Working on Wilson’s Dissertation (#2): The Epistle to Diognetus

Ken Wilson claims that he read extensively in the patristic sources that predate Augustine, and that they were unanimous in their views on how God’s election worked (based upon foreknowledge), and they were universally condemnatory regarding what he calls “DUPIED,” Divine Unilateral Predetermination of Individual’s Eternal Destinies (a phrase that appears exactly eighty nine times in the text of the dissertation). Chapter Two of the dissertation provides very brief discussions of the earliest sources we have in the Christian era. On pages 43-44 Wilson devotes a few lines to the Epistle to Diognetus. What immediately caught my attention was not just my familiarity with the epistle as one of the “high water marks” of Apostolic teaching in those primitive sources (along with Clement and Ignatius), but the fact of what Wilson said about this source. “One paragraph in this epistle (Diogn. 9.5-6) could represent Divine Unilateral Predetermination of Individual’s Eternal Destinies. However, other paragraphs do not allow this interpretation” (43). What catches the reader’s attention is that Wilson does not quote the text that could be a major and important contradiction to his own conclusion that Augustine smuggled DUPIED (a highly prejudicial and inaccurate phrase admittedly coined by Wilson himself) into the Christian faith centuries later, drawing from Stoicism, Gnosticism and Manichaeism. So before we look at Wilson’s attempt to substantiate his assertion, let’s look at the text he failed to cite.

This portion is, indeed, vitally important, encouraging, and enlightening. If this is as primitive as most believe it to be, it is a great testimony to the continuation of apostolic teaching in the second generation of the church. Here we read (using Lightfoot’s translation augmented by key Greek phrases):

2) And when our iniquity had been fully accomplished, and it had been made perfectly manifest that punishment and death were expected as its recompense, and the season came which God had ordained (ἦλθε δὲ ὁ καιρὸς ὃν Θεὸς προέθετο), when henceforth He should manifest His goodness and power (O the exceeding great kindness and love of God), He hated us not, neither rejected us, nor bore us malice, but was long-suffering and patient, and in pity for us took upon Himself our sins, and Himself parted with His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy for the lawless, the guileless for the evil, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal. 3) For what else but His righteousness would have covered our sins? 4) In whom was it possible for us lawless and ungodly men to have been justified, save only in the Son of God? 5) O the sweet exchange, O the inscrutable creation, O the unexpected benefits; that the iniquity of many should be concealed in One Righteous Man, and the righteousness of One should justify many that are iniquitous! 6) Having then in the former time demonstrated the inability of our nature to obtain life (τὸ ἀδύνατον τῆς ἡμετέρας φύσεως εἰς τὸ τυχεῖν ζωῆς), and having now revealed a Savior able to save even creatures which have no ability (νῦν δὲ τὸν σωτῆρα δείξας δυνατὸν σῴζειν καὶ τὰ ἀδύνατα), He willed that for both reasons we should believe (ἐβουλήθη πιστεύειν ἡμᾶς) in His goodness and should regard Him as nurse, father, teacher, counselor, physician, mind, light, honor, glory, strength and life.

So let us note the key phrases that would rightly lead Dr. Wilson to consider this section as teaching the sovereignty of God, the inability of man, etc. (i.e., concepts consistent with Reformed theology, which he boldly proclaims in his teachings, based upon his research, did not exist in Christianity until Augustine). First we have the assertion that God “ordained the season” or, better, the time, specifically, of the sending of the Son as a ransom for sin (the emphasis upon substitutionary atonement in this epistle is simply wonderful). God ordains times? God ordained the specific time of Jesus’ coming? In light of the fact that every interaction Jesus had with anyone during His ministry involved literally millions of “free will” choices, it is truly hard to understand how anyone can think that God ordains only specific actions in time, but does not decree the fabric of time itself. How could Acts 4:27-28 be true, for example, if the existence of Herod or Pontius Pilate was a fortuitous happenstance? No, if major events in history are to be “ordained” by God, the contexts that lead up to those events must likewise be a part of His perfect plan, including the actions of His creatures.

