Friday, December 5, 2008

Election in Romans 11: The Salvation of the Hardened

In the early verses of Romans 11, Paul makes a distinction between two groups within the historic people of Israel: the elect chosen by grace (5, 7) and the rest who were hardened (7). Quoting the Old Testament, Paul goes on to say of the hardened that, "God gave them a sluggish spirit, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear," and, "Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them; let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see, and keep their backs forever bent" (8-10). These verses are regularly troubling to Arminians. When taken out of context they seem to assert some manner of unconditional election and predetermined condemnation where God chooses some some for salvation and hardens others leaving them to their tragic fate. However, when read in context, such a system cannot be sustained. Perhaps surprisingly, Paul goes on to invite the question as to whether the falling of these hardened ones means that they have fallen ultimately, "have they stumbled so as to fall?" (11). His answer is an emphatic, "Absolutely not!" The Apostle to the Gentiles then explains God's ultimate purpose in his hardening a part of Israel. Their hardening was the means to the end of the inclusion of the Gentiles within the covenant people of God (11). Paul then begins to entertain the possibility of the re-inclusion of these hardened Israelites by saying, "Now if their stumbling means riches for the world, and if their defeat means riches for Gentiles, how much more will their full inclusion mean!" (12). Now it must be stressed that Paul is not here speaking of the elect. He distinguished between "elect" and "hardened" in v. 7. The hardened then became the subject of his discourse throughout vv. 8-12. Thus, our understanding of election must be articulated in light of Paul's eagerness to consider the salvation of the hardened non-elect. He goes beyond mere speculation as the chapter progresses. He goes on to speak of an olive tree with natural branches that were broken off and a wild olive shoot that was grafted in (17). The branches that were broken off must be the hardened non-elect Israelites of v. 7. They certainly cannot be the elect remnant because the remnant was kept by God not broken off (4-5). Paul helpfully explains why they were broken off - because of unbelief (20). Then, after warning the Gentiles that they might suffer a similar judgment if they do not persevere in faith (20-22), Paul declares that those hardened non-elect Israelites will be grafted in again on the condition that they do not persist in unbelief (23). Paul is asserting not only the possibility but the certainty that some of the hardened non-elect will ultimately be grafted into the new covenant people of God on the condition of belief in the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Whatever our understanding of election is, if it is to be biblical, then it must be able to take on board (1) the conditional nature of election and, therefore, (2) the possibility of salvation for the hardened non-elect. At the risk of anachronism, Paul would have made a great Arminian. Or, more appropriately put, classical Arminians make for good Paulinists.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Arminians, Scripture, and the Perseverance of the Saints

Arminians are sometimes characterized as believing that a true Christian can commit apostasy and fall irreparably away from grace and salvation. This, however, is not an accurate depiction of Arminian theology. There certainly are Arminians who hold the view that a true believer can commit real apostasy, but there are are also many who identify themselves as Arminians and believe that God will guard and keep all true Christians enabling them to persevere to the end. In the latter view, perseverance is a demonstration of authentic saving faith. Both views are consistent with other affirmations that all Arminians hold in common including total or radical depravity, conditional election, unlimited atonement, and resistible grace.

It may help to know that the discussion over perseverance within Arminianism goes all the way back to the Reformation and can be seen in one of the earliest and foundational documents in the Arminian tradition. The Five Articles of Remonstrance, written in 1610 by followers of James Arminius, outline the Arminian opposition to unconditional predestination. In describing the Arminian belief in the grace given power of the Christian to successfully strive against temptation, the fifth article states,

"But whether [those who are incorporated into Christ by true faith] are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered to them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our mind" (emphasis mine).

This statement is important for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the Arminian commitment to biblically grounded doctrine. To depart from biblical authority is to depart from authentic Arminianism. Second, it demonstrates that Arminians have historically acknowledged the tension in Scripture over the issue of perseverance and have made room in their ranks for both positions. The Remonstrants were not primarily interested in opposing the budding Calvinism of the Reformation. They were first and foremost interested in rightly understanding and faithfully teaching Christian Scripture. This commitment to the Bible yielded a tension within the Arminian tradition which reflects a tension in Scripture, and, thus, there is room within Arminiasm for those who believe in the final perseverance of the saints and those who believe in the possibility that a true believer may commit real apostasy.

