In Defense of Christianity (or Why I am a Christian)

It has been said that man is religious by nature.  The fact that a large proportion of the world’s population holds to one of the variety of religious belief systems available in the world seems to attest to this.  It is useful, from time to time, to consider one’s own faith and to contemplate whether one’s views are defensible and, if so, how?  Adhering to a set of religious beliefs that you can not defend questions the validity of those beliefs.  On the other hand, going through this process and concluding by constructing a defense for your own faith helps to solidify your beliefs.  This is the process that I have gone through in the writing of this essay.  The desire to go through this process was the reason that I chose this essay topic.

This essay is a discussion of four essays by the well-known philosopher, Bertrand Russell, “Why I Am Not A Christian,” “The Essence of Religion,” “What Is An Agnostic?” and “Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?” from The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell 1903-1959.  After a brief biography of Russell, an overview of the arguments that he makes against religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular are given.  I then counter Russell’s contentions with my own arguments in favor of Christianity. I contend that he contradicts himself when he argues for a non-dogmatic religion, that there are solid arguments for the existence of God, that Jesus Christ was justified and blameless in his actions, and that Russell does not fully understand Christianity and, therefore, his criticisms are weakened.

Bertrand Arthur William Russell was born to Viscount and Lady Amberley near Trelleck, Wales on May 18, 1872.  Both his parents died when he was quite young, his mother when he was two and his father eighteen months later, and so he was raised during his youth and adolescent years by his grandmother, Countess Russell.   These being Victorian times, and his grandmother a puritanical Victorian, Russell likely found the atmosphere at Pembroke Hall “bleak, dull and repressive” (Ryan 7-8).  As a child, Russell acquired for himself the Unitarian faith of his grandmother, a faith that he lost at the age of eighteen after reading John Stuart Mill’s refutation of the First Cause argument for the existence of God (Ryan 38).

He began his academic studies at Trinity College, Cambridge in 1890, and secured a fellowship there in 1895 (Ryan 21,28).  His activities with the Union for Democratic Control (UDC) and the No-Conscription Fellowship (NCF) cost him his position at Trinity in 1915.  His war-time activism earned him a conviction for ‘insulting an ally’ and a few months in jail in 1918 (Ryan 55-56).  He visited Russia in 1920 and China in 1920-21 (Ryan 82-83).  From 1927-33, Russell and his second of four wives, Dora Black, operated Beacon Hill school out of their home, Telegraph House (Ryan 103).  From 1938-44, he taught and lectured in the United States, at Chicago, UCLA and Harvard.  An offer of a position at City University in New York was withdrawn in 1940 because of protests over his views about morality and religion.  In 1944, he returned to England to take a post created for him by Trinity College (Ryan 125-126).

During his lifetime, Russell was a prolific writer, winning the Nobel prize for literature in 1950.  In his lectures, articles and books, he espoused his positions regarding education, morality, philosophy, ethics, religion, economics, birth control, marriage and pacifism.  He continued to publicly express his opinions well into his nineties, condemning American actions during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War (Ryan 201, 203).  He died in 1970.

In the four essays being considered, Russell describes what religion is and what it should be, defines his personal position, that of agnosticism, states his reasons for his opposition to Christianity, and discusses whether there is a need for religion at all.  In the first essay, “The Essence of Religion,” Russell begins by discussing the nature of man.  “The soul of man is a strange mixture of God and brute, a battleground of two natures, the one particular, finite, self-centred, the other universal, infinite, and impartial” (Russell 565).  Only when the finite self absolutely surrenders to the universal, infinite and impartial soul will one be able to live a “life free from struggle, a life in harmony with the whole.” The result is not a mystical connection to another world, but a different way of regarding this world, and everyday life within it (Russell 567).

Russell then makes his case for a religion without dogma.  Dogma, he maintains, is irreconcilable with contemporary thought, and so traditional religions, which rely upon dogma and, thus, upon traditional beliefs, are abhorrent to free-thinkers such as himself.  However, he would like to retain some of the elements of Christianity, namely worship, acquiescence and love.

Regarding worship, Russell describes four basic categories:  the worship of the ideal, the worship of the actual, selective worship and impartial worship.  The worship of the ideal is the worship of an ideal quality, or the embodiment of an ideal quality.  This is also selective worship, for, according to Russell, this type of worship is dependent on the object of worship containing that ideal.  The worship of the actual is the worship of something that actually exists in our world.  Russell correctly maintains that worship of the actual is necessary for “this worship [of the ideal], though necessary to all religious action, does not alone suffice, since it does not produce that sense of union with the actual world which compels us to descend from the world of contemplation and seek … to realize what is possible of the good here on earth” (Russell 570).  Russell states that this worship of the actual must not be selective, it must be impartial so that it cannot be mistaken and so it will not rely upon dogma.  With these principles, Russell has defined a religion that is without dogma, and is therefore undeniable and, as a result, acceptable to free thinkers such as himself.  He goes further to state that religion is a result of this duo of worship forms:  selective worship and impartial worship (Russell 570-571).

Regarding acquiescence, Russell states that it is necessary both in our private griefs and with regards to fundamental evils in the world.  Acquiescence in our private griefs is attained when one submits, through contemplation, to the impartial will.  Because acquiescence in our private griefs allows one to change his or her focus from that which is uncontrollable and frustrating to a more positive and potentially more productive and fulfilling direction, it is also necessary for “the growth of universal love and the impartial will” (Russell 572).

Acquiescence regarding fundamental evil is necessary to prevent indignation and thus, an unnecessary preoccupation with the good or evil of those things which we cannot control. “Acquiescence in fundamental evils … is furthered by the impartiality of contemplation and universal love and worship, and must already exist to some extent before these become possible” (Russell 573).

With respect to love, Russell defines two categories:  selective earthly love and impartial heavenly love.  Selective earthly love is always offset with hatred, and thus it produces disunion.  Impartial heavenly love, the emotional aspect of the universal soul, finds joy in whatever it loves, regardless of whether the object of the love is good or bad.    “It is love, contemplative in origin, but becoming active wherever action is possible; and it is a kind of love to which there is no opposing hatred” (Russell 573).  Universal love allows a person to link their universal soul with others in a universal communion.

In this way, Russell has defined what, in his opinion, is the essence of religion and puts forth what would be, again, in his opinion, a superior alternative to traditional religions.  As in other religions, this alternative has a horizontal (human-to-human) dimension, and a vertical one (human-to-the-divine), however, any sort of theistic divinity has been replaced by the ideal good.  The motto of this non-theistic and, supposedly, non-dogmatic alternative could be “to know all, to love all, and to serve all” (Russell 575).

In “What Is An Agnostic?”,  Russell defines an agnostic as someone who says that we can not know for sure whether or not God exists.  An agnostic may also hold that the likelihood that God exists is extremely unlikely, and in that case, he or she would be in agreement with the atheists.   Russell then expands by describing how an agnostic regards many beliefs that are both important and common to Christians.  Russell maintains that an agnostic denies the authority of God, the Christian definitions of Good and Evil, and the concept of sin. He also states that an agnostic does not believe in the divine inspiration of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Birth, or the Trinity.  The existence of a human soul, the existence of heaven or hell, the threat of God’s judgment, the validity of miracles or revelations of God’s omnipotence, and the validity of  morals or ethics of divine origins are also denied by an agnostic (Russell 577-583).

Russell considers that question of whether an agnostic could also be a Christian and replies that it depends on the definition of Christianity.  If belief in God and immortality are essential beliefs of Christianity, then they are incompatible, for such beliefs are unacceptable to an agnostic.  “But, if the word ‘Christianity” comes to be generally used to mean merely a kind of morality, then it will certainly be possible for an Agnostic to be a Christian” (Russell 580).  Russell further denies that religion has served as a bulwark to protect people from base and cruel passions.  Instead, he maintains that “[religion] has sanctified them, and enable people to indulge in [base and cruel passions] without remorse” and any spirit of tolerance considered to be Christian has, in fact, arose as a product of the questioning and criticism of Christianity by free thinkers (Russell 582).

Agnosticism is also defined in a positive manner.  Agnostics live by rules and laws which are based upon secular arguments for their existence (Russell 578, 580-581).  He or she is guided by reason when considering matters of fact.  When reason is an insufficient guide, such as during consideration of what ends we should pursue (like whether one should travel to Chicago or not), the agnostic should be guided by reason, and also emotion, feeling and desire (Russell 583).

In the third essay under consideration, “Why I Am Not A Christian,” Russell begins by defining a Christian as one who believes in God and immortality and that Jesus Christ “was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men” (Russell 585-586).  Russell’s goal is to show why he rejects these beliefs.

To show why he does not believe in God, Russell goes through various arguments for the existence of God and refutes each one of them.  The ‘First Cause Argument’ states that each and every thing has a cause.  This long chain of causes and effects traces back to a first cause, and that first cause is God.  Russell’s counter to this argument is that if each and every thing has a cause, then what caused God?  If the long chain of causes and effects does have to have a first cause, why could not the first cause just as well be the world instead of God (Russell 587)?

The ‘Natural Law Argument’ states that within the universe are various natural laws, such as the Law of Gravity.  These natural laws must have a source, and that source is God.  Russell replies that this argument arises from a confusion between manmade laws and natural laws.  “Human laws are behests commanding you to behave a certain way,… but natural laws are a description of how things do in fact behave” (Russell 588).

Russell describes the ‘Argument From Design’ as follows: “everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different we could not manage to live in it.” Russell denies any trace of design in nature, he attributes the suitability of plants and animals to their environments as a product of natural adaptation.  He also suggests that an omnipotent being with eons of time could have created a better world than the flawed and dying one we live in (Russell 589-590).

The ‘Moral Argument For Deity’ is “that there would be no right or wrong unless God existed” (Russell 590).  Russell’s counter-argument asks if the difference between right and wrong is due only to God’s command.  If it is, then for God, there is no right and wrong and it makes no sense to say that God is good.  If it is not, and therefore, right and wrong have meaning independent of God, then they did not come into being through God and existed before God (Russell 590).

The ‘Argument for the Remedying of Justice’ states that “the existence of God is required in order to bring justice into the world” (Russell 591).  Russell implies that this argument is just wishful thinking.  If there are any other worlds, or any other lives, he maintains that the reasonable expectation is that they will be just as unjust as this one is.  He goes on to state that the reason that people believe in religion is because of religious indoctrination since childbirth, and the wish for personal safety (Russell 591).

Next, Russell discusses his views about the character of Jesus Christ.  There are some qualities of Christ which Russell finds appealing are non-resistance, impartiality and benevolence.  But Russell states that Christ’s teaching is defective because he taught that he would be coming back within a generation, yet he did not.  Russell also regards Christ’s belief in Hell and His teaching regarding Hell to be immoral.  Russell also questions Jesus Christ’s morality.  Russell believes that to cause fear, pain and anguish by teaching about the existence of Hell as Jesus did is immoral.  Also, Russell maintains that such teachings licensed future generations to inflict cruelty and torture on innocent people.  Finally, Russell comments that Jesus’ actions in casting the demons into the Gadarene swine and then killing them, and the cursing of the fig tree which was not producing fruit, were unnecessary and harmful and thus immoral (Russell 591-594).

Russell argues that history shows that most of Christianity adherents are wicked, and the religion itself was the most wicked when belief in it was the strongest.  He contends, again from history, that Christianity has again and again shown itself to be the enemy of moral progress.  He states that even in contemporary society (this essay was first given as a lecture on March 6, 1927) the Church “is in its major part an opponent still of progress and of improvement in all the ways that diminish suffering in the world, because it has chosen to label as morality a certain narrow set of rules of conduct which have nothing to do with human happiness” (Russell 595-596).  He ends his arguments about Christianity by stating his belief that religion is based upon fear, “fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, [and] fear of death” (Russell 596).  He maintains that these fears can be overcome by relying upon science for the answers to our questions.  He calls upon people to face the facts of life squarely and without fear and to do the best that they can to make the world a better place (Russell 596-597).

In the final essay being considered, “Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?”, Russell raises the question of whether religion is necessary to impose moral rules and thus preserve society.  Regarding moral rules, Russell defines two categories: “those which have no basis except in a religious creed; and… those which have an obvious basis in social utility” (Russell 598).  The moral rules Russell is concerned with are the latter category.

Russell argues that:

imputing a theological origin to morals is inextricably bound up with … grave evils….  As soon as men incline to doubt received theology it comes to be supported by odious and harmful means [such as burning at the stake or ostracizing those who dare to question]….  In this way, any system of morals which has a theological basis becomes one of the tools by which the holders of power preserve their authority and impair the intellectual vigour of the young.  (Russell 599-600)

Russell deplores the lack of concern for truth in contemporary society and argues that support for any belief for any reason, other than that it is true, is dangerous.  He writes “I can respect the men who argue that religion is true and therefore ought to be believed, but I can only feel profound moral reprobation for those who say that religion ought to be believed because it is useful, and that to ask whether it is true is a waste of time” (Russell 600).  In the second half of this essay, Russell accuses Professor Herbert Butterfield, who wrote Christianity and History of doing just that.

Russell questions whether Christianity does in fact have a higher standard of morality than its religious competitors.  He argues that the history of Christianity shows that it does not.  To answer that the Christian perpetrators of injustice were not ‘true’ Christians is a cop-out to Russell and he accuses Christianity of selectively choosing to follow some doctrines of Christ, while ignoring others.  He further accuses Christianity of being, not a solution to contemporary problems (this essay was first published in November 1954), but the cause of them.  Russell attributes contemporary society’s problem, along with the rise of Nazism and Communism, the First World War, which, he contends, was thoroughly Christian in origin.  He maintains that “what the world needs is reasonableness, tolerance, and a realization of the interdependence of the parts of the human family…. Intelligence, it might be said, has caused our troubles; but it is not unintelligence that will cure them.  Only more and wiser intelligence can make a happier world” (Russell 604).

Russell’s opposition to traditional religions, in general, and Christianity, in particular, could be summed up by saying that he believes a religion without dogma is preferable to traditional dogmatic religions, the arguments for the existence of God are refutable, and the character of Jesus Christ is suspect.  He also believes that historical and present day evidence shows that the Church fails to live up to the high moral standards it espouses and continually opposes progress and improvement in the human condition.  These are the arguments that I intend to counter.

Russell’s argument about dogma seems to be bound up in the definition of dogma.  Russell seems to be defining dogma as rules and regulations set down by the Church which are based upon revealed theological knowledge and that coincides with the common definition of dogma.  However, Russell also seems to be laying down rules and regulations for his religion.  First, the religion should not depend upon any dogmas (Russell 568). Second, adherents of the new religion should worship the ideal good (Russell 569).  Third, because the object of one’s worship needs to connect with the worshipper’s reality, “we [also] need the kind of worship which is only given to what exists” (Russell 570).  Fourth, “the worship which can be given to whatever exists must not be selective, it must not involve any judgement as to the goodness of what is worshipped, but must be a direct impartial emotion …. but it is an essential part of the worship to wish that [the object] may be as good as possible” (Russell 570).  Fifth, “acquiescence in private griefs is an essential element in the growth of universal love and the impartial will …. [so that] the will is led away from protest against the inevitable, towards the pursuit of more general goods which are not wholly unattainable” (Russell 572).  Sixth, acquiescence in fundamental evils is necessary because characterizing random or chance events as good or bad is absurd, and because a preoccupation with good and bad “prevents impartial contemplation and interferes with universal love and worship” (Russell 572).  Seventh, to the divine love, to which we should aspire, “the division of the world into good and bad …. seems unreal;  what is felt to be real is the oneness of the world in love” (Russell 573).  Eighth, “we with our ideals must stand alone, and conquer, inwardly, the world’s indifference” (Russell 576).  It seems to me that Russell’s non-dogmatic religion is very dogmatic, the only difference being that Russell, and not God, is the source of the dogma.  It also seems very ironic to me that Russell, who advises us to avoid dependence “upon dogmas to which an intellectually honest assent grows daily more difficult” (Russell 568), asks us to suspend our faculties of judgement of good and evil regarding the what we worship, what we submit to, and what we love.  For additional proof of the dogmatic nature of Russell’s religion refer to the synopsis of his essay “What is an Agnostic?”

In countering Russell’s refutation of various arguments for the existence of God, I will discuss two of the philosophical arguments for the existence of God, the Cosmological, or First Cause, Argument, and the Teleological, or Design, Argument.  The Cosmological Argument states that each effect has a cause and this results in a series of causes and effects that extend backward in time.  Because such a regression cannot extend infinitely backward in time, there must have been a First Cause, and that First Cause is God.  Russell contends that there is no reason why such a regression cannot extend infinitely backward in time, and, if there needs to be a First Cause, the First Cause does not have to be God, it could be the earth.

If you consider everything in our cosmos, each and every thing can either exist or not exist.  Second, everything in the cosmos is constantly changing.  We, as people, change as we grow older.  The earth, the moon, the sun and the stars also change as time passes by.  Given an infinite regression of time, constant change, and the infinite permutations of things existing in the cosmos at any one time, then at some time in the past, there was a time when nothing existed.  It is obvious that that is not the case now, and since something cannot come from nothing, then there must have been an uncaused First Cause, external to our cosmos, but able to cause effects within it.  I believe that that First Cause is God.

Russell’s statement of the Argument from Design is slightly different from my understanding of it.  Russell understands the Argument as stating that “everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different we could not manage to live in it” (Russell 589).  My understanding of the Argument from Design is that it is an analogy.  When we see a man-made artifact like an arrowhead or a watch, we notice the evidence of intelligent design.  This we attribute to an intelligent designer.  In the same way, when we look at the earth, we see the evidence of intelligent design.  The earth is the exact distance from the sun that it needs to be to sustain life.  Any closer would be too hot, further away would be too cold.  The earth is tilted on its axis.  This creates seasons upon the earth and allows a much larger area of the earth to support life.  The human eye, the human wrist and the blood circulatory system of humans and animals, all show evidence of design just like, and are more complicated than, a video camera, the Canadarm, and the cooling system on your car.

The usual reply to the design argument is that the present day qualities of everything that presently exists arose out of natural adaptation, not design.  However, there are problems with this explanation. Evolution contravenes the second law of Thermodynamics.  As I understand it, the law states that in a closed system (as our universe is) things tend toward disorder.  Evolution contends that order arises out of disorder.    Also, support for evolution in the geological record is scarce.  Darwin himself was unable to point to a single example of such evidence (Oldroyd 92).  Man, even through artificial breeding, is not able to replicate evolution and develop new species of domestic animals (Oldroyd 132-133). To overcome the problem of the inevitable dilution of the genetic material of any better adapted individuals that arise, Darwinism has to maintain that the environment ensures that better adapted individuals will continue to arise (Oldroyd 133-137).  In other words, Darwinism is forced to admit an element of design.

Russell, both in praising Christ and criticizing him takes Bible verses out of context to make his point.  This contravenes standard Biblical interpretation methods.  A more accurate method of Biblical interpretation is to compare the verse being studied with related Bible verses to better understand its meaning.  One of the verses quoted by Russell is:  “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28 NIV).  Mark records Jesus’ words in this way:  “And he said to them, “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1 NIV).  The same verse as recorded by Luke reads:  “I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27 NIV).  The phrases “the Son of Man coming in his kingdom,” and “the kingdom of God” are usually interpreted as referring to the Transfiguration, which is the next recorded event in the Synoptic Gospels.  This interpretation appears to be supported by the words of Peter:

We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18 NIV)

There is evidence that suggests that early Christians were expecting Christ to return in their lifetime.  However, with regards to his second coming, Jesus said:  “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard!  Be alert!  You do not know when that time will come” (Mark 13:32-33 NIV), “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father….  Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come….  So you must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (Mark 24:36,42,44 NIV), and “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” (Mark 25:13 NIV).

Russell questions Christ’s morality.  He regards Christ’s warnings about hell to be immoral because those warnings have caused people anxiety, pain and anguish.  Russell would be correct if hell did not exist.  I believe Jesus’ assertions that hell does exist and that his warnings are given out of love and concern for us.  Regarding the Gadarene swine, a more complete reading of the Biblical passages (Mark 5:1-17, Matthew 8:28-34, and Luke 8:26-37) shows that the demons asked to be allowed to go into the swine.  Jesus gave them permission and the swine rushed down the hill toward the sea and drowned.  Jesus acted out of love and concern for the demon-possessed man.  Russell criticizes him out of concern for the pigs.  Because Russell believes that this world is all that there is, he does not believe Jesus is justified in his actions.  Jesus acted out of concern for the man’s physical welfare and spiritual welfare, and for his mortal life and his eternal life.  Because I believe that there is a physical realm, a spiritual realm, and life after death, I maintain that Jesus’ actions in exorcising the demons out of the man and destroying them are justifiable and without fault.

The accounts of Jesus cursing the fig tree are given in Mark 11:12-14, 20-24 and Matthew 21:18-22.  Jesus’ actions seem immoral to Russell, but there is a reason for them.  The footnotes of The NIV Study Bible explain:

[Mark] 11:13  not the season for figs. Fig trees around Jerusalem normally begin to get leaves in March or April but do not produce figs until their leaves are all out in June.  This tree was an exception in that it was already, at Passover time, full of leaves.

[Mark] 11:14 May no one ever eat fruit from you again. Perhaps the incident was a parable of judgment, with the fig tree representing Israel (see Hos 9:10; Na 3:12).  A tree full of leaves normally should have fruit, but this one was cursed because it had none.  The fact that the cleansing of the temple (vv. 15-19) is sandwiched between the two parts of the account of the fig tree (vv. 12-14 and vv. 20-25) may underscore the theme of judgment (see note on v. 21).  The only application Jesus makes, however, is as an illustration of believing prayer (vv. 21-25).


[Mark] 11:20 In the morning. Tuesday morning of Passion Week.  withered from the roots. This detail indicated that the destruction was total (see Job 18:16) and that no one in the future would eat fruit from the tree.  It served as a vivid warning of the judgment to come in A.D. 70 (see 13:2 and note on Mt 24:2)

[Mark] 11:21  Rabbi. Hebrew word for “(my) teacher.”  fig tree you cursed. See note on v. 14.  has withered. Perhaps prophetic of the fate of the Jewish authorities who were about to reject their Messiah. (The NIV Study Bible pp. 1516-1517, from the footnotes)

I believe that the above quotation provides a reasonable explanation for Jesus’ actions.  I again contend that his actions are just and moral.

Perhaps the one charge that Christians are most uncomfortable with is that of hypocrisy.  Both the Church, past and present, and individual Christians, past and present, have, at various times, failed to live up to the high moral standard that they profess.  In fact, there is no defense.  There is no defense for Christian progroms against the Jews during the Crusades.  There is no defense for burning people convicted of witchcraft on trumped up charges.  There is no defense for sitting in the front pew at church on Sunday, and cheating your neighbor in a business deal on Monday.  There is no defense, but there is a reason for it.  Christians are fallible, sinful human beings just like everyone else.  Therefore, they lie, cheat, steal, murder, divorce, and beat their spouses just as non-Christians do. Christian institutions, contrary to Roman Catholic doctrine, are fallible human institutions just like all other human institutions.  Therefore, they also make mistakes, act in their own self-interest, sacrifice principles for pragmatism, and commit great wrongs, either by omission or commission.

We do aspire to a high moral standard.  We are called to keep not only the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law as well.  Being fallible human beings, the task is impossible, and the law serves to convict us of our sins.  We are helpless and cannot save ourselves.  But God had a plan.  By sending His Son to earth, God planned to reconcile mankind to Him.  Jesus Christ, both true man and true God, lived a pure and sinless life on earth.  He was, therefore, the perfect sacrificial Lamb, and His substitutionary suffering and death on the cross paid the debt for all of the sins of all people throughout time.  Because of that, we humans are now reconciled to God, for in God’s eyes, we are now sinless.  This wondrous gift is freely given to us, we can not do anything at all to earn.  It is a gift that we receive through faith in Jesus Christ.  When we believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior and we trust totally in Him for our salvation, we receive this gift of the payment of all our sins, and our salvation is ensured.  Jesus not only paid the debt of our sins, but He rose again from the dead, thus defeating death and the grave and giving us the hope of eternal life in the perfect and heavenly world to come.  This is the essence of Christianity.  This is the essence of my faith.  This is what I believe.

Failure, or refusal, to understand the Christian Gospel leads to a misunderstanding of what Christianity is all about.  Without the Gospel, all that is left is the Law, and because it is obvious that Christians do not fulfill the Law, they appear to be hypocritical.  Bertrand Russell and others may criticize Christianity, if they wish to, but until they understand both the Law and the Gospel, their criticisms miss the mark.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” [Isaiah 29:14]

Where is the wise man?  Where is the scholar?  Where is the philosopher of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.  Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified:  a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and wisdom of God.  For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25 NIV)

Works Cited

Oldroyd, D. R.   Darwinian Impacts.  An Introduction to the Darwinian Revolution. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.:  Humanties Press, 1980.

Russell, Bertrand.  The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell.  1903-1959. Edited by Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn.  London:  George Allen & Unwin Ltd.,

Ryan, Alan.  Bertrand Russell.  A Political Life. New York:  Hill and Wang, 1988.

(This essay was written for Religious Studies 110.6, University of Saskatchewan, 24 March 1998 )

The Impact of Ambrose of Milan on the Young Augustine

(This essay was written for History 202.3, University of Saskatchewan, 1 December 1998 )

It has been said that no one had more influence on Christianity between the time of the Apostle Paul and the Reformation than Augustine of Hippo. In his time, he played an important role by leading the theological battle against the Donatists, the Manichees and the Pelagians.  He also developed concepts that became very important in the future, as Church doctrine was formulated.  He developed the concept of original sin, explained the nature of evil, and stressed the importance of grace in salvation.  His writings have been read and interpreted by influential churchmen like Pope Gregory the Great, Martin Luther and John Calvin.  As a result, both Catholics and Protestants claim Augustine as a theological forefather.

Yet, it was not always this way.  For the first thirty-two years of his life, Augustine was not even a Christian, preferring to subscribe to the heresy of Manicheeism and fulfilling his sexual desires.  Bishop Ambrose of Milan had a major influence on Augustine’s life as he journeyed from heresy to orthodoxy and from sexual immorality to celibacy.  This essay will outline the life histories of Augustine and Ambrose up to the time of Augustine’s baptism and then detail the interaction between the two of them.  By doing this, it will be shown that Ambrose, by living an exemplary life worthy of Augustine’s admiration, was able to attract him to his services.  There he was able to help Augustine overcome his disdain for the Old Testament Scriptures by the use of allegorical interpretation to reveal the deeper meanings of the Bible passages.