The text goes on to describe in beautiful expression the heart of the incarnation and the gospel itself, even showing a solid grasp of the centrality of federal headship (Romans 5) in v. 5. But then notice the phrase, “having demonstrated in past times the inability of our nature to obtain life.” Here is depravity, inability, in the very words of the epistle. This is not libertarianism. This is not “we simply choose not to grasp hold of the life so graciously offered.” No, this is ἀδύνατον, inability, in the very words of the text, and attached to our “nature” (φύσεως). Here, with the context plainly being salvific, the author announces what Wilson tells us did not exist before Augustine. Is it simply an oversight, then, that Wilson did not quote these words, though he plainly knew what they were?

But the writer goes on in words very much like that found in Hebrews 7:24-25 to assert that “νῦν δὲ τὸν σωτῆρα δείξας δυνατὸν σῴζειν καὶ τὰ ἀδύνατα,” “but now showing the Savior who is able to save (very same term used in Heb. 7:25) even the unable ones.” Again we can see why Wilson was forced to admit that this paragraph “could represent” a witness that is opposed to his thesis. Because, of course, that is exactly what it is!

Finally, the author connects two terms that are truly fatal for Wilson’s thesis: “He willed that for both reasons we should believe,” or, simplifying, “He willed that we should believe” (ἐβουλήθη πιστεύειν ἡμᾶς). Did Wilson see how clearly this phrase illustrates the flow of God’s will to man’s belief? This is New Testament language, and βούλομαι is plainly used of God’s decree and predestination. So, in Acts 4:28, “to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose (ἡ βουλή) predestined to take place.” And Ephesians 1:11, “In whom also we obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel (βουλὴν) of His will.” And, of course, this is the normative term for belief, “to believe” (πιστεύειν). Yes, we can see why Dr. Wilson would say this section “could represent” DUPIED because, of course, the author believes and expresses the very core of what defines Reformed theology today. The reason is obvious: the author is speaking in very biblical categories, and Reformed theology does the same. Introducing Manichaeism (which did not exist when this epistle was written) muddles and distracts from the truth.

So Dr. Wilson must have provided a compelling exegesis of these phrases, and overwhelming argumentation from the rest of the epistle to overthrow such plain teaching, yes? Well, of course not. He did not even note these phrases, or quote the text, as we have indicated. So we have no rebuttal of what I have just provided. So what rebuttal did he provide?

After writing, “However, other paragraphs do not allow this interpretation,” Wilson writes, “The Father sent Christ” and then introduces the Greek of the epistle from 7:2-6:

ὡς πρὸς ἀνθρώπους ἔπεμψεν, ὡς σῴζων ἔπεμψεν, ὡς πείθων, οὐ βιαζόμενος· βία γὰρ οὐ πρόσεστι τῷ Θεῷ. Ἔπεμψεν ὡς καλῶν, οὐ διώκων· ἔπεμψεν ὡς ἀγαπῶν, οὐ κρίνων. Πέμψει γὰρ αὐτὸν κρίνοντα, καὶ τίς αὐτοῦ τὴν παρουσίαν ὑποστήσεται;

As is so often the case in this dissertation, Wilson does not explain why he thinks the citation is relevant, or cogent. He does not explain himself, but leaves it to the reader to figure that out. Here is the English translation:

He sent Him, as unto men; He sent Him, as Savior, as using persuasion, not force: for force is no attribute of God. He sent Him, as summoning, not as persecuting; He sent Him, as loving, not as judging. For He will send Him in judgment, and who shall endure His presence?

Since Wilson did not explain his argument, we can only surmise that in some fashion he thinks that if we believe God uses persuasion, or summoning, or loving, this is somehow a denial of God’s sovereignty or His decree. Of course, since God’s decree would include the ends as well as the means, none of that would follow. So the citation proves nothing and provides no meaningful interaction with the above section.

But after this Wilson then writes, “The author urgently desires to rescue his readers from the Judge’s future coming.” This is a complete paragraph, but we must assume that the following Greek citation from 10.7 is supposed to substantiate and fill out the argument once again. The section he provides reads, “when thou shalt fear the real death, which is reserved for those that shall be condemned to the eternal fire that shall punish those delivered over to it unto the end.” Again, Wilson’s words are incomplete and disconnected from any flow of thought (a common reality throughout this dissertation). We can only assume that he is arguing that if you “urgently desire” people to be saved from punishment, then you can’t believe in DUPIED. But again, this simply shows ignorance on Wilson’s part. It provides no meaningful insight into the author’s theology or teaching whatsoever. It is mere assertion without argumentation.

