Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Back to human nature...

This is going back a bit to a previous discussion, but I was recently in dialog with my friend John Hay, a former Free Methodist pastor and committed Wesleyan-Arminian.  He had recommended to me a book called "Let Your Life Speak" by Parker Palmer, a Quaker.  I had asked him about to what extent we have an "inner light" within us that we can follow in our path to God.  I thought his reply was very appropriate for this blog:

"Here's how I see the distinction: Wesleyan theology begins with humans created in the image of God.  This is prior to the fall and it always has the power to trump the behaviors associated with the fall.  So, "self," though self-seeking in its fallenness, also has capacity to see through this shallowness, this emptiness, and see and seek what is deeper, higher, most original, i.e., "wholeness" beyond pathology.  Calvinistic theology, on the other hand, begins with the fall.  So, it would not and cannot appreciate this nuance (this reality). Calvinism can't see "self" as anything but completely depraved and unable to see or seek anything but "pathology."  To me, this is one of the most important and powerful distinctions between Wesleyan (and Wesleyan-related theological orientations, which Quakerism is) and Calvinistic understandings of the human condition.  Wesleyans see the human salvation project as a recovery of something good that has been badly sabotaged but that still, by its very creation and imago dei, has capacity to seek even apart from Christ's salvific work.  Christ's salvific work moves us from reckless seeking (groping about in darkness, self-inflicting and inflicting others in an effort to desperately survive, etc.) to seeing as light shines into our darkness.

The confidence that the self seeks not pathology but wholeness is based on a presumption that being created by God and in the image of God has "hard-wired" us for seeking wholeness in spite of everything that's been done (by others, historically and presently) or that we've done.  Even though we may engage in pathological behaviors and initially "seek" them, our we also "know" that these are just that: pathologies.  The self, even in its depravity and out of the experience of pathologies, seeks wholeness. Christ's work shines the light and opens the way to wholeness."

Do you think, Oscar and readers from the Reformed tradition, that John gives an adequate description of the difference between our traditions?  Is it fair to say that Calvinist anthropology "begins with the fall"?  Was the fall a total corruption of all human faculties or are there parts of human nature that have been preserved "through" the fall?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Clarifying "Election" & Wesley's "Assurance"

Thanks for that informative post, Oscar.  I had never had anyone explain to me the difference between Calvin and Barth's views on election.  And I'm sure you could say plenty more!  I do have a couple of questions, though, as I process what you are saying:

1.  Are you saying that individuals are no longer elected, but only the community (i.e. Church) of God?  If so, I want to say that I fully agree.  I believe in a doctrine of election -- that God has elected a chosen people for Himself and "predetermined" that the Church would be His primary vehicle for ushering the kingdom.  Wesleyans prefer to speak of election in terms of a community rather than of individual election.  Is that what Barth was teaching?

2.  Some of what you say seems to point to human free will in choosing to "live into their election" or choosing not to.  So how would that be any different than choosing to be saved or to reject salvation?  I guess I always thought that Calvinists like to insist humans have absolutely no role in their own salvation -- even in choosing to accept or reject the gospel.  Am I misunderstanding the Reformed tradition here?

It is very interesting to me that both those of the Reformed and Arminian traditions have wrestled on an existential level with the question, "Am I really saved?"  I remember hearing that great Calvinist band Caedmon's Call sing, "Sometimes I fear / maybe I'm not chosen / maybe You've hardened my heart like Pharaoh's."  That always struck me as odd because I had thought that this existential crisis over one's salvation was peculiar to Methodists (after all, we're the ones who insist that "without holiness no one will see the Lord").

John Wesley developed a doctrine of "assurance" which has lived on ever since then in the Methodist tradition to respond to many who feared for their salvation.  He divided it into objective and subjective types of assurance.  "Objective assurance" comes from the Word of God which promises us that "The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God's children" (Romans 8:16).  "Subjective assurance" is an inner, spiritual experience in which God grants the believer an overwhelming sense of peace that s/he rests in God's hands.  Do you find the same tradition of "blessed assurance" within the Reformed church?