Augustine was born in AD 354 in the town of Thagaste, which is modern day Souk Ahras in Algeria.[1] His mother, Monica, was a devoted Christian, but his father, Patricius, was a pagan who did not accept Christianity until shortly before his death, when Augustine was about seventeen.  For reasons that not even Augustine knew, he was not baptized as an infant.  As a young boy, Augustine fell deathly ill and his mother prepared to have him baptised. However, Augustine recovered and the sacrament was again delayed, for the sins committed after baptism were considered a deeper stain on the soul than those before.[2] Augustine’s salvation was always a concern for his mother.  Monica became especially concerned when Augustine passed through puberty into manhood, for she feared that he would commit the sexual sins of fornication.  He ignored her warnings and committed with impunity the very acts she feared he would.[3] Sexual sin would continue to be problem for Augustine until he finally committed wholeheartedly to the Catholic faith.

Augustine was educated in his home town of Thagaste until he was seventeen.  Then, he left Thagaste to go to Carthage to complete his studies.[4] Carthage was a major city in the Empire at the time, and Augustine gave himself over to the physical lust that was rampant in the city.[5] About this time, he took a concubine with whom he had a son, Adeodatus, the next year.  Though Augustine does not name her, they were together for fifteen years.  When she was sent home to facilitate Augustine’s engagement to a rich young heiress, Augustine’s heart “which clung to her, was broken and wounded and dropping blood.”[6]

While in Carthage, at the age of nineteen, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius,[7] which is no longer extant.[8] This book changed his life and caused him to begin seeking both truth and wisdom.  At about this time, perhaps because of his quest for truth, Augustine falls in with a group of people called the Manichees.[9] The Manichees were a secretive group that believed in a dualism of good and evil.  Man’s soul, which was good, was created by the passive and impotent  “Kingdom of Light” which is the source of all good things.  However, this “good soul” is imprisoned and constrained by the force of evil, which is created by the active and powerful “Kingdom of Darkness.”[10] The Manichee must recognise the distinction between the two principles and be aware of the existence of both principles within all humans, even a Manichee.  Their religion consisted of preventing their evil nature from corrupting their good nature so that, at the end of time, their evil nature would be split off, defeated and discarded, leaving a purely good nature.[11] The Manichees were very antagonistic towards Judaism and Christianity for they considered the Jehovah of the Old Testament to be an evil demon, and the Old Testament Patriarchs to be perverted men revelling in sexual immorality, procreation and killing.[12] They were also very rationalistic, and Augustine himself would often defeat Christians who defended their faith in debates with him.[13]

Augustine taught rhetoric in Carthage[14] for two years until he was twenty-one, when he  returned home for a year to teach literature.[15] He then returned to Carthage[16] where he again taught rhetoric for the next six years.  At the end of this period, when he was twenty-eight years old, Augustine was finally able to meet the Manichaean bishop Faustus.  Augustine had been a Manichee for nine years[17] and for most of that time he had been looking forward to meeting Faustus.  For years Augustine had questions about Manichaeism that he sought to have answered.  However, whenever he raised his concerns, his fellow Manichees would suggest that he wait until Faustus comes for they promised that he would be able to answer all of his concerns.  When Augustine was finally able to raise his questions with Faustus, he was very disappointed, for though Faustus was charming and smooth, Augustine realised that he was not speaking the truth.[18] Also, Faustus was ignorant of the same liberal arts which Augustine had been told he was wise.[19]

Shortly after this, with the encouragement of his friends, Augustine left Carthage for Rome, seeking personal fame and fortune.  He also hoped to exchange the unruly students of Carthage for what he had heard were much better behaved students in Rome.  Augustine’s mother, Monica, had wanted to go with him, but he deceived her and left without her.[20] Upon arriving in Rome, Augustine fell deathly ill but he was able to recover. He credited his recovery to his mother’s prayers and the mercy of God.[21] When he began teaching in Rome, he found that the students were better behaved.  However, they would conspire to break their pledges and leave their professor for another, and thus avoid paying their first professor.  For this practice, Augustine hated them.[22]

While in Rome, Augustine was still in fellowship with the Manichees, even though his interest in their doctrine had waned.[23] They encouraged and supported him in applying for the position of professor of rhetoric in Milan when it became available.  After speaking on a set topic, Symmachus, the Prefect of Rome, gave his approval[24] and in the autumn of AD 384, at the age of thirty,[25] Augustine left for Milan. It was here that he was to encounter Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan.

Ambrose was born fifteen years before Augustine in AD 339 in what is modern day Trier in western Germany, to a distinguished Roman family.  His father, Aurelius Ambrosius, was the Praetorian Prefect of the Gauls, the highest rank in the Roman civil service, when Ambrose was born.[26] Ambrose had a brother, Uranius Satyrus, and a sister, Marcellina, who were both older than he was. The home was a Christian one, but Ambrose and Satyrus were not baptised as infants.  His sister, Marcellina, the oldest child in the family, dedicated herself to a life of virginity when Ambrose was fourteen years old.  By this time, his mother was widowed and the family had moved to Rome.[27] Here, Ambrose’s mother, his sister and another consecrated virgin lived an ascetic life devoted to good works, study and devotional exercises.  [28]

Ambrose was educated in the manner that was typical for the time.  He would have begun with elementary school at about age seven where basic reading, writing, arithmetic and Greek grammar were taught under the tutelage of a pedagogue. Then he would have continued on to grammar school to learn classic Greek and Latin literature. Finally, he would enter the school of a rhetorician at about age fourteen or fifteen to learn the skill of oratory.[29] He may have also studied philosophy for he appears to be familiar with Plato, Epicurus, Aristotle and, especially, Cicero.[30] Because the instructors at the schools were usually pagans, Christian families would often also send their son to the local clergyman for an education in the basic elements of Christianity.  Ambrose was sent for this purpose to the well educated and scholarly presbyter Simplician, who was very knowledgeable about both philosophy and theology. Later, when Ambrose was elected Bishop of Milan, it was Simplician who came to prepare him for baptism and ordination.  After Ambrose died, it was Simplician who succeeded him as Bishop of Milan. Under Simplician, Ambrose would have studied the Scriptures and the basic tenets of Christianity.  However, the instruction would have been superficial because Ambrose intended to embark on a secular career, not a religious one.[31]

When he was about twenty-six years old, Ambrose and his brother Satyrus went to Sirmium to serve as lawyers at the court of the Italian Prefect.  When the Prefect died in AD 368, a wealthy friend of Ambrose and Satyrus, Sextus Petronius Probus, was appointed Prefect.  In about AD 370, he rewarded Ambrose and Satyrus for their friendship by appointing both of them to governorships. Satyrus became governor of an unnamed province, and Ambrose became governor of Aemilia-Liguria, headquartered at Milan.[32]

At the time of Ambrose’s ascendancy to the governorship in Milan, the Bishop there was an Arian named Auxentius who had strong ties to the court of the Emperor Constantius, who was also an Arian.[33] When Auxentius died in AD 373, the question of who should succeed him became a point of contention between Catholics, who sought to regain the bishopric, and Arians, who sought to retain it.  Fearing an outbreak of hostilities, Ambrose, acting as governor, attended the meeting held for the election of the new bishop.  During his address to the assembled crowd, through which he sought to defuse the potentially explosive situation, legend has it that a child cried out, “Ambrose Bishop!”  Those in the crowd, both Arians and Catholics, forgot their differences and took up the chant, “Ambrose Bishop!  Ambrose Bishop!”[34]

In spite of the wishes of the congregation, Ambrose had no intention of becoming the bishop.  He returned to his court, and had some prisoners tortured in the hopes that those favouring his appointment as bishop would be dissuaded by a show of violence.  When that failed, he announced that he intended to retire and spend the rest of his days in meditating in solitude.  When that did not work, he had some prostitutes brought to his home, but the crowd saw through that ruse as well.  Next, Ambrose tried to flee Milan at midnight, but he became lost in the dark and never got very far.  To prevent him from trying to flee again, the people of Milan captured him and kept him under guard at his own house.  Meanwhile they sent a message to Emperor Valentinian, who was at Trier, asking him to ratify their choice as bishop.  Valentinian, pleased that there was an unanimous choice, willingly agreed, but, in the meantime, Ambrose had escaped and fled to the country estate of a friend, Leontius.  The Pope then issued a proclamation which threatened anyone harbouring Ambrose with severe punishment.  Leontius confessed and Ambrose was taken back to Milan.[35] Even when the appointment was confirmed, Ambrose tried to have the ordination delayed.[36] Finally, Valentinian promised Ambrose that he would not be harmed by the Arians[37] and Ambrose agreed to serve as Bishop of Milan.  He was baptised on November 24, AD 373, went through various levels of the priesthood during the next six days, and was consecrated bishop on the following Sunday, December 1.[38]

By all accounts, Ambrose took to his new duties as bishop with commitment and vigour.  He spent several hours each day in prayer and he led a simple and austere lifestyle.[39] Along with administering baptism, penance, discipline of clergy, and civil judicial duties, Ambrose also supervised the charities of the church and defended those who were oppressed.  When throngs of Roman men and women were taken prisoner by the Goths after the defeat at Hadrianople in AD 378, Ambrose used church wealth to ransom them.  When people were condemned to death, he would often plead for mercy on their behalf.  During Emperor Gratian’s reign, he successful lobbied the emperor for a pardon for a condemned pagan noble.[40] Word of Ambrose’s reputation spread so that by AD 384, even Augustine was aware of the greatness of the Bishop of Milan.  Augustine writes, “At Milan I came to Bishop Ambrose, who had a world-wide reputation, was a devout servant of yours [referring to God] and a man whose eloquence in those days gave abundantly” of the spiritual riches of God to the people of Milan.[41]

While at Milan, Augustine only had superficial contact with Ambrose.  Ambrose had greeted Augustine warmly and welcomed him to Milan and was very kind and generous towards him, but he was also a very busy man.  Augustine writes,

I was not able to ask him the questions I wanted to ask in the way I wanted to ask them, because I was prevented from having an intimate conversation with him by the crowds of people, all of whom had some business with him and to whose infirmities he was a servant.  And for the very short periods of time when he was not with them, he was either refreshing his body with necessary food or his mind with reading.  When he was reading, his eyes went over the pages and his heart looked into the sense, but voice and tongue were resting.  Often when we came to him (for no one was forbidden to come in, and it was not customary for visitors even to be announced) we found him reading, always to himself and never otherwise; we would sit in silence for a long time, not venturing to interrupt him in his intense concentration on his task, and then we would go away again….

Anyhow, I was given no chance of making the inquiries I wished to make from that holy oracle of yours [referring to God], his breast.  I could only ask things that would not take long in the hearing.[42]

In spite of their brief and superficial personal contacts, Ambrose was able to have a great impact on Augustine through his sermons and his exemplary life.  To understand how he was able to do this, one has to go back in Augustine’s life to AD 373 when he was a young man of nineteen in Carthage.

As mentioned above, Augustine read Cicero’s Hortensius at the age of nineteen.  It filled him with a love for philosophy and a zeal for wisdom.[43] The work no longer exists, but perhaps it contained sentiments similar to those in On Duties (II):

For surely to be wise is the most desirable thing in all the world.  It is quite impossible to imagine anything better, or more becoming for a human being, or more appropriate to his essential nature.  That is why the people who try to reach this goal are called philosophers, because that is precisely what philosophy means, the love of wisdom.  And wisdom … signifies the knowledge of all things, divine and human, and of the causes which lie behind them.[44]

Seeking truth and wisdom, Augustine turned to the Scriptures.  However, he was unimpressed by what he read.  He felt that, in style, they were unworthy of comparison with Cicero, and were better suited for children to study and learn.  They were certainly far beneath him.[45] Because of his contact with Manichean philosophy, he was likely repelled by the vindictiveness and earthiness found in the Old Testament.  The unworthiness of the Christian Scriptures was one of two major objections that Augustine to the orthodox Christian religion.  The second was the problem of evil. However, this essay will not deal fully with the second objection  for it would require an essay on its own to cover it properly.

Ambrose was the catalyst that allowed Augustine to overcome his first objection in two ways.  First, Ambrose’s exemplary life, as a devoted servant, a knowledgeable philosopher and a powerful ecclesiastical lord, dearly loved and admired by all who knew him, made him a role model to Augustine.  Augustine dearly wanted to be like Ambrose, and so he attended his services, listened to his sermons and sought his counsel whenever he could.  Second, during his sermons, by using allegorical interpretation of the Bible, Ambrose was able to reveal to Augustine the deeper truth contained within the texts.

When Augustine was about twenty-six or twenty-seven, he wrote a two or three books called The Beautiful and the Fitting. In them, he laid out his personal philosophy regarding those qualities which man desires and the interrelationships of those various qualities.  He dedicated these books to Hierus, a very popular orator in Rome, even though he had never seen him.  In analysing his own actions, Augustine writes,

I had never seen the man, but I had come to love him because of his very great reputation for learning, and I had heard and very much admired some of the things he had said.  But the greater part of my admirations came from the fact that others admired him.  He was praised to the skies and people were astonished that he, a Syrian who was brought up as a master of Greek oratory, would later become such a wonderful speaker in Latin and should also possess such a wide knowledge of philosophy.  So he was praised and, without ever having been seen, was loved.  Does this kind of love come into the heart of the hearer straight from the words of praise which he hears?  Not at all.  What happens is that love is kindled by love.  We only love someone whom we hear praised when we believe that the praise comes from a sincere heart, that is to say, when the man who gives the praise loves the man whom he is praising.[46]

In the same way that Augustine had admired the unseen Hierus in AD 380, he admired the Bishop of Milan four years later. The love of the people of Milan for Bishop Ambrose kindled admiration for Ambrose within the heart of Augustine.  In separate passages of The Confessions, Augustine notes the “world wide reputation”[47] of Ambrose and that he “was honored by people of such importance, a lucky man by worldly standards.”[48] The admiration turns to affection, as Augustine says, “I began to love him at first not as a teacher of the truth (for I had quite despaired of finding it in your Church) but simply as a man who was kind and generous to me.”[49]

Augustine states that he came to listen to Ambrose preach, not because he thought that he would hear the truth, but because he was evaluating Ambrose’s eloquence to see if it was up to his reputation.[50] Augustine could have quite easily made a proper evaluation in one session and, yet, he kept coming back repeatedly to hear Ambrose preach.  Though he maintains that such is not the case, the evidence suggests that he, perhaps subconsciously, had additional motives for coming to hear Ambrose.  The admiration and love of the people of Milan for Ambrose kindled admiration and affection within Augustine for Ambrose.  This admiration and affection,  combined with his ongoing quest for truth,[51] are likely the additional motives that Augustine had for continuing to come to church to hear Ambrose preach.

As Augustine listened to Ambrose’s sermons, something quite unexpected began to happen.  He writes,

Together with the language, which I admired, the subject matter also, to which I was indifferent, began to enter into my mind.  Indeed I could not separate the one from the other.  And as I opened my heart in order to recognize how eloquently he was speaking it occurred to me at the same time (though this idea came gradually) how truly he was speaking.  First I began to see that the points which he made were capable of being defended.  I had thought that nothing could be said for the Catholic faith in the face of the objections raised by the Manichees, but it now appeared to me that this faith could be maintained on reasonable grounds — especially when I had heard one or two passages in the Old Testament explained, usually in a figurative way, which when I had taken them literally, had been a cause of death to me.[52]

Through Ambrose’s use of allegorical interpretation, Augustine was able to overcome his first major objection to Christianity, the unworthiness of the Scriptures.  Later he writes,

I was glad … that the old Scriptures of the Law and the Prophets were set before me in such a way that I could now read in a different spirit from that which I had had before, when I used to criticize your holy ones for holding various views which, plainly, they never held at all.  And I was happy when I heard Ambrose … recommend most emphatically … this text as a rule to go by:  The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. So he would draw aside the veil of mystery and explain in a spiritual sense the meanings of things which, if understood literally, appeared to be teaching what was wrong.[53]

From this point onward, Augustine “began to prefer the Catholic faith.”[54]

It is very important to note that Augustine still had some obstacles to overcome before he was able to fully commit to Christianity.  He still had to work out in his mind how it was possible for evil to exist in the presence of an omnipotent God.  Also, he had to determine what the nature of evil was. After studying with some Platonist philosophers at Milan, Augustine was able to develop an explanation which became very important to Christianity.  Evil is not a physical substance, or a force that limits God’s power.  Evil is “a perversity of the will turning away from you, God, the supreme substance, toward lower things.”[55] He further explained how evil works within humans by developing what became known as the doctrine of original sin.  Referring to the struggle between good and evil within humans, Augustine writes, “It was not I … who caused it, but the sin [that] dwells in me, and, being a son of Adam, I was suffering for his sin which was more freely committed.”[56] By coming to these conclusions, Augustine was able to overcome his second major objection to Christianity.

Augustine also had to overcome his resistance to committing himself to celibacy.  From Ambrose and Ponticianus, a visitor from Africa,[57] Augustine knew that if he was to commit to Christianity, it should be a life of celibacy,[58] which Augustine considered too much of a burden to bear.[59] He used to pray, “Make me chaste and continent, but not yet.”[60] One day, he underwent mental anguish as he agonized over what he should do.  He heard the voice of a child in the yard next door singing, “Take it and read it, take it and read it.”[61] He picked up a nearby copy of the Scriptures opened and read the first passage he saw, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying:  but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh in concupiscence.[62] Immediately after reading this passage, Augustine no longer had any doubt as to what he should do. He had overcome his final objection.[63] On the night before Easter, AD 387, Augustine, Adeodatus, and a friend of Augustine’s, Alypius, were baptised by Bishop Ambrose.[64]

Ambrose continued serving as Bishop of Milan until his death in AD 397.  Augustine left Milan to go back to North Africa shortly after his baptism.  He was ordained a priest in Hippo in AD 391, and became Bishop of Hippo a few years later.  Besides serving as priest and bishop, Augustine also wrote many important theological works, numerous sermons, letters, treatises,  The Confessions and City of God.  Though their contact with each other was relatively brief, Ambrose had a major and long lasting impact on Augustine.  Ambrose was able to show Augustine the truth of Christianity so that he might accept it, and serve as a role model that Augustine was able to emulate, and eventually, outshine.


Primary sources:

Ambrose of Milan.  “To the Church at Vercelli.”  No. 59 [Benedictine No. 63].  In  Letters. Translated by Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka.  321-363.  New York:  Fathers of the Church, 1954.

Ambrose of Milan.  “To Valentinian.”  No. 9 [Benedictine No. 21]. In  Letters. Translated by Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka.  52-56.  New York:  Fathers of the Church, 1954.

Augustine of Hippo.  The Confessions. Translated by Rex Warner.  New York:  Mentor, 1963.

Cicero. “On Duties (II).”  In Cicero: On the Good Life. Translated by Michael Grant.  117-171.  London:  Penguin, 1971.

Secondary sources:

Brown, Peter.   Augustine of Hippo.  London:  Faber & Faber, 1967.

Dudden, F. Homes.  The life and Times of St. Ambrose. 2 volumes.  Oxford:  Clarendon, 1935.

Tertiary sources:

Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, The. Edited by F. L. Cross.  London: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Oxford Dictionary of Saints, The. Edited by David Hugh Farmer.  Second edition.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1987.

[1]Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, (London:  Faber & Faber, 1967), p. 19.

[2] Augustine of Hippo, The Confessions, translated by Rex Warner, (New York:  Mentor, 1963), Bk. 1.11.

[3] Conf. 2.3.

[4] Brown, p. 38.

[5] Conf. 3.2.

[6] Conf. 6.16.

[7] Conf. 3.4

[8] Cicero, “On Duties (II),” in Cicero: On the Good Life, translated by Michael Grant, 117-171, (London:  Penguin, 1971), p. 122.

[9] Conf. 3.6.

[10] Brown, pp. 46-47.

[11] Brown, pp. 48-50.

[12] Brown, p. 50.

[13] Brown, p. 48.

[14] Conf. 4.2

[15] Brown, p. 53.

[16] Brown, p. 64.

[17] Conf. 5.6.

[18] Conf. 5.3.

[19] Conf. 5.7.

[20] Conf. 5.8.

[21] Conf. 5.9.

[22] Conf. 5,12.

[23] Conf. 5.10.

[24] Conf. 5.13.

[25] Brown, pp. 69-70.

[26] F. Homes Dudden, The life and Times of St. Ambrose, 2 volumes, (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1935), Vol. 1, pp 1-2.

[27] Dudden, Vol. 1, p. 3.

[28] Dudden, Vol. 1, p. 4.

[29] Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 5-9.

[30] Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 13-14.

[31] Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 57-58.

[32] Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 58, 60-62.

[33] Dudden, Vol. 1, p. 64.

[34] Dudden, Vol. 1, p. 66.

[35] Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 66-68.

[36]St. Ambrose, “To the Church at Vercelli,” No. 59 [Benedictine No. 63],  in Letters, translated by Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka, 321-363, (New York:  Fathers of the Church, 1954), p. 345.

[37] Ambrose, “To Valentinian,” No. 9 [Benedictine No. 21], in Letters, translated by Sister Mary Melchior Beyenka, 52-56, (New York:  Fathers of the Church, 1954),  p. 53.

[38] Dudden, Vol. 1.3, p. 68.

[39] Dudden, Vol. 1, pp. 107-115.

[40] Dudden, Vol. 1.3, pp. 115-126.

[41] Conf. 5.13.

[42] Conf. 6.3.

[43] Conf. 3.4.

[44] Cicero, p. 122.

[45] Conf. 3.5.

[46] Conf. 4.14.

[47] Conf. 5.13.

[48] Conf. 6.3.

[49] Conf. 5.13.

[50] Conf. 5.13.

[51] Conf. 10.24.

[52] Conf. 5.14.

[53] Conf. 6.4.

[54] Conf. 6.5.

[55] Conf. 7.16.

[56] Conf. 8.10.

[57] Conf. 8.6.

[58] Conf. 8.11.

[59] Conf. 6.3.

[60] Conf. 8.7.

[61] Conf. 8.12.

[62] Conf 8.12. (cf. Romans 13:13).

[63] Conf. 8.12.

[64] Brown, p. 124.

The Confessing Church in Germany 1933-45

(This essay was written for History 285.6, University of Saskatchewan, 8 April 1999)

The role of the Christian churches in Germany from 1933 to 1945 raises many troubling questions about the perceived lack of action on moral issues.  Many people wonder if Nazi atrocities might have been reduced or prevented if the Churches had done more to protest what was going on.  This essay will look at the role of the Confessing Church during the Nazi regime to see what role it played.  By studying the events of this time period that involved the Confessing Church, it can be shown that the Confessing Church did resist the Nazi government efforts to subvert it and, by preserving the truth of Christianity, prevented the total apostasy of the German Evangelical Church.

The history of the structure of the German Christian churches goes back to the sixteenth century.  After the Peace of Westphalia, which was based upon the Peace of Augsburg, the prince of each land determined the religion of his land, either Roman Catholic, Lutheran or Reformed.  Thus, of the approximately three hundreds lands, or principalities, in what is now Germany, in those that became Protestant there arose hundreds of Land Churches, either Lutheran or Reformed.  In these Protestant areas, the local prince governed both the church and the state.  In 1815,  when Napoleon consolidated Germany into thirty-nine states, the amalgamated states often ended up with both a Lutheran and Reformed Land Church as well as a Roman Catholic church presence.[1] Frederick William III, the King of Prussia (1797-1840), who was Reformed, wanted to celebrate communion with his Lutheran wife.  He declared on September 27, 1817, that the two churches were essentially one and thus provided the impetus for a union movement which eventually resulted in the formation of the United church.  However, the merger was not complete for, in the years after 1830, several Lutheran churches refused to join the union and formed Free Lutheran churches.[2] The losses and trauma of the First World War caused some reorganisation among the Land Churches which left only twenty-eight Land Churches in the German Republic in 1919.[3]

Prior to 1918, the Protestant churches in Germany were quasi-government agencies which required the approval of the prince of the realm to make their decisions binding.  With the November 1918 revolution in Germany, during which the German princes abdicated, the Protestant churches were cut off from their leaders and their legal status was put in limbo.  However, that was rectified with the Weimar Constitution of 1919 which recognised the legal status and rights of all the churches.[4] Church unity was strengthened among the Protestants through the formation of a confederation of Land Churches called the German Evangelical Church Confederation in 1922.[5] In contrast to the Protestant churches, the Catholic churches continued their episcopal hierarchy throughout and they were not disrupted by the November 1918 revolution like the Protestant churches were.[6]

Though the structure of government changed dramatically after World War One, there were still ties between church and state in Germany.  The Land Churches and the Roman Catholic churches received state subsidies from the state treasury, in addition to the direct gifts and endowments that they received.  Also, the Roman Catholic and Land churches, under the supervision of the state, levied church taxes which were collected by the state for the churches.  If one withdrew from a Land  church, or the Roman Catholic church, they no longer had to pay church taxes.[7]

Christians were an overwhelming majority of the German population prior to the war.  In the census of 1910, there were 39,991,421 members of Land churches (also known as Evangelicals), 23,821,453 Roman Catholics, 283,946 of other Christian denominations, 615,021 Jews, and 214,152 of other or no religious persuasion.[8]

Adolf Hitler was born in Austria and fought in the German Army with distinction during World War One.  Disillusioned and bitter over the results of the war, he decided to go into politics and, in 1920, formed his own party, the National Socialist German Workers Party, commonly known as the Nazi Party.  In 1923, he and some co-conspirators attempted to stage a coup in the failed “beer hall putsch.”[9] During the nine months Hitler spent in jail for this offence, he wrote Mein Kampf which outlined his personal philosophy and his plan for the future glory of Germany.

