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Category: Predestination (Page 1 of 3)

Does John 6:44 Teach Predestination?

A reader wrote:

I’ve really enjoyed browsing your site. I’m a reformed Christian and have appreciated learning about the Orthodox Church. I do find the church appealing but I believe scripture supports the reformed position. I’ve been reading your plucking the tulip article and was hoping you’d interact with John 6, especially vss 44-59 as I’ve yet to hear a compelling argument in favor of the non reformed view of that passage.

The verse the reader referred to is John 6:44 which reads:

No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him: and I will raise him up at the last day. (NKJV, OSB; emphasis added)

οὐδεὶς δύναται ἐλθεῖν πρός με ἐὰν μὴ ὁ πατὴρ ὁ πέμψας με ἑλκύσῃ αὐτόν, κἀγὼ ἀναστήσω αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ ἡμέρᾳ. (NA28; emphasis added)

Verse 44 has been construed to teach that we are saved against our will. Another way to put it is that our human wills have been irresistibly compelled by God’s eternal decree to receive Christ and so become Christians. Furthermore, any so-called freedom of the will or ability to love God is impossible outside the divine decree. It has been claimed that this verse supports the Reformed doctrine of double predestination, or more precisely the doctrine of effectual calling aka irresistible grace.

In this article I examine how John 6:44 can be approached in ways that allow for non-Reformed readings. Key to this argument will be the multiple meanings for the Greek word for “draw” – ελκω (helko).  I will also be looking at non-Reformed readings of John 6:44, the context of John chapter 6, and the context of historical theology to see if the Reformed interpretation of John 6:44 holds up to critical scrutiny.


The Reformed Understanding of John 6:44

Charles Spurgeon

The famous nineteenth century preacher, C.H. Spurgeon, tells the story of how he was confronted with an interpretation of John 6:44 based on the literal meaning of ελκω (helko) – “to drag.”

Another person turns around and says with a sneer, “Then do you think that Christ drags men to Himself, seeing that they are unwilling?” I remember meeting once with a man who said to me, “Sir, you preach that Christ takes people by the hair of their heads and drags them to Himself.” I asked him whether he could refer to the date of the sermon wherein I preached that extra-ordinary doctrine, for if he could, I should be very much obliged. However, he could not. But said I, while Christ does not drag people to Himself by the hair of their heads, I believe that He draws them by the heart quite as powerfully as your caricature would suggest.

Mark that in the Father’s drawing there is no compulsion whatever; Christ never compelled any man to come to Him against his will. If a man be unwilling to be saved, Christ does not save him against his will. How, then, does the Holy Spirit draw him? Why, by making him willing. It is true He does not use “moral suasion”; He knows a nearer method of reaching the heart. He goes to the secret fountain of the heart, and He knows how, by some mysterious operation, to turn the will in an opposite direction, so that, as Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) paradoxically puts it, the man is saved “with full consent against his will”; that is, against his old will he is saved. But he is saved with full consent, for he is made willing in the day of God’s power. Do not imagine that any man will go to heaven kicking and struggling all the way against the Hand that draws him. Do not conceive that any man will be plunged in the bath of a Saviour’s blood while he is striving to run away from the Saviour. Oh, no! It is quite true that first of all man is unwilling to be saved. When the Holy Spirit hath put His influence into the heart, the test is fulfilled: “Draw me and I will run after thee” (Song 1:4). We follow on while He draws us, glad to obey the Voice which once we had despised. (source; emphasis added)

Here, Spurgeon’s studiously avoided the literal meaning of ελκω “to drag.” He could have used the more literal meaning of ελκω as when the Apostle Paul was physically dragged in Acts 16:19 and 21:30, but he did not. Insisting that there is no compulsion involved in our salvation, Spurgeon relied on the figurative meaning used in the Song of Songs. He states that there is no “moral suasion” involved (which would have implied Arminianism), and instead insists that it was a “mysterious operation” of the Holy Spirit that brings about conversion.

In contrast to Spurgeon’s figurative understanding, Ligonier Ministries uses the more literal meaning of ελκω found in Acts 16:19:

. . . it is also clear that any position that says the Lord only “woos” us cannot be maintained. The same word translated “draw” in John 6:44 is found in Acts 16:19 and James 2:6 where the apostolic authors speak of someone being “dragged” somewhere. Though the elect may try at first to resist God’s drawing, He drags us, against our fallen wills, to Jesus. God overcomes our natural enmity toward Himself and guarantees that His elect people will choose to follow Christ. (source; emphasis added.)

The tension between two notable Reformed Christians, C.H. Spurgeon and R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries, on the meaning of ελκω in John 6:44 shows that understanding John 6:44 is not as simple as some may think.

John Calvin

So, where does John Calvin stand with respect to Spurgeon and Ligonier Ministries’ conflicting interpretations? Calvin’s understanding of John 6:44 can be found in his commentary.

Unless the Father draw him. To come to Christ being here used metaphorically for believing, the Evangelist, in order to carry out the metaphor in the apposite clause, says that those persons are drawn whose understandings God enlightens, and whose hearts he bends and forms to the obedience of Christ. The statement amounts to this, that we ought not to wonder if many refuse to embrace the Gospel; because no man will ever of himself be able to come to Christ, but God must first approach him by his Spirit; and hence it follows that all are not drawn, but that God bestows this grace on those whom he has elected. True, indeed, as to the kind of drawing, it is not violent, so as to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant. It is a false and profane assertion, therefore, that none are drawn but those who are willing to be drawn, as if man made himself obedient to God by his own efforts; for the willingness with which men follow God is what they already have from himself, who has formed their hearts to obey him. (Emphasis added.)

Calvin cites John 6:44 eight times in his Institutes. He understood “draw” in the sense of the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian believer.

Hear Him calling, ‘No one comes to me unless my Father draws him’ [John 6:44]. And one may incontrovertibly conclude from John’s words that the hearts of the pious are so effectively governed by God that they follow Him with unwavering intention. (Institutes 2.3.10; p. 304; emphasis added)

Calvin seems to occupy a middle ground between Spurgeon and Ligonier Ministries with respect to God’s efficacious calling. Where Spurgeon sought to soften the repellent connotations of efficacious calling, Ligonier Ministries underscored the coercive nature of divine election insisting that God drags us against our fallen wills. I have been unable to find Calvin using similar stark language which leads me to suspect that Ligonier Ministries may be more Calvinistic than Calvin!

The Reformed understanding of John 6:44 is not the only interpretation. Noted Roman Catholic bible scholar, Raymond Brown, favors understanding our being drawn to Christ in terms of attraction or desire, not compulsion. In his Anchor Bible Commentary on John, Brown notes:

If the Jews will desist from their murmuring, which is indicative of a refusal to believe, and will leave themselves open to God’s movement, He will draw them to Jesus. This is the age spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when they are being taught by God, if only they will listen. This teaching has its external aspect in the sense that it is embodied in Jesus who walks among them, but it is internal in the sense that God acts in their hearts. It is a fulfillment of what Jeremiah xxxi 33 had promised: “I will put my law within them, and on their hearts will write it” (John Bright, The Anchor Bible, vol. 21). This internal moving of the heart by the Father will enable them to believe in the Son and thus possess eternal life. (p. 277; emphasis added)

Brown’s non-Reformed reading can be seen in the causal reasoning: If the Jews will desist from murmuring, then God will draw them to Jesus. This allows for the freedom of choice – to resist God’s grace or to be receptive to God’s grace in Christ by listening to what Jesus has to say.

