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Calvinism is not Gnosticism

A common criticism of the monergistic understanding of salvation is that its genesis can be traced to residual Gnostic (specifically Manichean) beliefs of St. Augustine. This allegation is an example of the genetic fallacy, according to which one claims that a belief system is false simply by appealing to the occasion of its historical genesis, and reducing its truth-claims to that genesis. More importantly, however, the notion that the doctrines of total depravity and unconditional election originated with the Gnostics is demonstrably false. Belief in doctrines such as total depravity and unconditional election did is not rooted in the Gnostics. It was preceded by many of Paul's sectarian Jewish contemporaries in the 1st century. As Josephus noted, the question of free will was hotly disputed in the 1st century. Its main competitors were the Essenes, who believed in absolute predestination (and, as we shall see, total depravity), the Pharisees, who believed in free will.

Josephus on the Essenes:

"make everything depend on fate and on God, and teach that the doing of good is indeed chiefly the affair of man, but that fate also cooperates in every transaction" –Josephus, Wars 2.8.14

Josephus on the Pharisees:

"They assert that everything is accomplished by faith. They do not, however, deprive the human will of spontaneity, it having pleased God that there should be a mixture, and that to the will of fate should be added the human will with its virtue or baseness" –Josephus, Ant. 18.1.3

"Though they postulate that everything is brought about by fate, still they do not deprive the human will of the pursuit of what is in man's power" -Jos. Antiq. XVIII. i. 3; cf. Antiq. XIII. v. 9; War II. viii. 14

Josephus summarizes the competing Jewish views of the period:

"the Pharisees...attribute everything to fate and to God; they hold that to act rightly or otherwise rests...for the most part with men, but that in each action Fate cooperates." Of the Sadducees, however, he writes that they do not believe in fate. So the Bible Encyclopedia:

The account given of the doctrines of the Pharisees by Josephus is clearly influenced by his desire to parallel the Jewish sects with the Greek philosophical schools. He directs especial attention to the Pharisaic opinion as to fate and free will, since on this point the Stoic and Epicurean sects differed very emphatically. He regards the Pharisaic position as mid-way between that of the Sadducees, who denied fate altogether and made human freedom absolute, and that of the Essenes that "all things are left in the hand of God." He says "The Pharisees ascribe all things to fate and God, yet allow that to do what is right or the contrary is principally in man's own power, although fate cooperates in every action." It is to be noted that Josephus, in giving this statement of views, identifies "fate" with "God," a process that is more plausible in connection with the Latin fatum, "something decreed," than in relation to the impersonal moira, or heimarmene, of the Greeks. As Josephus wrote in Greek and used only the second of these terms, he had no philological inducement to make the identification; the reason must have been the matter of fact. In other words, he shows that the Pharisees believed in a personal God whose will was providence.

Josephus adopts the Greek word, used by the Stoics, "heimarmene," (fate, destiny) in this context. The Hellenistic Jew, as well as the Stoic (or, for that matter, non-Stoic) Greek, would have understood what he was saying. So Cicero:

By ‘fate’, I mean what the Greeks call heimarmenê – an ordering and sequence of causes, since it is the connexion of cause to cause which out of itself produces anything. … Consequently nothing has happened which was not going to be, and likewise nothing is going to be of which nature does not contain causes working to bring that very thing about. This makes it intelligible that fate should be, not the ‘fate’ of superstition, but that of physics, an everlasting cause of things – why past things happened, why present things are now happening, and why future things will be.
Cicero, On divination 1.125–6, trans. Long and Sedley 1987, 55L

This should come as no surprise, since it is quite well-known that the Apostle Paul himself employed Stoic terminology and concepts in his exposition of the Christian faith (though of course it is not without considerable modification that Paul adopts their concepts and language). So Biblegateway:

And with that he launches into one of his finer moments. With the language of Stoicism still ringing in his own mind (from v. 8), he moves into the Stoic stronghold of autarkeia (contentment based on self-sufficiency) and transforms it by means of the gospel into "Christ-sufficiency." To be sure, the outward expression and inner result between him and the Stoics appear much the same; but in fact Paul and Seneca are a thousand leagues apart. The Stoic's (and Cynic's) sufficiency or contentment comes from within; Paul's comes from without, from his being a man in Christ, on whom he is totally dependent and thus not independent at all in the Stoic sense. Because Paul and the Philippians are both "in Christ," neither is dependent on the other for life in the world; but also because they are both "in Christ," Paul received their gift with joy.

