Source for the goose

I happened to read two articles yesterday relating to ancient literary sources and their use. The first example was the essay by philosopher Robin Collins recommended by Ted Davis on his BioLogos post. This is the article suggesting a new model for understanding Adam and human sin which Collins calls the historical-ideal view. I won’t discuss the article’s arguments, though I found it unpersuasive for a number of reasons. But one of those reasons was that he follows the apparently almost universal current practice of misrepresenting historical sources.

People like Eddie at BioLogos have commented on the tendency of TE writers to enlist Patristic or other authoritative writers to their cause in a way that, shall we say, does not do justice to their real positions. In this case, Collins is talking about the doctrine of original sin, certain aspects of which (guilt for the sin of Adam and the corruption of human nature from the fall) he attributes to the innovation of St Augustine.

Now Augustine has, for some reason, become in modern discussions one of those names whose mention alone seems to taint a doctrine, rather like “Calvinistic” and, probably, for much the same reasons. I once heard the Arminian Bible teacher David Pawson describe him as “a dreadful man”. Which puts Augustine in his place. A quick search of the internet shows that it is “common knowledge” that Augustine is mainly responsible for the doctrine of original sin. This idea is reinforced by John Hick’s influential dichotomy between him and Irenaeus, of which a little more below. It’s given more credence by the recent Eastern Orthodox claim that Augustine muddied Orthodoxy’s water for some 1600 years until 20th century writers like Romanides ferreted out this western bondage (raising the question of whether the real story might actually be that it is the new writers muddying the waters – one would have to check the ancient authors¬† to see).

In the case of Collins, too, it’s a simple matter of checking sources, all of which are available freely online. Or in my case, on my bookshelf. I gave up checking after I found the doctrine taught in Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, all preceding or contemporary with Augustine. I’m no Patristic scholar, but it’s common knowledge that Augustine clarifies original sin at length because of the controversy with Pelagius, who did not represent the views of the whole church against a flag-waving Augustine, but whose subtle use of words had led some to believe his new teaching was harmless enough. It’s interesting how many nowadays say, “Maybe Pelagius wasn’t so bad after all,” as if the churches of Augustine’s time didn’t have a clue about the real issues.

The second article was a piece by Lee Gatiss on the New Perspective on Paul introduced by people like N T Wright and J D G Dunn. This teaching has cast the proverbial cat among the pigeons over a couple of decades by suggesting that the whole Protestant view of justification was mistaken by Luther and all who followed him. Much of Dunn’s initial case builds on Luther’s faulty parallel of Paul’s conversion to his own experience. But Gatiss demonstrates that Dunn has gravely misrepresented Luther, apparently by getting his information almost entirely from secondary sources. In particular Gatiss shows that Dunn’s statement about the Reformers’ understanding of Romans 7 is flat wrong, and completely contradicted by their own writings. He quotes, rather scathingly, from G K Chesterton:

You can find all the new ideas in the old books; only there you will find them balanced, kept in their place, and sometimes contradicted and overcome by other and better ideas. The great writers did not neglect a fad because they had not thought of it, but because they had thought of it and all of the answers to it as well.

I have to say, that’s my own experience. In a some cases, one hears some new breakthrough doctrine and recognises the 2nd century heresy immediately. In some, one reads some dusty tome by a Puritan and is surprised to see a modern controversy examined, dismantled and thoroughly refuted. Theistic personalism, for example, the basis of so much modern theology including Open Theism, was introduced by the Socinian John Biddle and soon refuted by John Owen in Vindiciae Evangelicae. It is pretty safe to say that if some theological innovation appears, it will have been discussed and rejected a dozen times over the millennia, or else it would be mainstream now. Which is not to deny that in some cases, good teaching has been somehow eclipsed and the current “mainstream” (a synonym for “broad road”?) is missing a trick.

But the point is that the arguments will be there, somewhere, in the thinking of the Church. And conversely, that failing to deal properly with the older sources leads one to make silly mistakes. It’s the laziness of modern writers, more than their theological errors, that is reprehensible. John Hick’s work, mentioned above, is a case study. His Evil and the God of Love¬† is hugely influential, particularly in TE circles. Everyone seems to have discovered the difference between Augustinian¬† theodicy and Irenaean “soul-making” theodicy. I’ve not read Hick’s book, but am reliably informed that his arguments are nuanced and cautious: he takes some teaching of Irenaeus’ about an immature Adam’s deception by Satan, builds a soul-making theology on it, contrasts that with Augustine and so makes it a theodical system. By the time that gets into TE articles, it’s become a contest in the early Church between Irenaeus’ theodicy and Augustine’s, with Augustine’s having that unspoken taint of scholasticism and negativity about it.

Few go back to Irenaeus and Augustine themselves to see if they actually disagree, or whether they are just emphasisisng different aspects in different kinds of works and different stages of theological development. Few make a real assessment of whether even Hick has represented the sources fairly – there’s plenty about guilt and retributive judgement, inherited sin and so on in Irenaeus as well as in Augustine. It’s easier to regurgitate the modern book, or even someone’s summary of it, and then speak authoritatively on the diversity of Patristic teaching. It’s the up-market version of the Dan Brown syndrome.

One reason for this laziness about sources is that many modern writers don’t actually care what the ancient theologians thought – they just want to enlist them on their own side for strategic reasons. The thinking behind this is seen in something that Collins says when discussing Paul’s teaching in Romans:

If God is the ultimate author, we would expect scripture to point to truths beyond the grasp of any individual author, indeed truths that people might not be able to understand nearly as well without the knowledge gained from modern science.

Just think about that for a moment: sometimes people foolishly fantasize about getting to heaven and asking Paul what he really meant. Modern people, it seems, imagine that Paul will be asking them what he meant, because of their superior knowledge of modern science. Augustine wouldn’t even get a look in on such a conversation.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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