St. John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom, one of the preeminent preachers in the early Church, likewise offers a different approach to John 6:44. He understands ελκω in John 6:44, not in terms of compulsion, but as persuasion or wooing. A Calvinist reading Homily XLVI cannot help but be struck by John Chrysostom’s blunt, explicit affirmation of human free will:

For if a man cometh to Him,” saith some one, “what need is there of drawing?” But the words do not take away our free will, but show that we greatly need assistance. And He implieth not an unwilling comer, but one enjoying much succor (p. 164; emphasis added).

If there are other ways of interpreting John 6:44, the issue then becomes which is the more accurate understanding of the verse?



John 12:32

To better understand the meaning of ελκω in John 6:44, it helps to compare how the word is used in John 12:32. Here we have the same word used in two similar contexts within the same book. Under normal circumstances, we can expect the same meaning to apply for both contexts.

And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to Myself. (NKJV, OSB)
κἀγὼ ἐὰν ὑψωθῶ ἐκ τῆς γῆς, πάντας ἑλκύσω πρὸς ἐμαυτόν. (NA28; emphasis added.)

However, the Reformed folks’ attempt to apply the literal meaning of ελκω as compulsion has problematic implications, i.e., universalism, that all will be saved. Calvin in his commentary on John 12:32 sees this problem and so downplayed the monergistic sense of the word and placed stronger emphasis on how Christ’s death on the Cross would result in a salvation that would include the non-Jews. Thus, Calvin does not take “all” literally but in the restricted sense of the elect, i.e., “the children of God, who belong to his flock.”

It might have been thought, that at that time he was carried away from the earth, so as no longer to have any interests in common with men; but he declares, that he will go in a very different manner, so as to draw upwards to himself those who were fixed on the earth. Now, though he alludes to the form of his death, yet he means generally, that his death will not be a division to separate him from men, but that it will be an additional means of drawing earth upwards towards heaven.

I will draw all men to myself. The word all, which he employs, must be understood to refer to the children of God, who belong to his flock. Yet I agree with Chrysostom, who says that Christ used the universal term, all, because the Church was to be gathered equally from among Gentiles and Jews. . . . (source; emphasis added.)

Evangelical scholar, Leon Morris, in his NICNT commentary on John, while understanding “draw” in the sense of a work of God and not a natural human response, recognizes that it would be problematic to read the passage as implying universal salvation (p. 598). To avoid universalism, Morris chooses to understand the verse as teaching the end of the particularism of Judaism and salvation being extended to non-Jews. While this reading softens the universalistic implications of John 12:32, it ignores the troubling implications of a literal compulsory understanding of ελκω in his commentary on John 6:44 (cf. Note 110 p. 371) and whether whether the figurative meaning of ελκω could have been used both John 6:44 and 12:32.

The early Church Father, John Chrysostom, in Homily LXVII, expounds on John 12:32 in which the same word ελκω appears.

“I will draw all men to Myself.” How then said He that the Father draweth? Because when the Son draweth, the Father draweth also. He saith, “I will draw them,” as though they were detained by a tyrant, and unable of themselves alone to approach Him, and to escape the hands of him who keepeth hold of them. In another place He calleth this “spoiling; no man can spoil a strong man’s goods, except he first bind the strong man, and then spoil his goods.” This He said to prove His strength, and what there He calleth “spoiling,” He hath here called “drawing.” (NPNF Vol. 14 p. 250; emphasis added)

In his subsequent sermon, John Chrysostom has no problem juxtaposing John 6:44 right next to John 12:32, neither does he append any qualifying remarks as a Calvinist might feel the need to do.

But by saying before, “No man can come to Me except the Father draw him”; and again, “If I be lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men unto Me”; and again, “No man cometh to the Father but by Me”; He showeth Himself equal to Him who begat Him. (NPNF Vol. 14 p. 269; emphasis added)

What is worth noting here is how John Chrysostom’s syngergistic understanding of ελκω allows him to apply the same meaning to both John 6:44 and to John 12:32. This contrasts with the Reformed tradition’s attempt to apply the hard literal meaning of ελκω to John 6:44 to uphold the doctrine of predestination then seeking to apply the soft figurative meaning of ελκω to John 12:32 in order to avoid the implication of universalism. This inconsistent approach to ελκω in two similar settings within the same book raises questions about the linguistic validity of Reformed hermeneutics with respect to John 6:44.


The Monergistic Premise

The Reformed tradition’s doctrine of monergism—God as the sole cause of our salvation—predisposes its adherents to favor the more impersonal, coercive understanding of ελκω in John 6:44 and to ignore the figurative meaning of ελκω as persuasion. Ligonier Ministries hews to the uncompromising monergistic understanding of salvation:

The doctrine of the internal call cannot be avoided if we take the Bible seriously, and it leaves no room for man to play a part in his own salvation. Why do some people respond to the Gospel? Because God called them. Why do others not respond? Because God did not call them. (Source)

This stance is consistent with Calvin’s opposition to the notion of human cooperation with divine grace. He writes:

But here we must beware of two errors: for some make man God’s co-worker, to ratify election by his consent. (Institutes 3.24.3; p. 967)

This is not just Calvin’s opinion but reflects the formal position of the Reformed tradition. We read in the Westminster Confession Chapter 9 “Of Free Will”:

3. Man, by his fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto. (Source; emphasis added.)

The belief in man’s total inability is closely related to the Protestant doctrine of sola gratia that it is only by divine grace that man is saved. This doctrinal framework predisposes Reformed Protestants to favor readings of John 6:44 as irresistible compulsion or as “voluntary” acceptance that originates in divine intervention.

Do you notice the hidden assumption here?

Many Calvinists hold to the doctrine of man’s total inability because of Ephesians 2:1 “you were dead through the trespasses and sins” (RSV; emphasis added). They were taught that “dead” means the absence of any volitional capacity in man to respond to God’s grace unless God bestows upon him the ability to believe. However, if one reads the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15, one finds that the prodigal son who was “dead” (verse 32) also “came to himself” (verse 17) before returning home. There is no hint in Jesus’ parable of the wayward son being dragged home. The prodigal son returned home willingly and was welcomed by his loving father.  Thus, the biblical basis for the Reformed TULIP is not as strong as some assume it to be.