Critics of Arminianism should take note of this distinction in their characterizations of Arminian theology. Fairness in debate requires good will and a faithful attempt to properly portray the position of those who disagree. Describing Arminian theology narrowly as believing that one can fall from grace is a misrepresentation of the Arminian tradition.

I suspect that there are some (perhaps many) who resist the Arminian label because they believe in the final perseverance of the saints and have heard Arminianism defined narrowly as including a belief in real apostasy. It is important for Arminians to be clear that there is room in our camp for both positions. On occasion, I will hear someone referred to as a "two point Calvinist" indicating that they believe in total depravity and perseverance of the saints. In response, it is important to note that a two point Calvinist isn't much of one. In fact, a two point Calvinist makes for a fine Arminian.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Election in 1 Thessalonians

In the opening verses of 1 Thessalonians, Paul declares his knowledge of God's divine choosing of the Christians in Thessalonica, "For we know, brothers and sisters beloved of God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction" (4-5). Paul's statement of God's election of the Thessalonian Christians is clear. He does not say that he merely thinks or suspects that God has chosen the Thessalonians. No, Paul and co-authors declare their knowledge of God's choosing of the Thessalonians. They point to the power of God displayed in the preaching of the gospel which resulted in conviction of sin.

This bold statement of God's electing purposes is particularly interesting in light of what Paul says in chapter 3. Having heard that his Thessalonian converts were experiencing some sort of tribulation or persecution, Paul says that, "For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain" (5). Paul here expresses his fear that the Thessalonians had succumbed to temptation and forsaken the faith which would have made his evangelistic work among them empty. If they did not stay the course, his would would have been in vain. Paul conveys a deep sense of worry and concern over the state of Thessalonians' faith.

This is so striking because it doesn't seem to fit with what Paul says about the Thessalonians in 1:5. If Paul is so confident that God has chosen the Thessalonians, why is he so fearful that they may forsake the faith? These texts demonstrate that we cannot simply conclude that God's electing of the Thessalonians ensures their final perseverance. Whatever Paul means when he speaks of God's choosing (ekloge), he cannot possibly think of it as unconditional. If Paul really thought that the Thessalonians had been chosen unconditionally, then he would have no reason to be concerned about their faithlessness. Rather, we must conclude that Paul understood God's choosing of the Thessalonians to be conditional upon their continued perseverance in faith. In Paul's mind, one can be chosen by God and still potentially fall away.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Prevenient Grace in the Early Church?

Prevenient grace is that grace which God gives a person prior to their conversion. Prevenient simply means "preceding." Prevenient grace is a key distinctive of classical Wesleyan-Arminian theology. Opponents of this doctrine charge that it is unbiblical because the term or idea of prevenient grace does not appear in scripture. I grant that the term does not appear in scripture, but this doesn't mean that it is unbiblical. "Trinity" doesn't appear in scripture either, but it is a distinct and unique test of historic Christian orthodoxy. I do not grant that the concept or idea of prevenient grace is absent from scripture. It appears in John 6:44 where Jesus says, "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me." The concept of preceding grace appears also in Acts 2. Peter had just preached his Pentecost sermon when Luke tells us that, "when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what should we do?'" (37). To say that they "were cut to the heart" is to say they came under divine conviction for their sins against Jesus in handing him over to the Romans. This is clearly prior to their conversion because Peter answers their question saying, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the Holy Spirit" (2:38). They had not yet received the Holy Spirit so they had not yet been born again, but they had come under conviction and were being drawn to seek reconciliation with God. This is clearly grace which precedes conversion. Thus, Roger Olson can say that prevenient grace, "is the powerful but resistible drawing of God," which may not be a biblical term, "but it is a biblical concept assumed everywhere in scripture" (Arminian Theology, IVP, 2006, p. 159).

The concept of prevenient or preceding grace may also appear in some early non-canonical Christian literature. The Didache (or "Teaching") is a document from the first or second century which provides insight into a variety of early Christian ideas and practices. It isn't scripture, of course; however, it is quite telling as to the belief and praxis of the early church. In giving instruction regarding fairness towards household slaves, the author says, "for he comes not to call men with respect of persons, but those whom the Spirit has prepared" (5:10). We must be careful not to read too much into this brief statement. But it does seem to affirm a belief that God's Spirit goes to work to prepare people for conversion prior to their hearing the call of God. The objection might be raised that this "call" is something subsequent to conversion because the slaves are said to, "hope in the same God" (5:10). This objection is not necessarily the proper reading though. The statement regarding God's call is substantiating the earlier statement that God is over both master and slave (5:10). Thus, the exhortation to fairness may be grounded in the principle that God calls and saves both free and slave with no thought of their social status. If so, then the calling is subsequent to the preparing work of the Spirit. We may have here an early non-canonical witness to the concept of prevenient or preceding grace.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Purpose or Choice and Whose Is It? Another Look at Romans 8:28

