The Cause of God and Presuppositions: Irenæus

English Baptist and theological hyper-Calvinist John Gill (1697-1771), in his work, The Cause of God and Truth, is found guilty of not only committing numerous logical fallacies regarding the writings of the early Church fathers prior to St Augustine in the late fourth, early fifth century, but also of obvious eisegesis, a faulty and biased method of reading into a text the presuppositional framework of one's own design. His work is improperly titled The Cause of God and Truth when, from all evidence, the title should be named The Cause of God and Presuppositions. This much is obvious from his treatment of the theological views of St Irenæus (130-202 CE), Bishop of Lyons in France, among all other pre-Augustinian fathers.

Gill alleges that Irenæus teaches the notion that God predetermines every minutiae of our existence: "It is evident, that he believed that all things are predetermined by God, and are overruled by him for the good of his church and people; yea, that even the fall of man is used to their advantage; for he says, that God has shown the greatness of his mind in the apostasy of man, for man is taught by it." (link) Here Gill falsely assumes his own Calvinistic understanding of God's governance. While this is convenient, it is also dishonest.

Gill confesses that Irenæus bases his context of God's sovereignty and predetermination of all events "upon the prescience or foreknowledge of God" (emphases added), a foreknowledge divorced from strict foreordination, yet Gill adds: "but I think it may very well be understood, in a sense entirely consistent with the doctrine of predestination, as maintained by us [Calvinists]." (link) (emphasis added) Gill commits the fallacy of appeal to probability. How convenient for him to imagine what Irenæus really believes, in spite of what he actually writes, and that such conforms to Gill's own theological presuppositions. How even the novice can miss this fallacy is mind-boggling. Yet Calvinists today still read Gill's work and imagine that the early fathers, like Irenæus, maintain a late-Augustinian understanding of the sovereignty of God, predestination or predetermination of all events, and unconditional election unto either salvation or condemnation.

Let me grant a brief example of Gill's faulty interpretive method. At least on three separate occasions, in The Works of Arminius, do we find this comment from Jacob Arminius (1559-1609): "God does nothing in time which He has not decreed from all eternity to do."1 Using Gill's eisegetical interpretive method, coupled with an appeal to probability and utilizing the lens of a strictly Calvinistic presupposition, one can assume that Arminius, too, may be understood as conveying "a sense entirely consistent with the doctrine of [Calvinistic] predestination," as taken from Gill regarding Irenæus. Well, except for one significant qualification, and that being taking the entirety of Arminius' theological views into consideration. What happens when we perform the same regarding Irenæus?

Appealing to the foreknowledge of God, Irenæus teaches, "God knows the number of those who will not believe (since He foreknows all things). He has given them over to unbelief and turned away His face from men of this mold."2 Note the absence of Calvinistic foreordination: God knows the number of those who will not believe in lieu of the Calvinist teaching that God has predetermined the number of those who will not believe. "By His foreknowledge," writes Irenæus, God foreknew "the infirmity of human beings, and the consequences that would flow from it."3 Moreover, with regard the eternal destiny of all, "God, foreknowing all things, prepared fit habitations for both."4 Am I reading Irenæus through the lens of Arminianism? No, I am assuming a prima facie reading of words.

In other words, when I read Irenæus, I am reading only his words and allowing his own theological voice to speak. When I read St Augustine, in his later, post-Pelagius writings, I merely read his words, and I understand his change of perspective regarding free will and predestination. I do not read Augustine through Arminius and, like a ventriloquist, force Augustine to comport with Reformed Arminian theology. I want Augustine to speak for Augustine, Irenæus to speak for Irenæus, Calvin for Calvin, Beza for Beza, Erasmus for Erasmus, Zwingli, Luther, Melanchthon, Arminius, Episcopius, Grotius, Limborch, Edwards, Finney -- they speak for themselves. I want to know what these individuals think rather than try to force ideas into their writings in an attempt at historically validating my own preferred theology. This is the unpardonable crime of John Gill.

When assessing Irenæus, Gill also attempts to re-imagine Calvinism, in order to present the ideas of Irenæus as conforming with Gill's Calvinism: "for we readily own, that God foreknew who would live piously, and seek after the light of life, because he determined to give them that grace which should enable them so to do, and therefore prepared mansions of light and glory for them." (link) Gill suggests: "For he [Irenæus] speaks of a certain number of persons chosen to eternal life [so does Arminius!], and of God’s giving up others to, and leaving them in their unbelief, in much such language as we usually do." (link) But Irenæus and Gill maintain two unmistakably contrary beliefs on this matter.