In the Orthodox synergistic understanding of John 6:44, the focus is not on compulsion, but on who takes the initiative. With  divine grace, it is God who takes the initiative and fallen humans who respond to the divine imitative either with acceptance or rejection. The Confession of Dositheus, which represents the Orthodox Church’s formal response to Reformed theology, affirmed man’s free will, even after the Fall. We read in Decree 14:

We believe man in falling by the [original] transgression to have become comparable and similar to the beasts; that is, to have been utterly undone, and to have fallen from his perfection and impassibility, yet not to have lost the nature and power which he had received from the supremely good God. For otherwise he would not be rational, and consequently not a human. So [he still has] the same nature in which he was created, and the same power of his nature, that is free-will, living and operating, so that he is by nature able to choose and do what is good, and to avoid and hate what is evil. For it is absurd to say that the nature which was created good by Him who is supremely good lacks the power of doing good. For this would be to make that nature evil — what could be more impious than that? (Emphasis added.)

The common ground shared by Orthodoxy and the Reformed tradition is the belief in prevenient grace, that it is God who takes the initiative in our salvation. Where the two traditions differ is with respect to man’s capacity to respond to divine grace. The Reformed understanding is that the Fall of Adam and Eve was of such catastrophic proportions that humans lost all ability—even volitional—to respond to God’s grace and so God needed to send the Holy Spirit to make us willing to believe in Christ. The Orthodox understanding is that even after the Fall man possessed free will and so had the freedom to accept or reject God’s grace. The synergistic understanding of salvation is not that of an interaction between equals; God has the upper hand, but he gives us the freedom to choose.


John 6:44 in Context

One problem with the Reformed reading of John 6:44 is that it fails to take into account how this verse fits into the overall context of John 6 – Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life. The backdrop to the Jews resisting Jesus’ claim to be the Bread of Life is Exodus 16 which describes how in response to the Israelites’ murmuring, Yahweh sent manna from heaven. As the Messiah who fulfills the Old Testament, Jesus is the new Moses who feeds the “elect” people with the true Bread from heaven. The prophetic type of the bread of heaven is fulfilled in the Son of God who came down from heaven in the Incarnation. The eating of manna in the desert finds fulfillment in having faith in Jesus as the Messiah and in entering into Eucharistic fellowship with Him. Thus, the unbelieving Jews of the Old Covenant are superseded by the new Israel represented by the Apostle Peter and the faithful disciples who remained even after so many stopped following Jesus (John 6:66-69). The Reformed interpretation of John 6:44 as teaching predestination holds up only if one isolates this verse to the exclusion of the overall context of John 6.

Leighton Flowers points out that the context for John 6:44 is the tension between the old Israel whose hearts were calloused and hardened and the new Israel—Jesus’ disciples. He notes that there is no suggestion in John 6 of God universally condemning all men to a totally disabled condition from birth due to Adam’s transgression and that salvation consists of God irresistibly drawing a preselected few. The Reformed reading of John 6:44 holds up only if one isolates this verse to the exclusion of the overall context. Flowers makes the intriguing suggestion that in the Bread of Life discourse Jesus was being deliberatively provocative, antagonizing the Jews, “judicially blinding Israel” in order to condemn the old Israel and to call out the faithful remnant of preselected Israelites who would make up the new Israel in the form of the Twelve.

What is the context for John 6:44? Verses 41-43 which immediately precede verse 44 contain the admonition that the Israelites ought to cease their murmuring against Jesus. The danger here is the Jews hardening their hearts against Jesus as the Israelites did against Yahweh in Moses’ time. So likewise it is important to note how John 6:44 is complemented by verse following it. Both verses 44 and 45 have the phrase “come to me.” Verse 44 points to God’s gracious initiative in drawing people to the Son; verse 45 teaches that we are drawn to the Son, not by compulsion, but through teaching. In the Incarnation God comes in the flesh and directly teaches men as was prophesied in Isaiah 54:13:

I will cause all your children to be taught by God, and your children to be in great peace. (NKJV, OSB)

Chapter 6 ends with large numbers of Jesus’ followers stumbling over the hard saying (v. 61) and parting ways with Jesus (v. 66). Here, John the Evangelist, like the Apostle Paul in Romans 9 to 11, is addressing one of the vexing theological problems facing the early Christian community: Why did the Jews—the elect people—reject the Messiah?

Thus, it is important when using passages like John 6:44 to formulate doctrine that we take into account the context of the passage. Furthermore, we should avoid rushing to link passages that use the literal, mechanical meaning to those that teach salvation in Christ. Yet this is what Ligonier Ministries has done. They cited John 18:10 a passage that describe a mechanical action—Peter’s drawing his sword—in order to interpret John 6:44 which is about man’s response to divine grace. The more sound approach is to cite biblical passages that pertain to our salvation in Christ (e.g., John 12:32) and omit passages that pertain to mechanical actions. If they had been willing to allow for ελκω with the sense of persuasion as in Jeremiah 31:3 and Song of Songs 1:4 in the Septuagint, the folks at Ligonier Ministries could have avoided many theological and exegetical difficulties. It is regrettable that Ligonier Ministries has succumbed to clumsy proof texting instead of using a simpler and more direct lexical solution – the figurative sense of ελκωas as persuasion or wooing.


The Range of Meaning of ελκω – “to draw”

There are multiple meanings for the Greek word ελκω “to draw.” This means that interpreting John 6:44 is not a simple matter as many in the Reformed tradition would assume. Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon’s entry for ‘ελκω‘ lists two meanings: (1) to pull often implying resistance (Vol. 1 15.212; p. 205) and (b) to lead by force (Vol. 1 15.178; p. 208). It is quite surprising that this fine lexicon did not touch on the figurative meaning for ελκω. Also, the lexicon makes no mention of John 6:44 and 12:32, two passages that use ελκω in relation to our salvation in Christ. Arndt and Gingrich’s lexicon lists two categories of meaning for ελκω: a literal physical meaning and a figurative meaning: “of the pull on man’s inner life.” They assigned to ελκω in John 6:44 and 12:32 the figurative meaning: to draw or to attract. Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament likewise assigns the figurative meaning of ελκω to the two verses. It notes that in the Septuagint, ελκω had the sense of “drawing to oneself in love.”

Apostle Paul dragged into the marketplace

The Greek word ελκω is normally used in the sense of drawing or pulling on an inanimate object, or of pulling a person through physical force: the Apostle Peter drawing out his sword (John 18:10) or the disciples pulling on their nets in the post-resurrection account in John 21:6 and 11. Determining the appropriate meaning becomes more complicated when ελκω is is applied to humans. It can be applied externally to the physical body or internally implying persuasion. In the book Acts, we find ελκω used in the sense of physical force applied to unwilling subjects, e.g., the Apostle Paul and his companion Silas dragged into the marketplace (Acts 16:19), and the Apostle Paul on another occasion being dragged out of the Jerusalem temple (Acts 21:30). James in his epistle makes reference to the common practice of the rich dragging the poor to court (2:6).

Jeremiah being pulled out of the cistern

In the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament), we find a range of meanings for ελκω, from physical force to persuasion. In Jeremiah 45:13 is a positive example of physical force being applied to a human being: Jeremiah being pulled out of the pit by means of ropes cushioned with old rags. David’s song in 2 Kingdoms 22:17 (2 Samuel 22:17) refers to Yahweh drawing him out of many waters, evoking the image of a lifeguard pulling a drowning man out the deep waters.