The broader vocabulary of need and plenty implies "in every which way"; so in light of his present circumstances he specifies, whether well fed or hungry. The Philippians themselves have often been party to his being well fed: when he and his coworkers lived in Philippi under the generous patronage of Lydia (Acts 16:15) and when the Philippians repeatedly supplied his material needs in Thessalonica (Phil 4:15 below) and Corinth (2 Cor 11:9), and perhaps elsewhere. But in a prison system where prisoners must secure their own food supply, he also has had plenty of opportunity to go hungry. Indeed, he has learned the secret of both, a verb used primarily for initiation into the mystery cults. Thus "I have gotten in on the secret of both having a full stomach and going hungry."

But Paul is neither reveling in the one nor complaining of the other. His various hardship lists make it clear he had experienced "plenty" of "want." But in contrast to some of the Cynics, he did not choose "want" as a way of life, so as to demonstrate himself autarkes; rather he had learned to accept whatever came his way, knowing that his life was not conditioned by either. His relationship to Christ made them both essentially irrelevant. Thus he concludes: I can do everything through him who gives me strength. With that he transforms his very Stoic-sounding sentences into a sufficiency quite beyond himself, in Christ, the basis and source of everything for Paul. Thus "self-sufficiency" becomes contentment because of his "Christ-sufficiency."

Here is a much-used sentence from Paul that is often taken out of context and thus abused. While everything seems to be all-embracing and is often applied to one's activities (especially those that are personally demanding--athletics, learning to drive and the like), in context it refers primarily to living in want or plenty. Paul finds Christ sufficient in times of bounty as well as in times of need! Thus, rather than being a christianized version of the Stoic ideal, this passage points up the absolute Christ-centeredness of Paul's whole life. He is a man in Christ. As such he takes what Christ brings. If it means "plenty," he is a man in Christ, and that alone; if it means "want," he is still a man in Christ, and he accepts deprivation as part of his understanding of discipleship.

Furthermore, John Piper points that the Qumran community (who, as we shall see, emphasized total depravity in a way very similar to that of Paul) connected God's absolute predestination with the individual eternal fates of all humanity. Some were predestined to eternal bliss, and others, eternal damnation:

"1 QH 15:12-22 (translation from Dupont-Sommer):

And I, because of Thine understanding, I know
that [the righteousness of man] is not in the hand of flesh [and] that man [is not] master of (13) his way
and that mankind cannot strengthen his step.
And I know that the inclination of every spirit is in Thy hand (14) [and that] Thou hast ordained [the way of every man] before creating him.
And how can any man change Thy words?
Thou alone hast created (15) the just
and established him from his mother's womb
unto the time of good-will (cf Romans 9:23)
that he may be preserved in Thy covenant
and walk in all Thy way.
. . .
And Thou hast raised up (17) his glory from among flesh whereas Thou hast created the wicked [for the time of] Thy [wr]ath and hast set them apart from their mother's womb for the Day of Massacre.
. . .
(19) Thou hast created all [them that despise] Thy [will] to execute judgment against them (20) in the eyes of all Thy works that they may serve as a sign, and wo[nder unto] everlasting [generations] that [all] may know Thy glory [cf Romans 9:23] and awful might [cf Romans 9:22]."

So also:

“Before things come to be, [God] has ordered all their designs, so that when they do come to exist—at their appointed times as ordained by His glorious plan—they fulfill their destiny, a destiny impossible to change…. He created humankind to rule over the world, appointing for them two spirits in which to walk until the time ordained for His visitation. These are the spirits of truth and falsehood. Upright character and fate originate with the Habitation of Light; perverse, with the Fountain of Darkness…. It is actually He who created the spirits of light and darkness, making them the cornerstone of every deed.” (1QS 3.15-19, 24-25)

Or again:

“And you, O God, created us for yourself as an eternal people, and into the lot of light you cast us for your truth. You appointed the Prince of Light from old to assist us, for in his lot are all sons of righteousness and all spirits of truth are in his dominion. You yourself made Belial for the pit, an angel of malevolence, his dominion is in darkness, and his counsel is to condemn and convict.” (1QM 13.9-11)

Crucial to our discussion is the understanding of the relation between total depravity and unconditional election. For Calvinists, because the human person is totally depraved, our will is utterly bent against the things of God and can never assent to the things of God. We therefore cannot believe in God unless God saves us by transforming our will, causing us to believe in Jesus Christ.

