Author Archives: dtkleven

Roger Olson on Augustine on Calvinism

Roger Olson and John Frame have at least one thing in common: they both make sweeping claims about Augustine without offering a single citation to back it up.

In his book Against Calvinism Olson references Augustine four times (24, 104, 152, 189), usually to make some variation of this assertion:

Some of its [Calvinism’s] crucial tenets cannot be found before the church father Augustine in the fifth century (24).

He later repeats this claim regarding limited atonement (152) and unconditional election (189). In all four cases he doesn’t offer a single footnote, nor even a single reference to secondary literature, some study of “the first four centuries,” perhaps. Not one. I guess we’re supposed to take his word for it as some expert on patristics and medieval theology?

Olson is certainly capable of citing sources when he wishes. He quotes Calvin, Boettner, Sproul, Piper, and others extensively in his endnotes.

Perhaps Olson is right about Augustine and “the first four centuries.” If so, it should be simple enough to demonstrate that to the reader, rather than to merely assert it.

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John Frame on Augustine on evil

John Frame has thought a bit about “the problem of evil.” He first wrote about it in Apologetics to the Glory of God (1994) and then incorporated that material into a chapter in The Doctrine of God (2002) which has been basically reprinted in his Systematic Theology (2013). The first book has been expanded and reprinted now as Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (2015), which I will quote from.

In tackling the problem, Frame first wants to take note of what the Bible “does not say,” and the first view to be considered here is “The Unreality-of-Evil Defense” (161). Here’s the opening paragraph:

Some Eastern religions and Western cults (e.g., Buddhism and Christian Science) maintain that evil is really an illusion. Even some respected Christian thinkers, such as Augustine, have suggested that evil be classified under the category of nonbeing. Augustine does not quite mean to say that evil is an illusion, but rather that it is a “privation,” a lack of good being where good being ought to be. Still, he does use this idea to remove responsibility from God. God creates all being, but he is not responsible for nonbeing (161).

Frame dismisses this explanation as “quite inadequate,” and not  biblical (162).

I don’t wish here to enter into Frame’s argument, only to register a serious complaint in his method. In dismissing Augustine, arguably one of Christian history’s greatest thinkers, he doesn’t offer a single citation of any of Augustine’s works. Not one. Is he referring to The Confessions? The City of GodOn Free WillOn the Nature of the Good? Somewhere else entirely? Where could the reader go to see for himself what Augustine actually claimed and whether in fact it is Biblical? Frame doesn’t say.

Nor is this merely the case with Apologetics. His chapters in The Doctrine of God and Systematic Theology start with the same dismissal of Augustine and are similarly devoid of any citation to any of Augustine’s works. What about his bibliography? Nothing:

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He spends some time in DG interacting with Thomist scholar Étienne Gilson, and cites his work there, so he certainly is capable of it when he wishes.

This is deeply disappointing to me. It’s hard to take an argument seriously which hasn’t demonstrated itself to have actually wrestled deeply with the sources it claims. To dismiss a theologian of the stature of Augustine in this manner is simply unacceptable in my estimation. Perhaps Augustine is wrong, and Frame is right. If so, it should be simple enough to demonstrate that to the reader, rather than to merely assert it.

A few eons in the library

(image: https://www.laniertheologicallibrary.org/about/)

There are certain theologians that are acknowledged as brilliant, whose works tower over the millennia influencing millions. It is often suggested that one should pick a great thinker from history and immerse yourself in their works, getting to know them inside and out. For the longest time, I haven’t been able to pick one, though I think I’m starting to narrow in on Augustine.

The problem is, there isn’t time enough to immerse deeply enough. His works are immense. Is it enough to have read them through once? Twice? Should one commit certain works to memory? Should I learn to read the original Latin? How deep is deep enough in the mind of a great thinker? What about his life and times? The historical and cultural background? His friends and his adversaries? His influences? Should one read those secondary works as well in order more fully grasp the man himself?

And further, what of his interpreters? What of Aquinas or Calvin, great theologians in their own right? What of the interpreters of Calvin on Augustine? Or Calvin in contrast to Aquinas on Augustine?

And ultimately, what of the ultimate source, the Triune God and his revelation in Scripture? What did Augustine see of him? What did Calvin see in light of what Augustine saw of him? What have I seen in light of what Calvin saw in light of what Augustine saw of the Triune God?

For those of us who are so inclined, the bookish types, I suspect heaven will feature the greatest library the universe has ever seen with an accompanying scriptorium down the block. (None of it’s works will be digital.) There one could spend as many years as they’d like immersed in the works of Augustine’s various works, then as many as he’d like on each of the various related subjects. He may write his own works at each and every stage. Those works, in turn, might be studied.

A never ending process of knowing and being known which centers ultimately on the God who has made himself known to and through his people will increase accompanied with ever increasing delight. The time will never flatten out into monotonous boredom, but the complexities of thought and of delight will increase unimpeded forever.

I suspect I might spend a few eons in the library, before heading over to the basketball courts…

Is Romans 9 about corporate or individual election?

Yes.