We have spoken together before that I am still plagued by too much worry over my salvation -- thoughts that I have to do something for God in order to earn my way to heaven.  Of course, this is not true Wesleyanism or true Christianity (it is Pelagianism).  But I do appreciate about the Calvinist tradition the emphasis on "chosenness" and perhaps sometimes I just need a good healthy dose of Calvinism to cure me! 

Learning and Growing,
Greg the Arminian

Saturday, February 26, 2011

An Apology + Election

So right from the start I apologize for not interacting as much with this blog YET. Last week I took some vacation days and due to some struggles at work my mind and thoughts were elsewhere this week. As well, I need to say that writing has proven more difficult than expected. I guess like all things in life : discipline, dedication, and willingness all have to come together in perfect harmony.

I had written an earlier post where I wanted to highlight some learning points from our conversation so far but decided to scrap it because we've moved on. I will say this: I need to learn to see the potential of people rather than their corruption. Greg reminds me of that in subtle ways that not everything is completely gone, people still have the potential to do much good.

Now to our topic:

Election and I won't say much on the subject tonight is one of my most favorite doctrines. When speaking of election there are at least two viable options available to understanding it. One John Calvin and the other is Karl Barth.

Now when speaking of election the question that is ultimately asked is this, "how does God decide whom he saves?"

However, election was never meant to answer that question directly, instead it was to bring assurance to recent converts of Catholicism to Protestantism that they were still firmly in the hands of God. As well, election helped Calvin to answer an important question for his conscience, "how can someone hear the gospel but not respond to it?" This greatly frustrated Calvin because he was living in a time where conversions to Protestantism were great and rarely did someone leave his preaching without being 'saved'. Calvin, and I will disagree with him here, believed that obviously God chooses some people and rejects other - that is why some don't respond to the gospel!

Now ever since Calvin this doctrine alone has caused many problems for those within the reformed tradition, it is the endless conversation of debate and, honestly, puts many of us into a corner we cannot escape.

However, great strides have been made in this doctrine and Karl Barth revolutionized it for a new generation. Barth believed that Calvin's presuppositions were wrong, you can't look at humans and ask why do humans act this way and then look to God to answer that question. Instead, Barth believed that we must first look to God and then as a consequence answer our questions about humanity, as we understand God. Kind of like a top down approach, rather than a bottom up one.

For Barth, election was the best news of the universe, "God is for us. We are for God." So Barth understood election within the Trinity, that God both 'chooses' his Son for the salvation of the world, but also 'rejects' him because of the sins of the world. This acceptance and rejection took place before the foundations of the world because God wanted to create another to stand alongside him and 'knew' that he would 'fall'. Barth says that the only decision God makes is a free and loving one, will he be the God of the people he creates, even at a great cost to Himself? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

Now what this means for us is simply this, Jesus Christ is the true mediator of all humanity, God interacts with the world because of what Jesus has done. So individual election no longer matters, as Calvin understood it, instead the entire world is chosen in Jesus Christ, so the choice for us becomes if we live into our election or reject it. However, even if we reject it God still chooses us because we are chosen by extension of his Son.

Now hold it up! This is universalism! Yes and No. However I will wait to see what you and Greg might have to say.

Oscar - learning, growing, reforming.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

(Un)conditional Election

While we could certainly carry on for much longer about the topic of total depravity, I thought we might move on for the moment to the "U" in Tulip -- as long as we all understand that this acronym is a feeble attempt at synthesizing the thought of John Calvin and the Reformed tradition -- which stands for "unconditional election."  Of course, I will leave it to Oscar to fully explain what those of the Calvinist tradition mean by "unconditional election," but I will start by explaining the Wesleyan-Arminian position of "conditional election."

