AUGUSTINE AND PROSPER: DID THEY EVER HOLD TO LIMITED ATONEMENT?

 

This article is actually intended as a response in a comment thread on “The Baptist Review” on Facebook, Thursday, June 29, 11:04 am. Due to the length of the response, it is not feasible to incorporate it in a comment on Facebook, so I am posting it here and linking to this page in a new post in “The Baptist Review” on Facebook.

One of the members of the group, Chris, has been reading my book The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review. He had completed chapter one on the Patristics (Early Church Fathers), and was offering his first impression. I claim that none of the Patristics held to limited atonement. Chris had some questions about this with respect to Augustine and Prosper.

In order for any reader to be clear as to who is speaking/writing, I have used the labels “CHRIS:” and [“DAVID….]” I will place my responses in brackets. Since Chris’s reference to Augustine and Prosper on 1 Timothy 2:4–6 concerns the will of God in connection with the extent question, I have taken the liberty of asking my former student, friend, and research assistant for my extent book, Tony Byrne, to weigh in on his questions and comments as well. Tony is a Calvinist and is quite adept on the issue of the saving will of God, having posted his research on his website www.theologicalmeditations.blogspot.com. He is also currently doing research on Prosper. When he speaks to the issues, I will list him with the heading “TONY: ….”

For the full context of what I have written, readers may want to consult pages 16–24 in my book where I deal with Augustine and Prosper.

Let the dialogue continue!

CHRIS: You say it is easy to discern Unlimited Atonement in the thought of Prosper, and you provide (initially) two quotes to do sothe first being “Objection: The Saviour was not crucified for the redemption of the entire world … Accordingly, though it is right to say that the Saviour was crucified for the redemption of the entire world, because he truly took our human nature and because all men were lost in the first man, yet it may also be said that He was crucified only for those who were to profit by his death.”

[DAVID: I notice that your comments in the post with respect to Prosper are essentially the same as Blacketer and Haykin on Prosper. As I demonstrate in the book, Blacketer operates from a flawed historiography and hermeneutic. I think Blacketer misses the point of what Prosper is saying. Haykin is following Blacketer, except that Haykin, unlike Blacketer, adds his opinion that Prosper later changed in his own theology, and references Gumerlock to that effect. Gumerlock, however, only argues that Prosper “toned down” his emphasis on predestination, as he strategically moved to more of an argument from church authorities to counter the “semi-Pelagians.” Actually, there is nothing in Gumerlock that suggests Prosper altered his views on the extent of the atonement.]

CHRIS: The final clause, “Yet it may also be said” appears to indicate that Prosper’s thought was leaning towards extent theresuggesting it can rightly be said Christ died only for those who would profit by his death. (This cannot mean application, because Prosper is saying Christ is dying only for them, that is, extent).

[DAVID: Whatever Prosper means by the second part of his sentence (more on that in a moment) cannot be used to negate what he said in the first part. It is clear that Prosper is talking about the extent of the atonement when he says, “the Saviour was crucified for the redemption of the entire world,” which he takes to mean “all people without exception,” for three reasons: 1) Prosper’s use of the phrase “entire world;” 2) the ground for this claim is the incarnation whereby Christ shares the nature of all humanity; 3) in the immediately preceding section, he says, “it is not enough that Christ our Lord was crucified for men to be redeemed [i.e. renewed], but they must die with Him and be buried with Him in baptism.” By “men” Prosper clearly means “all men,” and he says they must “die with him” in baptism in order for them to be redeemed in the sense of renewal. Thus, for Prosper, there is redemption accomplished in an unlimited extent of the atonement, and redemption applied only to those who “die with Him and be buried with Him in baptism.”]

CHRIS: I understand you to be approving of the first half of the quotation, but the latter half appears to support Limited Atonement (as I said in my comment, Prosper clearly wrote against the “Semi-Pelagians” in his letter to Augustine, saying he disagreed with those who said the propitiation which is found in the mystery of the blood of Christ was offered for all men without exception.” Again, clearly dealing with extent, not application, because he says, “offered.” not “applied.”)

