Friday, August 12, 2022

Irenaeus and the Manichaeans?

Dr. Kenneth Wilson is a contributor to the critique of Calvinism that I'm currently reviewing.  I'm not up to Wilson's chapter yet in my review, but Thuyen Tran called my attention to a rather glaring error in his chapter/article of the book, and an indication that this was not the first time this error had been seen from Wilson.  The error identified was related to a claim by Wilson regarding Irenaeus and the Manichaeans.

In an interview video that Dr. Leighton Flowers posted on February 26, 2019 (link to a few seconds before relevant point of video), Wilson made an interesting claim:

LF: Now did you, in your preparations, did you read through many of these other early church fathers as well?

KW: I did.  I have many chapters in my dissertation discussing their views, all talking about original sin, about freedom of will, and the earliest Christians - those guys you just mentioned - Irenaeus, Tertullian and Clement - they're all arguing against Stoics, and against Manichaeans and Gnostics. 

Manichaeans were followers of Mani, a 3rd century Persian, who was born around 216 and died around 276.  Tertullian died around 220.  Irenaeus died around 202. Clement of Rome is believed to have died around 100, while Clement of Alexandria died around 215.  None of them had any interaction with Mani or Mani's followers or Manichaeism.

By itself, this off-hand response during a video interview is not particularly troubling.  People make slips of the tongue all the time, and while the listed early Christians didn't interact with Mani, they did interact with other heretical, quasi-Christian, and non-Christian groups.

More troubling, though, was the following assertion Wilson makes in the critique to Calvinism edited by Allen and Lemke, and published by B&H academic:

For example, Irenaeus (ca. AD 180) had argued that the Manichaean god was puny because he could only achieve his goals by micromanaging all events and persons. In contrast, the Christian God allowed humanity freedom, yet was so powerful he could still accomplish his plans.  It requires a more omnipotent and sovereign God to allow human freedom. "The essential principle in the concept of freedom appears first in Christ's status as the sovereign Lord, because for Irenaeus man's freedom is, strangely enough, a direct expression of God's omnipotence, so direct in fact, that a diminution of man's freedom automatically involves a corresponding diminution of God's omnipotence." (FN17 Gustaf Wingren ... Man and the Incarnation ... pp. 36-37)

One reason this is troubling because obviously Irenaeus was not responding to Mani or the Manichaean god.  He correctly notes the approximate date of Irenaeus's Against Heresies.  On the other hand, he did not seem to recognize that this was almost a century before the rise of Mani's religion.

Another reason this is troubling is that it is not a correct analysis of Irenaeus.  Obviously, interpretations of Irenaeus differ, but even Wilson's source, Wingren, acknowledges that the position that Irenaeus was responding to was not one of divine micromanagement, but exactly the opposite.

Wingren states, in the sentence immediately following that quoted by Wilson: 

This fundamental emphasis in Irenaeus's doctrine of freedom is bound up with his attack on the Gnostic classification of men, according to which the "pneumatics" are saved, while the "hylics" are destroyed, on the basis of their respective substances--God is powerless before this predestination from below, and can only watch passively while man's substance divides itself according to his own inherent quality into wordly and unworldly, spirit and matter. 

Thus, Irenaeus was not opposing an Augustinian or Calvinistic conception of God's providence, but a position in which God is unable to control.  Here's a copy of the relevant pages:

Finally, this is troubling because it appears to be the result of simply recycling source material.  This same quotation from Wingren is found in Wilson's book, which itself is apparently essentially his dissertation:


K. Wilson, Augustine's Conversion from Traditional Free Choice to "non-free Free Will" A Comprehensive Methodology, p. 54 (2018).

While I appreciate Wilson's attempt to contribute to patristic scholarship, I would encourage him not only to correct this error in any subsequent edition of "Calvinism: a Biblical and Theological Critique," but also to correct his underlying error of thought regarding the relationship of Irenaeus to Augustinian thought.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Part 2 of a Critique of "Calvinism: a Biblical and Theological Critique"

"Calvinism: a Biblical and Theological Critique" (CABTC) has an introduction by the editors, Drs. Allen and Lemke (A&L).  The eleven page introduction is broken into the following sections: 

  • The Debate over Calvinism (pp. 1-3)
  • Are all Non-Calvinists Accurately Described as Pelagians or Semi-Pelagians? (pp. 3-4)
  • Which Calvinism? (pp. 4-7)
  • Presuppositions and Presumptions (p. 7)
  • Why this Volume? (pp. 8-10)
  • Differing Views, Unified Spirit (pp. 10-11)

I'm reviewing this book as I go, so I'm not yet prepared to say whether the introduction adequately captures the spirit and thrust of the book.  If appropriate, I may revisit this post at a later time to update.

I'll address each section of the introduction in turn.  

