John Calvin and Augustine of Hippo

In last week’s post “Augustine and Plato” I tried to show linkage between Plato’s theory of Forms and Augustine of Hippo’s reasoning. I probably failed miserably at that but this is the kind of thing that Ph.D. candidates write dissertations about and which no one is able to do in a short blog post. That being said I don’t know of any scholar who seriously contends that Plato’s philosophy wasn’t a huge influence on Augustine of Hippo.

In this week’s post I have a much simpler task which is to show that Augustine had a huge influence on John Calvin. Fortunately for me there have been studies done that are easily accessible via the internet as well as John Calvin’s own words about Augustine.

If any reader has done much research on the internet they have probably found statements like: “Calvin quoted Augustine, on average, once every three pages in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.” I have no reason to doubt that but have never liked quoting any statistic without having a reference to the original study. While researching the topic I found a paper which goes into great detail about Calvin’s use of Augustine. In the paper “An Investigation of Calvin’s Use of Augustine” S.J. Ho tracks Calvin’s quotes of Augustine by year and provides background about how those quotes were used. I would like to quote Ho’s conclusion and let anyone who wants more detail read the original paper for themselves:

5. CONCLUSION
There is no one as influential as Augustine in Calvin’s writings, though Calvin did not use the opinions of Augustine for the sake of using them. He judged and criticised them, like those of any other Church Father and any council, according to their dependability upon the single standard of Scriptures. He showed little appreciation for Augustine in certain doctrinal positions. He could accept neither the allegorical exegesis of the Biblical texts, nor the philosophical subtlety of the speculations. He regarded Augustine as the Father of the Church who had comprehensively grasped all the doctrines of the Scriptures and who is the best qualified representative of the old Church of the first five centuries, in terms of faithfulness to the Scriptures. In this context, I confirm Calvin’s own proclamation of Augustinus totus noster est. In other words, Calvin’s Augustine is the Augustine who was interpreted and used uniquely by Calvin in the sixteenth century.

An Investigation of Calvin’s Use of Augustine
by S.J. Ho
p 81 (PDF p 12)

No discussion of the topic would be complete without quoting Calvin himself. In his book “The Calvinism Debate” (which is available for free at the link) Pastor David Cloud quotes Calvin on his use of Augustine. As you will see in the quote below Pastor Cloud is no fan of Augustine and, to be honest, I agree with him:

7. Calvinism goes back to the “church fathers” for authority instead of strictly to the new testament apostles and prophets.

Calvin freely acknowledged that his authority was Augustine. Consider the following quotes:

“If I were inclined to compile a whole volume from Augustine, I could easily show my readers, that I need no words but his” (Institutes, Book III, chap. 22).

“Let Augustine answer for me…” (Ibid.).

“[Augustine is the one] we quote most frequently as being the best and most faithful witness of all antiquity” (Institutes, Book IV, chap. 14).

“Augustine is so wholly with me, that if I wished to write a confession of my faith, I could do so … out of his writings” (Calvin, “A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God,” trans. by Henry Cole, Calvin’s Calvinism, Grandville, MI: Reformed Free Publishing, 1987, p. 38; cited in Laurence Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism, 1999, p. 38).

WHO WAS AUGUSTINE? He was so polluted with heresy that the Roman Catholic Church has claimed him as one of its “doctors.”

Augustine was a persecutor and the father of the doctrine of persecution in the Catholic Church. The historian Neander observed that Augustine’s teaching “contains the germ of the whole system of spiritual despotism, intolerance, and persecution, even to the court of the Inquisition.”  He instigated   bitter persecutions   against the Bible-believing Donatists who were striving to maintain pure churches after the apostolic faith.

Augustine was the father of amillennialism, interpreting Bible prophecy allegorically;   teaching that the Catholic Church is the kingdom of God.

Augustine taught that Mary did not commit sin. Augustine believed in purgatory.

Augustine was one of the fathers of the heresy of infant baptism, claiming that unbaptized infants were  lost, and calling all who rejected infant baptism “infidels” and “cursed.”

Augustine exalted church tradition above the Bible and said, “I should not believe the gospel unless I were moved to do so by the authority of the Catholic Church.”

I doubt that many rank and file Calvinists are aware of these quotes. If the largest influence on your theology is Augustine you are really an early form of Roman Catholic (as opposed to a modern one). If that is what you want to be then that’s fine but many Calvinists consider themselves to be opposed to everything Catholic and wouldn’t be happy to know this.

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2 Comments on “John Calvin and Augustine of Hippo”

  1. jeff Says:

    Calvin had very few original thoughts.

    If there were no Augustine the church would look radically different today. But, no doubt, someone else would have filled his role at some point. The desire to follow people is a killer of sound doctrine.

    • Glenn Says:

      Hi Jeff!

      Glad to have you commenting. I took a long time off and wasn’t sure you hadn’t given up on my posting again.

      I have heard many times over the years about Augustine’s influence on Calvin but I didn’t realize what Augustine really taught. What a long strange trip it’s been (apologies to Jerry Garcia) for me to realize all of the bad doctrine involved.

      Oh well, I will try and focus on staying on the narrow path. It’s too easy to wander off when concentrating on other people’s shortcomings.

      Glenn


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