One topic that’s of perennial interest to Christians is the question of how God’s role in saving people intersects with human choice. How does God’s sovereignty (or, more accurately, his providence) relate to human responsibility?
The question arises because the Bible speaks of God’s choosing (or election) of certain people to salvation (Eph 1:3-4; Acts 13:48; Mark 13:20; 2 Thes 2:13), while at the same time speaking of people’s need to repent and put their faith in Christ in order to be saved (Mark 1:15; John 3:18; Acts 2:38; 16:30-31), as well as of God’s desire that all should be saved (Ezek 18:23; 1 Tim 2:3-4; 2 Pet 3:9). And Christians have come to all sorts of different conclusions when it comes to putting this data together. That’s why you have Calvinists and Arminians, Thomists and Molinists, Provisionalists, Universalists, and everything in between!
Well, in my recent read-through of the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament, I’ve been doing my best to note any place where they discuss this important topic, in an effort to understand how the first few generations of Christians viewed the matter.
Now, the common question some folks will ask is: Why should we even care what the early Church Fathers thought, since they’re not Scripture?
Even though I would agree that Scripture should be decisive as the church’s ultimate source of doctrine, it’s still important to see how these ancient believers thought about things, for several reasons:
1) They lived much closer to the time of the apostles than we do. Some of them even knew the apostles or their immediate successors personally. They had a near-firsthand exposure to the teachings of the apostles themselves, without much time for confusion, debates, and too much cultural baggage to slip into the conversation on this topic.
2) They revered the Scriptures just as much as devout Christians do today (if not more so), and one gets the sense from their writings that they did their level best to ground their teachings in the Scriptures as they had them. These thinkers built their own arguments upon biblical texts and concepts.
3) The later theologians you may be more familiar with, like Luther or Calvin, also all read the Church Fathers and frequently appealed to them to support their interpretations! These writings were often crucial in later debates on the topic, so it behooves us to have some familiarity with what they actually teach — especially so that whenever we come across modern teachers attempting to press them into service for a later doctrinal system, we can see if they’re actually doing justice to the Fathers’ own views in their context.
So, even though it’s easy to think that we should ignore these guys and only look at the Bible, we must all step back and remember that no one approaches Scripture as a blank slate. We all bring our own preconceived notions, as well as the conditioning of centuries of debate, with us when we look at the text of Scripture.
So it can be extraordinarily helpful to check our interpretations against those who have gone before — and who, in the case of the Church Fathers, were so much closer to the source than us. All the more so whenever we can find a clear consensus among all of them on a particular topic.
In this post and the next, we’ll look at the Apostolic Fathers — those writings from within the first hundred years of Jesus’ ministry, whose authors were alive early enough to have known the apostles. This will let us get a sense for how those very first few generations of Christian thinkers understood the subject of election.
1 Clement (between AD 70-97)
The language of “election” or of “God’s elect” is common throughout 1 Clement, a letter written from Rome to the church in Corinth to quell a recent schism between older church leaders and younger church members. This epistle is especially important theologically since it is one of the earliest writings outside the NT, and its author draws attention to his status as being in the same generation as the apostles Peter and Paul (5:1-5), both of whom were martyred there at Rome. Early tradition and manuscript evidence identify this author as Clement, one of the earliest successors of these apostles and an overseer of the church of Rome. First Clement was also one of the few writings we’ll look at that very nearly made it into the NT.
In 1:1, Clement describes schism in the church as “alien and strange to those chosen by God.”  Here we get our first indicator that the language of God’s elect/chosen is being used by Clement primarily as a reference to the church as a chosen community, not necessarily to individuals.
Later references in the letter will bear this out — especially in chapters 29-30, where Clement explicitly identifies the Church as being in continuity with the nation of Israel as God’s chosen community. He writes,
“Let us, therefore, approach him in holiness of soul, lifting up to him pure and undefiled hands, loving our gentle and compassionate Father who made us his own chosen portion. For thus it is written: ‘When the Most High divided the nations, when he dispersed the sons of Adam, he fixed the boundaries of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. His people, Jacob, became the Lord’s portion, and Israel his inherited allotment‘ [Deut 32:8-9 LXX]. And in another place it says: ‘Behold, the Lord takes for himself a nation out of the midst of the nations, as a man takes the first fruits of his threshing floor; and the Holy of Holies will come forth from that nation.’ Seeing then that we are the portion of the Holy One, let us do all the things that pertain to holiness…” (1 Clement 29:3-30:1. emphasis added).