Upon being pardoned and released from jail, Hitler continued his political activity, using democracy as the means to his ends.  He presented a finely tuned program of leadership, nationalism and racialism which was precisely attuned to the hopes of the German people.[10] The National Socialist Party rose in popularity until Hitler was finally appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg on January 30, 1933.[11]

Hitler was born and raised as a Roman Catholic but he later developed a non-Christian philosophy crudely based upon Nietzche, Darwin and Gobineau and this became the philosophy of the National Socialist Party.   Hitler believed that race was a biological substance in the blood which determined a person intellectually, spiritually and physically.  The supreme race is the Aryan race which is destined to rule over all the other races, for the only purpose of the other races is to serve the Aryans.  Hitler’s ideas were based upon a pseudo-science for there is no such substance in the blood.[12] According to Hitler, the Jews were parasites who should be exterminated.  He blamed them for all the troubles of Germany, for starting the First World War, and for being behind the two forces that most threatened Germany:  international Bolshevism and international capitalism.  Hitler believed that Germany needed to be changed into a powerful military state.  Individualism, democracy and liberalism were not compatible with this new state.  Once the state was militarised, the armed forces would move to the east to create living space (Lebensraum) for the German people.[13]

Nazism was readily accepted, but not because of Hitler’s abilities as a philosopher, but because it filled a void left in the hearts of Germans after World War One.  As J. S. Conway states,

Nazism filled a vacuum in the lives of countless Germans, by offering, in emotional and semi-religious language, both a dynamic political creed and a plausible explanation of Germany’s post-war predicament.  National Socialism was to become far more than an alternative political party offering a programme suited to the times:  it was, in Hitler’s own words, ‘a form of conversion, a new faith.’[14]

Many Germans shared with Hitler the bitterness and resentment that resulted from World War One and therefore they were very receptive to his ideas.[15]

The rabid anti-Semitism of the National Socialists made it inevitable that they would eventually attack Christianity.  Anti-Semitism is a hatred of the people chosen by God, whose very existence is evidence of God’s desire for relationship with humanity.  Rejection of the Jews means rejection of the salvation offered by God through the Jews in Jesus of Nazareth.  Anti-Semitism is a form of hatred of God.  As it manifests itself in the form of the intense hatred of Jews, it will naturally lead to a hatred of Christianity and from there, all freedom and justice.[16]

Hitler portrayed himself as a religious supporter, but one who was above the fray of denominational squabbles.  He never officially renounced his Catholicism and was not excommunicated until his death.  He paid church taxes and he listed himself as a Catholic in the party handbook right to the end.  Other than Judaism, Hitler wrote favourably of religion in Mein Kampf where he mentioned it.[17] Publicly, he expressed his support of Christianity,[18] and he never revealed his anti-church attitudes.[19] Point Twenty-four of the Twenty-five Point National Socialist Party Program called for the freedom of all religious confessions.[20] However, privately, Hitler revealed his true anti-Christian sentiments.  In responding to the anti-Christian campaign of one of his co-conspirators in the 1923 coup attempt, General Erich Ludendorff, Hitler said,  “I entirely agree with His Excellency, but His Excellency… can afford to announce to his opponents that he will strike them dead.  But I need, for the building up of a great political movement, the Catholics of Bavaria just as the Protestants of Prussia.  The rest can come later.”[21] Because of Hitler’s duplicity,  many churchmen were unaware of his anti-church bias and they supported him because of the conservative nature of his programs, such as combating Bolshevism.[22]

However, even at this early point, there was a realisation among some churchmen of the incompatibility of Nazi ideals and Christianity.  In some areas of Germany, Nazis were forbidden from participating in the sacraments or church ceremonies such as funerals.  Cardinal Bertram, primate of the Roman Catholic Church in Germany, warned in a sermon in 1931 of the dangers of false prophets who preach a new gospel of nationalism and racial superiority and how this would only lead to a hatred of the Christian law and gospel.[23] Before they even came to power, certain Nazi groups like the SA (Storm Troops – Sturm Abteilung) were encouraging their members to attend church services in uniform.  On November 10, 1931, the Prussian Land church forbade anyone from attending services in uniform.[24]

The anti-church bias of the Nazi government was never made public either.  There was not unanimity regarding how to deal with the churches within the government either.  Some, such as Frick, Goring and  Kerrl, were moderates who wanted to maintain some sort of bridge with Christianity.  Others, such as Himmler, Heydrich, and Bormann, were rabid anti-clerics who wanted to unleash a violent campaign against the church to destroy it.[25] This conflict within the government resulted in an uneven and varying program against the churches.  However, after about 1937 when the programs of the moderates seemed doomed to failure, Hitler gave the extremists a freer rein against the church.

In spite of its unevenness, there was a definite three-pronged attack upon the churches.  The government sought to control the churches, to weaken the churches and to defeat the churches in a battle of ideologies.  The first prong of the attack began even before the National Socialists came to power on January 30, 1933.  On May 23, 1932, the Nationals Socialists formed the German Christian Faith Movement so that it could run pro-Nazi candidates in the upcoming church elections in November 1932.  In that election, the “German Christians” won one third of the seats, but more importantly, they infiltrated all of the Land Churches.[26] After January 1933, there was a movement to unite all of the twenty-eight Land churches into one united Reich church with one Reich Bishop as its leader.  Hitler was agreeable to such a proposal for he sought to control the institution through the Reich Bishop.  As the movement proceeded, Hitler chose Ludwig Müller as his candidate of choice for the position of Reich Bishop.  Müller was a fervent Nazi who had already agreed to co-operate fully with the state.  In elections held on May 27, Müller was defeated for the position of Reich Bishop by Friedrich von Bodelschwingh.  The “German Christians” appealed to the Prussian Minister of Education, Rust, and his deputy and state secretary, Wilhelm Stuckart, for help.  When the President of the Prussian Church Council resigned at the end of June, Rust announced that the Prussian state government would be running the Prussian church.  Rust appointed as Commissar for the Evangelical Church of Prussia Dr. August Jäger, a strong Nazi who was also Stuckart’s former law professor.  Jäger filled the Prussian church with Nazis and “German Christian” administrators and Bodelschwingh resigned, in despair, as Reich Bishop elect.  Müller declared that he was Reich Bishop elect and, in spite of much protest, with the help of the SA, he was installed in the Prussian church.  He was ordered to complete a new constitution for the new Reich Church as soon as possible.  This he did by July 12 and on July 14, 1933, a Cabinet meeting approved the new constitution of the Reich Church.[27] Hitler announced that elections to fill the positions of leadership for the new church would be held on July 23, that is, in nine days time.[28] The Nazi party threw its full weight behind the “German Christians.”  The leader of the German Christian Faith Movement, Hossenfelder, wrote a letter to all local Nazi party leaders encouraging them to urge their people to support the “Germans Christians.”  Party members were urged to register on parish voting lists and to vote.  The Berlin Gestapo raided the office of the “Church and Gospel” party and confiscated 620,000 pieces of election material.[29] In an election which was never in doubt, the “German Christians” won a large majority in almost all of Germany.[30] These “German Christians” then confirmed Müller’s election as Reich Bishop with a majority vote at a National Synod in Wittenberg on September 27, 1933.[31]

The “German Christians” may have been German, but they certainly were not Christian.  They were appointed to church positions because they supported the Nazis, and while in those positions they abandoned any Christian principles that they had for Nazi ones.  They supported racial purity, bad treatment of the Jews, and espoused a commitment to a “positive Christianity” which was in line with German nationalism.[32] Because of their anti-Semitism, they would call for the deletion of Old Testament references from religious instruction and present Jesus as a Germanic hero, an Aryan and not a Jew.[33] The “German Christians” were working toward a synthesis of Christianity and Nazi ideals.[34] With the dichotomy of these two ideologies, it would be impossible to achieve a synthesis that would be orthodox Christianity.  The “German Christians’ were apostate and their growing presence in the Evangelical Church threatened the loss of the entire church.

Reaction against the Nazi efforts to control the church were not long in coming.  On September 4, 1933, at a General Synod, the Prussian Land Church elected Müller as Bishop for Prussia, instituted the Aryan paragraph,[35] and declared no further need for any further synods.  Upset by events in the Prussian Synod, Dr. Martin Niemöller, the pastor of Dahlem Church in Berlin, issued a circular letter on September 21, 1933, to all Evangelical pastors in Germany calling for other pastors to commit themselves to follow only the Confessions of the Reformation and the Holy Scriptures and join him in a Pastor’s Emergency League.  Within one week, 2000 pastors offered their support.  Müller, realising that this opposition must be contained, dropped the Aryan paragraph from the agenda of the National Synod in Wittenberg on September 27.[36]

Having achieved his purposes, Hitler now withdrew his support of the “German Christians.”  The “German Christians” wanted to synthesise Nazi and Christian ideals.  Hitler would have none of this for he did not want to support, in any way, anything that could possibly rival pure Nazi ideology.  Upset over the withdrawal of support, the “German Christians,” under the leadership of layman Dr. Reinhold Krause, decided to hold a mass rally that would initiate a propaganda campaign that would overwhelm their opponents and show the Nazi party how loyal and necessary they were.[37] 20,000 men and women, clergy and lay gathered at the Berlin Sports Palace on November 13, 1933 and passed a resolution calling for, among other things, immediate implementation of the Aryan paragraph, expulsion of any clergy who resisted the progress of the church along Nazi lines, and the scrapping of any non-German elements in the church, such as in the creeds or services, but especially in the Old Testament.  There was only one opposing vote.[38] The rally shocked many pastors out of their complacency and now thousands joined the Pastors’ Emergency League. [39] By the beginning of 1934, there were 7,000 members in the League.[40] However, most still kept their loyalty with the government.[41]

Müller was caught between the increasing attacks of his opponents and the disappearing support of the Nazi government.  He tried to shore up his support in the government by turning the Evangelical Youth programme over to the Nazis to incorporate into the Hitler Youth program on December 19, 1933.[42] However, the government was rapidly losing confidence in him.  The Pastors’ Emergency League lobbied hard to get Müller deposed because of his spiritual unfitness to hold the office.  On January 25, 1934, Hitler agreed to meet with twelve prominent leaders of the Evangelical Church.  At the beginning of the meeting, Goering read the transcript of a wiretapped telephone conversation between Niemöller, who was present at the meeting, and an associate that took place that very morning.  During the conversation there was an unguarded comment regarding Hitler and Hindenberg.  Hitler accused Niemöller of treachery and the other eleven leaders quickly disassociated themselves from Niemöller and pledged their loyalty to Müller.  Niemöller’s home was searched that evening and a bomb exploded in the hallway of his home a few days later.  Niemöller was given a leave of absence on January 27 and retired without leave on February 10.[43] Müller quickly seized the opportunity to reassert his authority.  He coerced all the evangelical bishops into agreeing to support him as leader of the evangelical church and to withdraw their support of the Pastors’ Emergency League.  Following this, a large number of pastors were disciplined through suspensions, dismissals or retirements.[44]

In March and April of 1934, Müller began to carry out plans to dissolve the twenty-eight Land church administrations and centralise all authority in the office of the Reich Bishop.  Those Land Churches that were administered by “German Christians” immediately turned their authority over to Müller, but others refused. These were dissolved, often with police force, and more co-operative synods were set up in their place.  In spite of this, there was still resistance.  Several churches broke away and formed free synods while, in other cases, church leaders refused to hand over authority to Müller.  In response, Müller decided to make an example of Bishop Wurm, the Bishop of Württemberg.  On April 17, he went to Württemberg to seize control of the provincial synod, but Bishop Wurm, with public support behind him, refused.  On April 22, a conference of church representatives from all over Germany met at Bishop Wurm’s Cathedral church and declared itself to be the “constitutional Evangelical Church of Germany.”[45] The Confessing Church had begun.

At a National Synod on May 30, 1934, at Barmen, and a working session the day before, the framework for the Confessing Church was developed.  It was a church within a church, but composed only of those members who stood firm upon the basic confessions of the Christian church.[46] The National Synod developed what became known as the Barmen Declaration which rejected the errors of the German Christians and called all Christians back to the foundational truths of Christianity.[47] The Gestapo seized copies of the Declaration and threatened anyone possessing a copy with detainment in a concentration camp.[48] Müller and the Nazis were outraged and alarmed over the formation of a parallel church authority.  But because of concern for Germany’s reputation abroad, Hitler did not allow wholesale persecution of the Confessing Church at this time.[49]

After Hitler added, upon the death of Hindenberg on August 2, 1534, the office of president to his office of chancellor, Müller restarted his campaign to centralise authority in the Reich Church.  At a national synod on August 9, previous illegal actions against resisting synods was declared legal, and pastors were required to swear oaths of allegiance to Hitler, just as the civil servants were required to do.  Also, Jäger, who was doing the legal work for this program, promised not to make any moves against the resisting Land Churches of Hanover, Bavaria or Württemberg.  The Confessing Church immediately denied the authority of the National Synod and instructed pastors to refuse the vows for political vows should never supersede ordination vows.  Jäger quickly broke his promises and moved against the Bavarian and Württemberg churches on October 6 to 11.  Their bishops, Bishop Meiser and Bishop Wurm, respectively, were placed under house arrest and dismissed from their posts.  There were local demonstrations of support for the bishops and international expressions of deep concern over the events.  Realising that Jäger’s actions were more of a liability than a help, on October 26, 1934, Hitler arranged for the resignation of Jäger and the reinstatement of the two bishops.[50] Müller stayed on as Reich Bishop but he was powerless and ineffective from this time forward.[51] Hitler abandoned Jäger and Müller not because of a change in heart, but because their actions became politically unacceptable.[52]

The Confessing Church undertook a program of active resistance against the apostasy of the Nazis.  For example, when, in March of 1935, Rosenberg published a strong anti-church attack in the pamphlet An die Dunkelmänner unserer Zeit, the Confessing Church quickly condemned it as being “anti-Christ” in a statement to be read from all Confessing Church pulpits on March 17.  On March 16, the political police warned all pastors that the reading of the statement was prohibited.  The order was widely defied and, in Prussia alone, 500 pastors were arrested.  Protests led to more than 200 more arrests.  Bishop Marahrens of Hanover intervened and the Minister of the Interior released all of the detainees except for seven.  Such government actions tended to strengthen the Confessing Church.[53]

Hitler gave up any hope of Müller’s possible effectiveness and on July 16, 1935, he set up the Ministry of Church Affairs under the leadership of Hanns Kerrl.  Kerrl’s goal was not to establish a state church but to end the division and fighting in the Evangelical Church and co-ordinate its activities with those of the state and to use all the means at his disposal to do this.[54] It was another attempt to control the churches, but Kerrl seemed so genuine in his manner that he was able to convince many in the Confessing Church that Niemöller, who protested the initiation of such a ministry, was unreasonable in his resistance.  This eventually led to a split in the Confessing Church in November 1935 as the Bishops of Hanover, Württemberg and Bavaria disagreed with Niemöller and agreed to work with the new ministry.[55]

The effective life of the Ministry was destined to be short-lived.  Right from the start, Kerrl never had the support in the Nazi Party or the government necessary to achieve his goals.  While Kerrl was wanted to achieve his goals through some sort of approachment, Rosenberg, Himmler and Bormann were just as determined to continue their campaigns against the churches with the goal of eliminating them.[56] Because Kerrl failed to bring the churches into useful voluntary subservience within two years, as he had promised, Himmler, Heydrich and the Gestapo were allowed to make a frontal attack against the churches.  In June 1937, one of the leaders of the Confessing Church, Otto Debelius, was put on trial for writing an open letter in February 1937 to Kerrl, criticising him for encroaching on church autonomy.  On July 1, 1937, Niemöller was taken into custody for reading aloud the names of people who had left the church.  This had been prohibited by Kerrl on March 20, 1937.  By November 1937, more than 700 pastors had been arrested, including Pastor Paul Schneider.  He refused to leave his parish when ordered to do so by the Gestapo.  He was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in November 1937 and died there 18 months later, the first Evangelical pastor to die because of Nazi persecution.[57]

Dibelius was acquitted by the judge in his trial and, as a result, extra effort was invested by the government in trying to obtain a conviction in the Martin Niemöller case.  However, on March 2, 1938, the judges declared that Niemöller was not guilty of the major charges against him and that the time he had spent in jail already paid the penalty for his conviction on the minor counts.  On Hitler’s personal orders,  Niemöller was re-arrested and detained, first at Sachsenhausen and then at Dachau where he remained until the end of the war.  Niemöller’s second imprisonment was a flagrant violation of the law and he became a symbol of the church’s martyrdom.[58] The Confessing Church responded by organising special liturgical services of intercession for those such as Dr. Niemöller who were imprisoned.[59]

Because of the crisis in the Sudeten in 1938, the Confessing Church developed a special liturgy which described war as a punishment and asked forgiveness of God for the sins of his people.  This liturgy was to be celebrated on September 30, 1938, but when the Munich Conference was announced on September 28, it was called off.  However, Himmler obtained a copy and the Nazis denounced it as treasonous and treacherous.  To re-assert his authority, Kerrl called a meeting of the Lutheran bishops and convinced them to disassociate themselves from the Confessing Church.  Under constant attack from nearly all sides, the members of the Confessing Church grew weary and disillusioned.[60]

With the beginning of the Second World War,  Hitler called a halt to government efforts to increase control over the churches.  The halt was only a temporary postponement, for the final assault against the churches would be taken up after the war.  It was not peaceful for the churches, however, for the harassment continued just as before.[61] Church bells were seized and melted down, more Church publishing houses were closed down, chaplains were restricted in the army and the navy and forbidden in the air force, and in August 1940, funeral arrangements for fallen soldiers were taken from the home churches and put under the jurisdiction of the local party leaders.  In November 1940, seminary students or ordinands of the illegal Confessing Church seminaries were declared “unemployed” and forced into “useful” work.  Churches were no longer allowed to refuse burial in their cemeteries to non-believers, refuse to ring the one remaining church bell for the funeral of one who had left the church, or charge non-believers a different rate than believers.  Heydrich maintained that under no circumstances were the churches to regain their former power.[62]

At the beginning of World War Two, in order to reduce expenditures on those that it considered worthless, the government began carrying out Hitler’s euthanasia plan.  Under this plan, people who had mental handicaps or illness, or tuberculosis were transported from their original institutional homes to new facilities where they were euthanised within days.   The bodies were quickly cremated and the relatives were told that the patient died a natural death.  However, people became suspicious and rumours began to leak out.  Bishop Wurm gathered enough information to write a letter to the Minister of the Interior on July 19, 1940.  When no reply was received he wrote a second widely publicised letter on September 5, 1940, for by that time residents of senior citizens’ homes were also being taken.  Both Catholic and Protestant churchmen spoke out against the program.  The public outcry was so great that on August 24, 1941, after approximately 100,000 people had been killed, Hitler cancelled the program.  However, the practice did continue at a reduced level.  For example, children with birth defects were euthanised right up to the end of the war.  Also, the euthanasia program provided useful information to the Nazis regarding the most efficient and economic ways to kill and dispose of the unwanted, information that would be put to use on a much larger scale against Jews, gypsies and concentration camp inmates.[63]

It was obvious that there were atrocities being committed against the Jews.  The government’s anti-Semitism was blatant and the aftermath of “Crystal Night” of November 1938, when 20,000 Jews where arrested and 177 Jewish synagogues were burned, made their intentions clear.  Nearly all churchmen failed to protest at that time.[64] Rumours of atrocities against the Jews began to spread especially after the Jewish population of Stettin disappeared during the winter of 1940.  In September 1941, every Jew over the age of six had to wear a yellow star and by October, the forcible transportation of large numbers of Jews to unknown locations in the East began.  The churches knew that something terribly wrong was happening.  In 1943, the Confessing Church issued an anonymous statement condemning the attacks on the Jews.  Bishop Wurm of Württemberg, who received a copy of the letter, wrote a letter of his own to the Church Ministry protesting the treatment of the Jews in March 1943.  He followed this up by additional letters in July and December 1943.  In October of 1943, the Prussian Synod of the Confessing Church condemned the atrocities against the Jews as a violation of the Fifth Commandment.  There were some small efforts to save the Jews, but any large scale organised attempt was impossible.[65]

The Confessing Church was a spiritual and ecclesiastical movement and not a political one.  For that reason, it did not actively resist the government on the political level.  But there were churchmen involved in the political resistance movement and many paid for their involvement with their lives.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the most notable among the Protestant martyrs in the German resistance.  Though the Confessing Church was not actively involved in the resistance, there was contact between the two groups.  For example, Bishop Wurm fully expected to be arrested for his peripheral involvement with some of these activists, but he never was.[66]

Finally, on May 8, 1945, the World War on the European Theatre ended and the rebuilding process could begin.  After the war, it was both necessary and logical to restore the old church governments.  The “German Christians” who previously held the posts were tainted and they all resigned without question.  It was the Confessing Church who supplied the men who were able to fill those posts.

Much has been written about the failure of the Christian churches to more actively protest the atrocities committed by the Nazis.  Usually, the charge is that the church failed to take an ethical stance against the Nazi persecution of the Jews, or against Nazi aggression against the Sudetenland, or in Poland, or France, or Denmark, et cetera.  But much of the debate really centres around what the responsibilities of the Christian Church are.  Those who value ethics over doctrine tend to say that the church could have done more.  That is not contested.  Yet, the Christian churches of Germany did more in terms of protest and resistance than any other group in Germany.  It was the only group in German society that the Nazis were not able to completely overwhelm and its protests were made in spite of a determined government effort to subvert it, control it, weaken it and, ultimately, destroy it.[67]

Complicating the role of the churches was the fact that things did not appear to be so black and white in the German society of the 1930’s as they seem to us in the post-war period.  Most of the German people believed that Nazism and Christianity were compatible and thought that Hitler was really a pious man.  He encouraged that appearance and often had his picture taken while attending services.[68] The Nazis enjoyed overwhelming popular support and controlled the media and publishing outlets.  They had spies in services, in classes and in the confessionals.  Their control was vast and their threat was real.[69]

It is important to remember that Christianity has a dual responsibility.  Besides emphasising ethical behaviour, the Christian church must remain true to the Scriptures.  If it does not, it ceases to be a Christian church.  It is not just an institution that is supposed to uphold morality, it has a obligation to speak the spiritual truth.  Before 1943, the church was constantly under attack and became weakened and marginalised.  It took nearly all the energy of the faithful remnant just to remain true to the Scriptures and the Confessions.  But they did protest in the ways and means available to them, through the pulpit and the liturgies.  It was all they could do at the time.  The Nazis covered their pre-war atrocities with secrecy and lies and their war-time actions on the basis of war-time urgency.  The euthanasia issue gave the churches the opportunity to expose the Nazi regime for what it was and allowed them to recover the respect and the attention of the people in spite of the Nazi propaganda machine.  This allowed them to more openly press other issues as well.

Did the Christian church fail to speak up when it should of?  Yes, it did.  Did the Christian church fail to act when it should have?  Yes, it did.  But it did speak up belatedly, it did act belatedly, and it did resist, though, belatedly.  Perhaps more importantly though, a portion of the Christian church of Germany did respond promptly and forcefully, at great risk and at a great cost, and even though it was weak and under attack, to defend its definitive concern.  The Confessing Church preserved the Christian Gospel and prevented the total apostasy of the German Evangelical Church.  For that it deserves our gratitude.

As one who should know, Albert Einstein said,

Having always been an ardent partisan of freedom, I turned to the Universities, as soon as the revolution broke out in Germany, to find the Universities took refuge in silence.  I then turned to the editors of powerful newspapers, who, but lately in flowing articles, had claimed to be the faithful champions of liberty.  These men, as well as the Universities, were reduced to silence in a few weeks.  I then addressed myself to the authors individually, to those who passed themselves off as the intellectual guides of Germany, and among whom many had frequently discussed the question of freedom and its place in modern life.  They are in their turn very dumb.  Only the Church opposed the fight which Hitler was waging against liberty.  Till then I had no interest in the Church, but now I feel great admiration and am truly attracted to the Church which had the persistent courage to fight for spiritual truth and moral freedom.  I feel obliged to confess that I now admire what I used to consider of little value.[70]

Appendix A

The Aryan paragraph:

He who is not of Aryan descent or who is married to a person not of Aryan descent may not be called as a clergyman or official of the general church government.  Clergymen or officials of Aryan descent who marry persons of non-Aryan descent are to be discharged.  The determination as to who is to be regarded as a person of non-Aryan descent is made according to the provisions of the law of the Riech.[71]


Cochrane, Arthur C.  The Church’s Confession under Hitler.  Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1962.

Conway, J. S.  The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-45.  Toronto:  Ryerson Press, 1968.

Helmreich, Ernst Christian.  The German Churches under Hitler:  Background,  Struggle, and Epilogue.  Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1979.

Livingston, E. A., editor.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Third edition.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

[1]Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler:  Background,  Struggle, and Epilogue, (Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1979), p. 23.

[2] Helmreich, pp. 24-28.

[3] Helmreich, p. 66.

[4] Helmreich, pp. 61-63.

[5] Helmreich, pp. 70-71.

[6] Helmreich, p. 95

[7] Helmreich, p. 37.

[8] Helmreich, p. 36.

[9] Arthur C.  Cochrane, The Church’s Confession under Hitler, (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1962), p. 24.

[10] J. S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-45, (Toronto:  Ryerson Press, 1968), p. 4.

[11] Conway, p. 1.

[12] Cochrane, pp. 21-22.

[13] Cochrane, pp. 22-23.

[14] Conway, p. 2.

[15] Conway, pp. 1-2.

[16] Cochrane, p. 22.

[17] Helmreich, p. 123.  cf. Conway, p. 14.

[18] Helmreich, pp. 128-129.

[19] Helmreich, p. 309.

[20] Helmreich, p. 123.

[21] Conway, pp. 4-5. cf. Conway, 15.

[22] Conway, pp. 14-15.

[23] Conway, pp. 6-7.

[24] Helmreich. pp. 126-127.

[25] Conway, pp. 168-170, 188-189, 217-219.

[26] Helmreich, pp. 126-127.

[27] Conway, pp. 34-40.

[28] Conway, p. 41.

[29] Conway, p. 43.

[30] Conway, p. 44.

[31] Conway, p. 48.

[32] Conway, pp. 46-48.

[33] Conway, pp. 184-185.

[34] Conway, p. 56.

[35] For a text of the Aryan paragraph, see Appendix A.

[36] Conway, pp. 48-49.

[37] Conway, pp. 50-51.

[38] Conway, p. 52.

[39] Conway, p. 52.