Did God know from the foundations of creation, before there was time, that certain people would live forever with Himself in glory and that another group would be damned for all eternity?  I answer that He did not.  Now I know the red flags pop up as soon as I say "God does not know...(fill in the blank)" because that seems to deny his omniscience.  So how does a Wesleyan preserve a belief in God's omniscience while maintaining that he did not pre-elect some people to salvation and others to damnation.  There really are two popular solutions.

First, many (and I would say most) Wesleyans believe that God KNOWS the future, but that he does not CAUSE the future.  So, for example, I could know that it is raining outside of my window, but that does not mean that I am causing it to rain.  In a similar way, God might ultimately know if I will accept or reject Him but that does not necessarily mean that my choices were all predetermined.  This is the line of reasoning that C. S. Lewis takes in Appendix B of his book "Miracles" (which, in my opinion, is the best part of the whole book).

A second and more radical option is taken by those who call themselves "open theists."  The open theist believes that in order to preserve genuine, authentic human free will, He has limited his knowledge.  From this perspective, if God knows something will happen, then it is absolutely predetermined that it will happen since God cannot be wrong.  And, if He knows whether or not I end up in heaven or in hell, then nothing that I can do or not do will change that fact.  The "fact" of my eternity is already written in a book and that book's ink is immutable.  The open theist still believes that she is orthodox in believing that God is omniscient as long as omniscience is properly defined as "knowing all that may be known."  If God could choose to limit his knowledge in order to allow for perfectly free agents to exist apart from himself, then he could still know all that is possible to know, but also not know my every move before it happens.  (A similar argument is made for omnipotence:  Can God make a square circle?  I answer "no."  To say that God is omnipotent is to say that he can do all that is possible to do).

I just have to throw one of my favorite Homer Simpson quotes here:  "Can Jesus microwave a burrito so hot that even he couldn't eat it?"

But underlying all of these issues is the fundamental issue of free will and of God's character.  The Wesleyan believe, above all, insists that God is love and that as a God of love "he is not willing that any should perish, but that all may come to eternal life" (2 Peter 3:9).  For God to have created the world knowing full well that many (or most) human beings would choose to reject relationship with Him and live forever in damnation seems to me to be inconsistent with a God of LOVE.  Instead, I believe in a God who genuinely desires that ALL humans would enter into relationship with Him, that none of these people are predetermined to either accept or reject Him, and that He gives human beings the choice to accept or reject his love.  Any alternative to this seems to me to be less than a God of LOVE. (This is why the great Nazarene theologian Mildred Wynkoop titled her book about Wesleyan-Arminian theology "A Theology of Love").

I write this with all due respect to my Reformed sisters and brothers and recognize that they too believe in a God of love.  I'm simply trying to explain why some aspects of Reformed Theology seem to exist in tension with my understanding of love.  I am open to learn.

Grace and Peace,
Greg the Arminian

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Common Grace and Prevenient Grace

We don't have to rigidly follow the TULIP pattern if you think that would be unfair.  I only suggested it as a springboard for much deeper discussion.  It's interesting that you are not a five-pointer, Oscar.  What points do you accept or reject?

Thanks for your insight, Oscar, on Calvin's understanding of common grace.  That's all very interesting about common grace because as it was explained to me, common grace held in check human sinfulness enough to make it possible for us to live together in (at least somewhat) civil society.  It was almost a political aspect of Calvin's theology, but I see now that it is much more comprehensive.

As for your discussion of "will," I am wondering how "free" will really is a will at all if all we can ever do is choose the evil?  Doesn't that simply destroy the meaning of "will" entirely?  Doesn't having a will entail that there is at least a choice between two options.  Think of Adam and Eve in the garden (even if you read these stories as myth which I do).  I think the point from this narrative must be that from the very beginning God has given us a choice to obey or disobey.  Or would you say we are under a different "dispensation" now that we are living after the Fall?

