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).

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why the Author of Hebrews Wouldn't Have Been a Calvinist

Hebrews 10:26-30 is known for its shocking and drastic declarations. In the span of five verses, the author deals with both issues of the extent of the atonement and the perseverance of the saints. The author creates a comparative contrast between the Mosaic covenant and the covenant of Christ (28-29). He is claiming that the member of the Mosaic covenant who violated that covenant was judged by the terms of that covenant. He goes on to indicate that the punishment for those who spurn the Son of God will be that much worse. The comparison here involves the similarity between the Mosaic covenant and the Messianic covenant that whoever violates them will be judged according to the covenant of which he is a member. The contrast involves the varying degree of punishment. If condemnation was that bad for the one who violated Moses, how bad do you think it will be for the one who violates the Son of God. Several observations are worth making here.

1. The author of the Hebrews does not presuppose that membership in the covenant of Christ translates into final salvation. He sees this as a commonality between the Mosaic and the Messianic covenants. There are those who can be sanctified by the blood of the covenant of Christ who persist in sin and fail to receive the salvation that is the ultimate and final benefit of the covenant relationship. That is to say, the author of Hebrews did not believe in the final and necessary perseverance of the saints. Note that the verb "to sanctify" (hagiadzo) is from the same Greek root as the word for saint (hagios).

2. Since the author does not presuppose that covenant membership guarantees final salvation, he presupposes that one may be sanctified by the blood of Christ and yet fall away. Thus, he also takes it to be the case that the benefits of Christ's blood extend to some who may ultimately fall from grace and experience the covenantal curse. This means that the author of Hebrews did not believe that the atonement was only intended for those who would be ultimately saved.

So, Hebrews teaches the possibility that the saints may fall away and that the potential benefits of the atonement extend to those who may not be saved. For these reasons, the author of the letter to the Hebrews would not have been a Calvinist.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

To Calvinists from a Calvinist: Let's Calm Down

I was happy to see a post by Calvinist blogger C. Michael Patton calling for Calvinists to "calm down." I was most pleased to see Patton calling Calvinists to account for commonly associating Arminians with various heretical positions. Patton's attitude is to be greatly appreciated, and if both sides took his tone more often, then the debate would be more productive. I've copied a few exerpts below or you can read the whole thing.

"Calvinists: Don’t send me any more emails talking about the “heresy” of Arminianism. I don’t get excited. Don’t forward me any more videos that dramatize the departure of Arminian theology. I won’t ride that bus. If you do, with sadness, I will just delete them. Not because of the message telling me “Ten Reasons Arminians Have a Different Gospel,” but because the message you give when you forward this kind of stuff."

"Are Arminians wrong? This is what we believe, but the seriousness of their departure should not be overstated. We treat each other with great respect, knowing their love for Christ and the image of God they bear."

"The rhetoric that is out there is embarrassing. I am sick of having to explain over and over again what Calvinism is not before I get to what it is. “No, we are not arrogant.” (At least we are not supposed to be.) “No we don’t think we are better than others.” (How could we? Don’t we promote the doctrines of grace? Do we even know what grace means?) And, most importantly, “No, we don’t think Arminians are going to hell.” If you do, then you are way out of line."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Transgression, the Gift, and the Many: Romans 5 and the Unlimited Scope of the Atonement

Calvinists and Arminians disagree over the scope of Jesus' atoning work. Calvinists argue that the saving work of Jesus is intended exclusively for the elect. God has chosen the unchangeable number of those to be saved, and Christ's work is effective for them alone. Arminians see this as a denial of the clear teaching of scripture that the scope of Christ's atoning work is unlimited being sufficient for the salvation of every person and applied to a person on the condition of faith in Christ.

One of the key texts for the Arminian understanding of unlimited atonement is Romans 5:15, 18-19 where Paul says, "But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man's trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many...Therefore just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous."

For Paul, if we are to understand the nature of Christ's atoning work for us, we need to understand the nature of Adam's transgression. The sin of the one man, Adam, led to death for all. In Adam, all sinned and died. In his sin, Adam represented the entire human race and the entire human race fell as a consequence. Paul's term for the entire human race here is "the many." Calvinists and Arminians agree that the extent of the fall was unlimited with regard to the whole human race.

Paul draws out the similarity between the transgression of Adam and the obedience of Christ through his use of the term "the many." In Adam, the many were made sinners. Likewise, in Christ, grace abounds to the many. That means that the scope of the atonement is equal to the scope of Adam's transgression. The work of Christ abounds to all those who, in Adam, sinned and died. If Adam's transgression caused the entire human race to fall, then the provision of Christ's atoning work is extended to the entire human race as well.

Now if there is similarity between Adam and Christ, there is also a difference. In Adam, all died without condition. However, in Christ, the benefits of his saving work are applied on the condition of faith, as Paul has indicated earlier in the letter (cf. 3:21-26). This is what guards us against using this text to teach universal salvation.

It should be clear, then, that the provision for salvation in Christ extends as far as the penalty of Adam's transgression. That is, the atoning work of Christ is unlimited in its scope.