An community text, 1 QS 11, known popularly as "The Community Rule," emphasizes the depravity of mankind in a way that is astonishingly similar to Romans 7:14-25. This literary parallel, moreover, is so obvious and straightforward that it has been noted by numerous biblical and Jewish scholars:

"As for me,

I belong to wicked mankind,
to the company of ungodly flesh,
My iniquities, rebellions, and sins,
together with the perversity of my heart,
belong to the company of worms,
and to those who walk in darkness"(lines 9-10)

Compare with Romans 7:14-25:

"14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. 15 For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. 17 So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin."

Indeed, the notion that humans were inherently sinful, and possessed an intrinsic predisposition to sin, was commonly believed by the Jews. The Jews even connected man's innate tendency toward sin with the Fall of Adam, as Paul explicitly does (Rom. 5:12-21):

The Ezra Apocalypse begins with Ezra's analysis of the cause of the national catastrophe as God's not having removed the propensity to sin from the Israelites. God gave the Law to His people as a means of obtaining life; since Adam's descendants were under the influence of an evil heart (cor malignum), however, the Law was in their hearts along with an evil root (malignitas radicis) (4 Ezra 3.20, 22). The term evil heart denotes the human being as fundamentally disobedient, the heart being the moral center of a human being. This innate propensity to disobedience is also expressed by the metaphor of the evil root in the heart, and is causally linked to Adam's sin, as Adam's legacy to his descendants, the common destiny of all humankind, although ultimately no explanation is provided for the origin of the evil heart (4.4). The angel agrees with Ezra's analysis of the human predicament, and compares the transgression of the first man to a grain of evil seed (granum seminis mali) sown in his heart, which produces much fruit of ungodliness among his progeny (4.26-32). Ezra plaintively wonders why God did not remove the evil heart, so that the Law might bear fruit in them; to this, however, he receives no response (3.20-27). Later in the third dialogue (7.45-48), Ezra complains similarly, "For an evil heart has grown up in us, which has alienated us from God…and not just a few of us but almost all who have been created" (7.48). In the second dialogue, Ezra is reassured that at the end of the age "the heart of the earth's inhabitants will be changed and converted to a different spirit" (6.26-27; see 7.113-14); what is being described is the eschatological transformation of Israel, the removal of the innate propensity to sin. It must be stressed, however, that, although it greatly hinders it, this legacy of rebellion bequeathed by Adam to his descendants does not close off totally the possibility of obedience to God. About the multitude who perish the angel explains, "For they also received freedom, but they despised the Most High, and were contemptuous of His Law, and forsook His ways" (8.56). Nevertheless, great effort of will is required to nullify the influence of the evil heart; life is compared to a contest, in which a person must choose to obey and actually do so (7.127-31). Ezra explains to the people that if they rule over their minds and discipline their hearts that they will live and after death find mercy (14.34-36). The effort required to become and remain righteous explains why so few will gain a place in the age to come (7.45-61; 8.1, 41; 9.14-24; 10.10).

Paul's use of the term "flesh" to denote the sinfulness and weakness of man's nature likewise also has important literary parallels in the Jewish sectarian writings, which usage itself reflects a comparable theological anthropology, according to which humans are inherently sinful:

1. Negative Use of "Flesh"

Paul’s use of “flesh” to denote the sinful nature has antecedents in the Old Testament and second-Temple Jewish texts. The use of the term “flesh” to mean human weakness occurs in Old Testament (Gen 8:21; Isa 40:6, 8; 2 Chr 32:8; Ps 78:39; Jer 17:5). Flesh as a term denoting both human weakness and sinfulness, that aspect of the human being that stands in opposition to God, is found in Qumran sectarian writings (The Community Rule and The Thanksgiving Hymns; The War Scroll), in 4QInstruction (Hebrew: basar) and in Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (Greek: sarx). Paul's views are not by any means identical but enough overlap exists to conclude that Paul adapted a Palestinian Jewish idea and terminology to express the opposition between the Spirit and what one could call the "sinful nature." (P. Jewett provides a history of what he calls "the new 'religious-historical' discussion," which includes the attempt to interpret Paul's concept of sarx in light of the Dead Sea Scrolls.)[4]

1QS 4.20-21
At his visitation, the time of eschatological salvation and final judgment, God as merciful will put an end to the existence of deceit (4.18-19). It is said that "God will purify by His truth all the works of man and purge for himself some from the sons of man. He will utterly destroy the spirit of deceit from within his flesh " (4.20-21). What is being described is the eschatological removal of the "spirit of deceit," the spirit that causes human beings to be disobedient. The sons of truth may be generally righteous, having a greater portion of the spirit of truth, but they still a share in the spirit of deceit. Only at the time of God's "visitation" will the possibility of disobedience to God be eliminated altogether. In this context "flesh" means the human being as physical, but its close association with "spirit of deceit" lends it a negative connotation, so that to be a human being is be under the influence of the spirit of deceit.

