The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism

It is instructive to note up front that Ken Wilson is an orthopedic surgeon who has his doctrinal degree in philosophy from Oxford and has no degrees in theology. The lack of theological training is evident in this book, which is a summary of his doctrinal thesis. Wilson read all of Augustine’s works, chronologically tracing the influential father’s views on free will beginning with his conversion until his death (p. iv). Wilson concludes that Augustine changed his theology at least once, possibly twice throughout his Christian life. He writes:

This [book] will expose the fact that Augustinian-Calvinism’s impressively logical skyscraper has been built upon an unstable foundation of pagan syncretistic (mixing pagan and Christian ideas) sand. Augustine of Hippo’s early influences from Stoicism, Neoplatonism, and Manichaeism ultimately determined his final theology, with his later deterministic interpretations of scripture reverting to his pre-Christian Manichaean interpretations (pp. 1-2).

Wilson insists that all the church fathers prior to Augustine taught that the fall of Adam resulted in physical, not spiritual, death and that, due to mankind retaining imago Dei, he does not inherit a sin nature from Adam. As a result, everyone has the ability to freely choose salvation. Therefore, no special act of grace is necessary, and God’s election of individuals is based purely upon His foreknowledge of their free choices (pp. 18-33, 106). Augustine was the first to break from this early Christian understanding and accept Divine Unilateral Predetermination of Individual’s Eternal Destinies (what Wilson calls DUPIED) (p. 5). The author believes Augustine accepted DUPIED in 412 due to earlier influences in his life emerging from Stoicism (which taught fate and the inability of humans to choose God due to their corrupt nature); Neoplatonism (which rejected the retention of imago Dei and taught that free choice must be restored by divine intervention); Gnosticism (which taught that God restored human reason only to some); and Manichaeism (which taught that those enslaved to sin cannot choose God without divine reconciliation, i.e. total depravity) (pp. 5-17).

Early Augustine (386-411) had moved away from these pagan influences after his conversion and accepted the free will theology of the church fathers (pp. 37-38). At some point, he broke from the fathers and developed the views he is known for today. Most other Augustine scholars believe he changed views in 396 with the writing of Ad Simplicianum (pp. 39, 53). But Wilson challenges this idea, claiming the switch did not happen until the great debate with the Pelagians in 412 (pp. 42-44). Wilson rejects one scholar’s assessment that the early Christian fathers ignored DUPIED and leaned into free will as a reaction to the pagan influences mentioned above (p. 18). It was when Augustine studied Scripture in light of the Pelagian heresy that he developed his theology best known today as Calvinism. However, Wilson totally rejects this view and traces Augustine’s revisions to the issue of infant baptism and how babies, born with inherited sin, could be saved (pp. 48-59, 78). Augustine concluded infants could be saved by the faith of their parents (salvation by proxy) (pp. 67, 71). He was forced to this conclusion when he returned to the adoption of his former pagan beliefs. Wilson admits that Augustine used Scripture to formulated DUPIED but unfortunately used Manichaean interpretations in drawing his conclusions (pp. 68-72, 81). Wilson summarizes his own views as such:

The early Christian bishops and authors rejected Stoic and Manichaean unilateral determinism (DUPIED) because Christian divine foreknowledge was not causal. The essential difference between Christian and pagan philosophy was that the Christian relational God chose persons for salvation based upon his foreknowledge of “future” human choices. These Christians simultaneously taught both God’s sovereignty and biblical predestination (God elects by using foreknowledge of genuine human free choice). Their biblical predestination was inextricably connected to divine foreknowledge. Pagan determinism rejected divine foreknowledge because they preferred a non-relational unilateral divine foreordained decree of all future events (pp. 87-88).

The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism provides a helpful, if brief, study of pagan teachings and the views of early church fathers on divine determinism and free will, as well as the development of Augustine’s theology throughout his life. He is correct that the late Augustine differed significantly from the early Augustine in some areas. But Wilson fails in his understanding of the reasons for this shift. Consider the following:

1.       While Augustine no doubt was influenced by pagan theology, Wilson uses guilt by association to make his case. If a pagan philosophy taught a particular doctrine, and Augustine did too, then by Wilson’s reasoning Augustine swallowed paganism whole. Inadvertently, Wilson shows the fallacy of this argument when he claims Paul, as a Pharisee, believed in free choice. However, not engaging in what Paul actually taught yet claiming to know his theology is problematic. The author totally misses that Paul had been a Pharisee and in fact still believed and taught many of the doctrines dear to the Pharisees. Did that make Paul a Judaizer who drew his theology from the Pharisees? Certainly not. But some of his concepts overlapped theirs. By the same token, that some of Augustine’s views were similar to Gnostic or Stoic theology does not necessarily mean they were the source for his teaching, or that he agreed with their principle doctrines.

2.       Only Scripture can determine truth and while Wilson protests that Augustine’s ideas did not come from the apostle Paul (p. 117), he did not prove his accusation. As a matter of fact, Wilson offers no biblical exegesis whatsoever. He accuses Augustine of interpreting Scripture through the filter of paganism but never addresses the Bible itself. In essence, while Wilson offers an interesting church history lesson and throws many unproven allegations at Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, he did not prove his case biblically.

3.       Wilson’s alternative to Augustinian-Calvinism is frightening. He suggests turning to almost any other form of Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy to avoid Augustinian theology. One does not have to embrace Calvinism to recognize that swinging the pendulum to works-based soteriology systems is a bad choice (p. 115). If the alternative to DUPIED is a free choice theology in which one adds works to faith for salvation, then hopefully the reader will realize that Wilson is not a reliable theological guide. He has documented some serious things to consider, but he offers no biblical framework to aid the reader in his understanding of the complex subject of divine sovereignty and human free will.

Wilson’s theology is solidly Arminian: Man’s nature is corrupt; but, nevertheless, he has the ability to freely choose or reject Christ. God has given enough grace to everyone that any can turn to Christ without divine intervention. God does elect some as His own but only on the basis of His foreknowledge in which He chooses those He knows will choose Him. The author makes the case that these teachings were uniformly accepted by the early church fathers until Augustine turned the doctrinal ship in 412. That may or may not be the case, but the issue is always what Scripture teaches, not what the fathers or Augustine believed. This vital link was not discussed in The Foundation.

by Ken Wilson (Montgomery, TX: Regula Fidei Press, 2019), 119 pp. + xx, paper $14.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel

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