The question “does Romans 9 deal with corporate election and historical destinies or individual election and eternal destinies” presents us with a false dichotomy. John Piper, in The Justification of God, presents the same options: “Individuals versus nations, eternal destinies versus historical tasks” (56). There are many who view this as a stark choice between the two. Piper spends the first part of Section 3.2 arguing against those who claim that the passage deals only with corporate/historical realities and not with individual/eternal salvation. I agree with Piper that those are wrong. It seems very short sighted and arbitrary to ignore the way that historical and corporate realities connect with and entail eternal individual outcomes. However, I do not agree that the answer is found by swinging entirely to the other side, namely, that the passage must only be talking about individual salvation and not at all about the corporate/historical realities that God incorporated into his larger plan of redemption—a redemption that necessarily includes individuals.

Piper quotes from a scholar who articulates this well, Henry Alford: “I must protest against all endeavors to make it appear that no inference lies from this passage as to the salvation of individuals. It is most true that the immediate subject is the national rejection of the Jews: but we must consent to hold our reason in abeyance if we do not recognize the inference that the sovereign power and free election here proved to belong to God extend to every exercise of his mercy—whether temporal or spiritual…whether national or individual” (58; for Alford, see The Greek Testament, vol. II , page 408).

Piper admits that “a plausible case can be made for the position that ‘Paul is no longer concerned with two peoples and their fate but rather in a permanent way with the election and rejection of two persons who have been raised to the level of types’ (Kaesemann, Commentary on Romans, 264)” (64). He later says, “Numerous interpreters suggest rightly, I think, that Isaac functions for Paul here as a type” (69, n. 51).

I see this corporate typology not just in 9:6–13 (the passage the Piper considers) but continuing on in 9:14–18 with the hardening of Pharaoh. I do not think that this passage is mainly written to explain that God can do that to every reprobate individual just like he did to Pharaoh. Certainly, God can do that. But in this passage, I take “the immediate subject” to be Pharaoh as a type whose anti-type is a corporate historical reality—the presently hardened nation of Israel; the “inference” certainly could be that God is free to harden any and every sinner. That’s just not the main point.

Pharaoh is not just “any sinner” he is the king of the nation of Egypt, the culmination of all the forces holding salvation back from God’s people. The hardening and subsequent destruction of Pharaoh produced salvation for God’s people. In the same way, in Paul’s day, the nation of Israel is a powerful and enslaving force holding the people of God (Jew and Gentile) back from salvation: “the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (2:24). Just as Pharaoh’s hardening and destruction produced salvation for God’s people, so the hardening and breaking off of natural branches produces salvation for God’s true Israel: “through their fall… salvation has come to the Gentiles” (11:11).

With Alford, I refuse to choose between either corporate/historical or individual/salvation. With him, I see the immediate subject as the former, though the legitimate inference is the latter. In truth, God sovereignly works all of the corporate and historical realities in all of the history of redemption to produce a final corporate/individual/historical/eternal reality, namely, the eschatological people of God, Jew and Gentile, individually and corporately saved in Christ for eternity. The former serves the latter, and is used by our sovereign God to bring about the latter.

“It is now widely held”

One could only wish:

In the late nineteenth century, B. Westcott and F. Hort taught that this text [the Byzantine textform] had been officially edited by the fourth-century church, but a total lack of historical evidence for this event has forced a revision of the theory. It is now widely held that the Byzantine Text that largely supports the Textus Receptus has as much right as the Alexandrian or any other tradition to be weighed in determining the text of the New Testament. (Preface to the NKJV, vi)

“to express a special relationship”?

The NKJV preface gets it wrong here, I think:

“Readers of the Authorized Version [KJV] will immediately be struck by the absence of several pronouns: thee, thou, and ye are replaced by the simple you, while your and yours are substituted for thy and thine as applicable. Thee, thou, thy and thine were once forms of address to express a special relationship to human as well as divine persons. These pronouns are no longer part of our language.

This is not the case at all. Older English had a way of distinguishing 2nd person singular (thee, thou, thy, thine) and 2nd person plural (ye, you, your, yours) as does Hebrew, Greek, and many other languages. Modern English has dropped this distinction, which puts the modern reader at a great loss in trying to understand the Bible accurately. I love the NKJV, but I lament the loss of ability to distinguish between singular and plural, and it’s disappointing that the editors didn’t make this clear in their preface.

(image source: https://www.english-grammar-revolution.com/history-of-you.html)

“Habitually thought in Latin”

Reading the preface to my NKJV this morning:

The scholars [who translated the original KJV] were almost as familiar with the original languages of the Bible as with their native English (Preface, iv).

I used to take that as hyperbole, hagiography, etc, part of a desperate attempt to hang on to the traditional English translation in the face of so many modern translations done under the banner of “scholarship,” and I didn’t buy it. I believe in real advances in scholarship, including the biblical languages. I’m still not sure about this idea of some “golden era” in the 17th century which has never since been matched. To avoid the ditch of “chronological snobbery” does not mean that you must veer off to some particular point in the other ditch and plant your flag there instead. I think this way about translations, creeds, confessions, and theologians.

However, to original point above, I was also reading the preface to Calvin’s Institutes this week, and was amazed to find this:

The first [French edition] of which we have knowledge is the celebrated edition of 1541, Calvin’s own translation from the Latin of 1539… It is undeniably the earliest work in which the French language is used as a medium for the expression of sustained and serious thought. It is remarkable that a book so creative in giving character to the language of the French nation should have been itself a translation made by an author who had from his boyhood habitually thought in Latin. (Introduction, xxxv, xxxvi).

It may be do the smallness of my own circle, but I don’t know of anyone of whom that is true. Perhaps there was something special about those earlier men after all.