[40] Conway, pp. 71-72.

[41] Conway, p. 52.

[42] Conway, p. 57.

[43] Conway, pp. 72-74, and Cochrane, pp. 130-132.

[44] Conway, pp. 74-75.

[45] Conway, p. 82.

[46] Helmreich, pp. 161-163.

[47] Conway, pp. 83-84.

[48] Conway, pp. 87-89.

[49] Conway, p. 83.

[50] Conway, pp. 97-101, and Helmreich, pp. 171-172.

[51] Helmreich, p. 175.

[52] Conway, p. 101.

[53] Conway, pp. 121-122.

[54] Conway, pp. 128-131.

[55] Conway, pp. 136-137.

[56] Conway, p. 132.

[57] Conway, pp. 202-209.

[58] Conway, pp. 212-213.

[59] Conway, p. 211.

[60] Conway, pp. 220-223.

[61] Helmreich, p. 303.

[62] Conway, pp. 236-239.

[63] Helmreich, pp. 310-315, and Conway, pp. 267-272.

[64] Conway, p. 223.

[65] Conway, pp. 262-267.

[66] Helmreich, pp. 345-346.

[67] Cochrane, p. 40.

[68] Conway, p. 14.

[69] Conway, pp. 171-173.

[70] Helmreich, p. 345.

[71] Helmreich, p. 144.

The Rise of German Pietism in the 17th Century

(This essay was written for History 285.6, University of Saskatchewan, 1 December 1998 )

After the Reformation, when it became clear that accommodation between Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic was not going to happen, the energies of the various church leaderships were devoted to clearly defining, expounding and defending each denominations’ distinctive church dogma.  By the seventeenth century, within the Lutheran context, so much emphasis was put on the necessary acceptance of church dogma that it seemed, to the laity, that trusting in Jesus Christ and accepting church dogma was all that was necessary for salvation.  One’s behaviour was irrelevant, it seemed, because any reliance on good works was considered a false faith.  However, the result was that the Christianity of people was not reflected in their lives.  They felt no responsibility to live pious, godly lives.  Pietism arose as a response to this situation to try to bring reform to Lutheranism by once again making Christianity a religion of the heart which resulted in pious godly behaviour.

Pietism was a seventeenth century renewal movement which began in what is now Germany.  With individual faith, its main characteristics were, first, “a radical religious renewal of the individual which must become apparent in his daily practice.”[1] This renewal, sometimes referred to as a new birth, normally consisted of the individual becoming aware of sin, acknowledge their own sin and repent of that sin, accepting Jesus Christ as one’s own Saviour and committing to him as one’s own Lord.[2] This new birth resulted in a new life for the individual in which they rejected all that was not of God and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, lived their lives solely to glorify God and work for the good of their neighbour.[3] Second, Pietists placed an increased emphasis on the Bible for God could work through the Bible to fan the spark of faith within an individual and, also, to sustain an individual in his or her new life in Christ.  Third, individuals living their new life in Christ were supported and sustained by other renewed individuals,[4] usually in conventicles, which are much like the small group bible studies of the twentieth century.  Fourth, because of their rejection of all that is ungodly, Pietists often viewed themselves as distinct from the world and, also, other church members whose attitudes and actions were seen as “worldly.”[5] It should be noted that Pietism cannot be defined in terms of a distinct theology or church structure.[6] Though there were later separatist elements within Pietism, its original intent was not separatist at all, but to transform the existing church from within.[7]

After the Colloquy of Marburg in 1529, when the Reformed and Lutheran Protestants were unable to unite,[8] and after the Colloquy of Ratisbon in 1541, when Roman Catholics and Lutherans were unable to reconcile,[9] the energies of the various denominations in Christendom were directed toward defining, disseminating and defending their own church dogma.  There were additional reasons for this effort within Lutheranism, for after Martin Luther’s death in 1546 there was much division among his followers.  There was division among political boundaries, for the Holy Roman Empire was not a united state, but a loose federation of about 300 kingdoms, principalities and free cities.  Because Lutheranism relied on the local prince or town council to provide its structure, there came to be many Lutheran churches, instead of only one.  However, there was also division regarding doctrinal issues, such as the relationship of good works to salvation and what was essential and what was unessential.[10] The adoption of the Formula of Concord in 1577 by 8,000 to 9,000 clergy, thirty-five cities and fifty-one princes helped to calm the theological differences.  The Book of Concord (1580), which contained the Formula of Concord, the Augsburg Confession and other creeds, became the theological foundation of Lutheranism.[11]

The establishment of a theological foundation for Lutheranism marked the beginning of Lutheran Orthodoxy, which lasted into the first quarter of the eighteenth century.  Orthodoxy became the dominant force within Lutheranism as it strove to continue the polemic battle with the Roman Catholic and Reformed theologians and to develop a system of church dogma for Lutheranism.  It was a theologically based movement that required strict adherence to the Lutheran confessions.  In theory, it held that theology and piety were equal,[12] but often the message preached from the pulpit, and the impression that the laity had, was absent of any emphasis on piety.  The main characteristics of Orthodoxy were Scholasticism, the imposition of intellectualism on Christianity, and the perception of an inadequate emphasis on ethics.  Scholasticism was the use of Aristotelian philosophy to categorise and systematise Church doctrine.  Based on the assumption of true doctrine based on inerrant scriptures, Scholasticism, together with a burning desire to defend the truth, necessarily resulted in conflict and controversy, with aggressive attacks from both the pulpit and the press.  The intellectualism in Christianity resulted in pastors rarely emphasising introspection.  Consequently, the laity assumed that salvation consisted of receiving the Word and Sacrament and adhering to the Lutheran Confessions.  The perceived weakness on ethical issues was due to theologians reluctance to place any emphasis at all on good works in fear that it may be misinterpreted by the laity as an aid to salvation instead of a result of salvation.  Contributing factors were the lack of courses on ethics during theological training, the supervision of many churches by morally unfit princes, and the coarsening of human life caused by the Thirty Years War.[13] As K. James Stein puts it,

In the interests of codifying the faith for its own adherents and defending them from the ravages of competitive theologies and philosophies, it [Orthodoxy] led unintentionally to a petrification of doctrine and an insensitive lack of touch with the emotional and ethical needs of many of its people.[14]

The inadequacy of Orthodoxy invited reaction and the first of these was a mystical reaction.  Men such as Stephan Praetorius (1536-1603), Valentine Weigel (1533-1588), Jakob Böhme (1575-1624), Johann Arndt (1555-1621), and Christian Hoburg (1607-1675) all emphasised a life changing appropriation of the divine which resulted in obedience to God.  They ranked the importance of this personal experience above church life or confessional purity.  In spite of this, they usually stayed within the Lutheran church, but they were often critical of contemporary church life, as well as the surrounding society.[15]

There was a also a theological reaction, such as that led by George Calixt (1586-1656).  He challenged the authority of the Lutheran Confessions by proposing that the consensus of the first five centuries of Christianity be the foundation of Christian theology.  He argued that the individual has the responsibility of co-operating with God in his or her own salvation.  This went against the doctrine of salvation by faith alone.  Finally, Calixt was involved in many ecumenical activities which contravened Orthodox confessionalism.  Though there was an unsuccessful attempt to force Calixt out of the Lutheran church and he was able to gain many supporters among some of the universities and nobility in the Holy Roman Empire.[16]

There were also calls for reform within Orthodoxy from princes such as Duke August the Younger of Braunschweig-Lüneberg (1597-1666), Georg II, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt (1605-1661), and Duke Ernst I, “the Pious,” of Saxe-Gotha (1601-1675), and from professors such as Balthasar Meisner (1587-1626), professor of theology at Wittenberg, Johann Valentin Andreae (1586-1654) of Tübingen University, and Johann Matthäus Meyfart (1590-1642), professor at Erfurt University.[17] Universities such as Rostock and Strassburg became centres that emphasised piety and called for reform of the church.  Even church hymns began to change from being corporate and confessional in nature to being personal and devotional in nature, such as those written by Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676).[18] However, in spite of the undercurrents of reform, Orthodoxy still dominated the context in which Pietism developed.

Pietism as a movement had its beginnings with Philipp Jakob Spener who was born on January 13, 1635 in Rappoltsweiler, a village in upper Alsace, northwest of what is present day Colmar, France.  He was raised by his devout Christian and pious parents, and influenced by his devout Christian godmother, Countess Rappoltstein (1585-1648) and the court preacher, and later brother-in-law, Joachim Stoll (1615-1678).  Spener was also profoundly influenced by devotional literature such as Lewis Bayly’s Practice of Piety, Emmanuel Sonthomb’s Golden Jewel, Know Yourself by Daniel Dycke, and Johann Arndt’s True Christianity.  Spener was tutored at home for grammar school due to a lack of Lutheran schools in the area.[19] He entered the University of Strassburg in 1651, completed a master’s degree in 1653[20] and his theological studies degree in 1659.[21] As was the custom in those days, he followed his university education with a period of student travel and study.  He travelled to Basel to study under the famed Hebraist Johann Buxfort II (1599-1664) from October 1659 to the summer of 1660.  At this stage of his career, Buxfort was encouraging Biblical interpretation without the presupposition of dogma.[22] Spener went next to Geneva, where he listened to the preaching of Jean de Labadie (1610-1674) a colourful French Reformed preacher, and former Roman Catholic, who called the people “to true belief and holy living.”[23] After a month long stop in Lyon, he returned home to Rappoltsweiler in May 1661.  He taught at Strassburg University during the winters of 1661-62 and 1662-63 and visited Stuttgart and Tübingen during the summer and fall interval of 1662.  In March of 1663 he accepted the position of “free preacher” in Strassburg.  He was a roving preacher with no pastoral care duties.[24] In August of that year, Spener entered the doctoral program at the University of Strassburg and received his doctorate on the afternoon of June 23, 1664.  The morning of that same day, he married Suzanne Ehrhardt (b.1644) who was to be his wife of forty years and, with whom, he would have eleven children.[25]

In February 1666, Spener received an unexpected call to be the senior pastor at Frankfurt-am-Main, a thriving commercial and publishing centre that was also an imperial free city.  Spener’s main duties in Frankfurt were preaching and supervision of the eleven Lutheran clergy.[26] Because he wanted the people to hear more of the Bible, he departed from the one year Lutheran lectionary and the requirement to preach only on the Gospel, and began preaching on Paul’s Epistles.[27] Spener also worked hard to further the development of a strong catechetical program.  He wanted pious living to be the goal of doctrinal teaching and he hoped to turn head knowledge into heart knowledge.[28] After encountering the ritual of confirmation in a nearby congregation, Spener became a great promoter of this rite.  During the ceremony, the confirmand would make a public profession of the vows that were made on his or her behalf at their infant baptism.  Spener also expected the confirmand to vow to live a Christian life.  Wherever confimation was not practiced, Spener sought to introduce it.  Where it existed, he sought to give it additional practical and pious meaning.  Because of Spener’s efforts, the rite of confirmation eventually spread throughout Lutheranism.[29]

In August of 1670, perhaps in response to Spener’s sermons, a small group of devout men approached Spener and asked if he would set up a small group meeting where like minded people could gather and share godly conversation.  The group, which became known as collegia pietatis (pious groups) began meeting twice a week in Spener’s home under his supervision.  They would begin with prayer, introduce a sermon summary, devotional reading, or Scriptural passage as the basis for discussion and then close with a hymn.  Though there were precedents for small group meetings within Lutheranism, these conventicles became a trademark of the Pietist movement.[30] The size of the first conventicle grew and eventually problems arose because of it.  There was suspicion amongst non-participants as to what took place at the meetings,  and the conventicles did not achieve all that Spener hoped that they would do.  Also, in some instances, the conventicles could breed a separatist tendency which could lead to a split in a congregation such as happened in Frankfurt in 1682.  Perhaps, because of this, Spener himself did not start any new conventicles after leaving Frankfurt.[31]

While in Frankfurt, Spener was asked to write an introduction to a collection of Johann Arndt’s sermons.  The result, in 1675, was Pia desideria[32] which made six proposals for reform.  First, there should be a greater emphasis and use of the Bible, including institute small group Bible studies.[33] Second, the priesthood of all believers should be implemented and practiced.[34] Third, the people must understand that knowledge of Christian doctrine is not enough, for Christianity consists of practice.[35] Fourth, unbelievers and heretics should be prayed for, corrected with loving admonition and led back to Christianity by living a godly example of the Christian life.  This approach should be used instead of disputation, polemics and virulent personal attacks.[36] Fifth, universities and schools, as the training centres for the church, should encourage godly, instead of worldly, living amongst their students.[37] Sixth, sermons should be written with the goal of instilling faith and its fruits in the listener to the greatest possible degree.[38] There was an overwhelmingly positive response to Spener’s Pia desideria,[39] and its publication marked the beginning of the Pietist movement.

In addition to the positive response to the beginnings of Pietism, there was also strong opposition.  Orthodoxy would not accept the dissatisfaction of Pietism with Lutheran Orthodoxy and the status quo or the possibility of separation, disorder, or diminished pastoral authority.  Some Pietist pastors were forced out of their parishes and, in 1679, a pamphlet war erupted between the Pietist and Orthodox Lutherans.[40] Spener was investigated in 1677 and censured the next year.  As mentioned above, a separation from the Frankfurt congregation occurred in 1682.  In the spring of 1686, Spener accepted a call to become the preacher at the court of Saxon Elector Johann Georg III at Dresden.[41]

Shortly after Spener’s arrival at Dresden in the summer of 1686, and unknown to him, a group of students at nearby Leipzig University, led by August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) and Paul Anton (1661-1730) formed a conventicle.  Franke’s father was court counsellor to Duke Ernst the Pious and  Francke had been raised by pious parents in a pious city.[42] He received his master’s degree from Leipzig University in 1685, and then began lecturing there. In 1687, he went to Lüneburg for further study.  While there, he underwent a conversion experience and received the complete faith in God that he had been praying for.[43] He left Lüneburg during Lent of 1688 to go to Hamburg, where he gained experience working with poor and orphaned children.  He returned to Leipzig in December of 1688.[44] At Spener’s invitation, he spent the first two months of 1689 in the Spener home before returning to Leipzig to begin lecturing on the Bible.  At the university, Francke attacked academic disputations, criticized the lack of biblical content in the university’s theological studies program, criticized the flowery and empty language of contemporary homiletic practice, advised students to take Bible courses instead of philosophy courses, and used often used the vernacular German instead of the standard academic Latin in his lectures.  In response to Francke’s activities, there was increased attendance at Bible lectures and a number of students committed to the Christian lifestyle.[45] The theological faculty reacted by condemning those who de-emphasised the articles of faith and oratorical preaching style, and emphasized only piety and they also complained to the elector.  The faculty commission examined Francke and Anton and terminated their lectures in late 1689.  On March 10, 1690, the Saxon government forbade conventicles.  Spener tried to lobby in favour of the young pietists, but he was ignored.[46]

In late 1689, Francke’s uncle died, and he left Leipzig to go home for a while.  He accepted a call into the pastoral ministry at Erfurt and was ordained on June 2, 1690.  The senior pastor at Erfurt, Joachim Justus Breithaupt (1658-1732), put Francke in charge of catechetical instruction and soon his classes were overwhelmed with students.  Other pastors, competing for students in their private catechetical classes, were upset and charges of trouble making soon followed.  Francke was charged with distributing heretical literature, but this charge was later rescinded.  (He was in the practice of handing out New Testaments and Johann Arndt’s True Christianity.)  However, when Roman Catholics began requesting transfers to the Lutheran Church, he came under fire from both Lutheran and Roman Catholic authorities.  He was given forty-eight hours to leave the city and he did so on September 27, 1691.[47]

Meanwhile, Spener, because of his criticism of the Saxon elector’s less than saintly lifestyle, had fallen into disfavour in the court.  Elector Johann Georg III found him a new position as inspector of the country churches around Berlin and Spener left Dresden in June 1691.[48] The situation in Berlin, the capital of Brandenburg-Prussia, was very different than that in Dresden.  The elector, Friedrich III, was a Calvinist, not a Lutheran as Johann Georg III had been, and, as a result, was much more tolerant that the Orthodox Lutheran clergy and nobility would have liked.  Spener was very influential at the elector’s court for he was well liked by Friedrich and had strong sympathizers among the leading men in government.  One of these sympathizers, Baron Carl Hildebrand von Canstein (1667-1719), became an important ally for the Pietist cause in Branden-Prussia.[49] Spener’s influence at court enabled him to further the cause of Pietism and win supporter in all three social classes.[50] Pietism had spread, by 1690, throughout Lutheranism, especially in Northern Germany.  However, authorities began to clamp down on “this dreaded new and dangerous movement,”[51] and by 1691, Pietists were embattled throughout Germany.  Through Spener’s influence, Friedrich offered the Pietists asylum in Brandenburg-Prussia.[52]

On June 24, 1691, Elector Friedrich decreed that there would be a new university in nearby Halle.  Christian Thomasius (1655-1728), a former professor of law at Leipzig who had supported Francke and Anton in 1689-90, was appointed professor of law at Halle.  Spener used his influence to get Joachim Breithaupt appointed as the first professor of theology.  Breithaupt, as a professor and the senior pastor in Erfurt, had supported Francke during his time as a pastor there.[53] In December of 1691, Francke himself was called to Halle as professor of Greek and Oriental languages and, also, pastor of St. George’s Church in nearby Glaucha.  He would remain at Halle until his death in 1727.[54] Instruction at Halle was biblically based with a parallel emphasis on a pious and missional lifestyle.[55] It would become known around the world as a centre for Pietism as many students from all over the world flocked to Halle[56] and, after their training there, spread throughout Germany and the world and took their Pietist enthusiasm and dedication with them.[57]

It was also at Halle that Francke began developing the Stiftungen (institutions) that became so identified with Pietism.  He had been giving bread to the poor and it occurred to him that he should be giving them the bread of life as well.  In July 1694, just a month after getting married, he began inviting the poor into his home and giving catechetical instruction to young and old.[58] In 1695, he used a large donation in the poor box to start a school for poor children.[59] He started an orphanage in 1696 and, later, a hospital, a bookstore, a home for widows, a library, a bakery, a brewery, and an art museum.[60] With the aid of Baron von Canstein, a print shop for printing Bibles was started in 1697.  Later, in October 1710, a Bible Institute, the world’s first Bible Society, was created.  By 1719, the Bible Institute had published 80,000 Bibles and 100,000 New Testaments.  By 1800, the Bible Institute at Halle had published 2,770,282 Bibles and sections of the Bible.[61]

Francke not only developed Pietist institutions that helped meet the social needs of the people of the time, he also had a missionary spirit.  He had a relationship with the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) as early as 1698.  When King George I of England requested a new court preacher, Francke hand picked Anton Wilhelm Boehm for the position.  Boehm soon became a prominent member of the SPCK and, soon, Francke was corresponding with other members of the SPCK throughout the world, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Tenison, and the famous Puritan preacher of America, Cotton Maher.  Francke was asked to send educators to England to develop a school based on the Halle model.[62] When the Danish wanted to send missionaries to their trading post in Tranquebar, India, they turned to Halle, who sent two, at first, and, later, eight more.  Halle also sent the money, medicine, books and equipment necessary to establish many of the same institutions that were developed at Halle.  Swedish soldiers carried devotional booklets written by Francke and printed at Halle.  When Francke learned of an awakening among the Swedish, he sent booklets, money and medicine to them in response.[63]

Spener died in 1705 and Francke in 1727, but the Pietist movement did not die with them.  Leaders such as Count Nicholas Ludwig von Zinzendorf and the Moravian Brethren at Herrnhut,[64] John Wesley and the Methodists[65] and, later, Han Nielsen Hauge among the Lutherans in Norway[66] continued to spread the influence of Pietism.  Wherever it spread it was marked by certain specific characteristics.  First, it represented a clear change in direction toward an introspective, emotional and enthusiastic form of Christianity, and reacted against Orthodoxy’s emphasis on scholastic disputation and dogma.  Second, it placed an emphasis on a more practical Christianity that resulted in godly behaviour, philanthropic behaviour and missionary zeal.  Third, it emphasized the priesthood of all believers and the participation of both laity and clergy in religious life, thus closing the gap between the two groups.[67]

Pietism developed as a movement of spiritual renewal.  The Orthodoxy of the time did not fan the spark of faith within individuals.  It demanded intellectual assent, yet neglected to reach people on an emotional level.  Its reluctance to support good works in any way led to de-emphasis on ethical and moral behaviour.  This, in turn, resulted in lax morality among the laity.  Spener responded to the situation by writing Pia desideria.  However, his motivation, and the reason for the birth of Pietism, was his concern over the spiritual welfare of the people.  Pietism was not a social movement or a nationalist movement.  It was first, and foremost, a spiritual movement.  As Spener himself says,

Our whole Christian religion consists of the inner man or the new man, whose soul is faith and whose expressions are the fruits of life, and all sermons should be aimed at this.  On the one hand, the precious benefactions of God, which are directed toward this inner man, should be presented in such a way that faith, and hence the inner man, may ever be strengthened more and more.  On the other hand, works should be so set in motion that we may by no means be content merely to have the people refrain from outward vices and practice outward virtues and thus be concerned only with the outward man, which the ethics of the heathen can also accomplish, but that we lay the right foundation in the heart, show that what does not proceed from this foundation is mere hypocrisy, and hence accustom the people first to work on what is inward (awaken love of God and neighbor through suitable means) and only then to act accordingly.[68]

The concern for one’s neighbour and godly lifestyle that Spener hoped to see was not the desired goal, but an expected result of the desired goal.  The desired goal was the individual’s personal salvation.  “Good works are not the cause of salvation,”[69] nor are they necessary for salvation.  Good works are a result of the gratitude that one feels for one’s own salvation by grace.  Good works are a necessary result of salvation.[70] As Spener writes,

How many there are who live such a manifestly unchristian life that they themselves cannot deny that the law is broken at every point, who have no intention of mending their ways in the future, and yet who pretend to be firmly convinced that they will be saved in spite of all this!  If one asks on what they base their expectation one will discover, as they themselves confess, that they are sure of this because it is of course not possible to be saved on account of one’s life, but that they believe in Christ and put all their trust in him, that this cannot fail, and that they will surely be saved by such faith.  Accordingly they have a fleshly illusion of faith (for godly faith does not exist without the Holy Spirit, nor can such faith continue when deliberate sins prevail) in place of the faith that saves.  This is a delusion of the devil, as terrible as any error ever has been or can be, to ascribe salvation to such a fancy of secure man.[71]

As Christianity struggles to be relevant in a changing world and, also, faithful to God, perhaps something could be learned from a look at the history of Pietism.  After all, concern over people’s spiritual salvation should be Christianity’s first and foremost priority.


Aarflot, Andreas.  Hans Nielsen Hauge.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1979.

Chadwick, Owen.  The Reformation.  London:  Penguin, 1972.

Fulbrook, Mary. Piety and Politics:  Religions and the Rise of Absolutism in England, Württemberg and Prussia.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1983.

González, Justo L.  The Story of Christianity:  Volume 2 The Reformation to the Present Day. New York:  Harper Collins, 1885.

Mezezers, Valdis.  The Herrnhuterian Pietism in the Baltic:  and Its Outreach into America and Elsewhere in the World.  North Quincy, Mass.:  Christopher Publishing House, 1975.

Pinson, Koppel S.  Pietism as a Factor in the Rise of German Nationalism.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1934.

Sattler, Gary R.  God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good:  A Brief Introduction to the Life and Writings of August Hermann Francke.  Chicago:  Covenant Press, 1982.

Spener, Philipp Jakob.  Pia Desideria.  Translated by Theodore G. Tappert.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1964.

Stein, K. James.  Philipp Jakob Spener:  Pietist Patriarch.  Chicago:  Covenant Press, 1986.

[1] F. E. Stoeffler, “Pietism:  Its Message, Early Manifestations, and Significance,” The Covenant Quarterly, February/May, 1976, p. 10, cited in Gary R. Sattler, God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good:  A Brief Introduction to the Life and Writings of August Hermann Francke, (Chicago:  Covenant Press, 1982),  p. 14.

[2] Sattler, p. 104.

[3] Sattler, p. 101.

[4] Stoeffler, cited in Sattler, p. 14.

[5] Stoeffler, cited in Sattler, p. 14.

[6] Mary Fulbrook, Piety and Politics:  Religions and the Rise of Absolutism in England, Württemberg and Prussia, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 29-30.

[7] Fulbrook, p. 35.

[8] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity:  Volume 2 The Reformation to the Present Day, (New York:  Harper Collins, 1885), p. 52.

[9] Owen Chadwick, The Reformation, (London:  Penguin, 1972), pp. 268-269.

[10] K. James Stein, Philipp Jakob Spener:  Pietist Patriarch, (Chicago:  Covenant Press, 1986), p. 19.

[11] Stein, p. 20.

[12] Stein, p. 20.

[13] Stein, pp. 20-22. (cf. Koppel S. Pinson, Pietism as a Factor in the Rise of German Nationalism, (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1934) pp. 38-41.)

[14] Stein, p. 22.

[15] Stein, p. 23.

[16] Stein, pp. 24-25.

[17] Stein, pp. 25-26.

[18] Stein, pp. 26-28.

[19] Stein, pp. 35-36.

[20] Stein, p. 47.

[21] Stein, p. 55.

[22] Stein, p. 57

[23] Stien, p. 58.

[24] Stein, p. 61-64.

[25] Stein, pp. 65-71.

[26] Stein, pp. 73-77.

[27] Stein, p. 78.

[28] Stein, pp. 80-83.

[29] Stein, pp. 84-85.

[30] Stein, pp. 85-86.

[31] Stein, pp. 88-93.

[32] Stein, pp. 93-94.

[33] Philipp Jakob Spener, Pia Desideria, translated by Theodore G. Tappert, (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1964), pp. 87-91.

[34] Spener, pp. 92-95.

[35] Spener, pp. 95-96.

[36] Spener, p. 97.

[37] Spener, p. 103.

[38] Spener, pp. 115-117.

[39] Stein, p. 102.

[40] Stein, p. 103.

[41] Stein, pp. 104-107.

[42] Sattler, pp. 19-20.

[43] Sattler, pp. 24-29.

[44] Sattler, p. 34.

[45] Stein, pp. 114-117.

