I’ve just finished reading Ken Wilson’s The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism. The book is intended to be a more accessible summary of his longer Oxford dissertation, but in my estimation is still academic enough to make “popular” a poor descriptor. Contrary to White’s characterization of it as some sort of baseless rant filled with “simplistic error” and “forms of argumentation [that] are stunning – stunningly bad“, I thought the arguments generally focused and well-defined.
The main take-away from reading the book is that, in James White’s first four podcasts purporting to deal with it, he doesn’t actually address any of the substantive claims in Wilson’s book. And though Leighton Flowers’ response to White is generally OK, his format doesn’t really lend itself to demonstrating just how pathetic White’s analysis (so far) has been. To do that, we need to dig into (some of) the details of Wilson’s thesis, point by point.
1. Ground zero of Wilson’s thesis is his view that earlier Augustine scholars misdated certain portions of the Augustinian corpus, because those portions were revisions Augustine made to his own works. This line of argument is interesting and pretty well developed in Foundation, but White doesn’t mention it at all.
2. If Wilson is correct about the dates/revisions Augustine made, then it becomes clear that Augustine did not develop the deterministic aspects of his theology that Calvin, et. al. latched onto until after he began his battle with the Pelagians in 412 AD. That would mean Augustine did not write anything Calvin or Calvinists could meaningfully appeal to until at least 16 years after reading Romans and Galatians. Again, White does not address this point.
3. Therefore, if Augustine did not, as was previously thought, develop his deterministic views shortly after reading Romans and Galatians, a scholar might reasonably wonder, “What did cause Augustine to change his views?” Wilson argues that the timeline suggests, quite plausibly, that Augustine’s shift was prompted by his battle with the Pelagians and therefore more rhetorical/polemical than textual/exegetical. Once again, White does not attempt a reply.
4. Now, here’s where it gets interesting: Wilson contends that in order to more effectively fight off the Pelagian heresy, Augustine adopted a deterministic interpretation of key passages of Scripture in a way that no prior (known) Christian had before. But neither was Augustine the first to offer said deterministic interpretations; Fortunatus the Manichaean, to take only a single example cited by Wilson, had previously argued that John 14:6 and Ephesians 2:3, 8-9 imply unilateral determinism. Reformed theologians likewise have appealed to deterministic interpretations of these same key passages that were first offered by pagans.
White’s responses on this point are several, but each attempt rests on a laughably bad argument. Against Wilson’s claim that Augustine’s deterministic interpretations of Scripture were previously unknown within Christianity, White protests:
We don’t have a tremendous amount of the early church’s writings. For many of the earliest fathers what we have is because somebody quotes them, partially, at a later point in time. If we didn’t have Eusebius’s church history, we wouldn’t even know some of these people existed. But the reality is we have only a small portion of the extant literature. And so, one of the first things that caught me, when I first started looking through this, was how many times [Wilson claims] “It was the universal view…” The only fair way of actually saying that is: In the extant literature that we have, that specifically addresses this issue, it seems that the predominant view prior to would be this, and then Augustine changed it. That’s fair. This has no desire to be fair, does not even try to be fair. It is completely imbalanced, horrifically so, just way out there.-Taken here around the 32:50 mark
First, either White misspoke several times or he hasn’t quite grasped the meaning of the word “extant”; indeed, the extant literature is precisely all we have. Second, Wilson’s claim is this: “Of the eighty-four pre-Augustinian authors studied from 95-430 CE, over fifty authors addressed the topic [of predestination]. All of these early Christian authors championed traditional free choice against pagan and heretical Divine Unilateral Predetermination of Individuals’ Eternal Destinies”. Sounds pretty unanimous to me.
Third, for Wilson’s conclusion to be “completely imbalanced”, we have to imagine it highly probable that there were many early Christian writers before Augustine who interpreted these passages deterministically, but somehow none of these writings survived. Instead, God – through His meticulous determination of every detail in the universe and in perfect accord with His will – chose to preserve for posterity over fifty early Christian writers arguing the exact opposite (and thirty more who on this issue were silent). This, evidently, is what White considers real scholarship; in reality, it’s just another fallacy.
White tries a different tactic in a separate podcast:
There is no single objective Gnostic doctrine of determinism that is, that could ever, logically or rationally be said to be identical to, parental to, ancestor of, the personal self-glorifying decree of the triune God of the Christian scriptures. That’s the assertion that’s being made. That’s why it’s impossible.-Taken here around 1:04:50 mark
But, as anyone who has read Wilson’s book will know, Wilson never claims there is a “single objective Gnostic doctrine of determinism”. Nor does any part of his argument depend on this bizarre assertion. Wilson invokes the determinism(s) of Gnosticism in contradistinction to the clear anti-determinism of the early church. This fact is rather inconvenient for White, so he once again offers a fallacious argument.
In yet another podcast, White offers the following:
From a historical perspective, to make a long story short, when [Wilson] says that, basically, if you’re reformed and you believe in the sovereign decree of God, well, that came to you through Calvin, through Augustine, through Manichaeism and Gnosticism… [However] both Manichaeism and Gnosticism have such a fundamentally different worldview and different theological foundations that how can you make that – I mean, to make that connection would require a massive – it would require a demonstration that every exegetical insight, every grammatical insight offered by Reformed theologians from Calvin onward was a brainless, simplistic, [in mock robot voice] “I have to say this because I believe Augustine”. And the vast majority of us today became Reformed before we read Calvin… and we did so on the basis of exegesis.– Taken here around 24:20 mark
White has really outdone himself on this one, so we’ll have to break it down even smaller. First, it won’t surprise any reasonable person to discover that Wilson makes no claims about how White or anyone else became Reformed. Second, Wilson’s actual argument does not “require a demonstration that every exegetical insight, every grammatical insight offered by Reformed theologians from Calvin onward” is based on slavish devotion to Augustine. White is here attempting to move the goalposts.
Third – and this is key, because on this point White also claims “This kind of simplistic, straight-line stuff is absurd” (here, around 1:02:30), as though Wilson were putting forth a kind of conspiracy theory of ideas with Augustine (or maybe Calvin) right in the middle of the crazy wall. The only sensible reply is to encourage people to read Wilson’s book for themselves and remind White that intellectual history (or history of ideas) is a legitimate academic endeavor that is prone to discover truths that upset people.
Consider a totally unrelated parallel: probably one in 10,000 self-professed capitalists and Marxists alike would consider that the better part of Karl Marx’s economic system was spun out of the economic principle of Adam Smith. This conclusion may shock and disturb, and yet the dedicated historian of economic thought who really understands the development of the labor theory of value has to admit that it’s not an absurd claim by any stretch.
Now, none of this is to say that I’m completely persuaded by Wilson. To the contrary, the book raises (in my mind, at least) a number of questions that may in the end lead to real difficulties for Wilson’s conclusions about how to understand Augustine and his contributions. If I get curious enough, I might buy Wilson’s dissertation and write about it.
However, it appears White, for the time being, is content merely to take these sorts of pot shots at Flowers’ interviews of Wilson rather than address the factual claims or arguments in Wilson’s book. If that changes, this series may have a part 3. In the meantime, everyone should go buy Wilson’s book! It’s short and it’s only $10, what more do you want?