Toward the end of the letter, in 59:3, Clement says that from among all the nations God has chosen those who love him through Jesus Christ. And in 64:1, he writes that God “chose the Lord Jesus Christ, and us through him, to be his own special people…”
This is a perfectly concise statement of a corporate understanding of election, where Jesus is God’s elect one, and those who love Jesus and put their faith in him become included in the elect community, the church. Such an understanding of election flows naturally out of the theology of Israel’s election as a chosen nation from the OT, to which concepts Clement has already clearly referred.
There’s more we can say about election in 1 Clement. In chapter 2, Clement reminds the Corinthian believers of an earlier time when they were doing much better spiritually. He writes in verse 4, “You struggled night and day on behalf of all the family of believers, that through fear and conscientiousness the number of his elect might be saved.” Again, note the parallel between God’s elect and “the family of believers” — that is, the church.
Clement’s words suggest that while he believes God has a number of elect in mind, individuals may or may not attain to elect status (and to salvation). At a later point, Clement says he’s going to pray and intercede for an end to the Corinthian schism so that the full number of the elect can arrive at salvation intact (59:2). And just before that, in 58:2, he says it is those who persevere in obedience to God who will be “enrolled and included among the number of those who are saved through Jesus Christ.”
The fact that the “number of God’s elect” might be saved, depending on their perseverance and on the influence of other Christians, suggests that, for Clement, election is never a guaranteed thing. Believers must persevere in their allegiance to Christ to finally be counted among “the elect” as a group. This is further supported by his teaching in 11:1-2, where he cites Lot’s wife as an example of falling away from salvation through double-mindedness and turning back.
We should also note 7:4-7, in which Clement says that Christ’s sacrifice “won for the whole world the grace of repentance,” and that “from generation to generation the Master [=God] has given an opportunity for repentance to those who desire to turn to him.” God’s offer of repentance and salvation, along with the ability to respond to that offer, are thus envisioned as universal and unlimited, rather than based on a prior, unconditional decree to save some individuals.
At the same time, and lest we misunderstand Clement as teaching that people can work their way into God’s love, we should notice that his prayer in 59:3 expresses tremendous dependence on God’s grace and enablement for his people to know him. There is also a beautiful summary of the gospel given in 32:4, which echoes the language of the apostle Paul:
“And so we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
Thus, Clement serves as an important witness to the early Christian balance between salvation by grace through faith and the need to persevere in faith and good works — a balance we see constantly stressed throughout the NT, as well.
In sum, Clement’s understanding of election:
- is steeped in OT notions of Israel as the chosen people
- reflects his culture’s focus on community and group dynamics primarily (as opposed to our modern overemphasis on the individual), and
- displays a dynamic tension between God’s purposes and calling on the one hand, and on the other the actions and choices of people who must avail themselves of his grace and calling to have a part in his salvation — and perhaps even to avoid hindering others from attaining it, as well!
2 Clement (between 70 and 140 AD)
The document known traditionally as 2 Clement appears to have originally been a sermon that may have been preached at Corinth sometime after the crisis of 1 Clement was resolved. It has always been preserved alongside 1 Clement, but could have been composed anytime during the late first or early second century.
The first chapter calls on its hearers not to belittle Christ “who is our salvation” (1:1) to whom we owe “many holy acts” (1:3). The author then describes the benefits Christ gives to believers for which we have to be grateful:
“For he has given us the light; as a father he has called us children; he saved us when we were perishing. What praise, then, shall we give him, or what repayment in return for what we received? Our minds were blinded, and we worshiped stones and wood and gold and silver and brass, things made by humans; indeed, our whole life was nothing but death. So while we were thus wrapped in darkness and our vision was filled with this thick mist we recovered our sight, by his will laying aside the cloud wrapped around us. For he had mercy upon us and in his compassion he saved us when we had no hope of salvation except that which comes from him, even though he had seen in us much deception and destruction. For he called us when we did not exist, and out of nothing he willed us into being” (1:4-8).
We should note several things about this important paragraph. First, the audience’s present experience of salvation is described as their having been rescued by God from the ignorance of idolatry. Second, their former life of idolatry is described as a kind of living death, in terms very reminiscent of Ephesians 2:1-10. The emphasis on God’s sheer mercy and apparently unilateral action in calling the church into existence from out of that idolatry also echoes Ephesians.