The Septuagint also uses ελκω in the sense of persuasion. In Jeremiah 38:3, we read:

I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I drew you in compassion, O virgin of Israel. (OSB; emphasis added; cf. Jeremiah 31:3 MT)

κύριος πόρρωθεν ὤφθη αὐτῷ ἀγάπησιν αἰωνίαν ἠγάπησά σε διὰ τοῦτο εἵλκυσά σε εἰς οἰκτίρημα (source; emphasis added.)

In the Song of Songs 1:4, we find ελκω used in the sense of persuasion.

They draw you. We will run after you, For the smell of your ointments. The king brought me into his chamber. (OSB; emphasis added.)

εἵλκυσάν σε ὀπίσω σου εἰς ὀσμὴν μύρων σου δραμοῦμεν εἰσήνεγκέν με ὁ βασιλεὺς εἰς τὸ ταμίειον αὐτοῦ (source; emphasis added.)

These verses tell us that the Greek ελκω can be understood in the sense of physical force or as persuasion. Absent in the Septuagint are passages that suggest the Reformed understanding of internal compulsion against one’s free will.

To sum up, there are at least three meanings for ελκω:

• Inanimate Objects – physical force: Peter drawing his sword from its sheath (John 18:10); Peter and his companions pulling the nets (John 21:6).
• People – physical force: Paul dragged bodily from the marketplace (Acts 16:19) or from the Temple (21:30); Jeremiah pulled out of the pit (Jeremiah 45:13; cf. 2 Samuel 22:17); the rich dragging the poor into the courtroom (James 2:6).
• People – persuasion or wooing: Yahweh drawing Israel by His love (Jeremiah 38:3 in LXX; cf. Jeremiah 31:3 MT); the beloved calling out to her love in Song of Songs 1:4)

Given this range of meanings, our task is ascertaining the appropriate category of meaning for ελκω for John 6:44 and 12:32. One important clue is that in John 6:44 and 12:32 ελκω is used in the context of personal relationships: Christ and the individual believer in John 6:44 and Christ saving the world in John 12:32. To treat salvation in Christ as an impersonal compulsion would be a dubious undertaking. One could argue for the mechanical understanding of ελκω by appealing to man’s total inability, however that would be to import wholesale the theological system known as TULIP into John 6 which makes no mention whatsoever of total depravity or predestination. The Reformed interpretation of John 6:44 is more eisegesis (reading doctrine into the text) than exegesis (drawing doctrine from the text). Furthermore, the Reformed exegetes’ inconsistent application of one sense of ελκω for John 6:44 and a different one for John 12:32 sacrifices the linguistic integrity of biblical hermeneutics for the sake of upholding a novel theological system.



The Reformed tradition’s attempt to use a literal, compulsory meaning of ελκω for interpreting John 6:44 is problematic for several reasons. First, in order to read verse 44 as supporting predestination one would need to isolate verse 44 from the broader context of John 6. There is no hint or suggestion of the Fall, man’s total depravity, irresistible grace, or predestination in Jesus’ exposition on the bread of life – the main theme of chapter 6. The Calvinist reading of John 6:44 depend on reading certain assumptions into the text. This projecting of the Reformed theology onto the biblical text is questionable and deserves to be criticized.

Second, using the literal, coercive understanding of ελκω in John 6:44 leads to significant theological difficulties if it is applied likewise to John 12:32. The problem of universalism can be avoided if we understand ελκω in the more figurative sense of wooing. This is a much simpler and direct solution than the Reformed exegetes’ clumsy solution of applying the literal meaning of ελκω to John 6:44 and the allegorical meaning to John 12:32. This semantic inconsistency doesn’t make sense.

Third, using the figurative, relational definition for ελκω is consistent with the early Church Father’s affirmation of human free will. To sum up, the Reformed interpretation of John 6:44 involves: proof texting, eisegesis over exegesis, potential universalism, questionable handling of the Greek language, the ignoring the immediate context of John 6, and the ignoring of historical theology.

While the Reformed reading of John 6:44 founders on linguistic, contextual, and historical grounds, John Chrysostom’s reading of John 6:44 does a much better job in reflecting the meaning of ελκω, the context of John chapter 6, and the historic Christian Faith. To the reader who submitted the original query, I hope this article answers your concerns about John 6:44 and is of help to you in your journey to Orthodoxy.


Looking Ahead

I hope in the future to address other aspects of the Reformed tradition’s soteriology. The Calvinist paradigm, which has so profoundly influenced many people’s understanding of salvation and God’s character, is based on assumptions that need to be critically examined in the light of Scripture and the teachings of the early Church Fathers. Among the assumptions that deserve scrutiny are the human condition after the Fall, man’s freedom to love God or to suppress the Truth of God, and the problem of theodicy — God’s absolute sovereignty becoming the cause of sin. The early Church Fathers in their wisdom recognized that even though fallen and deeply flawed, man still retained the divine image and so possessed the freedom to respond to God’s loving initiative in Christ or to suppress the truth also by his own free choice. I also hope to compare Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism—two theological systems that the Reformed tradition has so strongly opposed—against the teachings of early Church Fathers. I suspect that many of the problematic aspects of Calvinist soteriology can be traced to the West’s departure from the ancient patristic consensus. The Calvinist paradigm is a complex system of interrelated ideas which means it cannot be refuted with one single argument. Persuading sincere inquirers to relinquish their Calvinism will require a wide-ranging critique. Also needed is persuading the inquirer to embrace the ancient Church’s soteriology which is articulated in the ancient liturgies that recalled and celebrated Christ’s work of salvation through his Incarnation, his life on earth, his saving death on the Cross, and his third-day Resurrection by which he destroyed Death and Hell in order to restore us to life with God.

Robert Arakaki



Arndt and Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.
Nathaniel W. Bingham. “Charles Spurgeon on Calvinism – Irresistible Grace.” Ligonier Ministries
Raymond E. Brown. Anchor Bible Commentary on John I-XII.
John Calvin. Commentary on John.  BibleHub.com

John Calvin. Institutes Vol 1 and 2. Ford Lewis Battles, editor and translator.
Leighton Flowers. “John 6 – “Down From Heaven”: Why Context Kills Calvinism.”
German Bible Society. Septuagint. Academic-bible.com
Gerhard Kittel. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. II p. 503
Ligonier Ministries. “Effectual Calling.”
Ligonier Ministries. “Man’s Radical Fallenness.”