[46] Stein, pp. 117-120.

[47] Sattler, pp. 36-37.

[48] Stein, pp. 124-125.

[49] Stein, pp. 127-129.

[50] Stein, p. 130.

[51] Sattler, p. 35.

[52] Stein, p. 130.

[53] Stein, p. 130.

[54] Sattler, p. 38-39, and Stein, p. 130.

[55] Stein, p. 131.

[56] Sattler, p. 76.

[57] Sattler, p. 69.

[58] Sattler, p. 47.

[59] Sattler, p. 50, and Stein, p. 131.

[60] Stein, p. 131.

[61] Sattler, pp. 84-88.

[62] Sattler, pp. 78-79.

[63] Sattler, pp. 77-78. (cf. Stein, p. 132.)

[64]Valdis Mezezers, The Herrnhuterian Pietism in the Baltic:  and Its Outreach into America and Elsewhere in the World, (North Quincy, Mass.:  Christopher Publishing House, 1975), pp. 69-73, 101-108.

[65] González, pp. 209-216.

[66] Andreas Aarflot, Hans Nielsen Hauge, (Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1979).

[67] Pinson, p. 14.

[68] Spener, pp. 116-117.

[69] Stein, p. 174.

[70] Stein, p. 174.

[71] Spener, p. 64.

The Christian and Islamic Response to Averroism

(This essay was written for History 205.3, University of Saskatchewan, 1 April 1999)

In the twelfth century in Muslim Spain, and the next century in Christian Europe, the established religion faced a serious challenge from a new way of thinking.  In both cases, the main thrust of the challenge was the body of work by the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle.  However, the challenge was sharpened because of the interpretations put on Aristotle’s work by the Islamic philosophers and commentators.  Of these, none is more famous that Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), or Averroes, as he is known in the Latin West.  His extensive commentaries were translated and flowed into Christian Europe at the same time that the majority of Aristotle’s work was arriving there for the first time.  As a result, Ibn Rushd’s commentaries often shaped Christian Europe’s understanding of Aristotle.  Rushd’s ideas threatened to rip philosophy from her moorings in the faith (both Christian and Islamic) and change her into an independent challenger of the faith.[1]

This essay will look at the challenge faced by Islam and Christianity, how they responded to the challenge and the results.  Work by Ibn Rushd and his ideological opponent al-Ghazzali will be used as source material for this essay.  Because Christianity at a very early stage, adopted a very syncretic approach towards useful pagan ideas and literature, Christianity did not condemn all speculative philosophical pursuit as the Muslims did.

To properly understand the Islamic context that Averroism came out of, some background information is needed.  In Islam, religion and law are not separate but are one. The two religious sciences of Islam are fiqh, jurisprudence, and kalam, or systematic theology. The Islamic concept of fiqh details the individual’s rights, duties and responsibilities to others humans and to God as outlined by God. In determining fiqh, Islamic scholars use the following sources in order of authority:  1) the Qur’an, 2) Muhammad’s sunna, or patterns of action, and the ahadith, or the oral traditions about Muhammad’s every day life, 3) qiyas, or analogical reasoning from the Qur’an, and 4) ijma’, or consensus.[2] When considering ambiguous or contradictory situations, Muslim scholars were aware that they might impose a personal bias.  The Sunni, or orthodox, tradition of Islam, discounted the possibility of one person being able to speak authoritatively on such matters.  On tradition teaches that Muhammad said, “My community reaches no agreement that is an error.”  Therefore, any interpretations that the Sunni scholars had agreed upon was to be accepted as authoritative.  Further, ijma’ is based upon precedent, so if a group of scholars had dealt with the same issue in the past, that must be used as the basis for one’s future decision.  The use of ijma’ as a source for fiqh makes it a potential dynamic force for change but it also has conservative, even repressive tendencies as well.  In the tenth century, the Sunni Moslems decided, through consensus, that the Islamic fiqh was fixed and no longer open to questioning.[3] This background is important because Ibn Rushd invokes the concept of consensus in defence of the views of the philosophers against the attacks of al-Ghazzali (1058-1111).

Islamic systematic theology arose out of a series of challenges to traditional Islamic thought from Hellenistic Muslim theologians and philosophers.  The first wave took place in the eighth century and was followed by a second, and more sustained, wave in the tenth and eleventh centuries.  During this second wave, Islamic philosophers worked to reconcile Islamic theology with Greek thought.  Drawing upon Aristotelian and Neoplatonic concepts, the Islamic philosophers developed complicated concepts of being.  They posited that the universe was a series of cosmic spheres around the earth emanating from God, each caused by the sphere above.  The last sphere is the sub-lunar sphere within which corruption and change does take place, but all the other spheres are pristine, eternal, unchanging and incorruptible.  Arising from this concept of emanation was the conclusion that the world was eternal.  Since God as the cause of the world is eternal, then the world, as the result, must also be eternal.[4]

Al-Ghazzali, in defence of orthodoxy, sets out to attack the views of the Islamic philosophers.  In discussing the problematic aspects of philosophy, he divides it up into six component parts:  logic, natural science, ethics, politics, mathematics and theology (or metaphysics).  Of the first five, al-Ghazzali says that though the philosophers have made errors, some of which are detrimental to the faith, the whole component should not be condemned because of it.  However, regarding the component of theology, al-Ghazzali is complete in his condemnation.  He charges the philosophers of departing from three important Islamic doctrines:  1) He accuses them of denying a physical resurrection.  2) He accuses them of stating that “God knows universals, but not particulars.”  If this were the case, then God would be unable, for example, to answer petitional prayer or be concerned about the welfare of individuals.  3) He accuses the philosophers of saying that the world is eternal.  On other matters, al-Ghazzali says that the ideas of the philosophers depart from mainstream Islamic thought, but they should not be considered infidels on the basis of these other ideas.[5]

Having outlined his opposition to the Islamic philosophers, al-Ghazzali goes on to call for the cessation of all similar philosophical inquiry.  He reasons that men of weaker intellects are not able to discern truth from falsehood in the work of the philosophers.  They are more likely to believe that the entire teaching of a philosopher is true and accept it all rather than go through it and sort truth from falsity.  The reverse situation is also considered dangerous by al-Ghazzali, for opponents will often reject all of the teaching of a philosopher and not sort falsity from truth.[6] Because of the risk of the acceptance of error by partisans and the rejection of truth by opponents, Al-Ghazzali says, “It is therefore necessary, I maintain, to shut the gate so as to keep the general public from reading the book of the misguided as far as possible.”[7]

al-Ghazzali’s call “to shut the gate” contrasts significantly with the reaction by the church to the introduction of similar ideas in the thirteenth century at the University of Paris.  Whereas al-Ghazzali called for a complete stop to philosophical inquiry, Stephen Tempier, the Bishop of Paris, specifically lists the ideas that are condemned.  It is true that persons who taught or listened to such ideas were also condemned, along with a specific list of books, but there was not a call “to shut the gate” and eliminate all philosophical inquiry.[8]

The reason for Christianity’s marginally, but very significantly, different response lies in the work of the Patristic Fathers. Using the gospel of John, Greek philosophy like Stoicism, and the work of Philo, the leaders of the Patristic Age, such as Athanasius (c. 298-373), use the Greek concept of the Divine Logos to develop their own concept of the Logos that centred upon the person of Jesus Christ.  Based upon the fact the Greek word logos can mean both reason, or word, the early Christian Fathers concluded that the Divine Reason (Logos) of the Greek philosophers, the Word (Logos) of God in John chapter one, and Jesus Christ are all one and the same.  Further, these early Christian philosophers concluded, when God created the world and all that is in it out of nothing through the Logos, His Son, Jesus Christ, he implanted with a small portion of the Logos so that he would have Reason.[9] As a result of this reasoning, apologists such as Justin Martyr (c. 100-165) argue that Christianity, through the Logos, the Son of God, possesses the truth.  Whatever truth non-Christian philosophers, poets and prose writers know, they know through the use of the divine Logos.  However, whatever truth they know is incomplete, for they only possess the “seed” of the Logos.  Christians, on the other hand, know the truth more fully, for they know, love and worship the revealed Logos, Jesus Christ.[10]

Augustine (354-430) makes further use of this idea that Christians are the rightful owners of the truth to lay out what he believes is the correct approach in a Christian education.  Augustine supports the prudent use of pagan literature and music within Christian education, saying,

We ought not to give up music because of the superstition of the heathen,….  We ought not to refuse to learn letters because they say that Mercury discovered them; nor because they have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue,…. ought we on that account to forsake justice and virtue.  Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that whatever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master; and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of a superstition.[11]

Though use of pagan sources of truth is permitted, Augustine makes it clear that they should not be valued in and of themselves.  He emphasises that no man is wise unless he gives credit to God as the source of all truth.[12]

The Augustinian model of education, using pagan literature to come to a deeper understanding of the wisdom in the Christian Scriptures, was the model used by the cathedral schools of the twelfth century and the early universities of the late 1100’s and early 1200’s.  The seven liberal arts (dialectic, rhetoric and grammar in the trivium, and music, astronomy, geometry and arithmetic in the quadrivium) along with other subjects such as geography, geology, botany and mechanical arts all became part of the faculties of arts in the thirteenth century universities.  The faculty of arts at a medieval university was a preparatory education for the higher sciences of law, medicine and, most notably, theology.[13] Because Christianity had a long and sustained history of taking pagan ideas and co-opting them for its own purposes, and it did not reject all pagan philosophy and pagan philosophical ideas.  Instead, it rejected only the specific ideas which were considered heretical.[14]

The situation is quite different in the Islamic world.  The bounds within a Muslim may act are clearly defined in the fiqh.  As mentioned above, in the Sunni tradition, which the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258) adhered to, the fiqh was declared closed in the tenth century.  Against such a rigid system, any pagan elements are only tenuously tolerated and never incorporated into mainstream Moslem thought.  Any individual who is pushing the bounds of orthodoxy must rely upon the goodwill of the local sultan.  If the conservative orthodox party ever convinces the sultan of the rightness of their cause, the so-called heretic and their entire life’s work can easily be banished.[15]

Ab­u al-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd was born in Cordoba in 1126, and received a traditional education in Islamic jurisprudence [fiqh] and theology [kalam]  as well as philosophy, medicine, literature and rhetoric.[16] He was introduced by Ibn Tufayl to the Almohad Sultan, Abu Ya’qub Yusuf, in 1153.  The Sultan was looking for someone to create a commentary on Aristotle and Ibn Rushd was charged with the task.[17]

In “Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy,” Ibn Rushd explains that the concept that the world is eternal does not contradict Islamic thought.  He believes that the whole world is of a class of being that “is not made from anything and not preceded by time, but which is brought into existence by something, i.e. by an agent.”[18] He argues that his position is not much different than that of the creationists for he, like them, believes that the world was not pre-eternal, that is, that it did not exist before time.  He also believes, like them, that the world has a cause.  He believes that the world came into being at the beginning of time but, where he markedly differs from the creationist, he, like Aristotle, believes that past time, like future time, is infinite.  With this only difference, he believes that his position is not that much different from the creationists.[19]

Ibn Rushd also defends the philosophers against the charge that they believe that God does not know particulars.  He response states that God knows particulars in a way that we can never know for we only know objects in terms of effects, that is, the object that we sense is only the effect from a cause.  God on the other hand, knows the object as its cause.  These two types of knowledge are separate and distinct and cannot be classified together.  In the same way, God knows universals as their cause, while we merely know universals in terms of their effects.  Furthermore, it can be shown that God does act in relation to individuals (which are particulars) by the fact that God gives divine messages to individual people in the form of dreams.  Ibn Rushd concludes his defence of this doctrine by saying, “Thus the conclusion to which demonstration leads is that His Knowledge transcends qualification as ‘universal’ or ‘particular.’  Consequently there is no point in disputing about this question.”[20]

Ibn Rushd is perhaps best known for his doctrine of the intellect.  In the interests of accuracy and clarity a quotation from Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh is used to describe the doctrine:

Like earlier Muslims, he [Ibn Rushd (Averroes)] tried to give precision to the various intellects of which Aristotle had spoken in his De Anima or which the commentators had found implied in Aristotle’s words.  Averroes [Ibn Rushd] agreed with other Muslims in identifying the Agent Intellect, required as an efficient cause for thinking, with the lowest of the intelligences, namely that which governs the sublunar sphere…  But in describing the passive or material intellect he formulated a doctrine of his own…. Averroes [Ibn Rushd] held that the passive intellect, like any intellectual principle, must be immaterial and universal, that is, it must be common to all men…. It follows from Averroes’ description that when the passive intellect becomes actualized, it remains one for all men and that immortality, therefore, is general, not particular.  Knowledge becomes particular through phantasms which accompany it in the imagination of everyone who knows.[21]

It is this doctrine of a universal intellect that is generally condemned by Christian sources as counter to the concept of individual immortality, or individual resurrection.[22] However, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam maintains that this is nothing different than the common “Neoplatonic concept that true knowledge consists in the identity of the knower with the known.”[23] Though it became an infamous philosophical concept, it is commonly known and held in Sufism, Islamic mysticism.[24]

In “Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy,” Ibn Rushd defends the pursuit of speculative philosophy, saying that it is allowed within Islam and that the conclusions reached by the philosophers are within the bounds of Islamic orthodoxy.  Rushd  seeks to formalise such inquiry within the realm of Islam by lobbying for what is essentially a reopening of the fiqh.  He states that in areas where the unanimity (ijma) of the Moslem scholars was arrived at by using analogy or opinion for premises, or results in a symbolic answer, or the method was questionable, then the conclusion reached is not certain.  In such cases, the philosophers have a duty to use the demonstrative method to determine the true interpretation of Scripture.[25] Further, Rushd states that religious truth and demonstrative truth do not conflict with each other.  If there is a seeming conflict, then it is permissible within Islam to use an allegorical interpretation of  Scripture to reconcile the two.[26]

Ibn Rushd cautions that allegorical interpretation should be the domain of only the intellectual elite.  He classifies people into three groups:  1)  The rhetorical class – These people have the ability to use the rhetorical method, but they must not be given the opportunity to do any interpreting of the Scriptures.  Most of the people are in this category.  2)  The dialectical class – These people are dialecticians by nature, or by habit and nature.  3)  The demonstrative class – These people are certain of their interpretation and become part of this class by nature and training (philosophy).  He goes on to say that allegorical interpretations should not be shared by the demonstrative class with the dialectical class or the rhetorical class.  For the allegorical interpretation requires the rejection of the literal interpretation and acceptance of the allegorical interpretation.  If the first happens without the latter then the result is unbelief.[27]

In the late twelfth century, the advancing Christian armies caused a change of fortune for Ibn Rushd.  In 1190, the Portuguese succeeded in taking Silves and they were threatening to take Seville.  The Sultan, in response, declares a holy war against the Christians and wins a major victory against allied Christian forces at Alarcos near Badajoz in 1195.  However, in order to gain the support of the religious conservatives, the Sultan cut his ties with several individuals, including Ibn Rushd, who was exiled to the small town of Lucena, south of Cordoba.  Prominent supporters of his in Seville immediately began campaigning for his reinstatement.  Two or three years later he was reinstated to the Sultan’s court in Marrakesh where he died in 1198.[28]

Through the work of various translators working from Greek[29] and Arabic texts, the whole body of Aristotle’s work was made available in the Latin West by 1150.  Prior to the twelfth century, the only portion of Aristotle’s work that was available was the “old logic.”  These were Boethius’ translations of, introductions to and commentaries on Aristotle’s Categories and On Interpretation.  Boethius had translated other works of Aristotle but these had either been lost or ignored.[30] Perhaps just as significant as the translations of Aristotle’s texts were the body of commentaries that flowed into the Latin West from the Muslim territory on the Iberian peninsula.[31] As Aristotle’s metaphysical philosophy and the associated commentaries were made available, they began to have a profound effect upon Western religious thought.  All in all, some scholars were amazed at Aristotle’s brilliance while others were shaken by the seeming incompatibility of some of his teachings with Christianity.[32]

Reaction was not long in coming.  Reading Aristotle’s ‘natural philosophy’ in Paris was forbidden by the Provincial Court of Sens in 1210, and in 1215, by papal legate Robert de Courçon.  In 1231, Pope Gregory IX appointed a commission to make corrections to the prohibited books.  However, one of the members of the commission died soon after it was called and, as a result, the commission never met.  Pope Gregory’s action in appointing the commission was seen by many as an admission that Aristotle’s work was only partly incorrect. Bit by bit, the ban was ignored and by 1255 all of Aristotle’s work was prescribed material at the University of Paris.[33] Within ten years, there were faculty members at the University of Paris, led by Siger of Brabant, that were teaching Aristotelian doctrine that ran counter to Christian doctrines.[34] These Latin Averroists began to pursue philosophical inquiry quite without any regard for the teachings of the church.  As secular philosophers they were teaching doctrines such as the unity of the passive intellect, the eternity of the world, determinism, the non-existence of human free will and collective immortality, even though these doctrines clearly contravened church doctrine.[35]

The impact of Aristotelian thought had a profound effect on Christian philosophers, both the orthodox and the heterodox.  For example, Aristotle had taught that the soul was not an ordinary material form for matter was not necessary for thought and, also, ordinary material does not persist after death.[36] Boethius of Dacia, believed that the souls was a material form of a very weak substance that must cease to exist if it stops informing its body.  Boethius of Dacia did leave the door open slightly to allow for the possibility of the soul surviving death, but he did not clarify how this could happen.  Aquinas provided an explanation for a soul surviving after death by saying that it would survive but would be incomplete without matter.  Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia disregarded Aquinas’ concept.[37]

Regarding the conflict of faith and science, Aquinas held that there is a single unified system of knowledge and there are no “double truths,” or “two truths.”  Any conflicts that seem to arise are due to errors in the scientific argument.  On the other hand, it is no surprise to Boethius of Dacia that there would be conflicts between faith and science.  That is just what he expects from scientific metaphysics which can be used to show the existence of a First Cause, but can discover nothing about how it uses its powers.  Thus he concedes scripture without denying any scientific theorems.  In the conflict between Christianity and philosophy, Siger of Brabant believed that philosophy was correct, but that if Scripture were properly demythologised it could be reconciled with philosophical truth.[38]

The problems of Latin Averroism, as it related to Christianity, were pointed out by Bonaventure (1221-1274) during his Lenten sermons in the 1260’s and the 1270’s.  First, the teaching of a universal human intellect implied that there was no personal immortality and it denied personal moral responsibility.  Second, the teaching that the world was eternal made it independent of divine creation and denied God’s concern for individuals.  Third, Averroism was teaching that philosophy should be conducted independently of religion and that it was a source of supreme truth separate from religion. [39]

In 1256, Pope Alexander IV asked Albert the Great (c.1206-1280) to look into the issue.  He responded by reacting against Averroism, as did both Bonaventure and Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274).  In 1270, Stephen Tempier, the Bishop of Paris condemned a list of errors that were being taught at the University of Paris.  The list of errors included teaching that the world was eternal, that there was not human free will, that the human intellect was universal, and that God was not able to act providentially.[40] In 1277, a more comprehensive list was issued by the Bishop and it threatened with excommunication anyone who taught or listened to such teachings.  Included on this list of errors was the teaching of a “double truth.”[41]

The aftermath of the crisis lasted about a decade during which time even the late Thomas Aquinas was nearly condemned.  However, the storm eventually blew over and a new appreciation arose for Aquinas’ work.  He was canonised in 1323 and his work became very influential during and after the Catholic Reformation.  A period of diminished popularity followed, but a greater emphasis on Aquinas arose again in the nineteenth century[42] when Pope Leo XIII exhorted all Roman Catholics to, “in all earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas and to spread it far and wide for the defence and beauty of the Catholic faith, for the good of society, and for the advantage of all the sciences.”[43]

Christianity survived the crisis caused by the introduction of Averroism and was able to, largely through the work of Thomas Aquinas, create a synthesis of Christian theology and Aristotelian thought to create a comprehensive systematic Christian theology.  Not only Christian theology, but also science benefited immensely from the introduction of Aristotle’s thought and the implementation of the empirical method.   Christian Europe was not able to permanently prevent philosophy from casting off its subservience to theology, but it was able to delay it for several centuries.  During that time, Aristotelian thought continued percolating beneath the surface, until the creative tension between science and faith boiled over in periods of creativity like the Reformations in the sixteenth century and the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century.  In contrast, the Muslim world remained relatively unchanged intellectually until it re-established contact with the western world.[44] Both orthodox Islam and orthodox Christianity felt very threatened some of the ideas that were developing out of Aristotelian thought.  But because, in the Christian world, the church was able to reharness the philosophers and condemn only the ideas and not the whole process, Aristotelian thought remained and formed the basis for the systemisation of theological thought, as well as in the emerging sciences.  In the Islamic world, they quashed the whole thing.  That has made all the difference!


Primary sources:

Aeterni Patris.”  Papal encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII.  1879.  From J. Maritain.  St. Thomas Aquinas.  New York:  [no publishing firm given], 1958), p. 208, cited in Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 473.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973..

al-Ghazzali.  “The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazzali.”  Translated by W. M. Watt.  In Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 265-281.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973.

Athanasius.  “De Incarnatione.”  3.  In The Early Christian Fathers, edited by Henry Bettenson, 274-275.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1956.

Augustine of Hippo.  “On Christian Doctrine.”  In Readings in Medieval History, editied by Patrick J. Geary, second edition, 28-46.  Peterborough, Ont.:  Broadview Press, 1997.

Averroes (Ibn Rushd).  “Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy.”  Translated by G.F. Hourani. In Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 287-306.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973.

Averroes (Ibn Rushd).  “Long Commentary on De Anima.”  Translated by Arthur Hyman.  In Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 314-325.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973.

“Condemnation of 219 Propositions.”  Translated by E. L. Fortin and P. D. O’Neill. In Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 542-549.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973.

Justin Martyr.  “Apologia.”  2.13.  In The Early Christian Fathers:  A selection from the writings of the Fathers from St. Clement of Rome to St. Athanasius, edited and translated by Henry Bettenson, 63-64.  Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1956.

Secondary sources:

Brown, Stephen.  “The intellectual context of later medieval philosophy:  universities, Artistotle, arts, theology.” In Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, 188-203.  Vol. 3 of Routledge History of Philosophy, 10 volumes, G. H. R. Parkinson and S. G. Shanker, reitors.  London:  Routledge, 1998.

Butterworth, Charles E., editor.  Averroes Three Short Commentaries on Aristotle’s “Topics,” “Rhetoric,” and “Poetics.” Translated by Charles E. Butterworth.  Albany, N. Y.:  State University of New York Press, 1977.

Cantor, Norman F.  The Civilization of the Middle Ages.  New York:  Harper Collins, 1993.

Davies, Brian, OP.  “Thomas Aquinas.”  In Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, 241-268.  Vol. 3 of Routledge History of Philosophy. 10 volumes.  G. H. R. Parkinson and S. G. Shanker, editors.  London:  Routledge, 1998.

Ebbesen, Sten.  “The Paris arts faculty:  Siger of Brabant, Boethius of Dacia, Radulphus Brito.”  In Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, 269-290.  Vol. 3 of Routledge History of Philosophy, 10 volumes, G. H. R. Parkinson and S. G. Shanker, editors.  London:  Routledge, 1998.

Hyman, Arthur and James J. Walsh, editors. Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions.  Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973.

Marenbon, John.  “Bonaventure, the German Dominicans and the new translators.”  In Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, 225-240. Vol. 3 of Routledge History of Philosophy, 10 volumes, G. H. R. Parkinson and S. G. Shanker, editors.  London:  Routledge, 1998.

Marenbon, John, editor.  Medieval Philosophy.  Vol. 3 of Routledge History of Philosophy, 10 volumes, G. H. R. Parkinson and S. G. Shanker, editors.  London:  Routledge, 1998.

Nielson, Niels C., Jr., general editor.  Religions of the World.  Third edition.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

Urvoy, Dominique.  Ibn Rushd (Averroes).  Translated by Olivia Stewart.  London:  Routledge, 1991.

Scholarly reference books:

Cooper, J. C., editor.  Cassell Dictionary of Christianity.  London:  Cassell, 1996.

Glassé, Cyril, editor.  The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam.  “Ibn Rushd, Abu-i-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad.”  174-175.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1989.

Livingstone, E. A., editor.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Third edition.  “Averroism.”  137.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997.

Strayer, Joseph R., editor.  Dictionary of the Middle Ages.  Volume 10.  “Rushd, Ibn (Averroës).”   By Michael E. Marmura.  571-575.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1988.

[1] Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages, (New York:  Harper Collins, 1993), p. 362.

[2] Niels C. Nielson, Jr., editor, Religions of the World, third edition, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993), p. 452.

[3] Nielson, pp. 454-455.

[4] Nielson, pp. 455, 457-458.

[5] al-Ghazzali, “The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazzali,” translated by W. M. Watt, in Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 265-281 (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973), pp. 269-271.

[6] al-Ghazzali, pp. 272-274.

[7] al-Ghazzali, p. 273.

[8] “Condemnation of 219 Propositions,” translated by E. L. Fortin and P. D. O’Neill, in Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 542-549, (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973), pp. 542-549.

[9] Athanasius, “De Incarnatione,” 3, in The Early Christian Fathers, edited by Henry Bettenson, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 274-275.

[10] Justin Martyr, “Apologia 2,” 13, in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, pp. 63-64.

[11] Augustine of Hippo, “On Christian Doctrine,” in Readings in Medieval History, edited by Patrick J. Geary, second edition, 28-46, (Peterborough, Ont.:  Broadview Press, 1997), pp. 32-33.

[12] Augustine, p. 43.

[13] Stephen Brown, “The intellectual context of later medieval philosophy:  universities, Artistotle, arts, theology,” in Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, 188-203,  Vol. 3 of Routledge History of Philosophy, 10 volumes, G. H. R. Parkinson and S. G. Shanker,  editors, (London:  Routledge, 1998), p. 189.

[14] “Condemnation of 219 Propositions,” pp. 542-543.

[15] Cantor, p. 363.

[16] Charles E. Butterworth, editor.  Averroes Three Short Commentaries on Aristotle’s “Topics,” “Rhetoric,” and “Poetics,” translated by Charles E. Butterworth, (Albany, N. Y.:  State University of New York Press, 1977), p. 1.