[DAVID: I want to add another one of your comments, previous to the one above, to address as well. In an earlier comment you wrote]:

CHRIS – It’s clear that Prosper in his earlier life did hold to limited atonement and became a proponent of universal atonement later in life, for he clearly, and rather early on, in his letter to Augustine (Prosper 225.3, cited in Four Anti-Pelagian Writings and elsewhere in The Glory of the Atonement by Roger Nicole) says that he disagrees with those who say, “the propitiation which is found in the mystery of the blood of Christ was offered for all men without exception.”

Now he changed his view on this later, but the fact is he did hold to it.

[DAVID: Let’s start with your second comment first. You reference The Glory of the Atonement as being by Roger Nicole. Actually, the book is a festschrift in honor of Nicole, but the chapter is written by Blacketer. You quote Prosper’s Letter 225 and assert, following Blacketer and Haykin, Prosper held to limited atonement “in his earlier life.” I will defer to Tony on this since he is currently researching Prosper and he will speak to your assertion later below following my comments here.

As to your first comment above, the latter half of Prosper’s statement does not support limited atonement. It can’t, unless Prosper is contradicting himself. One must not overlook or attempt to negate what Prosper says in the first half of his statement: Christ being crucified the redemption of the “entire world.” As a good Augustinian who affirms Augustine’s notion of election, Prosper clearly maintained God’s (and Christ’s) special intent to apply the saving benefits of Christ’s death to the elect alone. For Prosper, there is something particular in the death of Christ. And here it is: Prosper does not want the universality of the atonement, which he just clearly laid out in the first sentence, to be used by anyone to negate his and Augustine’s view concerning election and predestination. That is the overall context. On your reading, Prosper is contradicting himself: he is affirming unlimited atonement and limited atonement in the same sentence. Thus, the better reading is to take Prosper’s second statement as referring to the application of the atonement.

Rather than take Prosper as taking away in the second part of the sentence what he says in the first part, it is much more reasonable to take the “yet it may also be said that He was crucified only for those who were to profit by His death” to correspond to earlier points regarding real or vital union with Christ in the previous paragraph. Prosper said the following in the previous section:

Accordingly, just as it is not enough that Jesus Christ was born for men to be renewed [i.e. regenerated], but they must be reborn in Him through the same Spirit from whom He was born, so also it is not enough that Christ our Lord was crucified for men to be redeemed [i.e. renewed], but they must die with Him and be buried with Him in baptism … he who is not a member of the Body of Christ is not crucified in Christ [i.e. in the sense Paul means it in Gal. 2:20] … For Christ in the weakness of our flesh underwent the common lot of death, that we by virtue of His death be made partakers of His resurrection (“Answer to the Objections of the Gauls,” in Prosper of Aquitaine: Defense of St. Augustine, trans. P. De Letter [New York, Newman Press, 1963], 149–50).

Thus, the all-important context makes clear Prosper is not affirming limited atonement.

Your point that the word “world” can mean a variety of things for Augustine and Prosper also does not change the issue. I have addressed that in my book. There are dozens of quotations from the early and later Augustine that use the word “world” in an atonement context where modifiers, semantically synonymous words, and context, all make clear he is stating that Christ died for the sins of all people. These are the statements in Augustine which you must somehow show do not indicate that Augustine held to unlimited atonement. Of course the word “world” does not always mean “all people without exception.” That is not in dispute. The point is there are way too many quotations in the context of the atonement’s extent where the “world” cannot mean anything other than “all people without exception,” in some parts of Augustine’s and Prosper’s writings. Also, note my quotation of Augustine where he says Christ died for the sins of Judas. No one who holds to limited atonement would ever make such a statement. Augustine clearly held to unlimited atonement, whether you are reading the early Augustine or the later Augustine.

With respect to Augustine’s use of 1 Timothy 2:4–6 and 1 John 2:2, I have demonstrated in my book that he, along with many Calvinists since, including many who themselves hold to universal atonement, interpret these verses (wrongly in my view and in the view of many moderate Calvinists as well) in a limited or decretal way. This does not prove they, or Augustine or Prosper, held to limited atonement, for reasons I have outlined in my chapter and as Tony notes below.]

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TONY: Note that in Letter 225, Prosper did not say he disagreed with those who said “the propitiation which is found in the mystery of the blood of Christ was offered for all men without exception.” That inference works on the assumption that just because Prosper listed a belief of his opponents, he therefore disagreed with it. That working assumption is undermined when he lists this as one of their beliefs: “All men have sinned in the sin of Adam and no one can be saved by regeneration through his own efforts, but through the grace of God.”

