Tuesday, July 13, 2010

This Blog has Moved

I've made the decision to merge this blog, Evangelical Arminian, with my other blog, Incarnatio, where I write more frequently on a wider range of theological issues.  I've not written on this one in quite some time.  So, I'm consolidating the two projects into one.  I still intend to write on the Calvinist-Arminian debate, but the posts will come at the address below.  I hope followers of this blog will find their way to Incarnatio.

Incarnatio Address: http://www.mattoreilly.net/

Saturday, February 13, 2010

General Call or Special Call?

If I understand them correctly, Calvinists maintain that within the general call of the gospel to all who hear it, there is a special call by which the Holy Spirit effects regeneration in the elect.  Arminians disagree with the notion of a special call and on biblical grounds.  In the parable of the sower and its explanation (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus teaches that the word is sown like seed, but it falls on different types of soil that represent the responses of different people to the gospel.  Some hear the word and Satan takes away what is sown.  Some hear the word and receive it with joy but only for last for a little while.  Some hear the word but are lured away by the desires of the world.  In contrast to the first three, the last group hears the word, accepts it, and produces fruit - thirty, sixty, or one hundred fold.  One important feature to see in this parable and its explanation is that the same word is sown in each type of soil.  There is no special seed that goes to the soil that bears fruit.  Likewise, there is no special call that awakens the elect.  The same gospel and the same call goes out to different people.  It bears fruit in their lives on the condition of faith; they must hear and accept the gospel, the very same gospel that those who persist in unbelief hear.  In the parable, the difference is not the word; the difference is the soil.  The condition of election is not a special call; the condition of election is faith, the acceptance of the sown word.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Why I'm not a Universalist - Resistible Grace

I tend to think that Universalism - the view that God will eventually save all people not condemning any - is probably more widespread than many people suspect.  Some move from Calvinism to Universalism because they think if a thoroughly good God monergistically saves people, then he must do that for all.  Some Arminians may tend towards Universalism because they emphasize God's love for all people.  If God loves everyone, then will he not ultimately save everyone?  In this post, I intend to show that Universalism is incompatible with Arminianism.  I will do so by highlighting the incoherency of attempting to combine Universalism with one of the primary tenets of Arminianism, namely resistible grace.

Universalism is incompatible with the biblical and Arminian doctrine of resistible grace.  To be a Universalist you must believe that God will one day save all people.  This means that God will one day have to overcome their resistance to him.  If he does not, then theoretically the salvation project could go on infinitely.  If God is to save all, and if we are to have any sort of biblical eschatology with bodily resurrection for those who are in Christ, then God must eventually overcome the resistance of those who persist in disobedience and unbelief in order to transform them into the likeness of the resurrected Christ.  Even if there is the opportunity for post-mortem salvation (which is unbiblical), these persons could resist forever.  God would eventually have to overcome their resistance.

Arminianism holds that grace is resistible. God, by his gracious call in the gospel, enables human beings to respond in faith, but he does not force their conversion.  In this sovereignly chosen framework, God will not save everyone.  If he did, he would have to break through their resistance and coerce their wills.  The Arminian vision of resistible grace is incompatible with Universalism.

So, to answer the question as to why I'm not a Universalist (other than that it seems quite incompatible with scripture), I'm not a Universalist precisely because I'm Arminian.  Univeralists must be committed to a Calvinistic model of irresistible grace.  I believe with all Arminians that grace is indeed resistible.  God will not overcome the wills of those who persist in unbelief.  Thus, if there is ever to be a consummation of the kingdom of Heaven, it regrettably cannot include all people who have ever lived.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Importance of Recognizing Metaphor and Analogy

