in the end of this I have chosen to insist upon it. There is no more eminent instance, I say, of predestination than the Mediator Himself. If any believer wishes thoroughly to understand this doctrine, let him consider Him, and in Him he will find himself also. The believer, I say; who in Him believes and confesses the true human nature that is our own, however singularly elevated by assumption by God the Word into the only Son of God, so that He who assumed, and what He assumed, should be one person in Trinity. For it was not a Quaternity that resulted from the assumption of man, but it remained a Trinity, inasmuch as that assumption ineffably made the truth of one person in God and man.

Because we say that Christ was not only God, as the Manichean heretics contend; nor only man, as the Photinian heretics assert; nor in such wise man as to have less of anything which of a certainty pertains to human nature,—whether a soul, or in the soul itself a rational mind, or flesh not taken of the woman, but made from the Word converted and changed into flesh,—all which three false and empty notions have made the three various and diverse parties of the Apollinarian heretics; but we say that Christ was true God, born of God the Father without any beginning of time; and that He was also true or very man, born of human mother in the certain fulness of time; and that His humanity, whereby He is less than the Father, does not diminish aught from His divinity, whereby He is equal to the Father. For both of them are One Christ—who, moreover, most truly said in respect of the God, “I and the Father are one;” and most truly said in respect of the man, “My Father is greater than I.”

He, therefore, who made of the seed of David this righteous man, who never should be unrighteous, without any merit of His preceding will, is the same who also makes righteous men of unrighteous, without any merit of their will preceding; that He might be the head, and they His members. He, therefore, who made that man with no precedent merits of His, neither to deduce from His origin nor to commit by His will any sin which should be remitted to Him, the same makes believers on Him with no preceding merits of theirs, to whom He forgives all sin. He who made Him such that He never had or should have an evil will, the same makes in His members a good will out of an evil one. Therefore He predestinated both Him and us, because both in Him that He might be our head, and in us that we should be His body, He foreknew that our merits would not precede, but that His doings should.[1]

Centuries later, John Calvin would testify to the insight and influence of this passage from Augustine by writing in the Institutes:

Augustine wisely notes this: namely, that we have in the very Head of the church the clearest mirror of free election that we who are among the members may not be troubled about it; and that he was not made Son of God by righteous living but was freely given such honor so that he might afterward share his gifts with others…

Now it behooves us to pay attention to what Scripture proclaims of every person. When Paul teaches that we were chosen in Christ “before the creation of the world” [Eph. 1:4a], he takes away all consideration of real worth on our part, for it is just as if he said: since among all the offspring of Adam, the Heavenly Father found nothing worthy of his election, he turned his eyes upon his Anointed, to choose from that body as members those whom he was to take into the fellowship of life. Let this reasoning, then, prevail among believers: we were adopted in Christ into the eternal inheritance because in ourselves we were not capable of such great excellence.[2]

Although Augustine and Calvin do not explicate the election of Christ in exactly the same terms that I have been doing in my own posts in Reforming Calvinism, they do evidence a number of key insights that capture the essence of what I propose as an ‘Evangelical Calvinist’ revision:

  1. The ontological primacy of the election of Christ as the ‘head’ vis-à-vis the election of those who constitute his ‘body’. Both Augustine and Calvin insist that human beings are elect only insofar as they are in Christ, the chosen Mediator and the Anointed (i.e. the Elect One).
  2. The epistemological primacy of the election of Christ in terms of our capacity to understand our own election. Christ is the only ‘mirror’ of election in which we can contemplate our own election and thereby find freedom from anxiety and security about our own status before God.
  3. The theological primacy of the election of Christ that grounds an orthodox understanding of the person of Christ as fully God and fully man. As Augustine clearly believed, a correct understanding of the election of Christ (the Son of God determined to become the Son of Man) defends against any number of Christological errors and heresies.
  4. The evangelical primacy of the election of Christ for the sake of safeguarding the graciousness of salvation and thus the gospel. Only an election that rests on Christ alone (solus Christus) can ensure that salvation does not depend in the slightest degree on human ability or merit but only on grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide).

This, in a nutshell, is ‘unconditional election’ à la Evangelical Calvinism!

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[1] Augustine of Hippo, 1887. A Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance. In P. Schaff, ed. Saint Augustin: Anti-Pelagian Writings. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series. New York: Christian Literature Company, p. 552.

[2] Calvin, J., 2011. Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2 J. T. McNeill, ed., Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. III.xxii.1.

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This entry was posted in Augustine, Christology, Classic Calvinism, Election, Evangelical Calvinism, Five points of Calvinism, Five Solas, John Calvin, Orthodoxy, Patristic theology, Predestination, Protestant theology, Reformed theology, Reforming Calvinism, Soteriology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Augustine on the Election of Christ

  1. Kenneth Macari says:

    Jonathan you score again!!! The Five Point TULIP crowd SO misreads Augustine–he was able to handle paradox better than they can. This is especially true of John Owen who on other points is a superb exegete, biblical theologian and spiritual director. Richard Baxter models better the paradox of grace.

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