Hilary, in Letter 226 (Saint Augustine: Letters. Volume V (204–270), trans. Sister Wilfrid Parsons [The Fathers of the Church; New York, NY: Fathers of the Church, 1956], 32:130), says, “They agree [i.e. with us] that all men died in Adam and that no one can be saved from that death by his own free will, but they assert…” So Hilary assumes that both Augustine and Prosper agree on the point, and Prosper lists that same point when he initially describes the beliefs of the Masselian remonstrants, or those he calls the “remnants of the Pelagians” (Reliquie Pelagianorum).

Prosper said: “This is a summary of what they profess: [1] All men have sinned in the sin of Adam and no one can be saved by regeneration through his own efforts, but through the grace of God. Moreover, [2] the propitiation which is found in the mystery of the Blood of Christ was offered for all men without exception; hence, all who are willing to approach to faith and baptism can be saved” (See “Letter 225: Prosper to Augustine,” in Saint Augustine: Letters. Vol. V (204–70), trans. Sister Wilfrid Parsons [The Fathers of the Church; New York: Fathers of the Church, 1956], 32:121; or “Letter to Augustine,” in Defense of St. Augustine, ed. P. De Letter [New York: Newman, 1963], 39.). Blacketer says, “It is clear that Prosper does not concur with this perspective, nor does he think that Augustine would agree with this universal view of propitiation.” Parroting Blacketer, Michael Haykin asserts that Prosper “also challenged the view of the so-called Semi-Pelagians that ‘the propitiation which is found in the mystery of the blood of Christ was offered for all men without exception,’” and that “it is clear that Prosper does not agree with this statement.” All of this begs the question. Neither Blacketer nor Haykin offer any proof in the letter for their conclusion, they just assume it. Prosper simply describes or lists the above among many other things the opponents believe, but he never specifically refutes anything in these first two sentences. As Prosper continues, he elaborates on the many other things he disagrees with. Moreover, are we to infer that just because Prosper describes Augustine’s opponents as believing that “all men have sinned in the sin of Adam and no one can be saved by regeneration through his own efforts, but through the grace of God,” that therefore Prosper disagreed with this as well? Just because Prosper lists various beliefs of the opponents, it does not follow that he necessarily disagrees with *all* of them. If we are to infer that he disagrees with this proposition: [2] “the propitiation which is found in the mystery of the Blood of Christ was offered for all men without exception; hence, all who are willing to approach to faith and baptism can be saved,” Then contextually, why not this proposition as well? — [1] “All men have sinned in the sin of Adam and no one can be saved by regeneration through his own efforts, but through the grace of God.” Actually, what Prosper makes clear in this letter is not that he rejects all their beliefs as such, but only insofar as they are entangled with many other false notions. It would be like an evangelical voicing disagreement with Roman Catholic Christology. They agree with them to a point, but not insofar as their Christology gets tangled up in the mass, transubstantiation, sacramentalism, and their corrupt ecclesiology.

What Prosper is rejecting becomes evident when he says, “Our Lord Jesus Christ, they say, died for the whole human race, and thenceforth no one is excluded from the redemption wrought by His Blood, not even a man who should spend his whole life in a state of hostility to Him, because the mystery of divine mercy includes all men. The reason why many do not receive a new life is because God foresees that they have the will not to receive it. Therefore, as far as God is concerned, eternal life is prepared for all; but as far as the freedom of the will is concerned, eternal life is won by those who believe in God by their own choice and who receive the help of grace as a reward of their belief.” (Ibid., 125). Hilary (or Hilarius Prosperianus) even describes some of them has having the view that “all men are saved, not merely those who will belong to the number of the saints, but absolutely all, making no exception of any” (“Hilary to his father, Augustine,” 135–36).