Monday, April 27, 2009

John MacArthur Misrepresents Arminianism

At the 2008 Together for the Gospel Conference, John MacArthur delivered a message entitled "The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing: The Doctrine of Absolute Inability" in which he grossly misrepresented Arminian theology by saying:

"So that the sinner unaided by the Holy Spirit must make the first move. That is essentially Arminian theology. The sinner unaided must make the first move, and God will then respond when the sinner makes the first move. What the Bible teaches is that the sinner can't and won't. He is unable and unwilling."

This incredible statement is both misleading and misrepresentative of Arminius' own thinking and of those who faithfully carry on the biblical understanding of salvation he taught. This can be easily demonstrated by looking to the sources. Arminius said this:

"But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing, and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace" ("Declaration of Sentiments," Works, I:659-60).

Like MacArthur, Arminius affirms the incapability of any person to think, will, or do any good. Note also that Arminius affirms the necessity of the regenerating work of the Triune God if the sinner is to be able to do anything good, not least turn toward God. Clearly in Arminius' thinking, God takes the initiative.

A quote from another well known Arminian thinker further demonstrates the inaccuracy of MacArthur's statement. In his sermon on "Original Sin," John Wesley said this:

"No man loves God by nature, any more than he does a stone, or the earth he treads upon. What we love we delight in; But no man has naturally any delight in God. In our natural state we cannot conceive how any one should delight in him. We take no pleasure in him at all; he is utterly tasteless to us. To love God! it is far above, out of our sight. We cannot, naturally, attain unto it" (Works, VI:59).

And in his sermon on "The New Birth" Wesley says this:

"And in Adam all died, all human kind, all the children of men who were then in Adam's loins. The natural consequence of this is, that every one descended from him comes into the world spiritually dead, dead to God, wholly dead in sin; entirely void of the life of God; void of the image of God, of all that righteousness and holiness wherein Adam was created. Instead of this, every man born into the world now bears the image of the devil in pride and self-will; the image of the beast, in sensual appetites and desires...While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear. His other spiritual senses are all locked up. He is in the same condition as if he had them not" (Works, VI:68, 70).

I quote at length here to make the point. Both Arminius and Wesley taught that human beings, in their natural and carnal state, are neither willing nor able to turn to God. Human beings come into this world with a distaste for God and no interest in turning to him. God always makes the first move which enables any response on the part of the sinner. God always takes the initiative in salvation!

Now there may be some that call themselves Arminian while teaching that human beings must make the first move toward God. These, though, should be recognized as the semi-Pelagians that they are. True Arminians believe in the initiating priority of divine grace in contrast to semi-Pelagians who falsely teach that fallen humans have the ability to initiate salvation (see Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology, 15-16). The Society of Evangelical Arminians exists today to carry faithfully carry on Arminius' biblical teaching. Their statement of faith reads:

"In and of themselves and apart from the grace of God human beings can neither think, will, nor do anything good, including believe. But the prevenient grace of God prepares and enables sinners to receive the free gift of salvation offered in Christ and his gospel. Only through the grace of God can sinners believe and so be regenerated by the Holy Spirit unto salvation and spiritual life."

MacArthur has committed the straw man fallacy by setting up a false opponent to tear down. He has misrepresented Arminian theology and set the misrepresentation in contrast to the Bible. His statements show his lack of familiarity with the theology of those he argues against. But the sources ring out against him and demonstrate the falsity of his claim. If he desires to engage Arminian theology in the Spirit of Christ and with honesty, then he ought to seek to understand the system well enough to represent it fairly and accurately. If he is a man of integrity, he will withdraw this incredulous claim.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Falling Away in Galatians Five

"You have been cut off from Christ, you who would be justified by the law, you have fallen from grace." Galatians 5:4

Some of Paul's most severe language is found in his letter to the Galatians. This letter is also the place where some of his clearest language on perseverance and falling away can be found. This verse from chapter 5 is one of those places. To say that one has been cut off from Christ implies that one is joined to Christ in the first place. The Galatian Christians, having been justified by grace, joined to Christ, and received the Spirit, are now trying to maintain their standing with God on the basis of Torah observance. Instead of moving forward in salvation history as God has designed, they are seeking to move back to a previous covenantal administration which is a denial of the gospel of Christ. The point is that Paul is dealing with those who have the Spirit (Gal 3:3) and have been joined to Christ, and yet he sees it as a real possibility that they could be cut off from Christ and lose their justification. Paul does not see them as being without hope; that's why he wrote the letter. He is quite clear, though, that despite being joined to Christ, their final perseverance is in jeopardy.