Once again, I find myself compelled to respond to something Douglas Wilson has said on his Twitter page.  Once again, let me say up front that I like Doug, think a lot of him, appreciate much of his work, disagree vehemently with his Calvinism.  So here goes.  Doug said, "Some reject the idea that regenerating grace is irresistible. But nobody objects to the fact that our physical birth was irresistible."  I would of course be one of those people.  Yes, regenerating grace is resistible.  No, physical birth is not.  This matter comes up frequently in Calvinist/Arminian discussion and is worthy of attention.  The issue is that, like other Calvinists, Wilson fails to appropriate the metaphorical relationship between physical birth and spiritual birth.  Physical birth is a metaphor for spiritual birth; physical death is a metaphor for spiritual death.  If one thing is a metaphor for another, then they have some characteristics in common and others not in common.  They have both similarities and differences, and, in that sense, they are analogous and not identical.
A particularly illustrative text comes in the opening verses of Ephesians 2.  There Paul says that Ephesian Chrsitians were once dead through tresspasses and sins.  Here he is speaking of spiritual deadness, and the idea of physical death, with which most of us have come in contact, informs our thinking of the spiritual death of which Paul speaks.  That Paul is using metaphor is indicated by his saying that these tresspasses and sins are something in which the Ephesians formerly walked.  Now physically dead people don't normally walk in anything not least tresspasses and sin.  In contrast, spiritual death does involve some activity in tresspassing.  They are similar in that both are undesirable states, but the similarity does not extend to every characteristic of death.  Thus, the analogical and metaphorical nature of Paul's claim.  You were dead in your sins and that is both similar and different from being dead in the ground.  Paul goes on to declare that God has made the Ephesians alive by grace through faith.  Like spiritual death, spiritual life should be informed by what we know of physical life.  Both are indeed desirable and good.  This most certainly does not mean that both are alike in every respect.  And one of the ways in which they are not alike seems to be the matter of the resistibility of the one, namely spiritual life, and the irresistibility of the other, namely physical life.  Spiritual life is received through faith, according to Paul, which is an active response to grace.  So, the spiritually dead, by preceding grace, can evidently do something that conditions their regeneration, that is respond with faith. 

It is important to remember that metaphors and analogies are metaphors and analogies precisely because they are not the things to which they are metaphorical and analogous.  This distinction must be rightly appropriated if we are to understand biblical soteriology aright.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Don't Blame Me for Being Arminian

Let me say first that I have a great deal of appreciation and resepect for Douglas Wilson.  Though I disagree with his Calvinism, I think his work in the area of education and family are incredibly valuable.  His debates with the new atheists are outstanding.  Indeed, I am very close to him in terms of the overall covenantal structure of his theology, as would have been Wesley and Arminius.  Now for a very brief critique.  Wilson recently wrote, "Don't blame me for becoming a Calvinist.  I couldn't help it."  Now it certainly is not fair to levy a full-scale critique of an all to brief status update on Twitter.  There is not enough context to really deal with the issues.  For all I know he could have intended this comment in jest or jokingly.  However, the post raises precisely the question which concerns Arminians about the Calvinistic view of freedom and responsibility.  If God indeed determines our actions and beliefs ahead of time, then how can we be held responsible for them?  With Wilson's logic and in his worldview I can equally say, "Don't blame me for being Arminian.  I couldn't help it."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Grace of God and the Bondage of the Will

"For God is the one who works in you both to will and to work for the sake of his good pleasure." Philippians 2:13

Arminians often tout the importance of the freedom of the will while often forgetting the importance of understanding the bondage of the will. I've met seminarians who did not understand that we are not born with the freedom to will rightly and to will in such a way that is pleasing to God. Philippians 2:13 is instructive in this situation.

First, the will, and any freedom it might have, is understood as a gift in this passage. Paul has just exhorted the Philippians to live out the salvation that Christ has secured through his obedient life, death, and resurrection. Paul's command to work out, or live out the implications of, our common salvation is grounded in the fact that God is already at work in us enabling our wills. This, of course, means that our wills lack ability in their natural state. If God has to do the work so that we can will, then we do not have freedom of will when we come into the world. It's all gift. This means that when we reject this gift, we are rejecting freedom of the will. To resist grace is to run to slavery.