Just so we're clear, Wesleyans also believe that salvation is a pure gift of God.  And we also believe that, were in not for the prevenient grace of God already at work in our hearts, we could not choose to accept his gift of salvation.  So perhaps the distinction between what you call common grace and what I call prevenient grace is really infinitesimal.  However, I do believe that God's gift of salvation is not something forced upon us.  We have a genuine choice to receive or reject that gift.  And I think that is one area we might disagree (if I am reading you correctly).

Another matter we certainly agree on is that of "social sin."  In fact, John Wesley took this so far as to picture a worldwide revival of all people and institutions which would sweep the globe and which would usher in God's kingdom at the eschaton.  We, too, believe in fallen systems which keep people in oppression and that these systems bear the mark of the Fall just as individuals do.  The redemption spoken of in Scripture is cosmic is scope -- and I know you agree with this from our previous talks.  Sadly, many evangelicals have so individualized salvation that we've lost sight of this very biblical vision (see the OT prophets, Romans 8, or the entire book of Revelation, for example).

The issue of disagreement does seem to be this:  "Where does human fallenness still have sway and where does God's grace (common or prevenient) UNDO or trump the effects of this corruption?"  In general, it seems that those of the Reformed perspective have a much darker view of what it mean to be human than do Wesleyans simply because we Wesleyans see God's grace in more places, in more systems, and in more people (as my friend Rick is suggesting very eloquently).  As a result, we are most optimistic about human nature, about God's presence in other religions, and about the ability of human systems to accomplish great good -- all the result of God's prevenient grace.

I certainly appreciate your admonition for us to unitedly oppose all sin and systemic evil despite our theological differences.  And I believe that is precisely what we are trying to do together here in Indianapolis.

Greg the Arminian

P.S.  Rick, I really loved your argument for a greater appreciation and emphasis on the goodness within humanity.  I think we can agree that we are mixtures.  Perhaps you are right that the doctrine of the fall has overshadowed the doctrine of "original goodness" and I do agree that this has had many negative impacts on evangelical spirituality.  I suppose we are all impacted by our context (I know that you're postmodern enough to agree with that) and as one who has been living in the inner city for almost three years now, I must say I am overwhelmed at times by the extend of original sin and how it has infiltrated every person and every structure in our community.  But, of course, even here the good is among us.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

If I may interject here....

Greg thanks for starting the conversation and for choosing such an easy topic like Total Depravity! Now I should qualify that I am not a five-point Calvinist, meaning that I think TULIP is a very crude and simplified way of distinguishing Calvin’s theology. His movements within each of these doctrines was more nuanced and allowed breathing room, however, there will be many who disagree with me at this point. With that being said let us proceed.

Total Depravity within the Reformed tradition has always dealt with the means by which people are saved. At this point, Greg and I will disagree but we do so because we see the same truth only in a different light. Reformed Christians believe that our human nature has been corrupted by sin. That means that if we were left to our own, we will always turn towards ourselves, we will always reject God; turn our backs on God’s will and God’s ways for our lives. With a belief that our very nature is sinful it only makes logical sense that our free will has been corrupted. Now Presbyterians make a distinction here because we do not believe that we have a ‘free’ will, emphasis on the free. We do have a ‘will’ but it always chooses sin over life and our will, consequently, seeks it own self-interests. So Presbyterians would argue, ‘is it really freedom that you can choose life and death?” or is freedom to live in complete joy and submission to Jesus Christ?(so if the son sets you free, you will indeed be free)

All of this culminates at the heart of the matter, can people earn their salvation? Since we are unable to lift ourselves out of this condition of sinfulness, we need some power or someone who can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is why within Presbyterian theology, salvation is a true gift of grace that we did not deserve or could ever with a pure heart seek out God and receive. The work of salvation is ultimately the kindness and love of Jesus Christ towards his creation. This begs us to ask another question, how does God choose His recipients of grace? I’m sure we’ll touch on this topic later on in our conversations.