Were we to stop here, we could conclude that 2 Clement appears to fit quite comfortably with later systems of theology that have a more monergistic view of predestination and salvation, like Calvinism. However, the rest of 2 Clement makes it quite questionable whether its author thinks in that direction. The turning point is clear in chapter 3:
“Seeing, then, that he has shown us such mercy — first of all, that we who are living do not sacrifice to dead gods, nor do we worship them, but through him have come to know the Father of truth — what else is knowledge with respect to him if it is not refusing to deny the one through whom we have come to know him? Indeed, he himself says, ‘whoever acknowledges me before men, I will acknowledge before my Father.’ This, then, is our reward, if we acknowledge the one through whom we were saved. But how do we acknowledge him? By doing what he says and not disobeying his commandments…” (3:1-4).
In other words, God’s decision to rescue the Gentile church from their previous idolatry was an act of sheer, unmerited mercy. However, the only way individual believers will benefit from that initial salvation from ignorance and attain to final salvation from damnation (being acknowledged before the Father) is by their willingness to persevere in obeying Christ.
For the author of 2 Clement, reaching final salvation is dependent on good works and perseverance. The sermon’s moral exhortations are completely built on this assumption, which is hammered home over and over:
“What, then, must we do to obtain these things, except to live a holy and righteous life, and to regard these worldly things as alien to us, and not desire them? For when we desire to acquire these things, we fall away from the path of righteousness” (5:6-7).
“For if we do the will of Christ, we will find rest; but if we do not — if we disobey his commandments — then nothing will save us from eternal punishment (6:7).
“Now if even such righteous men as these are not able, by means of their own righteous deeds, to save their children, what assurance do we have of entering the kingdom of God if we fail to keep our baptism pure and undefiled?” (6:9).
“So, my brothers and sisters, let us not be double-minded, but patiently endure in hope, so that we may also receive the reward. For faithful is the one who promised to pay wages in accord with each person’s works. Therefore, if we do what is right in God’s sight, we will enter his kingdom and receive the promises…” (11:5-7).
“So then, brothers and sisters, if we do the will of God our Father we will belong to the first church, the spiritual one, which was created before the sun and moon. But if we do not do the will of the Lord, we will belong to those of whom the scripture says, My house has become a robbers’ den.’ So let us choose, therefore, to belong to the church of life, in order that we may be saved.” (14:1). 
“For if we renounce these pleasures and conquer our soul by refusing to fulfill its evil desires, we will share in Jesus’ mercy” (16:2).
Faith is barely mentioned in 2 Clement, and then only as the inner disposition in which we need to do good works. Believing God’s promises is the necessary motivation for obeying God (11:1), but obedience is ultimately the deciding factor. Initial entrance into the church is viewed as a response to God’s gracious offer of the gospel, but it can be lost if not maintained by a virtuous life (7:6; 15:1; 17:2-3). The text even speaks twice of the possibility that believers may violate their sealing by God and be lost (7:6; 8:6; compare Ephesians 1:13 and 4:30).
Thus, we should be leery of any attempts to press 1 or 2 Clement into service as a support for monergism, unconditional election, or eternal security. At best, it would be anachronistic. At worst, and as I presently tend to think, it would seem to fly in the face of the inner logic of the text’s warnings about perseverance.
On the other hand, though, it is significant that this fiery homily grounds its moral exhortations in the work of Christ on our behalf in graciously offering liberation from sin and darkness, and it frames our obedience as the reasonable response of gratitude to him. In other words, our good works and perseverance are seen as the way we truly acknowledge Christ as Lord and Savior (placing 2 Clement in good company with such NT texts as James 2 and 2 Peter 1). And perhaps we can forgive its apparently legalistic leanings by seeing it as an important warning against some serious moral laxity in the church to which it was first preached.
And that’s it for the Clementine material. We’ll look at the rest of the Apostolic Fathers in the next post.
 All quotations from 1 & 2 Clement are from Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3rd ed. (Baker Academic, 2009).
 Second Clement 12-14 is a bit of an odd section. Its author seems to be interacting with ideas that were circulating in early Christian communities and in apocryphal Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Thomas. His train of thought seems to be that God created a spiritual reality called “the Church” before the world began, and throughout history has been filling it with those who do his will, thus forming the cosmic Body of Christ. As esoteric as such language may seem to us, it may be that he is describing nothing more than the concept of corporate election just as in 1 Clement, in language that his audience found meaningful and engaging. The significant part is that the author of 2 Clement finds human choice to be decisive in whether or not one is made a part of this true, spiritual Church.