Johannes P. Louw and Eugene A. Nida.  Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains. VOL I & II.
Leon Morris. NICNT Commentary on John.
Erwin Nestle and Kurt Aland. Novum Testamentum Graece | 28. German Bible Society.
Alfred Rahlfs. Septuaginta. Vol. II.
C.H. Spurgeon. “How Men Come to Christ.” Monergism.com


Note: In an earlier version of “Man’s Radical Fallenness,” Ligonier Ministries apparently mistyped John 6:44 as John 6:65. In light of their recent correction, I am retracting my earlier criticism of their reading of the Greek text. Thanks to Jon H for bringing this to my attention!  [11 October 2018]


Calvin Dissing the Fathers


John Calvin

John Calvin










In an earlier blog posting “Plucking the TULIP,” I marshaled an array of patristic citations showing that a wide range of early church fathers affirmed human free will: Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyril of Jerusalem, John of Damascus, John of the Ladder, Gregory of Nyssa et al.  I did this to show that the theological consensus of the early Church refuted the Calvinist doctrine of double predestination.

When I wrote it I wondered how Calvin would have responded to my patristic argument.  I recently found the answer when in the course of browsing Calvin’s Institutes I came across the subsection titled “The church fathers generally show less clarity but a tendency to accept freedom of the will.  What is free will?” (2.2.4, pp. 258-261)

Calvin opened with the following statement:

All ecclesiastical writers have recognized both that the soundness of reason in man is gravely wounded through sin, and that the will has been very much enslaved by evil desires.

This also reflects the Orthodox understanding of humanity’s fallen condition and our still having free will and the capacity to reason.  However, Calvin criticized this understanding of the human condition charging that the early church fathers in affirming human reason came “far too close to the philosophers.”  He is of the belief that the early fathers took this position in order to avoid “the jeers of the philosophers.”  Then he made the claim the fathers affirmed human free will in order “not to give occasion for slothfulness.”  He wrote:

Surely you see by these statements that they credited man with more zeal for virtue than he deserved because they thought that they could not rouse our inborn sluggishness unless they argued that we sinned by it alone.


Dissing the Fathers

Calvin’s low opinion of the Greek fathers comes across loud and clear in the following sentence:

Further, even though the Greeks above the rest—and Chrysostom especially among them—extol the ability of the human will, yet all the ancients, save Augustine, so differ, waver, or speak confusedly on this subject, that almost nothing certain can be derived from their writings. (Emphasis added.)

The above sentence is pure dynamite.  One, Calvin was aware of the early fathers (“all the ancients”) affirmation of free will.  Two, that he believed the church fathers spoke “confusedly” meaning there was no patristic consensus on free will.  Three, nothing worthwhile can be learned from the early church fathers on this matter.  Four, the sole exception among the early church fathers is Augustine.

These are all very interesting theses, but like any set of theses they need to be backed up evidence and arguments.  It is disappointing, therefore, to find that Calvin disdains to provide supporting evidence.

Therefore, we shall not stop to list more exactly the opinions of individual writers; but we shall only select at random from one or another, as the explanation of the argument would seem to demand.


My Response to Calvin

If Calvin will not “list more exactly the opinions of individual writers,” then I will.  The following citations are presented to show the breadth and depth of the early Church’s affirmation of human free will.

Ignatius of Antioch (d. 98/117), one of the Apostolic Fathers, affirmed human free will:

Seeing, then, all things have an end, and there is set before us life upon our observance [of God’s precepts], but death as the result of disobedience, and every one, according to the choice he makes, shall go to his own place, let us flee from death, and make choice of life. For I remark, that two different characters are found among men — the one true coin, the other spurious. The truly devout man is the right kind of coin, stamped by God Himself. The ungodly man, again, is false coin, unlawful, spurious, counterfeit, wrought not by God, but by the devil. I do not mean to say that there are two different human natures, but that there is one humanity, sometimes belonging to God, and sometimes to the devil. If any one is truly religious, he is a man of God; but if he is irreligious, he is a man of the devil, made such, not by nature, but by his own choice.  (Letter to the Magnesians – long version, Chapter 5; ANF Vol. I p. 61; emphasis added.)

The Epistle to Diognetus, considered part of the Apostolic Fathers corpus, affirmed human free will:

. . . as a king sending a son, he sent him as King, he sent him as God, he sent him as Man to men, he was saving and persuading when he sent him, not compelling, for compulsion is not an attribute of God (Epistle to Diognetus 7.3; Loeb Classical Library Vol. II, p. 365; emphasis added).

Clement of Rome (fl. c. 90-100) has been cited in support of free will (see Recognitions 9.30).  However, serious concerns have been raised about the authenticity of the Recognitions (Quasten’s Patrology Vol. I, p. 61-62).

Justin Martyr (c. 100-165), an early Apologist who was schooled in classical philosophy before his conversion, wrote:

For the coming into being at first was not in our own power; and in order that we may follow those things which please Him, choosing them by means of the rational faculties He has Himself endowed us with, He both persuades us and leads us to faith (First Apology 10; ANF Vol. I, p. 165; emphasis added).

Athenagoras (2nd century), another early Apologist, wrote:

Just as with men, who have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice (for you would not either honour the good or punish the bad, unless vice and virtue were in their own power . . . . (Athenagoras’ Plea 24, ANF Vol. II p. 142; emphasis added).

Irenaeus of Lyons (fl. c. 175-c. 195), regarded as the greatest theologian of the second century, likewise affirmed man’s capacity for faith was based in his free will:

Now all such expressions demonstrate that man is in his own power with respect to faith (Against Heresies 4.37.2; ANF Vol. I, p. 520).

Cyprian of Carthage (c. 200/210-258), the spiritual son of Tertullian and one of the Latin Fathers, affirmed human free will.  Treatise No. 52 is titled “That the liberty of believing or of not believing is placed in free choice.” (ANF Vol. V p. 547; emphasis added)  He gave three Scripture passages in support of this teaching: Deuteronomy 13:19, Isaiah 1:19, and Luke 17:21.

Athanasius the Great (c. 296-373) was renowned for his defense of Christi’s divine nature. In the Life of Anthony §20 he wrote that human virtue depends on the existence of human free will:

Wherefore virtue hath need at our hands of willingness alone, since it is in us and is formed from us (NPNF Vol. IV p. 201).

Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-c. 254) in De Principiis Preface §5 made this observation about the general opinion of the Church:

This also is clearly defined in the teaching of the Church, that every rational soul is possessed of free-will and volition; (NPNF Vol. IV p. 240).

Just as significant is the fact that the denial of human free will was rejected as an erroneous teaching.  The opposite of free will is “necessity-constrained will,” this Vincent of Lerins (d. before 450) in his Commonitory noted is heretical because it makes sin to be irresistible.

. . . a human nature of such a description, that of its own motion, and by the impulse of its necessity-constrained will, it can do nothing else, can will nothing else, but sin . . . . (Commonitory Chapter 24, NPNF Vol. XI p. 150; emphasis added)

A similar condemnation can be found in Methodius (d. c. 311) in The Banquet of the Ten Virgins:

Now those who decide that man is not possessed of free-will and affirm that he is governed by the unavoidable necessities of fate, and her unwritten commands, are guilty of impiety towards God Himself, making Him out to be the cause and author of human evils (Chapter 16, ANF Vol. VI p. 342; emphasis added).