A cluster of false beliefs are attached to the Masselian idea of Christ’s death for all and God’s will to save, which they think is based on foreseen faith, etc., so he requests that Augustine “disentangle all these knotty points” (Ibid., 128). The Remonstrants in Marseilles have so mingled truth with error, that their interpretations of the death of Christ for all, and God’s will to have all men saved (1 Tim. 2:4), are intertwined with free will, ideas of prevenient grace, and the notion that all men without exception are called to this gift of salvation through general revelation or “natural law” (Ibid., 123). No Augustinian thinks that Christ’s redemption applies to men “who should spend their whole life in a state of hostility to Him,” or that some men do not receive a new life merely because God foresees that they are not exercising their free choice (in the sense of free will) to receive it. Both Blacketer and Haykin merely assert that Augustine, in his response, showed disagreement with the idea that “the propitiation which is found in the mystery of the Blood of Christ was offered for all men without exception,” but cite no source. Augustine’s response, or the sequel, is in Augustine’s “The Predestination of the Saints” (De Praedestinatione Sanctorum), and in “The Gift of Perseverance” (De Dono Perseverantiae). If we are to believe that Prosper disagrees with all of the Masselian beliefs that he lists, then we not only have to think he believed in a strictly limited atonement at the time of this letter (written about AD 427 or 429), but that he also did not think God willed the salvation of all men. Henri Blocher, even though he thinks Augustine held the strict view of the atonement, rightly says of Augustine that, “His emphasis on the divine desire that all should be saved is repetitious” (see “Jesus Christ the Man,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, 549). Prosper said, “Likewise, he who says that God will not have all men to be saved but only the fixed number of the predestined, speaks more harshly than we should speak of the depth of the unsearchable grace of God” (“Answers to the Gauls,” in Prosper of Aquitaine: Defense of St. Augustine, trans. by P. De Letter [New York: Newman Press, 1963], 159). Augustine said, “For as He would that man would not sin, so would He spare the sinner, that he may return and live” (“Exposition on the Book of Psalms,” NPNF, 1st Series, ed. by Philip Schaff [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004], 8:545). And again, “God no doubt wishes all men to be saved and to come into the knowledge of the truth [1 Tim. 2:4]… unbelievers indeed do contrary to the will of God when they do not believe His gospel” (“A Treatise on the Spirit and the Letter: Chapter 58,” NPNF, 1st Series, ed. by Philip Schaff [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004], 5:109).

Just because Augustine preferred a different interpretation of 1 Tim. 2:4, it does not follow that he *in principle* disagreed with the idea that God wills all men to be saved in His revealed will. The same goes for Prosper. Augustine even admitted that 1 Tim. 2:4 “may be understood in many ways” (“On Rebuke and Grace,” NPNF, 5:489; “Enchiridion,” chap. 103). Included is the idea that since “God commands us to will that all to whom we preach this peace may be saved, and Himself works this in us by diffusing that love in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given to us.—may also thus be understood, that God wills all men to be saved, because He makes us to will this,” and so “it rightly also says that God wills when by Him we are made to will” (“On Rebuke and Grace,” NPNF, 5:491).

Augustine said, “we may interpret it [1 Tim. 2:4] in any other way we please, so long as we are not compelled to believe that the omnipotent God has willed anything to be done which was not done: for setting aside all ambiguities, if ‘He has done all that He pleased in heaven and in earth,’ as the psalmist sings of Him, He certainly did not will to do anything that He has not done” (“Enchiridion,” chap. 103; “On Faith, Hope and Love,” in NPNF, 1st series, ed. P. Schaff (1888; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 3:271).

What Augustine is opposing is the idea that God’s will is somehow thwarted by the creature through free choice outside of his control, as though when a human acts contrary to His revealed will, it is apart from God’s will. So he famously said, “in a way unspeakably strange and wonderful, even what is done in opposition to His [revealed] will does not defeat His [secret] will. For it [the violation of His revealed will] would not be done did He not permit it (and of course His permission is not unwilling, but willing)” (“On Faith, Hope and Love,” in NPNF, 1st series, ed. P. Schaff (1888; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004), 3:269). This passage is very commonly quoted by the Reformers and Puritans, who maintain that God complacently delights in or benevolently desires the salvation of all men in His revealed will. One example is the Westminster Divine, John Arrowsmith. See his Armilla Catechetica: A Chain of Principles (Edinburgh: Thomas Turnbull, 1822), 126, 130–32, and 335–36 for his citation of Augustine.

