What Augustine can offer to Reformed theology today

John Piper writes that Augustine offers a corrective when Reformed theology becomes joyless:

And we need to rediscover Augustine’s peculiar slant—a very biblical slant—on grace as the free gift of sovereign joy in God that frees us from the bondage of sin. We need to rethink our Reformed doctrine of salvation so that every limb and every branch in the tree is coursing with the sap of Augustinian delight. We need to make plain that total depravity is not just badness, but blindness to beauty and deadness to joy; and unconditional election means that the completeness of our joy in Jesus was planned for us before we ever existed; and that limited atonement is the assurance that indestructible joy in God is infallibly secured for us by the blood of the covenant; and irresistible grace is the commitment and power of God’s love to make sure we don’t hold on to suicidal pleasures, and to set us free by the sovereign power of superior delights; and that the perseverance of the saints is the almighty work of God to keep us, through all affliction and suffering, for an inheritance of pleasures at God’s right hand forever.

Source: The Legacy of Sovereign Joy: God’s Triumphant Grace in the Lives of Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, p. 73.  You can download the book for free in PDF format.



  1. Out of curiosity, how closely does Piper think Augustine hewed to Calvinist theology. To hear, “We need to rethink our Reformed doctrine of salvation so that every limb and every branch in the tree is coursing with the sap of Augustinian delight.” followed by phrases like “total depravity,” “limited atonement,” “irresistible grace” one would get the impression that he is a 5-point Calvinist. I hear bits of Augustine quoted at times by reformers, but it always struck me as ignoring the overarching course of his life. What am I missing that author of the linked book would say, “The Reformation witnessed the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over the legacy of the Pelagian view of man”

    Augustine isn’t one of the first century martyrs. Ignatius may have wrote about no Eucharist being valid apart from unity with the bishop. Augustine lived from 354-430. He wrote that he “should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church. So when those on whose authority I have consented to believe in the gospel tell me not to believe in Manichæus, how can I but consent?” (Against the Fundamental Epistle of Manichaeus, chapter 5). While I would certainly acknowledge narrow areas of agreement between the reformers and Augustine, when I read him painted this way it creates a cognitive dissonance in my head, not unlike the Italian flag and Episcopal bumper sticker on my boss’ car. There’s just something about it that doesn’t quite fit.

  2. I guess after reading the book it makes slightly more sense to me. The author certainly does acknowledge Augustine’s “false” doctrine of Church. The way I see it, though, to consider Augustine’s doctrine of grace as being in tension with his doctrine of the Church, to use the author’s terminology on pages 25-26, does injustice to his doctrine of grace. It divorces his ideas on grace from their context. The tension is between a reformation doctrine of grace and Augustine’s doctrine of grace, not between Augustine’s doctrine of grace and his doctrine of Church.

    Augustine believed that he would have been immensely better off had he received baptismal regeneration as a baby. This is even acknowledged in the book, but it doesn’t acknowledge the implications for Augustine’s doctrine of grace. To acknowledge that Augustine believed God gives us grace through the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, by means of his Church and a ministerial priesthood, transforms how one views grace. Grace is no longer merely a spiritual force. God uses the physical, water, wheat, wine and a sinful clergy and laity to impart to us his grace. Augustine even believed that sinful heretics and blasphemers destined for hell could impart the regenerating grace of God through baptism, contrary to the claims of the Donatists. He believed that unity with the local bishop was a means of obtaining grace, and that withdrawing from the unity of the Catholic Church was to refuse the grace of God. It is not Augustine’s doctrine of grace that is in conflict with his doctrine of Church. It is a cherry-picked view of his doctrine of grace that is in conflict with his view of the Church: a view of grace that Augustine himself would neither recognize nor acknowledge as his own.

  3. I don’t think that Piper would say that Augustine adhered closely to Calvinist theology, but rather than Calvin and Luther were very influenced by Augustine; therefore, Calvinists can learn from Augustine’s love of God. From what I understand, Augustine seemed to have a strong doctrine of predestination and the necessity of God’s activity in choosing him. So Augustine had that insight, they might say, while misunderstanding how that grace came to us.

    Thanks for your comments on the connection between grace and the church for Augustine. It’s definitely the key tension in Protestants encountering the post-Biblical writings (and, from the Catholic point of view, the Biblical writings): the evidence of grace coming through the Church appears quite early.

  4. Interesting article by Miller and critique by DeYoung. Miller seems to be saying that this is the direction he thinks the Calvinists should move in order to be more in line with early reformation thought, which modern Calvinists claim to embrace. I appreciate the sentiment, but am not sure this can be successful while maintaining reformation theology. Of the two examples DeYoung gives of Calvinists who appreciate early church history one is John Piper, (whose autobiography of Augustine grossly misrepresents his doctrine of grace, in my opinion) and the other is Ligon Duncan. To call Ligon Duncan a patristics scholar strikes me as quite a stretch. He not only says that the early church fathers support reformation theology more than Catholic/Orthodox theology, he makes the specific claim that the early church didn’t believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but that the fathers were instead arguing against Gnostics who denied Christ had a real body. http://www.richardsibbes.com/Pastristics-for-Busy-Pastors-Ligon-Duncan-interview.mp3

    I can’t help but wonder if Ligon Duncan ever read the letter of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, “They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again.” To turn that statement into an argument against the Gnostics does injustice to the original text, IMO. It also makes Miller’s point by straying from what Luther actually taught and what Lutherans still embrace today.

    I’d be curious to see if Piper does a better job with Athanasius. I’m doubtful. As I see it, John Henry Newman was right when he said that the early church is almost universally ignored by people emphasizing reformation theology because the early church fathers make for horrible representatives of the said theology. It is a rare bird who can study and embrace those writings without becoming agnostic, Catholic or Orthodox.

    For this reason, I’m very curious to see what will become of the newly formed Center for the Study of Patristics at Wheaton University. Can it sustain funding from alumni and interest among entering students? If so, what will the denominational makeup of those students be a decade after graduation compared to when they start the program? Will the graduates of this program be able to gain acceptance among the patristics community as real scholars? I think it would be hard to gain acceptance as a decent patristics scholar if one makes the claim that the early church fathers were arguing about Christ’s humanity when he lived on earth in their references to the Eucharist. http://embracingtherisk.blogspot.com/2010/03/patristics-at-wheaton.html

    I hope I don’t come across as too combative. I really like your posts which tend to be both thoughtful and practical. While I can see debate among scholars over interpretations of Scripture given that the NT was never intended as a complete explanation of doctrine, it is harder for me to stomach what I see as wild opinions about the early church fathers whose writings tend to be so much clearer and specific.

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