1QS 11.11-12
The author, using the gnomic "I," the author confesses his sinfulness and general debasement in relation to God: "And I belong to wicked adam, to the assembly of deceitful flesh ; my iniquities, my transgressions, my sins with the perversity of my heart belong to the assembly of worms and of those who walk in darkness. For my way belongs to adam" (11:9-10). It is clear from this passage that human beings are sinful and generally debased in relation to God. What is significant is that this inherent sinfulness is described as belonging to "the assembly of the flesh of deceit" or "the assembly of deceitful flesh" (which is set in apposition to "wicked Adam"). The word "deceit" is that used commonly in 1QS to describe the "spirit" that causes human beings to disobey God (see 1QS 3.13-4.26). A similar confession occurs in 1QS 11.12: "When I totter, the lovingkindness of God is my salvation forever; when I stumble over iniquity of flesh , my judgment is in the righteousness of God, which endures forever." "Salvation" and "judgment" are synonymous; the need for God's salvation or judgment is the fact of human sin, expressed by the verbs "to totter" or "to stumble over the iniquity of flesh." The reason for the stumbling is identified as "the iniquity of flesh," which means something like iniquity that results from the fact that human beings are " flesh," i.e., inherently weak and sinful. The cause or origin of salvation or judgment is the lovingkindness or righteousness of God, those attributes whereby God is willing to act savingly.

1QH 4[12].29-30

The author of 1QH 4[12].29-30 confesses, “What is flesh compared to this [God’s power]? What creatures of clay can do wonders? He is sin from his mother’s womb.” He contrasts human beings defined as "flesh" and "creatures of clay" with God, in particular God's power. The point is that human beings are weak and powerless in comparison to God. In addition, human beings are inherently sinful: "sin from his mother’s womb." Human beings described as "flesh" have both innate weakness and sinfulness.
1QH 10[18].23 and 1QH 17[4].25

In 1QH 10[18].23, the author asks, “What is the spirit of flesh to fathom all these matters and to appreciate your great and wondrous secret? What is someone born of woman among all your awesome works? He is a structure of dust shaped with water, his base is the guilt of sin, vile unseemliness, source of impurity, over which a spirit of degeneracy rules.” (In 13.13 the term is used to apply to human beings generally) (See also 1QH 18.21: “And what is flesh ?”) The author refers to human beings by the paradoxical term "the spirit of flesh," which denotes human beings as inherently weak and sinful. The author seems to mean that the basic human disposition, the human "spirit," is that of flesh or sinful. This is borne out by the description of human beings as being ruled by "a spirit of degeneracy." The author of 1QH 17(4).25 refers to himself by the epithet "spirit of flesh." The phrase "spirit of flesh" communicates that the author believes that his basic disposition, his "spirit," is that of flesh, a term used in the DSS to denote human weakness and sinfulness.


1QM 4.3; 12.12. (War Scroll)
In the War Scroll, the term "flesh" is used in a negative sense. In 1 QM 4.3, the phrase "all degenerate flesh" occurs and in 1QM 12.12 reference is made to God's sword consuming "guilty flesh." In both cases, "flesh" has the implication of sinfulness.

Two discourses concerning final judgment have survived from 4QInstruction, which is probably not a Qumran sectarian text. In the first discourse, preserved in 4Q416 frg. 1 (= 4Q418 frg. 2), the sage says, “In heaven he [God] will judge the work of iniquity.” This refers to final judgment. The phrase “works of iniquity” describes acts of disobedience to the Law; whether gentiles are included in this judgment is not clear. At this time, it is said that “All the spirit of flesh will be stripped naked.” The phrase “spirit of flesh” refers to the human being as sinful (1QH-a 10[18].23; 19 [13.13] ). It could be paraphrased as "those with a sinful basic disposition." “To be stripped naked” is a metaphor for being judged and found guilty. Similarly, the author and the community that he represents see themselves as a remnant of Israel, “the men of favor” (4Q418 frg. 81.10) and “separated from all the spirit of flesh” (4Q418 frg. 81.1-2). To be separated from "spirit of flesh" is to be separated from Jews whose basic disposition is sinful. The implication that a serious religious division between two mutually exclusive groups within Judaism has occurred.