Arminian Theology and Open Theism

Open Theism is a school of thought which believes that God does not have exhaustive foreknowledge of the future. Their view comes about after attempts to reconcile human freedom and divine foreknowledge. Open Theists reject that these two concepts are reconcilable and ultimately reject the idea that God does indeed have exhaustive foreknowledge. If the future has truly undetermined and uncaused decisions and actions, they say, then God cannot fully know the future because much of it is not available to be known. They claim that God has decided to limit his knowledge of the future in order to maintain human freedom as a necessary quality of a meaningful relationship. Some have argued that this view is a necessary implication and a logical development of Arminian theology, and those who have made a move towards openness theology are usually from the Arminian tradition. This is unfortunate, though, because Classical Arminian theology has historically affirmed God's exhaustive foreknowledge of the future. This post will look at two weighty historical sources to show that Open Theism constitutes not a development but a denial of Classical Arminian thought.

Our first source is James Arminius himself. While expounding his understanding of the divine decrees in his "Declaration of Sentiments" , Arminius said, "To these succeeds the FOURTH decree, by which God decreed to save and damn certain particular persons. This decree has its foundation in the foreknowledge of God, by which he knew from all eternity those individuals who would, through his preventing [prevenient] grace, believe, and, through his subsequent grace would persevere...and, by which foreknowledge, he likewise know those who would not believe and persevere" (quoted in R. Olson, Arminian Theology, 184).

It should be clear here that Arminius, far from rejecting the foreknowledge of God, grounded his understanding of predestination and election in the fact of God's foreknowledge. Arminius understood God to be able to look into the future to see who would respond to his grace both in justification and perseverance. God then determined to save those whom he foreknew would respond to his grace by faith. Those who would be faithful to Arminius' thinking must affirm God's foreknowledge as the ground of God's predetermination.

Our second historical source is, perhaps, the most famous and well-known Arminian second only to Arminius himself - John Wesley. In his sermon "On Predestination," Wesley argued that the foreknowledge of God is the first point to be addressed in considering God's whole work in salvation." Wesley said that, "God foreknew those in every nation who would believe," and that, "In a word, God, looking on all ages, from the creation to the consummation, as a moment, and seeing at once whatever is in the hearts of all children of men, knows every one that does or does not believe, in every age or nation" (Works, VI.226-7). Wesley saw no conflict between human moral freedom and divine foreknowledge. He affirmed that though God knew the future, he did not determine it. Wesley believed that we must not think that things are because God knows them; rather, God knows them because they are (Works, VI.227). Like Arminius, Wesley saw God's divine foreknowledge as the ground of his predetermination to save those who believe and damn those who do not believe.

Both Arminius and Wesley held this view of God's foreknowledge as the basis of his predetermination because they found it in Scripture. In Romans 8:29, it is precisely those who God foreknows that he determines to justify and finally glorify. Arminius and Wesley faithfully affirmed the foreknowledge of God and its place in salvation because of their faithfulness to Scripture.

It should be clear then that Open Theism cannot be a development of Arminian theology. Classical Arminians cannot reject God's foreknowledge because it is a central aspect of Arminius' own thinking not to mention that of Wesley. Further, Classical Arminians cannot reject God's foreknowledge because divine foreknowledge is the scripturally taught foundation of God's predetermination. Rather than say they are developing Arminian theology, Open Theists should have the integrity to say they are making a departure from the founding teachings of Arminianism. Open Theism is a denial not a development of historic Arminian theology.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Understanding Each Other: The Central Difference Between Calvinists and Arminians

The ongoing debate between Calvinists and Arminians is often complicated by misunderstandings of the other side. This is particularly the case when it comes to the central convictions which form the foundation and inform the remainder of both Calvinistic and Arminian thinking. One reason for such misunderstandings is that we all too often read only those who agree with us rather than those who actually hold positions different from our own. All parties will benefit from engagement with primary sources on the other side of the theological issue.

One of the central issues over which Calvinists and Arminians disagree, and of which there seems to be great misunderstanding, is that of where one should begin doing theology or the central proposition from which the rest of our respective theologies stem. Arminians often think Calvinists are committed primarily to a certain understanding of predestination. This, however, is not the fundamental commitment of Calvinists. Instead, Calvinists are first and foremost committed to the ultimate sovereignty of God in salvation. They are attempting to guard against the possibility of the glorious work of God in salvation being attributed to some form of human effort which, they think, is a consequence of Arminian theology. Their understanding of unconditional election, predestination, etc. flows out of this basic commitment to the meticulous sovereignty of God in salvation.

In contrast, it is often thought that Arminians are primarily committed to the freedom of the human will. This, though, is not the case. Classical and faithful Arminians do not actually affirm that humans have any natural freedom of the will. Instead, with the Calvinists, we affirm that the will is in bondage to sin. The fundamental issue and the starting point for our theology is the character of God. We believe that the concept of unconditional election necessarily implies the coordinate doctrine of unconditional reprobation. Such an implication, we claim, impugns the character of God by making him the author of evil. Thus, our fundamental commitment is to upholding and defending the character of God which only then leads to our understanding of the will as having been freed and enabled by grace to respond to the offer of salvation freely by faith.

These commitment are at the heart of the debate. The Calvinist/Arminian dialogue will be more fruitful if we understand these central convictions rather than arguing against inaccurate perceptions of the other side.