"We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose." Romans 8:28 (NRSV, italics mine)

This familiar verse has an interesting and largely neglected history of interpretation. A couple of points are worth noting. First, the Greek word translated as "purpose" is prothesis. Interestingly, it can also be taken to mean "choice." Second, the possessive pronoun which I have italicized and which, to my knowledge, shows up in all English translations, is not in the Greek text. Paul did not explicitly state that the prothesis, whether it means purpose or choice, is something here belonging to God. So, this verse could be legitimately translated, "Now we know that to those who love God, all things work together for good, to those being called according to choice."

Fourth century preacher, theologian, and Archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom took this verse to be referring to the prothesis of those who love God, namely human beings who respond to God's call. In his homily on Rom 8:28 he said,

The prothesis he here mentions, however, that he might not ascribe everything to the calling; since in this way both Greeks and Jews would be sure to cavil. For if the calling alone were sufficient, how came it that all were not saved? Hence he says, that it is not the calling alone, but the prothesis of those called too, that works the salvation. For the calling was not forced upon them, nor compulsory. All then were called, but all did not obey the call (NPNF, 1st series, 11:453).
I have maintained the original Greek prothesis in this quote because the translator did not agree with Chrysostom's reading that the purpose/choice is that of the called rather than that of the caller. That Chrysostom saw the prothesis as being on the part of the called may indicate that he took it to mean "choice." The point here is simply that Paul's language is unclear as to whether the purpose/choice in question is that of God or that of those whom God calls. Chrysostom takes it as the human response enabled by God's initial call. This is a clear and ancient denial of the Calvinist idea of an effectual call. This is important because it demonstrates that the Arminian affirmation of resistible grace is not innovative. Rather, it recaptures a strain of thought present in the ancient church and held by none less than an Archbishop of Constantinople and one of the most influential and respected of the early Greek fathers.

**I am thankful to Dr. Ben Witherington of Asbury Theological Seminary for first drawing my attention to Chrysostom's reading of this verse.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

2 Peter on Atonement and Perseverance

I'm presently reading 2 Peter and have come across a couple of points worth noting regarding the nature of the atonement and the possibility of committing apostasy. Arminians affirm the unlimited scope of Christ's atoning work while Calvinists have traditionally affrimed a limited atonement (some are now moving away from this position). Arminians have been mixed over whether or not a true believer can forever fall from grace while Calvinists have always held that those who truly belong to our Lord will not ultimately fall away.

First, in 2:1 Peter launches into a powerful polemic against false teachers. He says of them that they bring in destructive heresy even "denying the master, the one having bought them." This verse could be taken in one of two ways. It might be taken to mean that these persons have never been followers of Christ and continue presently to deny him. If this is the case, then Peter clearly does not hold to a limited atonement. For he says that Jesus has bought these false teachers. On the other hand, it could be describing people who formerly were followers of Christ but have committed apostasy and now deny him. I prefer this reading because it seems that the affirmation of Christ having bought them points to their having experienced a state of grace and right standing. If this is the case, then Peter seems to be affirming the reality that someone might lose their justified status and undermines the idea that all true believers will finally persevere. This reading also carries the implication of an unlimited atonement in that these who have denied Christ and committed apostasy were not beyond the reach of Christ's atoning work having previously been bought by him.

Second, in 2 Peter 3:17 the author exhorts his hearers to be on guard, "in order that you may not, having been led astray by the error of the lawless, fall from your firm position." The NIV renders it, "fall from your secure position." Peter clearly sees the audience as presently secure in their standing with God. They are stable. However, they are not beyond the danger of falling. Whatever sort of security they have, it is not the sort that cannot be lost. For Peter, this has been clearly demonstrated by the false teachers who deny the master who bought them. To say that Peter really means that those who fall away were never truly secure in the first place is to ignore the plain meaning of this text. It is nonsense to speak of those who are not really Christians as secure. Peter believes that those who truly belong to Lord must be on guard and persevere, lest they ultimately fall away.