John Chrysostom (c. 349/354-407), famous for his preaching and patriarch of Constantinople, likewise condemned the denial of human free will in his third homily on Timothy:

Having thus enlarged upon the love of God which, not content with showing mercy to a blasphemer and persecutor, conferred upon him other blessings in abundance, he has guarded against that error of the unbelievers which takes away free will, by adding, “with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus.” (NPNF First Series Vol. XIII p. 418)

Another significant witness to free will is Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 310-386), Patriarch of Jerusalem in the fourth century.  In his famous catechetical lectures, Cyril repeatedly affirmed human free-will (Lectures 2.1-2 and 4.18, 21; NPNF Second Series Vol. VII, pp. 8-9, 23-24).

Likewise, Gregory of Nyssa (330-c. 395), in his catechetical lectures, taught:

For He who made man for the participation of His own peculiar good, and incorporated in him the instincts for all that was excellent, in order that his desire might be carried forward by a corresponding movement in each case to its like, would never have deprived him of that most excellent and precious of all goods; I mean the gift implied in being his own master, and having a free will. (The Great Catechism Lecture 5, NPNF Vol. V p. 479)

John of Damascus (c. 675-c. 745), an eighth century Church Father, wrote the closest thing to a systematic theology in the early Church, Exposition of the Catholic Faith. In it he explained that God made man a rational being endowed with free-will and as a result of the Fall man’s free-will was corrupted (Book 3 Chapter 14, NPNF Second Series Vol. IX, p. 58-60).

Saint John of the Ladder (579-649), a seventh century Desert Father, in his spiritual classic, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, wrote:

Of the rational beings created by Him and honoured with the dignity of free-will, some are His friends, others are His true servants, some are worthless, some are completely estranged from God, and others, though feeble creatures, are His opponents (Step 1.1; emphasis added).

A more exhaustive listing can be found in Mako Nagasawa’s “Free Will In Patristics” (August 2013).  Interestingly, this paper was written in response to the same passage in Calvin’s Institutes 2.2.4.

A survey of the early Christian writings show the following: (1) the doctrine of human free will was taught by the Apostolic Fathers (Ignatius of Antioch and in the Letter to Diognetus), (2) it was affirmed by the Apologists (Justin Martyr and Athenagoras), (3) it was taught by leading church fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius the Great, and Gregory the Great, (4) it was taught by Latin Fathers (Cyprian of Carthage), (5) it was taught by Syrian Fathers (John of Damascus), (6) it was taught by the Desert Fathers (John of the Ladder), and (7) it was affirmed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem Cyril in his catechetical lectures.  It is inexplicable, not to mention inexcusable, for Calvin to have refused to engage this wide ranging patristic consensus.  Calvin in contrast relied almost exclusively on one later church father, Augustine of Hippo.  Furthermore, Augustine’s teaching on human free will were written in response to the Pelagian heresy and do not present a balanced position.

Using the Vincentian Canon, Calvin’s denial of human free will cannot be considered part of the catholic faith.  Unlike the affirmation of human free will which can be found in the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists who lived in the second century, Calvin made no appeal to the Ante-Nicene Fathers; thus he fails on the grounds of antiquity. In contrast to Augustine who was a North African bishop, patristic witness to free will can be found across the ancient world: Gaul, Italy, Asia Minor, North Africa, Syria, not to mention the major sees of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem.  Thus Calvin’s argument also fails on the grounds of ubiquity.   At best it can be considered a personal opinion, but not the catholic and universal teaching of the Church.


Not a Fluke

Calvin’s denigration of the church fathers was not an off the cuff or in the heat of the moment hyperbole.  Calvin meant what he wrote.  As a matter of fact, he repeated this point again in the chapter 2.2.9 (pp. 266-267).

Perhaps I may seem to have brought a great prejudice upon myself when I confess that all ecclesiastical writers, except Augustine, have spoken so ambiguously or variously on this matter that nothing certain can be gained from their writings.  . . . .  But I meant nothing else than that I wanted simply and sincerely to advise godly folk; for if they were to depend upon those men’s opinions in this matter, they would always flounder in uncertainty.  At one time these writers teach that man, despoiled of the powers of free will, takes refuge in grace alone.  At another time they provide, or seem to provide, him with his own armor.  (Institutes 2.2.9; emphasis added.)

Calvin’s refusal to provide supporting evidence is distressing.  What we have here is not scholarship, but dogmatism.

Calvin’s almost exclusive reliance on Augustine of Hippo is alien to the theological method of the early Christians as described in the Vincentian Canon: quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus (What has been believed everywhere, always, and by all.).  (Commonitory Chapter 2.6)   After citing Origen, Calvin skips over the early Greek fathers to the medieval scholastics: Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033-1109), Peter Lombard (c. 1095-1169), and Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274).  Here Calvin is operating as a Western theologian who does theology independently of the patristic consensus.

But some hard questions need to be asked about Calvin’s theological method.  First, was Calvin wiser than the host of early Church Fathers?  Did the Apostles’ disciples and their successors drop the ball?  That is, rather than carefully guard the Apostolic deposit, they carelessly let it be modified to follow their own personal insights or to please their congregations?  That right doctrine disappeared and was replaced by heresy?  The answer to these questions is: No.  History shows that in their wrestling with the issues and questions raised by Greek philosophers and various heresies they sought to be faithful to Holy Tradition.  Furthermore, history shows the early Christians willing to die for the Faith rather than to resort to compromise.  The more one takes the time to read and learn what the church fathers believed and taught, the more confidence one has that the Holy Spirit did indeed make good on the promise of Christ to teach and lead the Orthodox Church into all truth.


Findings and Conclusions

Institutes 2.2.4 and 2.2.9 provide tremendous insights into Calvin’s theological method.  We find that despite his familiarity with the early church fathers and his willingness to cite them Calvin was in fact far removed from the patristic method.  He had no interest in learning where the patristic consensus stood on particular issues.  For an Orthodox Christian this attitude is alarming.

But even more shocking was Calvin’s airy dismissal of the church fathers on the grounds that their teachings were confused and contradictory.  He gives no supporting evidence.  Given his reputation as a first rate theologian this is a damning indictment.  It suggests not intellectual deficiency but arrogant obstinacy.

If it is true that Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination is at odds with the patristic consensus, then it cannot be considered part of the catholic faith.  If that is the case then double predestination is at best a personal opinion or at worst a heresy.  The Orthodox Church in the Confession of Dositheus condemned it as “profane and impious” (Decree III, in Leith Creeds of the Churches, p. 488)

It is imperative that modern day Reformed Christians take another look at the early church fathers’ teachings on free will and our salvation in Christ.  The classic Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura does not exclude patristic sources.  See my review of Keith Mathison’s The Shape of Sola Scriptura.  What is needed is for a contemporary Reformed scholar to investigate the church fathers and determine whether or not the Reformed position on double predestination is consistent with the church fathers or whether Calvin was right in asserting that the church fathers were inconsistent and contradictory in their teachings on free will.