[17] Dominique Urvoy, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), translated by Olivia Stewart, (London:  Routledge, 1991), p. 32, and Butterworth, p. 1.

[18] Averroes (Ibn Rushd), “Averroes on the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy,” translated by G.F. Hourani, in Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 287-306, (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973), p. 296.

[19] Averroes, p. 296.

[20] Averroes, p. 295.

[21] Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, editors, Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973), p. 285.  See also Averroes, “Long Commentary on De Anima,” translated by Arthur Hyman, in Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 314-325, (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973), pp. 315-321.

[22] Strayer, Joseph R., editor, Dictionary of the Middle Ages, volume 10,  “Rushd, Ibn (Averroës),”  by Michael E. Marmura, 571-575, (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988), p. 574.

[23] Glassé, Cyril, editor, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, “Ibn Rushd, Abu-i-Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad,”  174-175, (New York:  Harper & Row, 1989), p. 175.

[24] Glassé, p. 175.

[25] Averroes, p. 302.

[26] Averroes, p. 292.

[27] Averroes, p. 302-303.

[28] Urvoy, pp. 34-35.

[29] Marenbon, pp. 226-227.

[30] Brown, p. 191.

[31] John Marenbon, “Bonaventure, the German Dominicans and the new translators,” in Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, 225-240, vol. 3 of Routledge History of Philosophy, 10 volumes, G. H. R. Parkinson and S. G. Shanker, editors, (London:  Routledge, 1998), pp. 226-227.

[32] Brown, p. 191.

[33] Brown, pp. 191-192.

[34] ODCC, “Averroism,” p. 137. E. A. Livingstone, editor, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, third edition, “Averroism,”  137,  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 137.

[35] Hyman & Walsh, pp. 450-451.

[36] Sten Ebbesen, “The Paris arts faculty:  Siger of Brabant, Boethius of Dacia, Radulphus Brito,” in Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, 269-290, vol. 3 of Routledge History of Philosophy, 10 volumes, G. H. R. Parkinson and S. G. Shanker, editors, (London:  Routledge, 1998), p. 280.

[37] Ebbesen. p. 280.

[38] Ebbensen, p. 286.

[39] Brown, pp. 192-193.

[40] Livingstone, editor, “Averroism,” p. 137.

[41] “Condemnation of 219 Propositions,” pp. 542-543.

[42] Brian Davies, OP, “Thomas Aquinas,” in Medieval Philosophy, edited by John Marenbon, 241-268, vol. 3 of Routledge History of Philosophy, 10 volumes, G. H. R. Parkinson and S. G. Shanker, editors, (London:  Routledge, 1998),   p. 241.

[43]Aeterni Patris,” Papal encyclical issued by Pope Leo XIII, 1879, From J. Maritain, St. Thomas Aquinas, (New York:  [no publishing firm given], 1958), p. 208, cited in Philosophy in the Middle Ages:  The Christian, Islamic and Jewish Traditions, edited by Arthur Hyman and James J. Walsh, 463,  (Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing Co., 1973), p. 463.

[44] Nielson, pp. 458-459.

The Expansion of Christianity in the Roman Empire

(This essay was written for History 201.6, University of Saskatchewan, 1 April 1999)

Why did Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire?  This question could be answered in one of two ways.  First, it could be shown that the Roman Empire provided Christianity with a context in which it could readily spread.[1] However, that same context existed for the state religion, mystery religions and quasi-religious philosophies that existed in Rome during the time of Christian expansion.  Why, then, did Christianity expand within the Empire against these other religions to the point where, at the beginning of the fourth century, about ten per cent of the total population and perhaps fifty per cent of the population in Asia Minor were Christian[2]?  To answer that question, this essay will be looking at the period from the first century AD up to Constantine’s victory at the Milvian Bridge in AD 312.

Constantine’s conversion, which allow Christianity to leap-frog  in status over the pagan religions, will not be a part of the consideration.  Prior to Constantine’s conversion, Christian had already become a well-organised unified force without support or toleration from the state.  This essay will be focused on why Christianity was able to do that.  Also, the persecution of the Christians by the state will not be considered in this essay.  The impact of the persecutions and the resulting martyrdoms is a subject worthy of its own essay and sufficient space is not available within this essay to properly discuss it.

Within the range established, this essay will look at various ancient sources such as the Bible, Apuleius of Madauros, Lucretius, Seneca the Younger, Eusebius and Athanasius, as well as several works of modern scholarship on the subject to support its conclusion.  In this way, it will be shown that Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire because of three reasons.  First, because it developed out of Judaism, it had historical credibility and it was able to use the Jewish Greek Scriptures and the network of Diasporic Judaism for its own benefit in its missionary work.  Second, Christianity appealed to Romans because it provided a genuine religious alternative that offered intellectual content, a high standard of morality, a genuine social concern, and universal salvation for all people of all races and all classes.  Third, Christianity developed an strong effective and united institutional organisation that was able to foster the Christian missionary programs, consolidate the gains made and withstand the fierce persecutions periodically unleashed by the state.

Christianity arose in a Jewish religious and social context[3] and was led, in its early years, entirely by Jews.  This Jewish heritage of Christianity gave it a solid foundation of history, morality and religious literature, which it built upon, modified, and made its own.[4] These Jewish roots were more than a useful foundation, however, for Christianity essentially claimed to be the culmination of Judaism.  Peter’s confession that Jesus is “the Christ the Son of the Living God”[5] encapsulates this claim.  Thus, the essence of Christianity, as it relates to Judaism, is that Jesus is the Messiah promised by the Jewish God.

The Jewish heritage of Christianity was important for three reasons.  First, Christianity was able to show non-believers that it, like the other religions of Rome, had its own history and literature.[6] The connection between Christianity and Judaism is genuine, for the early followers of Jesus did not think of themselves as adherents to a new religion, but as faithful Jews who believed in the Messiah promised by the Jewish God.  Many of them continued to observe the Jewish practices of temple worship[7] and dietary laws.[8] Also, after Pentecost, the believers would often meet inside the temple courtyard.[9] Thus the claim that Christianity arose out of Judaism is authentic and that gave Christians the right to claim Judaic history and Scriptures as their own.

Second, the Judaism offered Christianity an existing network throughout the Roman Empire and an existing pool of knowledgeable potential converts to proselytise among.  Because it was their scriptures to begin with, the Jews were very knowledgeable about the content of the Jewish Scriptures, and they placed a very heavy emphasis on that content.[10] The Jews already knew the history.  The early Christians only had to convince them that Jesus was the fulfilment of that history.  Also, because Jews  lived throughout the Roman Empire, the early Christian missionaries had an immediate point of contact in each town that they stopped in.  Time after time, Paul and the missionaries who would accompany him would go first to the local synagogue to reason “with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks.[11][12] The missionaries used the Jewish Scriptures to show how the coming of Jesus and his life were foretold in the Scriptures and how he fulfilled the promises made in those Scriptures.[13]

Third, Christianity was able to extensively use the Greek version of the Jewish Scriptures, called the Septuagint, in its missionary work among Greek-speaking Jews and Gentiles.  During previous centuries, many Jews were dispersed throughout the Greek-speaking world of the Hellenistic kingdoms, which later became a part of the Roman Empire.  Over time, many of these Jews learned to speak the international language of Greek and lost the ability to speak and read Hebrew.  Therefore, during the third and second centuries BC, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures was developed.  This Scripture, the Septuagint was used extensively by the Christians and considered the authoritative version of the Old Testament until the fourth century when it was supplanted by the Hebrew translation of the Old Testament.[14]

Christianity was accessible to the Romans because of its universality.  Over time, because of Jesus’ teachings, a vision received by Peter, and, especially, through the  experience and effort of Paul, Christianity was opened up to all people.  In response to the faith of a Roman centurion, Jesus declares,

I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.  I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.[15]

Jesus also debunked the Jewish dietary laws by saying, “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.'”[16] After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter receives a vision in which God instructs him to eat unclean animals.  Peter protests but God says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”[17] Right after the vision, Peter receives an invitation from a centurion named Cornelius to come and talk to him.  Peter understands the vision to mean that he is not to consider any other human unclean (but it also counters the Jewish dietary laws).  Peter and the other Jews are amazed when the Holy Spirit comes upon the Gentile believers just as it did upon the Jewish believers.  They take this as confirmation from God that salvation through Jesus Christ is meant for both Jew and Gentile.[18] In Pisidian Antioch,[19] Corinth,[20] and Ephesus,[21] Paul preached the Christian message to the Jews first.  However, when he encountered obstinacy and abuse from the Jews, he turned to preach the message to the Gentiles, and many of them believed.[22] The issue finally came to a head when some Jewish Christians were insisting, in Antioch, that all Gentile believers be circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law.  At a council of the apostles and church elders in Jerusalem, it was decided that the Gentile converts should only be asked to refrain from eating meat from strangled animals or from animals offered to idols, avoid blood, and avoid sexual immorality.[23] This decision is monumental for it opens the new faith to all people, whether Jew or Gentile.  In this way, Christianity became open, accessible and available to all people of all race, class, gender and social status.  As Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew no Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”[24]

The polytheistic and syncretic religious scene in Rome at this time contrasted sharply with the monotheism and exclusiveness of Judaism and Christianity.  The state religion purported a pantheon of anthropomorphic gods and goddesses which required the honour and attention of all the citizens of the state to continue bestowing peace, prosperity and good fortune upon the state.  Failure to give honour to the gods would bring swift retribution.[25]

However, in spite of the fact that the state religion was the official and public sponsored religion, on its own, it failed to fulfil the religious needs of the Roman people.  Joscelyn Godwin describes the state religion as “a solemn but unmystical affair, respectable yet undemanding of personal enthusiasm or spiritual effort…. it lacked any conception of the Absolute, had no real Mother Goddess, and held out no hopes for an after-life.”[26] Furthermore, the state religion was seen by some as merely superstition implemented “for the sake of the common people,”[27] and maintained for its “great political usefulness.”[28] However, because of the syncretic nature of Rome, it would tolerate and often adopt any religion that was willing to compromise with the state religion.[29] Therefore, mystery religions from the east were able to come to Rome and flourish.[30]

The plethora of mystery religions that came to Rome from the East in the two centuries before Christ helped to fill the religious void left by the state religion.  Among them were Cybele, or Magna Mater, who came from Asia Minor in 205 BC,[31] Isis, who came to Italy from Egypt in the second century BC, and Mithras, who may have been introduced to Rome by Cilician pirates c. 67 BC or earlier.[32] Mystery religions differ from the state religion in that they are voluntary associations centred upon personal beliefs that offer personal benefit or salvation by approaching the divine.[33] Cybele is a powerful, violent mother goddess who will deflect her fury from her petitioning devotees.[34] But she is also a source of renewal in this life and she is associated with some sort of life after death.  In the taurobolium, the participant is reborn with the effects lasting twenty years or, sometimes, for eternity.[35] To what extent Cybele offers life after death is not clear from the evidence.  Violets arising from the blood of the dying Attis and Jupiter’s agreeing to allow the dead Attis to persist in a state of suspended animation indicate some sort of life after death.[36] However, by the fourth century AD there is evidence that the resurrection of Attis is celebrated.[37] Isis, who was thought to rule over all of nature and all the gods of heaven and hell, was considered a Redeemer of humanity who protected people on sea and land, and controlled the harmful twists of Fate.[38] As the ruler over both this life and the next and she was able to bestow upon her devotees an extension of this life and the opportunity to worship her in a life after death.[39] Similarly, devotees of Mithras thought that, through Mithras, they could be “born again” to a glorious immortal life after death.[40]

The mystery religions contribute to the spread of Christianity by serving as the theological shock troops for the Christian faith.[41] Not only did they preveniently introduce the concepts of a personal, voluntary religion that could bestow life after death, but there were other similarities as well.  The cults of both Cybele and Isis practised rituals which were very similar to baptism.[42] Cybele and Mithras emphasise the saving power of shed blood.[43] Both Isis[44] and Cybele[45] are mother goddesses similar to Mary the theotokos (qeotokoj) –the god bearer.[46] Through Mithraism one could ascend into heaven[47] and the idea of abstinence was introduced to the west by the monks of Isis and the eunuch priests of Cybele.[48]

A mystery religion also played a role in the final triumph of Christianity.  Mithras is associated with Helios the Sun god,[49] and the cult had a wide following in the Roman legions.[50] Constantine was a soldier and an emperor and, prior to his conversion, a devotee of the Unconquered Sun.[51] The day before the decisive victory against Maxentius at the Milvian Bridge in October of AD 312, Constantine “saw with his own eyes the trophy of a cross of light in the heavens, above the sun, and an inscription, CONQUER BY THIS attached to it.”[52] After becoming sole emperor, Constantine made Sunday as a special day  set aside for worship.[53] This edict would have been welcomed by both Christians and Mithraites for both considered Sunday to be a special day of worship.[54] The genuineness and completeness of Constantine’s ‘conversion’ is a debatable subject that will not be discussed in this essay.  There is no doubt that he favoured Christianity[55] and placed restrictions upon pagan religions[56] in Rome, but it has been speculated that Constantine may have seen no disjunction between the Unconquered Sun and the Unconquered Son–Jesus Christ.[57] It seems reasonable to believe that the Mithraic mystery cult played a preparatory role of some kind in the development of Constantine’s attitude towards Christianity and that attitude was decisive in the Christian conquest of the Roman Empire.

Though there are some remarkable similarities between Christianity and the mystery religions, it would be a mistake to classify Christianity merely as a mystery religion or a synthetic imitation of those religions, for there are very significant differences.[58] First,  mystery religions cost money to join[59] whereas Christianity was accessible to both rich and poor, slave and free.[60] The second major difference was institutional organisation. Christianity, intent on spreading the gospel to as many people as possible, created a institutional structure to consolidate the gains that were made and facilitate the continued missionary work.[61] The mystery religions, on the other hand, were more concerned with keeping their proprietary knowledge secret and, as a result, they had no interest in developing any kind of formal network between individual centres of worship.[62] As a result, when the mystery religions lost state support and were declared illegal in the fourth century, they soon disappeared.[63] The third major difference was that while Christianity claimed to be the only way to salvation,[64] the mystery religions were very tolerant of their followers participating in other religions and cults.[65]

This exclusiveness of Christianity is very important for it meant rejection of the state religion and thus a denial by the state of any tolerance or support toward Christianity.  This forced Christianity to create its own organisation to do its own work of spreading the gospel.  Already in the first century, there are indications of a form of organisation with elders and deacons.[66] This developed into an episcopal style of organisation which was so effective that it was soon adapted by Christian communities throughout the Empire.[67] Under Cyprian, who was elected Bishop of Carthage  circa AD 246, the episcopacy took on a divine nature, for Cyprian saw the episcopacy as the preserver of the sanctity and unity of the church.  The church became like a “great federative republic”[68] that was “a standing challenge to the authority of the state and its gods.”[69] This organisation proved to be very resilient, so much so that the longest, most pervasive, and fiercest persecution that the Roman Empire could muster against it was unable to destroy it.  The realisation of this fact and the parallel realisation of the potential of Christianity as a unifying force within the Empire that would be loyal to the emperor may have contributed to Constantine’s acceptance of Christianity.[70]

This exclusiveness is also very important because it meant that only when a Roman was considering Christianity as an alternative to Rome’s syncretic conglomerate of polytheistic religion did he or she have a genuine religious option.  To understand what is meant by this statement, one will need to take a close look at the work of the renowned American pragmatic philosopher, William James (1842-1910).  In  The Will to Believe, he writes,

Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and… let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead.  A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to who it is proposed [and a dead hypothesis has no such appeal]…

Next, let us call the decision between two hypotheses an option.  Options may be of several kinds.  They may be–1, living or dead; 2, forced or avoidable; 3, momentous or trivial; and for our purposes we may call an option a genuine option when it is of the forced, living, and momentous kind.

1.  A living option is one in which both hypotheses are live ones….  each hypothesis makes some appeal, however small, to your belief.

2.  Next, if I say to you;  “Choose between going out with your umbrella or without it,” I do not offer you a genuine option, for it is not forced.  You can easily avoid it by not going out at all….  But if I say, “Either accept this truth or go without it,” I put on you a forced option, for there is no standing place outside of the alternative.  Every dilemma based on a complete logical disjunction, with no possibility of not choosing, is an option of this forced kind.

3.  Finally, if I were Dr. Nansen[71] and proposed to you to join my North Pole expedition, your option would be momentous; for this would probably be your only similar opportunity, and your choice now would either exclude you from the North Pole sort of immortality altogether or put at least the chance of it into your hands.  He who refuses to embrace a unique opportunity loses the prize as surely as if he tried and failed.  Per contra, the option is trivial when the opportunity is not unique, when the stake is insignificant, or when the decision is reversible if it later prove unwise.  Such trivial options abound in the scientific life.  A chemist finds an hypothesis live enough to spend a year in its verification:  he believes in it to that extent.  But if his experiments prove inconclusive either way, he is quit for his loss of time, no vital harm being done.[72]

Consider the religious decision-making process of a second century Roman in light of James’ paradigm.   She is participating in the state religion but she is considering joining  a mystery cult.  Both of her two hypotheses, either joining a mystery cult or not, are live for her, therefore she has a living option.  Her option is a momentous one for the mystery cult offers an opportunity for personal salvation, life after death and immortality.  However, her option is not a forced option because there is not a complete disjunction between the state religion and the mystery religion.  Even if she were to join the mystery religion, she would continue to participate in the state religion.  The mystery religion is tolerated in Rome only because it compromises with the state religion.  It cannot deny, condemn or distance itself in any way from the state religion.  Her choice is not one or the other, it is one or both.  Because Christianity is the only universal religion in the Roman world which claims an exclusive way of salvation, it is the only hypothesis which would create a forced option.  Therefore, only when considering the Roman state religion (with or without a mystery religion) versus Christianity does a Roman have a genuine religious option.

The only thing that a mystery cult can do, within the Roman religious system, to portray itself as offering something unique and desirable is to offer a secret enhancement of the state religion.  The mystery religions are offering an enhancement of, not an alternative to, the state religion.  If the enhancement of one mystery religion becomes publicly available, then that mystery religion is no longer offering an enhancement.  Therefore, a mystery religion has to jealously guard the secrecy of its enhancement in order to maintain its existence.[73]

In contrast to the mystery religions, philosophy did offer an alternative to Roman religion, the way of Truth.  For philosophers, Truth is the end and reason is the means to that end.  After coming to an understanding of the Truth, living in accordance with the Truth is the personal goal of the philosopher.  It is important to consider philosophy, when studying the reasons for the Christianity’s success in Rome, for three reasons.  First, two philosophies, Stoicism and Epicureanism, both had a major impact upon Roman society and each had something to say with respect to religion.[74] Second, pagan philosophy challenged Christianity to develop intellectual and philosophical content.[75] This asset allowed Christianity to appeal to the educated elite[76] by offering its own way of Truth.  Third, because Christianity, in its own defence, used tools and concepts developed by pagan philosophy, the prior use of such concepts by pagan philosophy served as significant preparatory work for the new faith.[77]

Epicurean thought sought to show, through scientific explanation, that things were matter, including the soul.  Upon death, the body and soul decay and the atoms that make up the body and soul disperse.[78] Therefore, personal existence ceases upon death.  All events are due to natural processes and the gods play no part in the affairs of humans.  The most important thing was the peace of mind that came from partaking only of the minimum of life’s simple necessities.[79]

Stoicism also maintained that everything was matter.  However, instead of Epicurean atoms, Stoics believed that everything was one substance which ranged in refinement from the coarseness of solid material, like rocks, wood, and bodies, to the more refined state of vapour and ether.  The most highly refined form of the one substance which was everything is spirit, or soul, and it is found embodied in humans and pervading throughout the universe, actively governing through its rational abilities.  This universal spirit, called Reason, or Logos, functioned as the plan of the universe, but was not the planner.  The individual was a microcosm of the universe, with his body relating to the solid material of the universe and his material soul relating to the material soul of the universe.  Upon death, his soul would be reunited with the universal Reason, but prior to that the body was considered a prison of the soul.  The greatest good for an individual was to live his life in harmony with the universal Reason, or Logos, by allowing it, and not emotions, to govern his life.[80]

In the first chapter of his Gospel, John refers to Jesus Christ as the Word, or Logos.  He writes,

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.  In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it….

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.[81]

Using the gospel of John, Greek philosophy like Stoicism, and the work of Philo,[82] Christian philosophers, such as Athanasius, developed their own concept of the Logos that centred upon the person of Jesus Christ.  In the Christian philosophy of the second to fourth centuries, God created the world and all that is in it out of nothing through the Logos, His Son, Jesus Christ.  In this way, man was also created.  However, man was unique in the creation for he was given a small portion of the Logos so that he would have Reason.[83] God had wanted all of humanity to remain immortal, but humans chose to disobey God and, as a result, all humanity suffers from illness and death. Wishing to restore humanity, the Logos came to earth and took on the human form of Jesus of Nazareth.[84] The death he suffered was a universal replacement for the deaths of all of humanity, so humanity, being indwelt with the Son of God because of its likeness to him, could once again have immortal life.[85]

On the question of truth, apologists such as Justin Martyr argued that Christianity, through the Logos, the Son of God, possessed the truth.  Whatever truth non-Christian philosophers, poets and prose writers know, they know through the use of the divine Logos.  However, whatever truth they know is incomplete, for they only possess the “seed” of the Logos.  Christians, on the other hand, know the truth more fully, for they know, love and worship the revealed Logos, Jesus Christ.[86]

For the purposes of this essay, it is not necessary to show that Christianity bested all competitors in the realm of philosophy.  The Christian apologists of the second, third and fourth centuries AD participated in this field, not to establish philosophical superiority, but, just as with contemporary apologists, to provide a reasoned defence for the Christian faith[87] and to show that such beliefs are reasonable.[88] The eventual triumph of Christianity within the Empire is evidence of the early apologists’ success.

In the realm of religion, Christianity clearly had an advantage over the pagan philosophies. In contrast to the cessation of existence upon death as found in Epicureanism, Christianity offered the hope of life after death.  In contrast to Stoicism’s concept of a cold emotionless Divine Logos, Christianity offered a God so loving that he was willing to suffer and die for all people.  In contrast to Stoicism’s denial of emotion, Christianity had agape feasts, joy and happiness.  In contrast to Stoicism’s vague concept of the human soul reuniting with the Divine Reason, Christianity offered a glorious personal afterlife with God and the believers who have gone on before hand.  The combination of intellectual content and personal salvation made Christianity a formidable force to its competitors.

A contributing factor to the attractiveness of Christianity in Rome was its high moral standards based upon the teachings of Jesus Christ.  With respect to the Mosaic Law and the Words of the Prophets of Judaism, Jesus said that did not come to abolish them, “but to fulfill them.”[89] In terms of the Words of the Prophets, Jesus’ words are understood as pointing to himself as the fulfilment of the promises of a coming Messiah.  In terms of the Mosaic Law, Jesus’ words, in light of his teaching, can be understood to mean that he has come to show how the Mosaic Law, in its fullness and completeness, is to be properly understood.  In other words, it is not sufficient to keep the letter of the law, the law demands one must keep the higher standard of the spirit of the law.[90] In the Sermon on the Mount, found in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus reveals the new morality,

You have heard that is was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,’….  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgement….  You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart….  It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’  But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery….  You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,’  But I tell you, Do not resist and evil person.  If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.  You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy,’  But I tell you;  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.[91]

From the first century BC to the fourth century AD, Rome was in a period of moral decline.[92] However, even pagans saw that Christians were living exemplary lives[93] and this strict morality coupled with unswerving obedience may have been seen by Constantine as a means to support the rule of the emperors.[94]

The benevolence and charity of Christianity was also was a positive attribute of Christianity.  Like the high standards of Christian morality, it was based upon the teachings of Jesus.  When asked which of the commandments of the Law was the greatest, he replied, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it:  ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”[95] Paul expanded upon this theme when he wrote, “Love must be sincere.  Hate what is evil;  cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love.  Honor one another above yourselves.  Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.  Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.  Share with God’s people who are in need.  Practice hospitality.”[96] Christians took this teaching to heart and were showing such concern for their fellow human beings that Julian the Apostate urges his fellow pagans to imitate the Christians in their holy living, “humanity shown strangers, [and] the reverent diligence shown in burying the dead.”[97]

Christianity’s final triumph began in the fourth century.  In AD 311, Galerius pardoned the Christians and allowed them to practice their faith.[98] After his victory at the Milvian Bridge, Constantine issued, with Licinius the Edict of Milan in AD 313 which granted the Christians freedom to practice their religion and ordered that confiscated places of assembly be returned to the Christians.[99] However, persecution of the Christians continued in some regions of the Empire not under Constantine’s control. Finally, in AD 324, Constantine became sole emperor and all persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire ceased.[100] Constantine not only extended toleration to Christianity, but he favoured it as well.  Through his edicts, Christian clergy were not required to attend public services of the state religion and no one was allowed to interfere with them in any way in the performance of their religious duties.[101] After defeating Licinius, Constantine gave instructions for church buildings to be repaired and restored and for new ones to be built where necessary.  He also gave instructions to provincial governors to provide any needed supplies for this building program.[102] In AD 380, Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.[103] By AD 405, paganism was totally defeated and Christianity was the one true faith in Rome.[104]

Christianity is a comprehensive religion that appealed to the Romans on many different levels.  Because of this appeal, combined with its history and literature, its strong institutional organisation, and a fervent missionary zeal, Christianity was able to spread throughout an intolerant empire.  The contemporary religious situation is comparable.  We are living in a secular age, where all religions are marginalised.  We are living in a post-modern age where claims of exclusive truth are pilloried.  We are living in a cosmopolitan, high tech age, where a smorgasbord of religious and intellectual ideas are readily available.  Since the sixteenth century Reformation, Christianity has become increasingly fragmented.  The challenges before Christianity are every bit as formidable as those it faced in the first four centuries of the Roman Empire.  To future historians, it will be very interesting to see how Christianity adapts and what the results will be.


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Apuleius of Madauros.  “The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses).”  Book 11.  In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, 177-193.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

Arnobius of Sicca.  “The Case Against the Pagans, (Adversus Nationes).”  Book 5.5-7, 16-17.  In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, 117-120.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

Athanasius.  “De Incarnatione.”  3.  In The Early Christian Fathers, edited by Henry Bettenson, 274-275.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1956.

