The Church of the First Two Centuries: the Doctrines of Grace

by William Cunningham

Excerpt Historical Theology by William Cunningham

By the doctrines of grace are commonly understood those great fundamental truths in which churches, usually reckoned evangelical, agree; and more especially the doctrines of the entire corruption and depravity of man by the fall; justification by faith alone without works, on the ground of what Christ has done and suffered in our room; and regeneration and sanctification by the special operation of the Holy Ghost. The doctrines of absolute personal election and the perseverance of the saints, are sometimes spoken of as peculiarities of the Calvinistic system, as distinguished from the more general system of evangelical truth; and it is no doubt true, in point of fact, that many men have held— though, as we think, inconsistently, and without following out their own professed principles to their proper legitimate results— the doctrines usually called evangelical, without admitting what have been described as Calvinistic peculiarities. But in speaking of the doctrines of grace in connection with the testimony of the primitive church, we take the expression in the wide sense of the doctrines of the Reformation, or the Calvinistic system; especially as it will scarcely be disputed that the testimony of the early primitive church is as favourable to the Calvinistic peculiarities, as they are often called, of predestination and perseverance, as to any of the other doctrines commonly designated as evangelical, —with the exception, perhaps, of the doctrine of original sin, the evidence for which in antiquity is usually admitted to be strong, even by those who deny the force of the evidence adduced from this source in favour of any of the other doctrines of the evangelical system. Calvinists and anti-Calvinists have both appealed to the early church in support of their respective opinions, although we believe it cannot be made out that the fathers of the first three centuries give any very distinct deliverance concerning them. These important topics did not become subjects of controversial discussion during that period; and it holds almost universally in the history of the church, that until a doctrine has been fully discussed in a controversial way by men of talent and learning taking opposite sides, men's opinions regarding it are generally obscure and indefinite, and their language vague and confused, if not contradictory. These doctrines did not become subjects of controversial discussion till what is called the Pelagian controversy, in the beginning of the fifth century. At that time, Augustine, the great defender of the truth against Pelagius and his followers, while appealing to the early writers in support of the doctrines which he had established from  Scripture, and which he has the distinguished honour of having first developed in a connected and systematic way, admitted that many of them had spoken without due care and precision upon these points, but contended that in the main they concurred in his opinions. It is very certain that they were not Pelagians, for they almost universally admitted that there was a corruption of man's moral nature introduced and spread among mankind by the fall, which Pelagius denied. That they were wholly free from what was afterwards called semi-Pelagianism, or that they held fully and explicitly the Augustinian or Calvinistic system, is not by any means so clear.

The substance of the matter is this: The apostolical fathers generally use the language of Scripture upon these subjects, while they scarcely make any statements which afford us materials for deciding in what precise sense they understood them. They leave the matter very much where Scripture leaves it, and where, but for the rise of errors needing to be contradicted and opposed, it might still have been left. He who sees Augustinian or Calvinistic doctrines clearly and explicitly taught in the Bible, will have no difficulty in seeing also plain traces of them at least in the works of the apostolic fathers; and he who can pervert the statements of Scripture into an anti-Calvinistic sense, may, by the same process, and with equal ease, distort the apostolic fathers. This at least is certain, that while it has been often asserted with great confidence, that Calvinistic principles are utterly opposed to the doctrine of the ancient church— that they were never heard of till invented by Augustine— there is nothing in the writings of any of the immediate successors of the apostles in the least opposed to them; nothing which, even abstracting from the clear testimony of Scripture in their favour, affords any presumption that they were not taught to the churches by the apostles. There is, to say the least, nothing whatever in this primitive antiquity, in the writings of those who associated with the apostles, to weaken, even if we were to admit that anything derived from any other source could weaken, the testimony which they have given in their own inspired writings. If corruption was to find its way into the church, these, it might be expected, would be the doctrines which it would first assail, more openly or more covertly, because they are most decidedly opposed to the leading tendencies of man's natural character, to the ungodliness and pride of the human heart. These were the doctrines which were most thoroughly expelled from all the pagan religions, even although in some other points they retained some traces of the religion of nature, or some remnants of a primitive revelation; and they were the doctrines which were most thoroughly corrupted in the system of later Judaism, —the Judaism of our Saviour's days, —and so, accordingly, we find it to have been in the Christian church.