Church Fathers

In closing, I would urge modern day Calvinists to treat the early church fathers with respect and to be open to learning from them.  Disrespecting the church fathers is theologically dangerous.  It is to risk being alienated from church history, from our spiritual heritage.  Not being anchored in the early church fathers put one at risk of either unthinking fundamentalism or syncretistic liberalism.

 Robert Arakaki

In Defense of “Plucking the TULIP”: A Response to Jacob Aitken


On 8 August 2013, Jacob Aitken, the administrator for Reformed Principia aka Bayou Huguenot aka Outlaw Presbyterianism, posted what he claims to be a rebuttal of my article: “Plucking the TULIP: Part I.”  PDF file.

See Aitken’s Responding to Orthodox Bridge: Part One.  Below is my response to him.


TULIP = Calvinism?

Jacob Aitken writes:

Arakaki identifies Calvinism with TULIP with Predestination.  In doing so he is operating off of the severely challenged “Calvin vs. the Calvinists” Paradigm.  This paradigm states in its various forms that Reformed theology is a decretal theology centered around the doctrine of Predestination.  The work of Richard A Muller has effectively buried this thesis (Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, vo. 1, Christ and the Decree).

In one sense my rebuttal is already complete.  Arakaki thinks that the Reformed faith is predestination is TULIP.  By rebutting him along these lines I give credence to his flawed analysis, such that it is.  I suppose it can’t be helped.

First of all, let me state that Calvin’s theological system is a rich and complex one.  Double predestination is one particular doctrine taught by Calvin among others, but it cannot be denied that it was significant and integral to his theology.  Further, I would assert that for many adherents of Reformed Christianity the doctrine of double predestination is central to their theology because it arises from their understanding of divine sovereignty.  Ironically, my personal theological orientation prior to becoming Orthodox was Mercersburg Theology which did not give much emphasis to double predestination.  But the working premise of my blog posting was that for many Reformed Christians TULIP = Calvinism.

I have several questions for Jacob Aitken on this matter.  One, is it not a fact that for many adherents to Reformed Christianity the doctrine of double predestination is an integral and indispensable doctrine?  Two, are you saying that double predestination falls into the category of adiaphora, that one can be Reformed without holding to double predestination?  Three, if so what is the distinctive core doctrine(s) to Reformed theology?


By What Confessional Authority?

Mr. Aitken writes:

However, in a footnote he says, “Unlike Lutheranism with its Formula of Concord, the Reformed tradition has no confessional statement with a similar normative stature (Pelikan 1984:236).”  I was stunned when I read this.  Does he not realize that the 3 Forms of Unity are ecclesiastically binding upon Dutch and German Reformed Churches?   He says above that the Canons of Dort represent the Church’s teaching.  Did he forget that he just said that?  Does he not realize that the Westminster Standards not only are binding upon Anglo-American Reformed Churches, but when interpreted in the light of the Solemn League and Covenant, are binding upon the kingdoms of England, Ireland, and Scotland?  If he cannot get these most basic points established, what hope does the reader have that he will be able to seriously represent the intricacies of Reformed Theology?

It should be noted that I did not assert that there was no binding confessional authority in the Reformed tradition; what I asserted was that there was no confessional authority similar to the normative stature of the Formula of Concord among Lutherans.  To refute my footnote about the Lutheran Formula of Concord, all Mr. Aitken needs to do is demonstrate that there is one confessional statement binding on all Reformed churches or at least comparable in stature to the Formula of Concord.  This he fails to do.  If anything he supports my point when he asserts that the 3 Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg) are binding on Dutch and German Reformed churches, while the Westminster Confession is binding on the Anglo-American Reformed churches.  No one confession binds both the Anglo-American and the Continental Reformed theological traditions.  This is why in “Plucking the TULIP” I took care to supplement my quotes from the Canons of Dort with that from the Westminster Confession and other Anglo Reformed confessions.  Furthermore, my footnote was based on an observation by Jaroslav Pelikan.  Mr. Aitken has unwittingly called into question the scholarship of the widely respected Yale professor of Christian history and author of the magisterial five volume: The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine.

The largest Reformed body is the World Communion of Reformed Churches which represents about 80 million believers. That world body recognizes 3 confessions: the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, and the Heidelberg Confession.  So there isn’t “a” single confession representing the Reformed Church, but rather three.  Predestination IS a major doctrine within the Canons of Dort. Reformed like to “hush, hush” predestination, or in some way minimalize its doctrine within the Reformed Church, as it is quite discriminatory (and therefore against modern sensibility). However, there has been no action within the Reformed Church to officially repeal or dismiss the doctrine of predestination.

I would note that Mr. Aitken claims membership with NAPARC (North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council), a much smaller body that claims a little over half a million members. Neither does this particular body claim one single confession as preeminent among the various confessional statements.  And even more striking is the fact that neither the World Communion of Reformed Churches nor the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council have officially affirmed human free will with respect to regeneration.  All that Mr. Aitken has to show us is a quote from Richard Muller: “We believe in liberum arbitrium, free choice, which is a more accurate rendering than “free will.”  I challenge him to provide an excerpt from an official action by a Reformed body–past or present–that endorses Muller’s position on liberum arbitrium.


Total Depravity

Jacob Aitken took issue with my understanding that the Scots Confession teaches that as a result of the Fall the divine image was eradicated from human nature.  He writes:

Second, he thinks that defaced = eradicated.  It does not.  It means “marred.”

But even if “defaced” means “marred,” what are we to make of the fact that the adverb “utterly” preceded “defaced”?  The Scots Confession Chapter 3 states:

By this transgression, generally known as original sin, the image of God was utterly defaced in man, and he and his children became by nature hostile to God, slaves to Satan, and servants to sin.

If human nature was utterly marred as a result of the Fall, wouldn’t that lead us to think that it means the eradication of the divine image from human nature?  Mr. Aitken fails to prove his point here.  His etymological analysis which fails to take into account the rules of grammar—the adverb modifies the verb—leads to a seriously flawed argument.

Further, Mr. Aitken makes two questionable quotations, one from the nineteenth Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, and the other from the Lutheran Formula of Concord.  While the two sources make statements that neatly and logically bolster Aitken’s position, their relevance has yet to be established.  What Aitken should have done but failed to do was to cite from Reformed confessional documents.  It seems to me that he is approaching the matter from the standpoint of ahistorical logic, whereas I am approaching the matter historically and ecclesially.


Augustine Versus Irenaeus

Jacob Aitken writes:

One may legitimately ask, though, why Irenaeus’ reading is to be preferred to Augustine’s?  Irenaeus doesn’t offer anything resembling a logical argument, nor does Arakaki.  There is nothing here for me to rebut because there is no logical argument.

There are two major theological paradigms for understanding the Fall.  Western Christianity in both its Roman Catholic and Protestant expressions has been heavily influenced by Augustine of Hippo, while Eastern Orthodoxy has been influenced by Irenaeus of Lyons.  Jacob Aitken complains that I do not present a logical argument for preferring Irenaeus over Augustine.  I have two responses.  One, the biblical text can be read either way and that the way one reads Genesis 3 depends much on which theological tradition one belongs to.  Two, I would note that neither did Mr. Aitken present a logical argument for preferring Augustine over Irenaeus.  Since he is so concerned about logical argument it is incumbent on him to provide a logical argument for giving preference to Augustine over Irenaeus.


