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When I read the writings of early Christians I am constantly seeing references to persevering to the end and absolutely nothing resembling this teaching. It is almost as if everything taught prior to Calvin suggests a different Gospel to the one preached by Calvinism.

When I look at Scripture like Hebrews 10:29, I don't see these passages mentioned in Bible only circles, like GotQuesions.org for example where many pro perseverance scriptures are mentioned but not this one or the 80 some on other scriptures that speak opposite of this position are left out.

Was the Doctrine of Perseverance of the Saints ever understood by any Christian before John Calvin? Even in the slightest?

  • I heard one challenge that the doctrine was understood later from studying scripture, unlike such things as Papal Infallibility which the catholics invented much later outside biblical teaching. I find this comparison falls short, as the authority of the bishops in early christian writings are quite clear, and the primacy of the teachings of the Bishop of Rome, also quite distinct. In short, one pronouncement takes a new idea from the interpretations of one man and makes it doctrine, the other takes an ancient biblical and historical understanding and makes it official Church teaching – Marc Feb 13 '18 at 14:56
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To briefly summarize, in Calvinism, the central point of the doctrine of the "perseverance of the saints" is that those whom God has saved can never permanently fall away. Some implications flow from this idea, such as the view that a Christian can (but might not) have assurance of his or her own salvation. But the core of the doctrine is that God grants perseverance to those that he saves.

The church father that Calvin relied on the most was Augustine, and as expected, he is the most significant early proponent of a "perseverance of the saints" view similar (but not identical) to Calvin's. Here are a few quotes from his work, On the Gift of Perseverance:

I assert, therefore, that the perseverance by which we persevere in Christ even to the end is the gift of God; and I call that the end by which is finished that life wherein alone there is peril of falling (1)

When that gift of God is granted to them,—which is sufficiently plainly shown to be God’s gift, since it is asked of Him,—that gift of God, then, being granted to them that they may not be led into temptation, none of the saints fails to keep his perseverance in holiness even to the end. (9)

When, therefore, God’s hand is upon Him, that we depart not from God, assuredly God’s work reaches to us (for this is God’s hand); by which work of God we are caused to be abiding in Christ with God—not, as in Adam, departing from God. For “in Christ we have obtained a lot, being predestinated according to His purpose who worketh all things.” This, therefore, is God’s hand, not ours, that we depart not from God. (14)

Unlike Calvin and the Reformed tradition, however, Augustine didn't hold that a believer could have true assurance of salvation. The first quote above (chapter one) continues:

Therefore it is uncertain whether any one has received this gift so long as he is still alive. For if he fall before he dies, he is, of course, said not to have persevered; and most truly is it said. How, then, should he be said to have received or to have had perseverance who has not persevered? (1)

Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof summarizes Augustine's position as follows:

He held that the elect could not so fall away as to be finally lost, but at the same time considered it possible that some who were endowed with new life and true faith could fall from grace completely and at last suffer eternal damnation. (Systematic Theology, 4.11.A)

Perhaps a clearer way to say this is that of the many who receive blessings of faith and life, some are elect, and some are not. The elect have been given the additional gift of perseverance from God. This is opposed to Calvinism, in which the gifts of election, faith, life, and perseverance are all bound together.

Thus Calvinism diverges from Augustine in at least these two ways. But the basic principle, that a man's perseverance depends on God's gift, and not his own efforts, can be traced to Augustine.

  • @nathanial You are acknowledging here the distinct deferences from Catholic teaching and Calvin's. That being where Calvin suggest you can "know" before death, alternately Catholics "know" at death. Otherwise the position stated above is really not that they are "Eternally Secure in Christ" regardless of their actions or in actions. You are basically affirming my position that nobody understood or taught Eternal Security before Calvin, even if Augustine suggests something like it, understood even today as the Catholic understanding of the elect. We can choose at anytime to reject the gift. – Marc Feb 13 '18 at 16:18
  • @nathanial Don't get me wrong, I think this is as close as you can get to an actual answer to the question. I just don't think you answered the question but confirmed the premiss that the teaching was unique to Calvin. – Marc Feb 13 '18 at 16:26
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    @Marc It sounds like you may not understand quite what a Calvinist means when they say "eternal security" or "perseverance of the Saints". These are references to God's eternal perspective, not necessarily ours. While we can also have joy in knowing of what God has done for us as evidenced by fruit in our lives and hence have rest based on his completed work it is not for us to unconditionally know ahead of time how things will play out for any particular individual and does not exclude all self-examination in the life of a believer. Maybe clarifying these subtleties would help this answer. – Caleb Feb 13 '18 at 16:26
  • @Celeb It is possible that I do not understand, so I am trying to. If you say to me "God Knows who the Elect Is" I am in agreement, this is the Catholic position. Now, if you say "I know that I am saved and that I am of the Elect and cannot loose my salvation" as you say, this would be our own perspective. This is the perspective I am hearing, salvation attributed to a believer before the judgement. Help me to distinguish the mis understanding, how are these people judging their own Sainthood, the Tax Collector banging his chest and not the Pharisee thanking God for his reward. – Marc Feb 13 '18 at 16:36
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    @Marc I have added a brief summary of the Calvinist doctrine to the top of the answer. It is quite likely that you are right, that no one prior to the Reformation held all the beliefs now associated with Calvinist "perseverance of the saints." But Reformed theologians believe that Augustine, though disagreeing with Calvin in some ways, taught the core of the doctrine – that God grants perseverance to the elect. Thus I'd contend that this at the very least answers your request for an older view similar to Calvin's "even in the slightest." – Nathaniel Feb 13 '18 at 16:48

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