The reader is invited to consider that both 1QS and 1QM both teach absolute predestination and the sinfulness and depravity of man together. These doctrines constituted part of the complex of their soteriology. Man is sinful and in utter need of divine deliverance, and God alone is able to provide this deliverance, and he does so totally according to his sovereign, unconditional will and decree.

The conclusion is clear. The doctrines of total depravity and absolute predestination existed hundreds of years before St. Augustine was even born. They were taught well-known among practicing Jews (though not always held by them) even before Jesus himself was even incarnate. St. Augustine did not invent these doctrines. In light of the social, cultural, theological and historical milieu in which Paul and Jesus lived, they clearly would have expected their hearers to understand their anthropology as one comparable to that of the Jewish sectarians, and their soteriology, at least as far as election is concerned, as similar to that of the Jewish sectarians.

This is not, of course, to teach that Jesus and Paul somehow learned these doctrines from the Jews. Such an immanent view of causation would clearly be incompatible with the notion of a transcendent God whose truth antedates the existence of a temporal realm in which history can play itself out. The fact remains, however, that God is a God who works in history, who provides divine revelation to us in historically particular and culture-bound language. Indeed, Christians in general have often been charged with relegating to the realm of transcendent truth a historically contingent belief system whose genesis can be reduced to a purely immanent course of history. Such people oftentimes have a purely 'immanent' or 'horizontal' ontology as well, according to which there is no such thing as transcendent truth, and instead, all of history is merely the result of one efficient or proximate cause producing another. Professing Christians must employ the distinction between "weak" and "strong" dependence in order to combat these claims, and this distinction is particularly instructive for the Calvinist with regards to the genesis of its doctrines. So Don Closson:

A common criticism of Christianity found on college campuses today is that its core ideas or teachings were dependent upon Greek philosophy and religious ideas. It is not unusual for a student to hear from a professor that Christianity is nothing more than a strange combination of the Hebrew cult of Yahweh, notions adopted from the popular Greek mystery religions of the day, and a sprinkling of ideas from Greek philosophic thought. This criticism of traditional Christianity is not new. In fact, its heyday was in the late 1800s to the 1940s and coincides with what is now called the History of Religions movement. This group of theologians and historians accused Paul of adding Greek ideas to his Hebrew upbringing, and in the process, creating a new religion: one that neither Jesus nor His first disciples would recognize.

Was the origin of Christianity dependent on existing Greek philosophical and religious ideas? That question hinges upon how one is using the word "dependent." Philosopher Ron Nash argues that dependency can be weak or strong and that the difference is a vital one. A strong dependency would mean that the idea of Jesus as a dying and rising savior-god would never have occurred to early believers if they had not become aware of them first in pagan thought. It would be admitting that Paul and the other new Christians came to believe that Christ was a resurrected God-man who made an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world because of pagan ideas. Proving a strong dependency of Christianity on Greek thought would be very damaging to those who hold a high view of Scripture.

A weak dependency means that the followers of Jesus used common religious terminology of the day in order to be understood by the Hebrew and Greek culture surrounding them. This poses no problem for a high view of Scripture. As Nash states, " . . . the mere presence of parallels in thought and language does not prove any dependence in the strong sense."1 Nash and others argue that only a weak dependency can be shown to have existed between Greek religious thought and the Gospel of Christ (Closson)

The Calvinist need simply replace "Christianity" in the above quote with "Calvinism," and supplement the defense of this particular doctrine with the above material from the Jewish sectarians of the 1st century and before. Meredith Kline likewise makes a similar distinction within the context of defending Christianity against claims that the fact that the Old Testament takes up an understanding of the covenant from previously existing near eastern society somehow compromises the transcendence and absoluteness of the truth of the Bible, as Lee Irons points out:

Objection: Does comparing the biblical covenants with the ancient near eastern suzerain vassal treaty form imply that the Bible borrowed from pagan ideas? In response to this objection, Kline appeals to the Reformed doctrine of God's providential control of history, particularly the political history of the ancient near eastern peoples. God sovereignly arranged the situation so that the peoples around Israel would be using this format for their political treaties at that time, in order to provide the necessary conceptual framework for Israel to understand her vassal relationship with Yahweh, the Great King. Obviously, the pagan conception is mixed with erroneous theology. But God took the basic format, cleansed it of the pagan errors, and used it to teach Israel about her relationship with God. In The Structure of Biblical Authority, Kline argues that God's covenant with Israel "providentially" "coincided" with the political treaties of the ancient near east (p. 43), thus making the treaty form "available, needing only to be taken up and inspired by the breath of God" (p. 37).

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