Patristic Consensus Versus Medieval Scholasticism

Jacob Aitken is dismissive of my appeal to the patristic consensus.  He writes:

I couldn’t help but chuckle at this since Orthodoxy has its own narrowness.  Lossky, anybody?  Arakaki mentions the “patristic consensus.”  This will figure later into his argument on Scripture, but I will cut it off at the ford.   The Eastern Orthodox have yet to give a coherent, non-circular definition of the patristic consensus.

The next page in Arakaki’s paper is a litany of quotes from the Church fathers on free will.  Since I have already demonstrated the Reformed position on free will, and that Arakaki’s charges miss it, I see no point in responding to these patristic citations.

He complains that I do not employ the deductive logic of medieval Scholasticism.  My response is that I am using the ancient theological method expressed in the Vincentian Canon which places emphasis on catholicity and apostolicity.  The patristic consensus method has its origins in the Council of Jerusalem: “Now the apostles and elders came together to consider the matter” (Acts 15:6, OSB).  This conciliar method agrees with Scriptures advocating Christian unity (John 17:20-23; Ephesians 4:1-6).   For the first millennium the Church was conciliar in its theological method and Eastern Orthodoxy to this day continues to adhere to this ancient way of doing theology.

There are two major problems with the theological method of medieval Scholasticism favored by Mr. Aitken.  One, it is at odds with the theological methods of the early church fathers.  Two, it is an innovation that arose from the insertion of the pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle into Western Christianity.

I issue a two-fold challenge to Mr. Aitken: (1) demonstrate the superior logic of medieval Scholasticism over the ancient patristic consensus method, and (2) either show that deductive Aristotelian logic was employed by the early church fathers or that Christian theology is fundamentally evolutionary in nature.

Since Mr. Aitken is so concerned about the need for logical argumentation I present the following syllogism:

(1)  Epistemological validity is commonly based on the finding of the majority.  This is the method that forms the basis of scientific fact, democracy, and judicial opinion.

(2) Eastern Orthodoxy uses the consensus of the majority (Biblical, patristic, ecclesiastical, and lay) to inform its theology and practice.

(3) Therefore, Eastern Orthodoxy is epistemologically valid.

Liberum Arbitrium (Free Will)

On the subject of free will Jacob Aitken cites Richard Muller to make his point.  He writes:

Yet this is not what the Reformed believe.  We believe in liberum arbitrium, free choice, which is a more accurate rendering than “free will.”  As Richard Muller notes, “[T]he faculty of will (voluntas) is free and that the bondage into which humanity has fallen is not a bondage of the faculty of will as such” (Muller 1995, 176).  What has been lost, or rather limited, is the freedom of choice particularly to salvation.  Further, Will is distinct from intellect (intellectus) [330].  The intellect is that which knows objects, and the will is that which has a desire for them.

What is striking is Mr. Aitken’s failure to quote from Calvin or the major Reformed confessions.  While Muller’s scholarship is not in doubt, the question here is whether Muller’s writings supersede that of the Reformed confessions.  Furthermore, is Mr. Aitken saying that Prof. Muller speaks with authority for the Reformed tradition today?

The issue before us is not the lack of human free will with respect to external matters but with respect to our salvation in Christ.  What does Mr. Aitken make of the following statement from the Second Helvetic Confession Chapter 9: “Wherefore, man not yet regenerate has no free will for good, no strength to perform what is good.”?  And Chapter IX.iii in the Westminster Confession  “Of Free Will” we find: “Man, by his Fall into a state of sin, hath wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation….”  And Chapter X.ii of the Westminster Confession “Of Effectual Calling” we find: “This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.”


Jacob Aitken’s Conclusion

Mr. Aitken ended his blog posting with: “I think I have demonstrated that the author has not read the Reformed sources, does not show an adequate understanding of official Reformed documents, and offers little in the way of an actual analysis and critique.”  One, a quick glance at my multiple citations from Reformed confessions will show that it is ludicrous to claim “the author has not read the Reformed sources.”  Two, I find the insinuation that Mr. Aitken has a superior understanding of official Reformed documents insulting and dubious.  As I reread Jacob Aitken’s blog posting I did a count of his sources: Reformed confessions = 0; Richard Muller = 2; Charles Hodge = 1; and Lutheran Formula of Concord = 1.  Three, the criticism that little has been offered “in the way of actual analysis and critique” leaves me wondering whether the criticism applies to me or to Mr. Aitken himself.  I leave that for the reader to decide.


My Concerns

My biggest concern has been the contentious tone of Jacob Aitken’s recent blog posting.  A friend after reading Aitken’s article commented: “It seems like he’s trying to pick a fight with you.”  I am not upset with the theological differences between me and Mr. Aitken as with his calling into question my scholarship.  I have tried to ensure that my blog postings on the OrthodoxBridge are based on careful scholarship.  I wrote this response to let readers know that I do stand by what I wrote and that I am willing to defend my positions.

In this age of Internet dialogue it is important that Christians across theological traditions treat each other with respect charity and respect.  Ad hominem attacks against another person’s character are to be avoided and shunned.  I welcome responses from others, but I expect them to be based on an accurate understanding of what the other side is saying and respectful in tone.  Regretfully, I find these lacking in Jacob Aitken’s criticisms.  For these reasons I do not wish to respond further to him until these concerns have been addressed.


Our Christian Heritage

To our readers, visitors, and lurkers, beyond the differences over predestination, it should be recognized that human anthropology, our being made in God’s image and likeness, is a much bigger issue than either of our—Jacob and my—scholarship.  It is critical that we all understand how the historic Church has understood what the Scriptures teach concerning human nature and our salvation in Christ. Tragically, the Orthodox tradition historically reflecting what the Holy Spirit taught to the early church fathers has largely been lost from view in our day of splintered Protestantism, obsession with scholastic logicalism, and an ecclesiology detached from history. It is our hope to present serious and sincere Reformed readers with consistent exposure to the church fathers and thus to the historic Church’s thinking on this and other matters.  The teachings of the early church fathers constitute a precious ancient heritage that many Protestants have yet to discover and claim as their own.

For our Protestant friends who want to learn from the early church fathers may I suggest that they read my earlier article: “Defending the Vincentian Canon: A Response to Outlaw Presbyterianism.”  In addition to learning about the fifth century church father, Vincent of Lerins, the reader will also see how this present blog posting is a repeat of an earlier clash between me and Jacob Aitken.  Two articles that Baptists and Evangelicals might find intriguing are: “Baptist Questions About Ignatius of Antioch” and “Patristics for Baptists.”  For Protestants who are wary or curious about Tradition, I recommend: “Tradition: Family, Friend, or Foe” by guest contributor “Nicodemus.”

Robert Arakaki


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