Athanasius.  “De Incarnatione.”  4-6.  In The Early Christian Fathers, edited by Henry Bettenson, 275-276.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1956.

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Catullus.  “Poem 63.”  Lines 70-94.  In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by   Marvin W. Meyer, 126-128.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

Cicero.  “On Divination.”  2.32.70.  In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by  Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 1, 513.   Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Clement of Alexandria.  Stromateis:  Books One to Three.  Translated by John Ferguson. Washington, D.C.:  Catholic University of America Press, 1991.

Cumont.  The Mysteries of Mithra.  Second edition.  Chicago and London:  [no publishing firm given], 1910.  199.  Cited in Hyde, Walter Woodburn.  Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire.  Philadephia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946.  60.

Daniel-Rops, Henri.  The Church of Apostles and Martyrs.  Translated by Audrey Butler. London:  J. M. Dent & Sons, 1960.

“Definition of Chalcedon 451, The.” In Documents of the Christian Church, edited by Henry Bettenson, 51-52. Second edition.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1963.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus.  “Roman Antiquities.”  2.6.  In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 1, 513.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Edict of Milan, AD 313.”  From Lactantius.  On the Deaths of the Persecutors.  48.  Also from Eusebius.  Ecclesiastical History. 10.5.2-14.  In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 572-575.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Edict of Toleration from Galerius, April 30, 311.”  From Lactantius.  On the Deaths of the Persecutors.  34.  Also from Eusebius.  Ecclesiastical History. 8.17.6-10.  In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 571-572.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Eusebius.  “Ecclesiastical History.”  10.6,7.  In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 575-576.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Eusebius, “Ecclesiastical History.”  10.7.  In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 575-576.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Eusebius.  “V. C. (Life of Constantine).”  1.26-29.  In The New Eusebius, edited by  J. Stevenson, 299-300.  London:  Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957.

Frend, W. H. C.  “Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) and Early Christianity.”  Journal of Ecclesiastical History.  Vol. 45.  No. 4.  (October 1994):  661-672.

Frend, W. H. C. Review of Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage from Augustus to Constantine, by J. B. Rives.  Journal of Ecclesiastical History.  Vol. 47.  No. 2.  (April 1996):  332-333.

Galen.  From Walzer, R., editor.  Galen on Jews and Christians.  Oxford:  Oxford, 1949.  15.  Cited in Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by  Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 566, footnote 26.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Glover, T. R.  The Conflict of Religions in the Roman Empire.  Fifth edition.  London:  Methuen & Co., 1909.

Godwin, Joscelyn.  Mystery Religions in the Ancient World.  London:  Thames and Hudson, 1981.

González, Justo L.  The Story of Christianity.  Two volumes.  New York:  Harper Collins, 1984.

Horace.  “Odes.”  3.6.1-20, 33-43.  In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 391-392.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Hunt, E.D.  “Constantine and Jerusalem.”  Journal of Ecclesiastical History.  Vol. 48.  No. 3.  (July 1997):  405-424.

Hyde, Walter Woodburn.  Paganism to Christianity in the Roman Empire.  Philadephia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946.

James, William.  “The Will to Believe.”  In Readings in the Philosophy of Religion:  An Analytic Approach, edited by Baruch A. Brody, 35-47.  Second edition.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:  Prentice-Hall, 1992.

Julian.  “Ep. 49, ad Arsacium.”  In A Source Book for Ancient Church History, edited by  Joseph Cullen Ayer, 332-333.  New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952.

Justin Martyr.  “Apologia 2.”  13.  In The Early Christian Fathers, edited by Henry Bettenson, 63-64.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1956.

Lactantius.  “On the deaths of the persecutors.”  44.3-6.  In The New Eusebius, edited by  J. Stevenson, 298-299.  London:  Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957.

Lewis, Naphtali & Meyer Reinhold, editors.  Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings. Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Livingstone, E. A.,  editor.  The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.  Third edition.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997.

Livy.  “History of Rome.”   29.10-14.  In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by   Marvin W. Meyer, 120-125.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

Lucian of Samosata(?).  “The Syrian Goddess (De Dea Syria).”  1-16, 30-60.  In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, 131-141.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

Lucretius.  “About the Nature of the Universe.”  1.107-115, 127-135, 146-148.  In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 427-428.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Lucretius.  “About the Nature of the Universe.”  1.149-158.  In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 428.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Lucretius.  “About the Nature of the Universe.”  2.1002-1004, 72-79, 575-580. In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 430.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Meyer, Marvin W., editor.  The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook. New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

Minucius Felix.  “Octavius.”  6. In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 423.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Minucius Felix.  “Octavius.”  6.23.1-4. In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 542.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Minucius Felix.  “Octavius.”  8.3-12.6. In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 553-555.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Mithraic Inscriptions of Santa Prisca.” In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, 207.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

“Mithras Liturgy, The.” In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook edited by Marvin W. Meyer, 211-217.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

NIV Study Bible, The.  Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Zondervan, 1985.

Origen.  “Against Celsus (Contra Celsum).”  6.22. In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, 209-210.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

Paulinus of Nola.  “Poems.” 19.   From P. G. Walsh.  The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola. New York/Ramsey, N.J.:  [no publishing firm given], 1975.  In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 617-618.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Plantinga, Alvin.  “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology.” In Readings in the Philosophy of Religion:  An Analytic Approach, edited by Baruch A. Brody, 74-86.  Second edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:  Prentice-Hall, 1992.  74-86.

Plantinga, Alvin. “The Argument Restated and Vindicated.” In Readings in the Philosophy of Religion:  An Analytic Approach, edited by Baruch A. Brody, 117-120.  Second edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:  Prentice-Hall, 1992.

Plutarch of Chaeronea.  “Life of Pompey.”  24.1-8. In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, 204-206.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

Polybius.  “Histories.”  6.56.6-12. In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 1, 512.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Prudentius.  “On the Martyr’s Crowns (Peristephanon.”  10.1011-1050. In The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin W. Meyer, 129-130.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1987.

Seneca the Younger.  “An Essay about Providence.”  5.4,6. In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 433.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Seneca the Younger.  “An Essay about Anger.”  1.7.2,3. In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 433-434.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Seneca the Younger.  “An Essay about Providence.”  5.4,6. In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 433.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Seneca the Younger.  Letters.  65.21,22. In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 435.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Seneca the Younger.  “Letters.”  124.7, 14. In As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton, 432.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Shelton, Jo-Ann, editor. As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History. New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988.

Stevenson, J., editor. The New Eusebius.  London:  Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957.

“Theodosian Code.”  2.8.1. In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 577.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Theodosian Code.”  4.7.1. In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 577.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Theodosian Code.”  8.16.1. In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 577.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Theodosian Code.”  9.16.2.  In Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 578.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Theodosian Code.”  16.1.2. Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 617-618.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Theodosian Code.”  16.2.5. Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 578.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Theodosian Code.”   16.5.1.  Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 577-578.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

“Theodosian Code.”  16.10.1.  Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, vol. 2, 578-579.  Third edition.  Two volumes.  New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990.

Treadgold, Donald W.  A History of Christianity.  Belmont, Mass.:  Nordland Publishing Co., 1979.

[1] Donald W. Treadgold, A History of Christianity, (Belmont, Mass.:  Nordland Publishing Co., 1979), pp. 37-39.

[2] Walter Woodburn Hyde, Paganism to Chhristianity in the Roman Empire, (Philadephia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1946), p. 180.

[3] cf. Matt 1:1-17 (NIV), and Luke 3:23-38, where Jesus’ geneology is traced back to Abraham in the Gospel of Matthew, and to Adam and God in the Gospel of Luke, to show that Christianity arose from Judaism.

[4] cf. T. R. Glover, The Conflict of Religions in the Roman Empire, fifth edition, (London:  Methuen & Co., 1909), p. 144.

[5] Matt 16:13-20.

[6] Glover, p. 175. For additional information, see Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho the Jew.

[7] Acts 3:1-9.

[8] Acts 10:14.

[9] Acts 5:12,42.

[10] Matt 5:17, 7:12, Luke 16:17.

[11] A God-fearer was a Gentile who was mono-theistic, respected the Jewish ethical and moral teachings and usually attended synagogue.  However, they did not convert to Judaism, nor did they follow the Jewish dietary rules or submit to circumscion. The NIV Study Bible, (Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Zondervan, 1985), footnote on Acts 10:2, p. 1662.

[12] Acts 17:17.  For other examples see:  Acts 17:16-17 (at Athens), Acts 18:1-4, 19:8 (at Corinth), Acts 14:1 (at Iconium), Acts 13:2-5 (at Salamis on Cyprus), Acts 9:20 (at Damascus), Acts 13:13-41 (at Pisidian Antioch in Asia Minor), Acts 17:1-4 (at Thessalonica), Acts 17:10 (at Berea), and Acts 18-:19 (at Ephesus).

[13] Acts 13:13-41, and Acts 17:1-4.

[14] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, two volumes, (New York:  Harper Collins, 1984), Vol. 1, pp. 12-13; and E. A. Livingstone, editor, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, third edition, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1997), “Septuagint,” p. 1483.

[15] Matt 8:5-12.  cf. Matt 21:42-44, 22:1-10.

[16] Matt 15:10-20.

[17] Acts 10:9-15.

[18] Acts 10:16-48.

[19] Acts 13:44-48.

[20] Acts 18:5-6.

[21] Acts 19:8-10.

[22] Acts 14:26-27.

[23] Acts 15:1-29.

[24] Gal 3:26-29.

[25] Horace, “Odes,” 3.6.1-20, 33-43, in As the Romans Did:  A Source Book in Roman Social History, edited by Jo-Ann Shelton,  (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1988), pp. 391-392.

[26] Joscelyn Godwin, Mystery Religions in the Ancient World, (London:  Thames and Hudson, 1981), p. 38.

[27] Polybius, “Histories,” 6.56.6-12, in Roman Civilization:  Selected Readings, edited by Naphtali Lewis & Meyer Reinhold, editors, third edition, two volumes, (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990), Vol. 1, p. 512. cf. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, “Roman Antiquities,” 2.6, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 1, p. 513.

[28] Cicero, “On Divination,” 2.32.70, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 1, p. 513.

[29] Minucius Felix, “Octavius,” 6, in Shelton, p. 423.  See also Hyde, p. 184.

[30] Minucius Felix, “Octavius,” 6.23.1-4, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2, p. 542.

[31] Livy, “History of Rome,” 29.10-14, in The Ancient Mysteries:  A Sourcebook, edited by Marvin Meyer, 120-125, (New York:  Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 120-121.

[32] Plutarch of Chaeronea, Life of Pompey, 24.1-8, in Meyer, pp. 204-206.

[33] Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, (Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 12.

[34] Catullus, “Poem 63”, lines 70-94, in Meyer pp. 126-128.

[35] Prudentius, “On the Martyr’s Crowns (Peristephanon),” 10.1011-1050, in Meyer, pp. 129-130, and Meyer’s own comments in Meyer, pp. 128-129.

[36] Arnobius of Sicca, “The Case Against the Pagans, (Adversus Nationes),” Book 5.5-7, 16-17, in Meyer, 117-120, Section 7, pp. 118-119.

[37] cf. Meyer, p. 114, where Meyer states,  “In Firmicus Maternus, The Error of the Pagan Religions, 3.1ff., explicit mention is made of the resurrection of Attis.”

[38] Apuleius of Madauros, “The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses),” Book 11, in Meyer, 177-193, Section 25, p. 190.

[39] Apuleius of Madauros, “The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses),” Book 11, in Meyer, 177-193, Section 6, pp. 179-180.

[40] “The Mithras Liturgy,” in Meyer, 211-217, lines 520-530, p. 214.

[41] Burkert, p. 3, and Hyde, p. 68.

[42] For the baptism-like ritual of Isis, see Alpuleius of Madauros, “The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses),” Book 11, in Meyer, 177-193, Section 23, pp. 188-189.  For the taurobolium blood baptism ritual of Cybele, see Prudentius, in Meyer, pp. 129-130.

[43] For emphasis on shed blood in the worship of Cybele, see Apuleius of Madauros, “The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses),” Book 8.23-32, in Meyer, 141-146, sections 27-28, p. 144, and Lucian of Samosata(?), “The Syrian Goddess (De Dea Syria),” 1-16, 30-60, in Meyer, 131-141, section 50, p. 139.  For emphasis on shed blood in the worship of Mithras, see “Mithraic Inscriptions of Santa Prisca,” in Meyer, p. 207, line 14.

[44] Apuleius of Madauros, “The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses),” Book 11, in Meyer, 177-193, Section 5, p. 179, and Meyer’s own comments in Meyer, p. 159.

[45] Livy, in Meyer, 120-125, section 10, p. 121.

[46] “The Definition of Chalcedon 451,” in Documents of the Christian Church, edited by Henry Bettenson, second edition, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1963), pp. 51-52.  cf. Hyde, pp. 54-55.

[47] “The Mithras Liturgy,” in Meyer, line 485, p. 213, and Origen, Against Celsus (Contra Celsum), 6.22, in Meyer, pp. 209-210.

[48] Glover, p. 24.

[49] “The Mithras Liturgy,” in Meyer, line 640, p. 217.

[50] Burkert, p. 7.

[51] González, Vol. 1, p. 107.

[52] Eusebius, “V.C. (Life of Constantine),” 1.26-29, in J. Stevenson, editor, The New Eusebius, (London:  Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1957), pp. 299-300, section 28, pp. 299-300.  Also see Lactantius, “On the Deaths of the Persecutors,” 44.3-6, in Stevenson, pp. 288-299.

[53] “Theodosian Code,” 2.8.1, in Stevenson, pp. 335-336, and in Lewis & Reinhold, Vol. 2, p. 577.

[54] Hyde, p. 60.

[55] Eusebius, “Ecclesiastical History,” 10.6,7, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2,  pp. 575-576; “Theodosian Code,” 8.16.1, 2.8.1, 4.7.1, 16.2.5, and 16.5.1, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2, pp. 577-578.

[56] “Theodosian Code,” 9.16.2,and 16.10.1, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2, pp. 578-579.

[57] Clayton Beish, “Events Under Constantine,” Religious Studies 221.3 (section 01), Thorvaldson 258, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, September, 25, 1998.

[58] Burkert, p. 3.

[59] Apuleius of Madauros, “The Golden Ass (Metamorphoses),” Book 11, cited in Meyer, pp. 177-193, Sections 21, 23, 28, and 30, pp. 187, 188, 192, and 193.

[60] Gal 3:26-29.

[61] W. H. C. Frend, “Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) and Early Christianity,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 45, no. 4, (October 1994):  661-672, p. 667.

[62] Glover, p. 20.

[63] Cumont, The Mysteries of Mithra, second edition, (Chicago and London:  [no publishing firm given], 1910), p. 199, in Hyde, p. 60.  See also Hyde, pp. 52, 62, 68.

[64] John 14:6, 15:5.

[65] Burkert, p. 4.

[66] 1 Cor 12:27-28, 1 Tim 3, and Titus 1.

[67] W. H. C. Frend, “Edward Gibbon,” p. 666.

[68] W. H. C. Frend, “Edward Gibbon,” p. 667.

[69] W. H. C. Frend, review of Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage from Augustus to Constantine, by J. B. Rives, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 47, no. 2, (April 1996):  332-333,  p. 333.

[70] W. H. C. Frend, review of Religion and Authority in Roman Carthage from Augustus to Constantine, by J. B. Rives, p. 333.

[71] Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930) was a prominent Norwegian polar explorer who, in 1895, came within 272 miles of the North Pole, closer than anyone had previously come.  John Edwards Caswell, “Nansen, Fridtjof,”  World Book Encyclopedia, 1971 edition.

[72] William James, “The Will to Believer,” in Readings in the Philosophy of Religion:  An Analytic Approach, edited by Baruch A. Brody, 35-47, second edition, (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:  Prentice-Hall, 1992), p. 36.

[73] Regarding the emphasis of the mystery cults on secrecy, see Hyde, pp. 48, 52,

[74] Lucretius, “About the Nature of the Universe,” 1.149-158, in Shelton, p. 428; Seneca the Younger, “An Essay about Providence,” 5.4,6, in Shelton, p. 433; and Shelton’s own comments in Shelton, p. 426.

[75] Minucius Felix, “Octavius,” 8.3-12.6, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2, pp. 553-555.

[76] Hyde, p. 177.  “By Decius’ [246-251] time the Church contained nobles, the wealthy and educated classes.”

[77] Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis:  Books One to Three, translated by John Ferguson, (Washington, D.C.:  Catholic University of America Press, 1991), 1.28.3, p. 42.

[78] Lucretius, “About the Nature of the Universe,” 2.1002-1004, 72-79, 575-580, in Shelton, p. 430.

[79] Lucretius, “About the Nature of the Universe,” 1.107-115, 127-135, 146-148, in Shelton, pp. 427-428; and Shelton’s own comments in Shelton, pp. 427, 428.

[80] Seneca the Younger, “Letters,” 124.7, 14, in Shelton, p. 432; Seneca the Younger, “An Essay about Providence,” 5.4,6, in Shelton, p. 433; Seneca the Younger, “An Essay about Anger,” 1.7.2,3, in Shelton, pp. 433-434; Seneca the Younger, “Letters,” 65.21,22, in Shelton, p. 435; and Shelton’s own comments in Shelton, p. 432.

[81] John 1:1-5, 14.

[82] Philo was a Hellenistic Greek Jew from Alexandria who synthesized the Greek Logos concept with the  Word of God of Judaism.

[83] Athanasius, “De Incarnatione,” 3, in The Early Christian Fathers, edited by Henry Bettenson, (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1956), pp. 274-275.

[84] Athanasius, “De Incarnatione,” 4-6, in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, pp. 275-276.

[85] Athanasius, “De Incarnatione,” 8-9, in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, pp. 291-292.

[86] Justin Martyr, “Apologia 2,” 13, in Bettenson, The Early Christian Fathers, pp. 63-64.

[87] Alvin Plantinga, “The Reformed Objection to Natural Theology,” in Brody, 74-86, p. 81.

[88] Alvin Plantinga, “The Argument Restated and Vindicated,” in Brody,117-120, p. 120.

[89] Matt 5:17.

[90] cf. Matt 15:1-9 where Jesus shows how the tradition of the elders transgresses the spirit of the Mosaic Law.

[91] Matt 5:21-45. cf. Glover, pp. 143-144.

[92] Henri Daniel-Rops, The Church of Apostles and Martyrs, translated by Audrey Butler, (London:  J. M. Dent & Sons, 1960),  pp. 126-127.

[93] Galen, from  R. Walzer, Galen on Jews and Christians, (Oxford:  Oxford, 1949), p. 15, in footnote 26, Lewis & Reinhold, Vol. 2, p. 556.

[94] W. H. C. Frend, “Edward Gibbon,” p. 668.

[95] Matt 22:37-40.

[96] Romans 12:9-13.

[97] Julian, “Ep. 49, ad Arsacium,” in A Source Book for Ancient Church History, edited by Joseph Cullen Ayer, (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952), pp. 332-333.

[98] “Edict of Toleration from Galerius, April 30, 311,” from Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 34, and Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 8.17.6-10, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2, pp. 571-572.

[99] “Edict of Milan, AD 313,” from Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors, 48, and Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 10.5.2-14, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2, pp. 572-575.

[100] González, Vol. 1, p. 107-108, 117-118.

[101] Eusebius, “Ecclesiastical History,” 10.7, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2, pp. 575-576.

[102] E.D. Hunt, “Constantine and Jerusalem,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 48, no. 3, (July 1997), pp. 405-424, , p. 411.

[103] “Theodosian Code,” 16.1.2, in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2, 617-618.

[104] Paulinus of Nola, “Poems,” 19, from P. G. Walsh, The Poems of St. Paulinus of Nola, (New York/Ramsey, N.J.:  [no publishing firm given], 1975), in Lewis & Reinhold, vol. 2, 614-615.

The Human Role in Salvation

(This essay was written for Religious Studies 223.3, University of Saskatchewan, 29 March 1999)

I have decided

I’m gonna live like a believer

Turn my back on the deceiver

I’m gonna live what I believe.

I have decided

Bein’ good is just a fable

I just can’t ’cause I’m not able

I’m gonna leave it to the Lord.[1]

(“I Have Decided,” sung by Amy Grant,

words and music by Michael Card[2])

There is nothing like a little decision theology to cause angst in the heart of a Lutheran theologian.  Yet, there are Lutherans, like myself, who have asked Jesus to come into their hearts and be the Lord and Saviour of their lives and these same people know, from personal experience, that a profound and powerful change slowly began to happen in their lives from that point onward. What is the human role in salvation?  To answer this question, this essay will begin with an historical overview of the debate within the church over this very question.  This will be followed by an analysis comparing the Lutheran theology–which is opposed to decision theology–to decision theology itself.  The essay will make three conclusions.  First, that the process of conversion causes such a profound change that it is far beyond human ability to, in any way, be responsible for such a change.  Second, that because of human frailty and imperfection, any salvation which rests, in any way, on human responsibility is unsound.  Third, that the process of asking Jesus Christ into one’s heart to be the Lord and Saviour of one’s life is best understood, not as an unbeliever making a decision for Christ, but as the prayer of a believer, working under God’s co-operating grace, giving their entire being over to God so that God can work with more power and might in their lives and accelerate the process of sanctification.

First of all, some clarification is required.  Decision theology is most closely associated with Evangelicalism.  However, to equate Evangelicalism with decision theology is imprecise for not all Evangelicals agree with decision theology.  As Alister E. McGrath points out, “Evangelicalism is a world-wide transdenominational movement, which is able to co-exist within every major denomination in the western church, including the Roman Catholic church.  Evangelicalism is not inextricably locked into any specific denominational constituency.”[3] This definition of Evangelicalism can be used to describe people or groups, such as Lutherans or Roman Catholics, who do not profess decision theology.  Therefore, it is more precise to use the term “decision theology” in this discussion.

During the early fifth century, Pelagius, a British monk, and Augustine (354-430), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, battled each other through a series of tracts over the issue of human responsibility in salvation. Augustine maintained that humans had free will, but that this free will had been severely weakened by sin, so that it had a strong tendency toward sin, just as a pair of balance scales with more weight on one side leans toward that side.[4] Pelagius argued that humanity is born sinless[5] and that human free will is totally free and unencumbered by sin.  Therefore, humans can make free and unbiased decisions regarding their own actions.  Also, God, having made humanity, knows exactly what it is capable of and He has therefore given us commandments to obey which we are capable of perfectly keeping.[6] As a result, humanity is able to achieve salvation entirely through its own merits.  Jesus Christ offers salvation to us only in the sense that he offers an example of a perfect and sinless human life.[7]

Augustine disagreed strongly, arguing that because of its overwhelming predisposition towards sin, humanity cannot possibly achieve salvation through its own merit, but a person receives salvation only as a free and unearned gift from God.  This free and unearned gift constitutes Augustine’s notion of “grace.”[8] Grace liberates humanity from its bondage to sin, thus restoring the balance to the scales of human free will, and heals human nature.[9] In discussing grace, Augustine developed three categories of grace which are widely used in western theology:

1.  Prevenient grace – This is the preparatory grace that God gives to unbelievers before their conversion.

2.  Operative grace – This is the grace which brings about the conversion of the unbeliever.  Augustine argues that this operative grace is the sole work of God and human co-operation has no part in it.

3.  Co-operative grace – Once conversion has been achieved, God co-operates with the believer to work towards sanctification (also called regeneration).  Because the human soul is now liberated from its bondage to sin, it is now able to work with God in this process of growing toward holiness.[10]

Through prevenient grace, God prepares unbelievers for conversion.  Through operative grace, God converts unbelievers. (According to Augustine, this grace is irresistible and is given only to those people who are predestined for salvation.[11])  Because of conversion, the human nature and free will of the believer is now healed and he or she is able to work with God in co-operative grace toward holiness.