Second, God does this work for the sake of his own good pleasure. It pleases God to free our wills so that we can will what he wills. It pleases him that we would share his pleasures. It is a good and comforting thing to know that God is at work in us to give us freedom because he enjoys it.

Arminians need to strive for clarity with regard to the biblical teaching on freedom of the will. We need to acknowledge that, apart from grace, our wills are in bondage to sin. Only through the God's good pleasure to work in us to will as he wills are we able to experience the freedom of our will's natural bondage.

Friday, May 29, 2009

"In You" or "Among You All": Philippians 1:6 and the Perseverance of the Saints

Arminians are not of one mind with regard to the doctrine of perseverance. Some Arminians see perseverance as a gift which God gives to those who respond to the gospel in faith. These Arminians believe that a true believer will not finally fall away from grace. Other Arminians believe that perseverance is conditional on the continuing faith of the believer, and that it is possible for a truly justified person to be cut off from right relationship with God and perish eternally. For many years I held the former view. This was not necessarily because of rock solid exegesis of scripture. Rather, it was based on the comfort that comes with the idea that the truly converted will certainly be finally saved. In recent years, though, my mind was changed about this doctrine, and I moved over to the position that one could lose their justification. I felt that, if I were to be intellectually honest, the New Testament clearly teaches that the people of God are liable to judgment for unfaithfulness. One of the clearest texts on this (and the crucial text that changed my thinking) is Romans 11:17-25 where Paul warns the Gentiles who stand by faith (pistis) against becoming proud. He then holds up unbelieving (apistis) Israel as an example saying to the believing Gentile, "if God did not spare the original branches, he will not spare you, either" (21, NASB). This is no picture of a believer wrenching his salvation from God's fist. No, this is an image of God judging the believer who has become faithless. I resisted this reading for a while. But ultimately I must be honest about what Paul says no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

At this point, the reader may be wondering why this post is dealing with Romans when the title clearly indicates that the content will focus on Philippians. Well, here it is. Philippians 1:6 was the text that I held on to in order to maintain that my former position on perseverance (or perhaps more properly - preservation) was biblical. Even after I changed my mind I wasn't quite sure what to do with Philippians 1:6. Recently, though, I began to read through Philippians 1 in Greek and was struck by what Paul actually says. I've always taken this text to mean that God would complete his good work in me as an individual. The problem with taking this reading is that it neglects the fact that the English pronoun "you" can be either singular or plural. In Greek, though, there are two different words for you - one singular and the other plural. In Philippians 1:6 Paul uses the plural word for "you" (humin). The pronoun is the object of the preposition en which is often translated "in" but can really function with much more variety than that. One of the chief functions of this preposition is to indicate the location or sphere in which an event or action occurs. Thus, Paul could mean that the location where God's good work will be brought to completion is in the plural you that is the Philippian church. The verse could be translated thus: "The one who began a good work among you all will complete it until the day of Christ" (cf. NRSV) The community of believers is the sphere where God is at work, and it is the sphere where his good work will be brought to eschatological fulfillment at the day of Christ. This is a different matter than whether or not the good work is brought to completion in the life of an individual, a matter that Philippians 1:6 simply is not addressing. Paul's confidence that God is at work in the Philippian church and will complete that work is grounded in that church's participation in the ministry of the gospel (5). Even if some individuals fall away from the work, it does not mean that God's purposes for the church as a whole corporate community will not be brought to perfection.

In conclusion, then, Philippians 1:6 is not speaking to the issue of the final perseverance of individual Christians. That question is not raised in this text. Rather, Philippians 1:6 is evidence for the Arminian view of corporate election. God has chosen his church and will complete the work that he is doing in his church. One comes into the church through faith, and, according to Romans 11:17-25 out of the church through non-faith. But even if some fall away, it does not mean that God's work in the church is thwarted. Indeed, it is he who breaks of the branches because of their unbelief (Romans 11:20).