We have already had occasion to notice that the point where erroneous and defective views upon the doctrines of grace seem to have first insinuated themselves, was in regard to the freedom of the human will, explained and applied in such a way as to lead ultimately at least to an obscuration, if not a denial, at once of the doctrine of the total depravity of man, and of the necessity of the special operation of the Holy Ghost, in order to the production in man's character or life of anything spiritually good. There is some difficulty, as I have mentioned before, in understanding precisely what is the full bearing and import of many of the statements of the fathers of the second and third centuries upon this subject, because they occur commonly in the course of observations directed against the fate or stoical necessity which was very generally advocated by the Gnostic sects. This circumstance renders it very difficult to determine whether at first, at least, they really meant to ascribe to free will an αὐτεξουσιον, more than Calvinistic divines have generally conceded to it. But there can be no doubt that error steadily increased in this direction, and that many of them came to entertain views upon this subject plainly inconsistent with what the Scripture teaches as to the natural impotency of man, and the necessity of divine agency; and that, though never wholly abandoning the doctrine of original sin, they soon came to overlook two distinctions of fundamental importance on this subject, —viz first, the distinction between the power or ability of man in his fallen and in his unfallen condition; and, secondly, the distinction between man's power or ability in matters external or merely moral, and in matters purely spiritual; that is, which have respect to real obedience to the law which God has imposed, and to the doing of those things which He requires, that we may escape His wrath and curse due to us for our sins. These two distinctions, I have said,, are of fundamental importance. They were, however, generally overlooked by the early fathers. Augustine, of course, understood them, else he could never have rendered such important services as he did to the cause of sound doctrine. They were brought out fully and prominently by the reformers. They are distinctly set forth in the standards of our church; and I am persuaded that, where they are not distinctly admitted and fully applied, it is impossible to give a complete and accurate exposition of the system of Christian theology, as taught in the sacred Scriptures. Some modern writers have contended, not only that the fathers of the second and third centuries taught anti-Calvinistic doctrines, but also that the Gnostic heretics, against whom they contended, taught Calvinism. This, however, proceeds upon a misrepresentation of Calvinistic doctrines, as if they really made God the author of sin, and took away from man that freedom of will which is necessary to moral agency, —charges which have been often adduced against them, but have never been established.

On most of the other points involved in the evangelical or Calvinistic system, it can scarcely be said that the fathers of the second and third centuries have given any very distinct or explicit testimony. That these great doctrines were not very thoroughly understood, were not very prominently brought forward, and were not very fully applied, is but too evident. That they had been wholly laid aside, and that an opposite set of doctrines had been substituted in their room, is what cannot be established. Calvinists and anti-Calvinists have produced sets of extracts from the writings of the fathers, professing to find in them full support for their respective opinions. But upon a careful and impartial survey of this matter, it is evident that all that these collections of extracts, when taken together and viewed in combination, really prove, is that these fathers had no very clear or definite conceptions upon the subject, that they did not very well understand what they meant to teach, and that from ignorance and confusion they not unfrequently fell into contradictions. All this, however, — which is clearly the true state of the case as a matter of fact, —does really, when viewed in connection with the fact that, with the progress of time, the Calvinistic testimonies became less full and clear, and the anti-Calvinistic ones more so— i.e., till we come down to the era of the Pelagian controversy— furnish presumption in favour of Calvinism; for there can be no doubt that the tendency, from the apostolic age downwards, was to corrupt the simplicity of the Gospel, to introduce into the doctrines of the church mere human speculations, and to accommodate them to the tastes and prejudices of irreligious men.

The process was somewhat similar to what took place in the Church of Scotland, and in other churches, in the course of last century, when personal religion was decaying, when sound evangelical doctrine was disappearing, and when very defective and confused notions of scriptural principles were extensively prevailing; while, at the same time, it must be observed that the general opposition which Pelagianism encountered, and the general favour which Augustinianism met with, even in the early part of the fifth century, afford satisfactory proof that the progress of erroneous and defective views in regard to the doctrines of grace was not in the early church so rapid and so complete as it has sometimes been in modern churches. I have no doubt that, towards the middle or end of last century, a majority of the ministers of the Church of Scotland were quite prepared to have adopted a Pelagian creed, had it not been that a Calvinistic one was established by law, and that therefore the adoption of a different one might have endangered their State connection, and the enjoyment of their temporalities; while the church of the fifth century, under the guidance of Augustine, decidedly rejected Pelagianism. 

The testimony, then, of the church of the first three centuries cannot be said to be very clear or explicit either for or against the doctrines of grace. But these doctrines are far too firmly established by the testimony of God's own word, and by the experience of His people, to be affected by a circumstance so insignificant as this. In place of the uncertainty and ambiguity of the testimony of the early church, with regard to the doctrines of grace, shaking our confidence in their truth, it only proves that no reliance is to be placed upon the testimony of the fathers, and of the early church, as a rule or standard in the formation of our opinions; for, finding clear evidence in Scripture that these doctrines were taught by our Lord and His apostles, and finding clear evidence in ecclesiastical history, viewed in connection with Scripture, that they have been embraced in substance by the great body of those who, in every age and country, have given the most satisfactory evidence that they were living under the influence of personal religion, we are fully warranted in holding that the measure of the extent to which men individually or collectively have enjoyed the teaching of the Holy Ghost, and have been guided to a correct knowledge of God's revealed will, is to be tested substantially by the clearness, fulness, and firmness with which they have maintained these fundamental doctrines.


Excerpt Historical Theology by William Cunningham

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