Augustine and the Annoying Orange
Often you’ll hear that the difference between Catholics and Calvinists is about the “doctrine of election.” Not true. Both Catholicism and Calvinism affirm that the reason for election is divine grace. Some Calvinists and Catholics believe that there is some sort of trans-world consideration of possibilities involved (Alvin Plantinga on the Reformed side, Fr. William Most on the Catholic side), but there’s no denial on either side of the necessity of grace in election.
The actual difference between Catholics and Calvinists is over the reason for non-election, the state from which people are being elected, i.e., sin. Catholics believe that sin itself has no reason; it is purely an accidental result of what goods God actually wills. Calvinist believe that sin is itself decreed by God for the sake of some other reason. The representative difference in dogma is summarized by the Council of Orange (on the Catholic side) and the WCF (on the Calvinist side).
The Council of Orange says:
We not only do not believe that any are foreordained to evil by the power of God, but even state with utter abhorrence that if there are those who want to believe so evil a thing, they are anathema.
The WCF says:
The almighty power, unsearchable wisdom, and infinite goodness of God so far manifest themselves in his providence, that it extendeth itself even to the first fall, and all other sins of angels and men; and that not by a bare permission, but such as hath joined with it a most wise and powerful bounding, and otherwise ordering, and governing of them, in a manifold dispensation, to his own holy ends; yet so, as the sinfulness thereof proceedeth only from the creature, and not from God, who, being most holy and righteous, neither is nor can be the author or approver of sin.
The Calvinists have spent a long time trying to avoid the vexing problem of why they seem to be flat-out violating a Christian dogma dating back to AD 529. A common go-to answer here is that they are really the followers of Augustine, but his doctrine got somehow softened, and that the Calvinists are therefore teaching what Orange was really about. One of the examples is the Reformed historian Phillip Schaff, who accused Orange of “semi-Augustinianism” as contrasted with the true system taught by Augustine.
Apart from a basic problem that the people asserted to be on the Augustinian side also didn’t have any problem with Orange, there’s the pesky fact that Augustine himself taught the same thing Orange did. And this wasn’t the kinder, gentler Augustine who supposedly became a Calvinist firebrand in his dotage. This was full-on anti-Pelagian Augustine, who still nonetheless didn’t believe God caused evil.
This knotty problem is solved if we understand God to be the artificer of all creatures. Every creature of God is good. Every man is a creature as man but not as sinner. God is the creator both of the body and of the soul of man. Neither of these is evil, and God hates neither. He hates nothing which he has made. But the soul is more excellent than the body, and God is more excellent than both soul and body, being the maker and fashioner of both. In man he hates nothing but sin. Sin in man is perversity and lack of order, that is, a turning away from the Creator who is more excellent, and a turning to the creatures which are inferior to him. God does not hate Esau the man, but hates Esau the sinner. As it is said of the Lord, “He came unto his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11). To them also he said himself, “For this cause ye hear not, because ye are not of God” (John 8:47). How can they be “his own” and yet be “not of God”? The first statement must be taken as regarding them as men whom the Lord himself had made, the second as regarding them as sinners whom the Lord rebuked. They are both men and sinners, men as fashioned by God, sinners by their own wills.
Since, therefore, I neither say that this intercourse of husband and wife is diabolical, especially in the case of believers, which is effected for the sake of generating children who are afterwards to be regenerated; nor that any men are made by the devil, but, in so far as they are men, by God; and nevertheless that even of believing husband and wife are born guilty persons (as if a wild olive were produced from an olive), on account of original sin, and on this account they are under the devil unless they are born again in Christ, because the devil is the author of the fault, not of the nature: what, on the other hand, are they labouring to bring about who say that infants inherit no original sin, and therefore are not under the devil, except that that grace of God in infants may be made of no effect, by which He has plucked us out, as the apostle says, from the power of darkness, and has translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love?
Now, the historically aware Calvinists (including Schaff) know this too, and that’s where the really wild theorizing starts. The story then goes as follows: because Augustine had a similar view of original sin, he must have really intended to be Calvinist, but couldn’t because of some other belief he had (whether it’s his theology of Church or never-purged Neoplatonism is never all that clear). But what never gets mentioned there is that Augustine advanced this belief on original sin because he was absolutely convinced of baptismal regeneration and the necessity thereof. In other words, the belief was supposed to be driving Augustine toward Calvinism was actually motivated by the sacramental theology that was supposedly the obstacle to Augustine’s becoming a Calvinist.
In the end, all of these historical arguments by Calvinists are aimed at showing one thing: that Orange really wasn’t an Augustinian council. Seems legit.