The Debate over Calvinism

The bulk of this section is recounting the Synod of Dort, which provided a Calvinist response to the Remonstrants.  Oddly, A&L repeatedly characterize the Remonstrants as "Calvinists," apparently based on the Remonstrants' affirmation of human depravity.     

On the positive side, A&L state that "Calvinism appears to be on the rise at this time" (p. 1). I find it hard to measure such things, but I certainly hope that is true.  In that small portion of the section, A&L seem to have a clearer concept of Calvinism, identifying Together for the Gospel, 9Marks, and Sovereign Grace Ministries as Calvinist, but not the John 3:16 Conference.  Curious in their omission are the G3 conference and the Founders conference, not to mention any of the NAPARC churches or mainstream "Reformed" churches (the focus of A&L is plainly on Baptists and other baptistic evangelicals).

Considering that the first section of the introduction is characterized in terms of "debate," you might expect that the book will offer debate with Calvinists such as the unidentified "seasoned scholars" that they say "fervently believe in and teach Calvinism." 

The conclusion of the "debate" section is worded to smoothly flow into the next section...

Are All Non-Calvinists Accurately Described as Pelagians or Semi-Pelagians

A&L point the reader to their appendix on the same subject.  The gist of the argument is that there are non-Calvinistic positions that are not Pelagian, and that calling such positions "Semi-Pelagian" amounts to a slur or caricature.  A&L attempt to link the use of this term to the Dortian suppression of the Remonstrants, which they allege included persecutions up to and including a beheading.

Which Calvinism?

A&L state: "The articles address Calvinism broadly, as opposed to any particular Calvinist thinker ...." This is further justification of my overall point from part 1 of this review, that the book provides little scholarly interaction with Calvinist arguments (link to part 1).

The section includes a lengthy portion asserting that according to Richard Muller, a Baptist who holds to the five points is not a Calvinist.  Oddly enough, Baptist preacher John Piper seems to be the most often quoted "Calvinist." The one time Norman Geisler is cited (in a footnote at p. 50), it is to attack John Piper's alleged errors, although Geisler's claim to be a "moderate Calvinist" is not acknowledged.

At one side, S&L seem to act as though Calvinism is so amorphous that it can't be easily defined (so that it can be said that various Calvinists disagree about various points and any representation of "Calvinism" is valid if they can find someone broadly within the Calvinist camp that holds the position), at another side S&L would like to define Calvinism to make it unpalatable to their baptistic readership (for example, suggesting that Calvinism is associated with infant baptism), and at yet another side S&L seem to be able to identify "Calvinists" not only so that they can assert that both Remonstrants and Amyraldians are Calvinists but also that various preachers and other theologians are Calvinists.  In supporting Richard Muller's Calvinistic credentials they say he is someone "who has indisputable Calvinist credentials."   

Presuppositions and Presumptions

A&L begin this section by claiming, "Calvinists presume that concepts like total inability, irresistible grace, and regeneration preceding faith are matters of fact" (p. 7).  Actually, of course, Calvinists argue that Scripture teaches total depravity, irresistible grace, and effectual calling, they don't just "presume" them.  Similarly, A&L assert "Presuppositions like 'original sin entails original guilt' are taken as fact" (p. 7).  Once again, this seems to be a fundamental category error between an exegetical conclusion and a presupposition.

The remainder of this brief section reminds the reader that there are Confessional Lutherans who are neither Calvinist nor Arminian.  For the second edition (if one is made), the editors may want to correct the grammar of one sentence here, which ends: "informs us that Lutheranism is . . . Lutherans." (p. 7)

Why This Volume?

A&L point out that their previous book, "Whosoever Will: A Biblical-Theological Critique of Five-Point Calvinism" sold over 15,000 copies including a Spanish translation.  A&L also acknowledged the existence of the responsive book, "Whomever He Will: A Surprising Display of Sovereign Mercy." The authors of that work, Barrett and Nettles, are mentioned multiple times in CABTC.

A&L acknowledge that four of the "articles" in this work are updates of corresponding "articles" from the previous work, while the remaining eleven are new.  As I didn't address the previous work, this should not have a significant impact on this review.

A&L note that they have broadened their field of authors from Baptists to Baptists, Methodists, and Arminians: "This new work includes authors from the Baptist, Methodist, and Arminian traditions." (p. 9)

A&L state that what unifies the authors of this tome is a desire to articulate concerns about the doctrines of Calvinism as they pertain to soteriology.

Differing Views, Unified Spirit

A&L assert that the authors entered this discussion with "reluctance" because of their desire for unity among evangelical Christians.  It is a bit odd to list reluctance in a book that has the earmarks of a sequel, and one of the contributors has a podcast that seems to focus nearly exclusively on this subject.

According to A&L, the contributors are not "anti-Calvinist," and that they are "interested in dialogue, not diatribe."  We have observed that there is limited interaction with Calvinist scholars in this particular work, but we will see the extent to which they engage in the dialog they indicate they desire.