Augustine’s views won out, in part.  The views of Pelagius were condemned in AD 417 by Pope Innocent I and again in AD 418 by Pope Zosimus.[12] Augustine’s “doctrine of the primacy of grace in the process of salvation” was upheld by the Synod of Orange in AD 529, but his views on irresistible grace and predestination were not adopted by the church.[13] However, Augustinian thought continued to have a major impact on the medieval church and, later, on the Protestant reformers, as well.  As a result, “Augustine, variously interpreted, has become the most influential theologian in the entire Western church, both Protestant and Catholic.”[14]

By the Middle Ages, salvation was thought of in terms of justification, or “entering into a right relationship with God.” Justification dealt with the questions of how could an individual enter into a relationship with God and what must a person do to be saved.[15] By this time it was generally agreed within the Western church that believing individuals, working under God’s co-operative grace, could gain merit from God through their moral actions.[16] However, such meritorious acts did not give any assurance of salvation.  Such assurance could only be given by a special revelation from God, but individuals were not supposed to seek such a revelation.  The only hope a Christian had was to not commit any mortal sins and to regularly receive the sacraments.  The inability of the church “to satisfy man’s desire for genuine assurance of salvation”[17] resulted in a reliance upon meritorious acts to enhance one’s probability of receiving salvation.  “According to Catholic teaching then and now, man’s justification depends in part on a righteousness to be found in man, and for this righteousness works are of great significance.”[18] During the period 1513-1516, Martin Luther (1483-1546), a Roman Catholic monk teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg, made a breakthrough in the theological understanding of justification.[19] In accordance with the theological understanding of the time, Luther understood “the righteousness of God”[20] as a possession of God by which he judges human sinners and finds them lacking. Therefore, Luther thought that the statement “the righteous will live by faith” meant that he must be righteous to be given faith.  However, in preparing for his lectures on the Psalms (1513-1515) and Romans (1515-1516), Luther came to understand God’s righteousness as a gift God gives to believers through faith and by which he considered them to be justified.[21] Thus, the doctrine of “justification by grace through faith” came about. McGrath explains this doctrine in the following way,

The justification of the sinner is based upon the grace of God, and is received through faith.  The doctrine of justification by faith alone is an affirmation that God does everything necessary for salvation.  Even faith itself is a gift of God, rather than a human action.  God himself meets the precondition for justification.  Thus,… the “righteousness of God” is not a righteousness which judges whether or not we have met the precondition for justification, but the righteousness which is given to us so that we may meet that precondition.[22]

According to Lutheran theology, through faith, this righteousness of God, also known as the righteousness of Christ, is imputed to believers, that is considered by God as though it were theirs.  However, believers never possess this righteousness.  Though counted as theirs and covered by it as a cloak covers their nakedness, it always belongs to God.[23] This contrasts with Augustine’s understanding of this process, for he believed that this righteousness is imparted, or given, to the believer, and that this righteousness is then possessed by the believer.  Luther’s younger colleague, Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), continued Luther’s work regarding justification and contributed by making a sharp distinction between being declared righteous – which he called “justification” – and being made righteous – which he called “sanctification” or “regeneration.” Melanchthon’s definition of justification, technically referred to as “forensic justification,” became the standard definition used by other Protestant reformers.  Augustine’s understanding was that both processes were two different aspects of the same process, which he called justification. Because the Roman Catholic church, at the Council of Trent (1545-63) affirmed Augustine’s view of justification and condemned Melanchthon’s, the defining of this same term in two different ways became a distinct difference between Protestants and Roman Catholics.[24]

The model of justification that came to dominate non-Lutheran Protestant thought was developed by John Calvin (1509-1564).  Through faith, a believer is united in a “mystic union” with Christ which results in a “double grace.”  First, because of this union with Christ, the believer is justified.  Second, because of this union with Christ, and not because the believer is justified, the process of sanctification occurs.[25]

The doctrine most closely associated with Calvinism is double predestination – that God divinely chooses some people for eternal salvation and others for eternal damnation.  Though it is a central doctrine of Calvin’s, it is obviously not a primary one for Calvin places it near the end of Book III of The Institutes.[26] However, Calvin’s successor as the leader of the Calvinist movement, Theodore Beza (1519-1605), took the doctrine of double predestination and made it a foundational principle from which he systematically derived the balance of his religious ideas.  The result was Reformed Orthodoxy and its five main points were:

T          total depravity of sinful human nature;

U         unconditional election, in that humans are not predestined on the basis of   any foreseen merit, quality, or achievement;

L          limited atonement, in that Christ died only for the elect;

I           irresistible grace, by which the elect are infallibly called and redeemed;

P          perseverance of the saints, in that those who are truly predestined by God cannot in any way defect from that calling.[27]

Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) was a Calvinist preacher and later a professor at Leyden.  Though he trained at Geneva under Beza,[28] by 1600, Arminius was sympathetic to Anabaptist views on grace and free will.[29] While in Leyden, Arminius came under pressure from a colleague, Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641) to defend Reformed Orthodoxy against the views of one of its detractors, Dirk Volkertz Coornhert (1522-1590).  Arminius finally made his personal position on the matter public in his Declaration on October 30, 1608 to the Lords of the States of Holland.[30] He reacted strongly against the Reformed Orthodoxy of Beza[31] and stated four decrees of his positive understanding of the doctrine of predestination:

1.  God appointed his Son Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Saviour so that salvation might be restored;

2.  God receives all who repent and believe[32] and gives them salvation if they persevere to the end.  However, all unrepentant and unbelieving persons are left in sin, damned and alienated from God;

3.  God will administer the means necessary for repentance and faith “in a sufficient and efficacious [powerful] manner[33] according to the Divine Wisdom and Divine Justice.

4.  The fourth decree concerns predestination,

“by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons.  This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing [that is, prevenient][34] grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere, according to the before described administration of those means which are suitable and proper for conversion and faith; and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise knew those who would not believe and persevere.”[35]

Predestination is reinterpreted by Arminius to be the foreknowledge of God of those persons who will repent and believe, and the result is a theology that is far more optimistic about human nature than Reform Orthodoxy was.  However, Arminius was not Pelagian in his theology.  Regarding human free will, Arminius believed that before the fall, humanity was capable of choosing the True Good, but only with the assistance of Divine Grace.  After the fall, while in an unbelieving and sinful state, humanity is incapable of choosing what is good.  However, a regenerate person (one who believes) “is capable of thinking, willing and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace.”[36] Regarding grace, Arminius states,

I ascribe to grace THE COMMENCEMENT, THE CONTINUANCE AND THE CONSUMMATION OF ALL GOOD, and to such an extent do I carry its influence, that a man, though already regenerate, can neither conceive, will, nor do any good at all, nor resist any evil temptation, without this preventing [that is, prevenient][37] and exciting, this following and co-operating grace.   From this statement it will clearly appear, that I by no means do injustice to grace, by attributing, as it is reported of me, too much to man’s free will.  For the whole controversy reduces itself to the solution of this question, “is the grace of God a certain irresistible force?”…I believe, according to the scriptures, that many persons resist the Holy Spirit and reject the grace that is offered.[38]

Arminius’ theological understanding of salvation was the inverse of Reformed Orthodoxy. The basis of Reformed Orthodoxy was predestination whereby God chose to save certain individuals and bestowed faith upon them so that they would receive salvation.[39] Arminius takes the Scripture passage “Whoever believes… will be saved”[40] and makes it the foundation of his theological thought.  Faith is the prerequisite required by God for salvation.[41] God provides His preventing, accompanying and succeeding (or subsequent) grace to assist people so that they may believe.[42] This grace is resistible and a person may refuse to believe even though sufficient grace has been given to him or her to believe.[43] When a person believes, their faith is both a gift from God, produced by Divine Grace,[44] and “an act of the believer” who is fulfilling “the requirement of God.”[45]

Arminianism spread through Protestant areas of the world, so that for three centuries after the death of Arminius, “it often seemed that all non-Lutheran Protestantism was divided between Arminians and Calvinists.”[46] There was Arminian influence in Anglican England through Archbishops of Canterbury William Laud (1573-1645) and William Sancroft (1617-1693) and Bishops Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) and George Bull (1634-1710).[47] In 1609, influenced by Arminianism and the Mennonites, John Smyth (c.1554-1612) founded the General or Arminian Baptists.[48] Though the General Baptists show a marked Arminian influence, the Particular Baptists show a strong Calvinist influence.[49] John Wesley (1703-1791) preferred the Arminian position on the questions of predestination and free will and so he parted company with his co-leader in the Methodist movement, George Whitefield (1714-1770).  Whitefield went on to form the Calvinist Methodist Church,[50] resulting in a Calvinist-Arminian split in the Methodists also.  Both the Baptists and the Methodists crossed the Atlantic to America.  Their efforts in the Great Awakening (c.1720-c.1770) and the Second Great Awakening (c.1787-c.1860) made them the two largest denominations in the newly settled areas of America.[51]

In this way, three distinct threads of Protestant theology have resulted.  Calvinist theology states that God in his sovereignty chooses who will believe and he gives them the faith needed to receive justification.  The grace by which God chooses who will believe is irresistible, that it, individuals cannot choose not to believe if they have been chosen by God to believe.[52] Lutheran theology states that God provides universal grace sufficient for all people to believe.[53] However, this grace is resistible and individuals can choose not to believe.[54] Those who do believe, that is, those who have faith, only have it as a gift from God and even their faith is not of their own doing.[55] “The ‘I will’ comes from God, the ‘I will not’ from man’s own free choice.”

Decision theology, which is often called evangelical theology, states that God gives universal grace, sufficient for all people to believe.  Where they differ from Lutherans is that they maintain that, to preserve some element of human responsibility, faith is, at one and the same time, a gift from God and the act of the believer.[56]

In terms of Augustine’s definitions of grace, the Lutheran and decision theology positions can be defined as follows:  The Lutheran position holds that God gives prevenient grace to non-believers to prepare them for conversion.  Then he gives operative grace by which He converts a non-believer into a believer.  This prevenient and operative grace is given to all through His Word, that is, through Scripture, but it is resistible and can be refused by individuals.  Decision theology agrees with Lutheran theology that prevenient grace is universally given to all in preparation for conversion.  However, where they differ is that decision theologians maintain that God also universally gives co-operative grace and that, because of this co-operative grace, individuals can co-operate with God in the act of believing and share in the responsibility with God for their own faith.

I believe that decision theology is flawed in two important ways.  First, though I believe that individual persons are responsible, and will experience eternal consequences, for their own actions with respect to faith, I do not believe that humans can, in any way, be responsible for their own conversion.  The change from being a non-believer to being a believer is so profound and the two states are so distinct and so separate with their orientations and foci directed in such exactly opposite directions that a human could not, in any way, be responsible for such a change.  Such a change could only come about by the direct and powerful intervention of God.  It is analogous to a cat changing into a dog.  Both are carnivorous mammals, but the two animals are obviously so very, very different that a cat could never, in any way, be responsible for changing itself from a cat to a dog.  Such a change, if it were to occur, could only be the result of the direct and powerful divine intervention of God.

I would also argue that the human nature of a non-believer is so diametrically opposed to being a believer that he or she could not even share in any responsibility for even wanting to be a believer.  Such longing or desire can only come about through the direct and powerful intervention of God alone, through His prevenient grace.  The change from a non-believer to a believer is so dramatic and profound that it can only come about through the direct and powerful intervention of God alone, through His operative grace.  I maintain that the only act for which a human being can claim responsibility is to refuse God’s resistible grace.  One can refuse to hear or read God’s Word,  or refuse the Sacraments.[57] One can harden one’s hearts when Christians try to reach them with the Word through personal discussion, radio programs, television programs, books and pamphlets.[58] To refuse God’s grace, which is sufficient and powerful enough to give us faith, is well within the realm of human capability.  That we can do.  Therefore, we are responsible for the eternal consequences which will follow.[59]

It has been suggested that the distinction between the two theologies, on this point, is just playing with words.  Decision theology says that we can choose to believe.  Lutheran theology says that we cannot do that, but we can choose not to believe.  What really is the difference?  To try to clarify the difference, consider this analogy:  Photosynthesis is an amazing process by which plants use the energy from sunlight to create nutrients.  We, as humans, are in no way responsible for that process and yet it happens.  Now imagine a living room with a large picture window and a house plant in the centre of the room.  The sun is brightly shining outside and, as a result, the process of photosynthesis takes place.  However, we, as humans, can install curtains for that window and close the curtains and, as a result, the process of photosynthesis stops.  We can close those curtains and, thus, block the sunlight, but God keeps re-opening the curtains.  When the curtains are open, it is not us who makes photosynthesis happen.  In the same way, Lutheran theology states that we can interfere with or refuse God’s grace (by interfering or refusing the Means of Grace), but we cannot, in any way, make conversion happen.  Decision theology says that human beings do have a role to play in conversion.

The second way that I believe that decision theology is flawed is that it casts doubt upon the assurance of our salvation.  Human beings are not perfect.  If our salvation rests, in any way, upon human action, then our salvation will always be suspect and can never be absolutely assured.  Only if our salvation is solely the work of God, who is the only being who is almighty,[60] eternal,[61] and perfect,[62] and by trusting totally on Him, can we be absolutely assured of our salvation.  Imagine a three legged table that has one leg that we know is faulty.  How can we ever be sure that that table is going to remain standing, especially when it is severely tested?  We cannot.

In spite of all this, the process of asking Jesus to come into one’s heart and be one’s Lord and Saviour cannot be totally discounted for I know that in my life, and in the lives of other people that I know, this process has had, over time, a powerful impact.  Yet, in my case, it was not the cry of an unbeliever turning his life over to God, but the cry of a believer turning his life over to God.

I do not claim that my experience is universal, but perhaps by understanding my experience from a theological perspective, a better understanding of the process of asking Jesus to be one’s Lord and Saviour may be derived.

It is helpful to begin with an understanding of faith.  Faith is often thought of as having three components:

1.  A knowledge of the tenets of Christianity (Rom 10:14);

2.  A belief that the tenets of Christianity are true (Rom 4:20-21);

3.  The main part of faith is a trust in the tenets of Christianity (2 Tim 1:21).[63]

True faith is not a mere matter of the head but of the heart.  It is not a mere intellectual belief that God exists or that Christ lived and died; but it is a firm confidence that Christ is actually our Saviour and that all our sins are washed away by His precious blood [1 John 1:7].  Faith says, “The Son of God loved me, and gave Himself for me.” [Gal 2:20][64]

A problem often arises because we, while still being Christians, so often compartmentalise our faith so that we know, believe and trust the tenets of Christianity but we limit the extent to which we trust them and God.  As Luther says, though we have been declared righteous through faith, we are still sinners and we still struggle with sin.[65] Limiting the extent to which one trusts God is one such sin.  It manifests itself by the way that we limit the areas within our lives where we trust God.  This disjunction of trust–trusting in God for some aspects of our lives, but trusting only in ourselves in other, sometimes most other, aspects–causes a titanic struggle within our lives.  For we know what we ought to do, trust God completely, but we do not do it.[66] We know that “the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace,”[67] yet we feel overwhelmed and distraught.  In desperation, we turn to God and, finally, give control of our entire lives, our own selves, our families, all of our material possessions, our financial concerns, everything over to God and ask Him to be Lord and Saviour of our lives.  These material things, and our sinful desire to control them and manage them so that they turn out the way that we want them to, are, in effect, interfering with God’s grace and we need to turn them all over to God to remove them as roadblocks.

There is a common misconception that by turning over all our material possessions, and by trusting totally in God, He will bless us materially and we will have peace, joy and prosperity.  It is an easy trap to fall into, but it is treating God like a genie who will grant one’s wishes for wealth and prosperity.  No, the Christian, as an heir of God and a co-heir of Christ should expect to suffer, but the sufferings of this life will be inconsequential compared to the glory of the eternal life to come.[68]

When a believer removes the barriers to God’s co-operative grace, then the process of sanctification may proceed unimpeded.  But what does sanctification mean?  It is often defined as growing in holiness.  However, I maintain that sanctification should not be understood as a process of gaining the attributes of God.  That understanding can lead to the temptation of pride.  I am suggesting that sanctification is better understood as a process of changing believers for God’s own purposes.  A cognate definition of the term “sanctification” is “to consecrate,” that is, “to set apart for divine purposes.”[69] This definition is very fitting for the Greek work, used in John 17:17, which is translated as “sanctify” is ¡giazw, which the Langenschiedt Pocket Greek Dictionary defines as “to consecrate.”[70] Perhaps the best way to think of sanctification is as a process with two aspects to it.  First, God, through his grace, works to heal human nature.[71] Second, because the ideal state for a human being is to be in relationship with God,[72] God works to build and strengthen this relationship.  (Both aspects of this process of sanctification, though they progress, will not be complete until the resurrection.)  As healing human beings in a strengthening relationship with God, we are indeed set apart for a divine purpose.  God is able to draw us closer to him.  Through God’s co-operative grace we are able to be a part of this process, as we respond to God’s love for us by shedding our old attitudes of egocentric selfishness and taking on new attitudes[73] of love, obedience and servanthood.  True peace, true joy and true fulfilment can only come about as a result of a relationship with God.  To be merely passive is to hinder God’s efforts, through His co-operative grace, to strengthen that relationship.[74] The hope and the raison d’être of the believer is that, as a result of his or her sanctification, others will believe and God will be glorified.[75]

So what is making a decision for Christ and why does it have a powerful effect?  Perhaps it is best thought of as the prayer of a believer who, working through God’s co-operative grace, removes all barriers to God working in their life, healing their human nature and strengthening their personal relationship with God.  After conversion, humans can cooperage with God in this process.  They gain no merit for doing so, for their salvation is already assured and rests firmly upon the promises of God.  They do it in response to God’s love for them and out of the realisation that they are utterly helpless without God’s help in every aspect of their lives.  Any human striving that is done without God’s direction and guidance is all for naught.  Any material gains that result from such striving are unworthy of any trust and can be wiped out in the blink of an eye.  Only in God do we have unfailing hope and absolute assurance.

A criticism of this argument might be that decision theology is almost the same as the process described except that, in decision theology, the process of conversion and sanctification have been compressed into one process.  I would respond that to do so misrepresents what is actually happening during these processes, obscures the role of God and elevates the human role beyond what it should be.  However, there is a place for asking Jesus Christ to come into one’s life, to turn all that one has over to Him and asking Him to be the Lord and Saviour of one’s life.  It is an action that we as humans can take, working under God’s co-operative grace, in the process of sanctification.  There is a place and a need for it, properly understood, even in Lutheran theology.


“Age to Age” Song List.  [Online] Available: (downloaded March 9, 1999).

Anderson, Charles S.  Faith and Freedom:  The Christian Faith According to the Lutheran Confessions.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1977.

Arminius, James [aka Jacobus or Jacob].  The Writings of James Arminius.  3 Vols.  Vol. 1 & 2 translated by James Nichols, Vol. 3 translated by W. R. Bagnall.  Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Baker Book House, 1977.

Bangs, Carl.  Arminius:  A Study in the Dutch Reformation.  Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Francis Ashbury Press, 1985.

Barth, Karl.  Evangelical Theology:  An Introduction.  Translated by Grover Foley.  London:  Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1963.

Bloesch, Donald G.  Essentials of Evangelical Theology.  2 Vols.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1978.

Cooper, J. C., editor. Cassell Dictionary of Christianity.  London:  Cassell, 1996.

Feyerabend, Karl.  Langenschiedt’s Pocket Greek Dictionary.  Maspeth, N. Y.:  Langenscheidt Publishers, [no visible year].

González, Justo L.  The Story of Christianity.  2 vols.  New York:  Harper Collins, 1984.

Grant, Amy.  The Collection.  “I Have Decided.”  7-01-684327-0.  Waco, Texas:  Myrrh Records, 1986.

Kittleson, James M.  Luther The Reformer:  The Story of the Man and His Career.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1986.

Köberle, Adolf.  The Quest for Holiness:  A Biblical, Historical and Systemic Investigation. Translated from the Third German Edition by John C. Mattes.  Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1938.

Lohse, Bernhard.  A Short History of Christian Doctrine.  Translated by F. Ernest Stoeffler. Revised American edition.  Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1985.

McGlothlin, W. J.  Baptist Confessions of Faith.  Philadelphia:  American Baptist Publication Society, 1911.

McGrath, Alister E.  Christian Theology:  An Introduction.  Second edition.  Oxford:  Blackwell Publishers, 1997.

Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics.  3 vols.  St. Louis, MO.:  Concordia, 1951.

Sell, Alan P. F.  The Great Debate:  Calvinism, Arminianism and Salvation.  Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Baker Book House, 1982.

Stump, Joseph.  An Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism.  Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1960.

Thompson, Della, editor. The Concise Oxford Dictionary.  Ninth edition.  Oxford:  Clarendon, 1995.

Torbet, Robert G.  A History of the Baptists.  Third edition.  Valley Forge:  Judson Press, 1963.

Vidler, Alec R.  The Church in an Age of Revolution.  London:  Penguin, 1990.

Wheddon, D. D.  What is Arminianism?  With a Brief Sketch of Arminius.  Introduction by E. H. Dewart.  Toronto:  William Briggs, 1879.

[1] Lyrics obtained from:  Amy Grant, The Collection, “I Have Decided,” Myrrh Records, 7-01-684327-0, Waco, Texas, 1986.

[2] Information regarding the composer of the song “I Have Decided” is not on the album.  It is was obtained from the Age to Age [Online] Available: (downloaded March 9, 1999).

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology:  An Introduction, second edition, (Oxford:  Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p. 486.  (On pp. 121-122, McGrath states, “The term [Evangelicalism] is now used widely to refer to a transdenominational trend in theology and spirituality, which lays particular emphasis upon the place of Scripture in the Christian life.  Evangelicalism now centers upon a cluster of four assumptions:

1 The authority and sufficiency of Scripture.

2 The uniqueness of redemption through the death of Christ upon the cross.

3 The need for personal conversion.

4 The necessity, propriety, and urgency of evangelism.

All other matters have tended to be regarded as adiaphora, ‘matters of indifference,’ upon which a substantial degree of pluralism may be accepted.”

[4] McGrath, p. 427.

[5] McGrath, p. 429.

[6] Mcgrath, p. 428.

[7] McGrath, p. 432.

[8] McGrath, p. 432

[9] McGrath, p. 433.

[10] McGrath, pp. 433-434.

[11] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols., (New York:  Harper Collins, 1984), Vol. 1, p. 215.

[12] J. C. Cooper, editor, Cassell Dictionary of Christianity, (London:  Cassell, 1996), “Pelagians,” pp. 208-209.

[13] Justo L. González, Vol. 1, p. 215.

[14] Justo L. González, Vol. 1, p. 216.

[15] McGrath, p. 437.

[16] McGrath, p. 436.

[17] Bernhard Lohse, A Short History of Christian Doctrine, translated by F. Ernest Stoeffler, revised American edition, (Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1985), p. 159.

[18] Lohse, p. 159.

[19] James M. Kittleson, Luther The Reformer:  The Story of the Man and His Career, (Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1986), pp. 87-89.

[20] Romans 1:17 (NIV) states, “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written:  ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ ”

[21] Kittleson, pp. 88-89, and McGrath, p. 438.

[22] McGrath, p. 440.

[23] McGrath, p. 441.

[24] McGrath, pp. 442-443.

[25] McGrath, p. 443.

[26] Alan P. F. Sell, The Great Debate:  Calvinism, Arminianism and Salvation, (Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Baker Book House, 1982), p. 3.  Also see McGrath, p. 451.

[27] McGrath, pp. 452-453.

[28] Carl Bangs, Arminius:  A Study in the Dutch Reformation, (Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Francis Ashbury Press, 1985), p. 66.

[29] Bangs, p. 170.

[30] Sell, p. 8.

[31] Sell, p. 1.

[32] James [aka Jacobus or Jacob] Arminius, The Writings of James Arminius, 3 Vols., Vol. 1 & 2 translated by James Nichols, Vol. 3 translated by W. R. Bagnall, (Grand Rapids, Mich.:  Baker Book House, 1977), Vol. 1, p. 247.

[33] Arminius, Vol. 1, p. 247.

[34] Arminius appears to use the term “preventing grace” in place of the term “prevenient grace.”

[35] Arminius, Vol. 1, pp. 247-248.  Also see Sell, pp. 10-11.

[36] Arminius, pp. 252-253.

[37] see footnote 34.

[38] Arminius, pp. 253-254.

[39] Arminius, p. 286.

[40] Luke 16:16.

[41] Arminius, p. 287.

[42] Arminius, p. 288.

[43] Arminius, p. 254.

[44] Arminius, p. 366.

[45] Arminius, p. 363.  For additional information about Arminianism, see D. D. Wheddon, What is Arminianism?  With a Brief Sketch of Arminius, introduction by E. H. Dewart, (Toronto:  William Briggs, 1879), pp. 8-16.

[46] Bangs, p. 17.

[47] Sell, p. 26-27.

[48] Sell, p. 27.  For additional evidence of Mennonite influence on the Baptists, see W. J. McGlothlin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, (Philadelphia:  American Baptist Publication Society, 1911),  pp. 50-54, 94, and Robert G. Torbet, A History of the Baptists, third edition, (Valley Forge:  Judson Press, 1963), pp. 22-37.

[49] Sell, p. 28.

[50] Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols., (New York:  Harper Collins, 1984), Vol. 2, p. 213.

[51] Justo L. González, Vol. 2, p. 230, and Alec R. Vidler, The Church in an Age of Revolution, (London:  Penguin, 1990), p. 238.

[52] McGrath, pp. 451-454.

[53] Adolf Köberle, The Quest for Holiness:  A Biblical, Historical and Systemic Investigation, translated from the Third German Edition by John C. Mattes, (Menneapolis:  Augsburg, 1938),  p. 145, and Charles S. Anderson, Faith and Freedom:  The Christian Faith According to the Lutheran Confessions, (Minneapolis:  Augsburg, 1977), p. 71.

[54] Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, 3 vols.,  (St. Louis, Mo.:  Concordia, 1951), Vol. 2, pp. 464-465, 469, and Anderson, p. 72.

[55] Joseph Stump, An Explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism, (Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1960), p. 89, and Pieper, Vol. 2, p. 466.

[56] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology:  An Introduction, Translated by Grover Foley, (London:  Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1963), p. 101, and Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, 2 Vols., (New York:  Harper & Row, 1978) Vol. 1, pp. 201-202.

[57] In Lutheran theology, the Word and Sacrements together are often referred to as the “Means of Grace.”  In other words, God gives us His universal grace through the Word, that is, the Scriptures, and the Sacrements, which in Lutheran theology, are Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (also called Holy Communion or the Eucharist).

[58]It should be noted that Christians are not the only ones who use personal discussion, radio programs, television programs, books and pamphlets to spread their message.  Therefore, discernment must be used.  However, individuals that I am aware of, who resist the gospel message, seem to have made those distinctions and they are very well aware that it is Christianity that they are resisting.

[59] Köberle, p. 143, and Pieper, Vol. 2, p. 469.

[60] Gen 17:1, Ex 6:3, Ps 89:8, Isa 6:3, Rev 4:8, Rev 19:6.

[61] Gen 21:33, Rom 16:26, 1 Tim 1:17.

[62] 2 Sam 22:31, Ps 18:30, Mt 5:48, Rom 12:2.

[63] Stump, p. 90.  See also Anderson, p. 52.

[64] Stump, p. 90.  Se also Anderson, pp. 51-52.

[65] McGrath, pp. 441-442.

[66] cf. Rom 7:15.

[67] Rom 8:6.

[68] cf. Rom 8:17-18.

[69] Della Thompson, editor, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, ninth edition,  (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1995), “sanctify,” p. 1221 , “consecrate,” p. 283.  (cf. “holy”, p. 648, which can mean “consecrated.”)

[70] Karl Feyerabend, Langenschiedt’s Pocket Greek Dictionary, (Maspeth, N. Y.:  Langenscheidt Publishers, [no visible year] ) “¡giazw,” p.3.

[71] McGrath, p. 433, (The image of God healing human nature is one often used by Augustine). Also see Eph 2:4-10.

[72] cf. 1. The Biblical references where God is referred to as our Father:  Deut 32:6, Isa 63:16, Isa 64:8, Mat 6:9 (the Lord’s Prayer), Mat 6:14-15,18,26,32, John 20:17, Rom 8:15, 2 Cor 6:18;

2. The Biblical references to relationship, fellowship or union with God:  1 John 1:3, 1 John 4:12-16, Eph 2:19-22.

[73] cf. Eph 4:22-24.

[74] cf. Stump, p. 92.

[75] 1 Tim 1:15-17.