The Fathers through Protestant Eyes

I offer a brief note as I continue to interact with the Church Fathers to grasp not only the doctrine of Universalism, but also to understand the contours of Christian theology as it developed in the early church. I am not a theologian, so my remarks are tentative. But, one thing I am noticing (though not without exception) is that the Fathers up to Augustine have a highly optimistic view of human cooperation (i.e. synergism) in salvation and in theosis (the process of being divinized by partaking in the Divine nature). I am willing to grant the validity of synergism, but as I read Origen and Gregory of Nyssa, I am left with the concern that their synergism is overcooked by their Platonist commitments.

As a Protestant, I do believe that the work of salvation – justification in particular is owing solely to Divine grace (monergism) in and through Christ. I still hold to the great Solas of the Reformation. I think this is part of the great contribution Protestants have made to the development of doctrine, especially when it comes to matters of salvation. That said, there is a marked lack of a spiritual theology in Protestantism that can receive, with qualification some of the great synergistic insights from the Fathers. Monergism can, and I believe does, serve as the bedrock for the synergistic participation in the Divine life as we share, through baptism, in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ even now in the present age. This opens us up to imbibe the very best of the great catholic tradition, especially from the East, that we have been set free in Christ by the operation of grace through the Spirit who vivifies us and now we can freely participate (synergistically) in the Divine Life because of the (monergistic) gratuity of the Father through the work of the Son. The great theological and philosophical work of the Fathers can then be tethered to Scripture… ‘it is by grace you have been saved, and not of yourselves…

  • Note: Donald Fairbairn has a wonderful article titled “Justification in St. Cyril of Alexandria with Some Implications for Ecumenical Dialogue” in Participatio Volume 4. He notes that there are marked similarities in St. Cyril’s works and Protestant formulae of justification by faith through the operation of Divine grace. So, it is not as if the emphasis on divine grace is absent in the Fathers, even in those who espouse strong synergism. But, for a Protestant, the point of connection to the Fathers through Cyril is worth exploring.
  • The work of Bobby Grow at The Evangelical Calvinist is an indispensable resource for Protestants who seek rapprochement with the Patristic connections to Reformational theology – especially as developed through Karl Barth and TF Torrance.

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