Post-Reformation Reformed scholars (such as John Davenant, Matthias Martinius, Richard Baxter, William Strong, Theophilus Gale, Robert Baron, Edward Polhill, Ralph Venning, and a host of others, such as Charles Hodge [see his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 1:405; Princeton Sermons (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1879), 18-19; Conference Papers (New York, Charles, Scribner’s Sons, 1879), 18–19]) who interpret 1 Tim. 2:4 according to God’s revealed desire for the salvation of all men are not violating this Augustinian principle, since they all know that men only violate God’s desire for their salvation by God’s willing permission. Therefore it is not a case of the omnipotent God willing something to be done which is outside the control of His willing permission. They all know that men have no power to violate God’s preceptive will unless it is granted to them from above (John 19:11).

This universal interpretation is compatible with Augustinian theology, and it is something Prosper would have known as well, hence his preference on the text was not a departure from Augustinian concepts, even though it was a hermeneutical difference.

Returning to the claim about Prosper’s Letter to Augustine:

Notice what Hilary says in Letter 226, which goes along with what Prosper said in Letter 225: “They [the opponents] agree that all men died in Adam and that no one can be saved from that death by his own will, but they assert….” p. 130. What Hilary means is “they agree with *us* that….” This corresponds to the first thing Prosper lists, namely: “All men have sinned in the sin of Adam and no one can be saved by regeneration through his own efforts, but through the grace of God.”

So we have Prosper listing something the Masselians believe that does not necessarily entail disagreement, unless attached to other concepts he rejects, such as free choice, election by foreseen faith, etc.

Finally, regarding Prosper, the following Post-Reformation era Calvinists all asserted Prosper held and taught unlimited atonement: Jacob Kimedoncius, David Pareus, John Davenant, Robert Baron, Richard Baxter, and Henry Hammond. Jacob Arminius and John Goodwin, two non-Calvinists, also cite Prosper as an advocate for universal atonement. John Owen (Works, 10:424) tries to enlist Prosper for his position, but hardly deals with all the primary sources in context. The same goes with Smeaton (Atonement, p. 506), who more or less parrots Owen’s citations. Modern scholars—Henry Browne, Curt Daniel, James Leo Garret, and possibly Robert Godfrey?—all cite Prosper for the universal atonement position, though Daniel discerns some degree of discontinuity between Augustine and Prosper without specifying where or how. While Raymond Blacketer leaves the impression that Prosper always taught the limited atonement view, Francis Gumerlock, Michael Haykin and Jonathan Rainbow think Prosper eventually moved away from the position by the time Prosper wrote The Call of the Gentiles.

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CHRIS: This is why I am saying it is impossible to sum up and say “every father held to universal atonement,” because it erases context to say that and defines the argument in such a way that it’s impossible to continue….

[DAVID: As demonstrated above, I’m not ignoring context. In fact, I am carefully attempting to consider context, just as you are. The context demonstrates the following: 1) Augustine never held to limited atonement; 2) The early Prosper never held to limited atonement; 3) Even if 2 is in error, it is clear that the later Prosper clearly held to unlimited atonement, as you admit. The burden of proof is on you, Haykin, and Blaketer to demonstrate where any of the Patristics state a view clearly affirming limited atonement in light of the dozens of clear quotations where they affirm unlimited atonement, and in the absence of any statement where they assert, with respect to the extent of the atonement (not its intent or application), that Christ died only for the sins of the elect.

Your point that Augustine and Prosper did not use the exact terms “intent,” “extent,” and “application” in their discussions of the atonement does not negate the fact that they did indeed use these concepts. In fact, granting that the later Prosper held to unlimited atonement (universal extent) necessitates those distinctions, since no one is claiming he abandoned an Augustinian view of election (intent) and the effectual call given to the elect alone (application). This is especially important to note when they are speaking in terms of the atonement’s relationship to the elect, where God’s specific intent is to ultimately save only the elect and thus to ultimately apply the atonement only to the elect.

The mistake all Calvinists who affirm limited atonement make is to confuse and conflate intent with extent and/or to confuse intent/extent with application. In my opinion, they are reading the primary sources with blinders on. All they can see is their preconceived, modern TULIP notion of “limited atonement,” and thus think that Christ’s death for someone, of itself, guarantees its own application to them. They don’t seem to be able to conceive of a paradigm where Christ could die for the sins of all people, as Scripture indicates, and yet also hold to a Reformed view of election. This is the paradigm of all Calvinists who reject limited atonement….and there are tons of them in Reformed history, as I demonstrate in my book.

Therefore, as far as I have been able to read in the primary and secondary sources on the Patristics, I stand by my statement in the book that they all held to unlimited atonement.]

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