JOHN GILL (1697-1771)

Gill gives the impression that Calvinists insist that God merely foreknew who would believe. This is a gross misrepresentation of Calvinism. God did not merely foreknow who would believe. Calvinists consistently charge Arminians as rendering God helpless and in need of information concerning whom He should save by appealing to foreknowledge. In Calvinism, God cannot foreknow anything at all, but has exhaustively decreed and predetermined every event that comes to fruition -- including who will believe and who will remain in unbelief. So to suggest that Gill's Calvinism and the theology of Irenæus are one and the same is a bold, baffling, and deceptive ploy. Keep in mind that Gill's faulty, Church-historical work is used in the relatively recent book touting the erroneous doctrine of Limited Atonement, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. In other words, looking for support in the pre-Augustinian fathers for any notion of Limited Atonement is like looking for a proverbial non-existent needle in a theological-philosophical haystack.

Overtly unCalvinistic statements from Irenæus exposes Gill's presuppositional dishonesty in The Cause of God and Truth. Regarding free will and predestination, Irenæus himself renders a figure like Arminius to appear as a strict Calvinist, "But man, being endowed with reason, and in this respect similar to God, having been made free in his will [i.e., not necessarily free will but freed will, as Arminius and Reformed Arminians argue], and with power over himself, is himself his own cause that sometimes he becomes wheat, and sometimes chaff."5 (emphases added) There is no consistent Calvinist, alive or dead, who can affirm this understanding of Irenæus; a fact which renders Gill entirely and most obviously in error. Rather than appeal to a Calvinistic predetermination, even an unconditional election unto salvation or reprobation, Irenæus contrarily argues:
God has always preserved freedom and the power of self-government in man. Yet, at the same time, He issued His own exhortations, in order that those who do not obey Him would be righteously judged because they have not obeyed Him. And those who have obeyed and believed on Him should be honored with immortality. . . .

[The Marcionites] say, "But God hardened the heart of Pharaoh and of his servants." Now those who allege such difficulties do not read in the Gospel the passage where the Lord replied to the disciples, when they asked Him, "Why do you speak in parables?" He replied: "Because it is given to you to know the mystery of the kingdom of heaven. However, I speak to them in parables so that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not hear." . . . So God knows [not predetermines, but knows in advance] the number of those who will not believe, since He foreknows all things. So He has given them over to unbelief and turned His face away from men of this character, leaving them in the darkness that they have chosen for themselves. So what is baffling if He gave Pharaoh and those who were with him over to their unbelief? For they would never have believed.6 (emphases added)
The Marcionites were strict determinists, in the same vein as supralapsarian Calvinists, and Irenæus masterfully argues against a Calvinistic understanding of determinism, or predeterminism, or predestination. "Why, then," you may ask, "would Gill want Irenæus to appear Calvinistic?" The answer should be obvious: Calvinists have no claim to the early Church fathers prior to the novel, post-Pelagius teachings of an early fifth-century Augustine to historically ground their deterministic theology, which includes the false theories of unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace and necessary perseverance of the saints. As a matter of fact, on the subject of necessary perseverance, Gill finally loses all hope of gaining Irenæus to his Cause of Calvinism:
We should not, therefore, as that presbyter remarks, be puffed up, nor be severe upon those of olden times. Rather, we should fear ourselves, lest perchance, after [we have come to] the knowledge of Christ, if we do things displeasing to God, we obtain no further forgiveness of sins, but are shut out from His kingdom. And for that reason, Paul said, "For if [God] spared not the natural branches [i.e., Israel], [take heed] lest He also not spare you [who believe]." . . .

It was not to those who are on the outside that he said these things, but to us -- lest we should be cast forth from the kingdom of God, by doing any such thing. . . . Those who do not obey Him, being disinherited by Him, have ceased to be His sons.7
Of course, the notion that a believer may forfeit her salvation due to a later rejection of faith in Jesus Christ is the overwhelming consensus of the early fathers prior to Augustine. In the same section, quoted for Irenæus above, the same conclusion is reached by the writings of Barnabas, Clement of Rome, the writing of Second Clement, Hermas, Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Hippolytus, Origen, Commodianus, Cyprian (who writes extensively on the subject), Victorinus, Lactantius, and the writing of Apostolic Constitutions, stemming from 70 to 390 CE. What this indicates is that the teaching of apostasy for true, former believers is an orthodox doctrine handed down to the early Church fathers by the original apostles of Jesus Christ.

We are able to defend the same with regard to the non-deterministic sovereignty of God, conditional and corporate election, general atonement, and resistible grace from all the early, pre-Augustinian Church fathers. Though Calvinists like John Gill make grand and fantastical attempts at discovering Calvinism in the early Church fathers -- his eisegetical method is employed for all the pre-Augustinian fathers in The Cause of God and Truth -- all such attempts are merely grand failures; and the truth stated by Dr. Kenneth D. Keathley remains true: "What is known as Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers [excepting early semi-Pelagians] and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy."8 No amount of eisegetical method can change this historical fact.

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1 The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996) 2:235; cf. 2:350; 2:368.

2 Quoted from A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs: A Reference Guide to More Than 700 Topics Discussed by the Early Church Fathers, ed. David W. Bercot (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2003), 284.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid., 286.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., 587.

8 Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.