Next Wilson writes, “This punishment from God upon humans would result from exceeding wickedness in humankind – only God himself stood capable of saving humankind through his Son (Diogn.9.1–2). There is nothing noteworthy in this observation, nor is it relevant to explaining why 9:2-6 is not teaching the ancient equivalent of modern Reformed theology. Wilson continues:

Semisch notes human inability requiring God’s mercy:
If they inherited eternal life, it would not be owing to the worthiness of their disposition, but purely to the divine mercy, and that universally would be capable of entering the kingdom of heaven, not by their own indwelling power, but by the power of God.”

Again, there is nothing to disagree with here since it is in no way relevant to Wilson’s claim that “other paragraphs cannot allow this interpretation” of 9:2-6. He then writes,

Meecham concurred: “‘The inability of our nature to obtain life … a Savior able to save’: We have here a demonstration of the doctrine of salvation by grace.”

To which we simply say, “Exactly right. You are proving the point.” But, having provided not the slightest bit of counter-argumentation to this point, Wilson finally makes his argument: “Despite wickedness and an inability to enter life independently, free choice allows persons to desire God and respond in faith, while this freedom still remains compatible with God’s sovereignty.” This is plainly Wilson’s theological belief, what does this statement have to do with anything that has come before? Is this supposed to be connected to anything at all in the Epistle to Diognetus? Is this supposed to be related to anything cited from the other sources? It is not. It is nothing more than Wilson’s personal beliefs inserted wholesale into the text without the slightest pretense of grounding in what is ostensibly being discussed. And again, I have found this to be a regular feature of this dissertation. Personal comments or beliefs inserted without the slightest foundation or even attempt at argumentation.

Next, the Greek text of section 7 is inserted without the slightest explanation. It is just left sitting there, without connection to anything before or after, because the following paragraph contains nothing about it. It is almost as if we are seeing Wilson’s notes and quotes from his research left unedited.

Finally, the last words on this Epistle to Diognetus from Wilson are as follows:

Meecham writes of Diogn.10.1–11.8, “Free-will is implied in his capacity to become ‘a new man’ (ii,I), and in God’s attitude of appeal rather than compulsion (vii, 4).”6 God does not compel anyone but foreknows choices by which he correspondingly chooses.

Let’s begin with Meecham’s assertion: “free will” is “implied” in this phrase: “Come then, clearly yourself of all the prepossessions which occupy your mind, and throw off the habit which leads you astray, and become a new man, as it were, from the beginning, as one who would listen to a new story, even as you yourself did confess.” So, by asking his reader, Diognetus, to listen to what the author presents about the faith, this somehow “implies free will.” Well, of course. Not autonomous will, but free will in the ability to choose to act or not to act. The text is not pretending to comment on the divine decree, it is inviting an unbeliever to hear the message, nothing more. We noted the text about appeal above, and again, nothing here is even slightly relevant to whether the author believed in God’s decree, the priority of God’s grace, etc. and etc.

So the final assertion made comes from Wilson and is again disconnected from anything in the Epistle ostensibly under examination. It is likewise disconnected from any form of argumentation offered. It is mere assertion. Where in the preceding citations has Wilson substantiated the assertion he closes with? “God does not compel anyone but foreknows choices by which he correspondingly chooses.” Did the author of the Epistle to Diognetus state this? He did not. Did Wilson even come close to dealing with what the Epistle does actually say, especially in 9:2-6? Not in the slightest.

So here we have an extremely primitive source that plainly contains phraseology and teaching that is perfectly in harmony with Reformed beliefs and doctrinal formulations. It contains a specific section that Wilson confesses “could represent” that very idea that he says Augustine first introduced to the faith from Manichaeism, Stoicism, or Gnosticism. But Wilson claims that other paragraphs “do not allow this interpretation.” We have seen that Wilson failed to provide any substantiation of this assertion, and hence, the Epistle to Diognetus stands as a refutation of his primary assertion.

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