However the concept of Total Depravity has progressed over the past few centuries and we now understand that sin has a social dimension as well. As millions of people make selfish choices they impact the social structures of the world, so that institutions, nations, and legislature can be deemed sinful. As Reformed Christians we call this ‘social sin’ and believe that this is the real affront against the Kingdom of God. The social sins of people have created the different kingdoms of this world, which God’s Kingdom is constantly coming up against. So as reformed Christians who believe that the power of sin is real, and that sin can hold the minds and hearts of people captive, we believe that regenerated Christians are called as ambassadors into the other kingdoms of this world to bring about the ethics and morals of the Kingdom of God.

I leave us with this thought, no matter how deep sin has truly permeated our being, we can both agree that sin is destructive and seeks to consume our neighborhoods, families, and friends. So both Wesleyan and Presbyterian Christians must take a united stand against injustice, in all its forms, and be diligent about pursuing righteousness, so that Christ's witness may be more clearly seen and known.


Oscar the Reformed

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Original Sin, not Total Depravity

As we begin our discussion of the basics of Calvinist theology and the alternative that Wesleyan-Arminians offer, it is fitting that we begin with biblical anthropology -- that is, how the Scriptures view human beings.  Calvinists like to use the term "total depravity" to describe the state of man.  Oscar can correct me if I am wrong, but this is how I understand it:  the doctrine of total depravity teaches us that there is absolutely nothing good in any of us.  

In fact, according to this teaching we are so corrupted by the fall that it is even impossible for us to intellectually distinguish between good and evil.  The fall has been complete and that includes our moral compass.  As the great St. Augustine (second only to St. Paul in his influence in the development of the church) once stated, we constantly sin "in thought, word, and deed" -- often even unaware of our actions' offensiveness to God.

Upon this point, Wesleyans are in great agreement.  In fact, it was specifically regarding this issue that caused John Wesley to state that he was only "a hair's breadth away" from John Calvin.  I cannot claim to speak authoritatively for Wesley himself, but I personally prefer the term "original sin" to "total depravity."  What is the difference?  Total depravity assumes, as I mentioned above, that we are so fallen that we cannot do anything good and, indeed, we are even unaware of the good.  But I find this to underestimate what Wesleyans call the power of prevenient grace.

Prevenient grace literally means "the grace that goes before."  It refers to the way in which God's gracious initiative is already at work in us even before we choose to accept him or become one of his children.  The implications of this doctrine could make a full post in and of itself, but suffice it to say that Wesleyans believe that Christians do not have a monopoly on the work of God.  (I have blogged about this before:  click here).  He is even at work (revealing Himself and his truth) in other world religions.  We can see this is many examples from Scripture -- the widow at Zerepheth, Cornelius who although being an Italian gentile the Scripture describes as "devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly" (Acts 10:2), and many others who seemed to know at least partially about God before the Word was even preached to them.

For this reason, I do not believe that the unregenerate have no moral compass and no sense of right and wrong.  In fact, Paul declares, "For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse" (Romans 1:20).  God is working to reveal himself to all people, not just an elect group.  So I shy away from language about total depravity because it seems to overlook God's prevenient grace at work among all nations.  This is why we see good deeds performed by non-Christians (although I was once told by a five-point Calvinist that nothing good can ever come from an unbeliever since he does not know the truth of Christ).

Instead, I prefer the doctrine of "original sin."  Wesleyan-Arminians believe that we will all sin, that all have fallen short of God's perfect standard, and that we have all inherited the sin nature of Adam and Eve.  We are "bent" toward evil.  When we look inside of ourselves, we can see selfishness and pride.  Heck... I can see it in my two-year-old!  But I like the way that the hymn writer states it in "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing":  "Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; Prone to leave the God I love."  We have a "proclivity" to do evil and there is no human who has ever completely resisted that inclination except for Jesus Christ.  However, we do still have a basic sense of right and wrong.  We are a mixture of good and evil -- thanks only to the grace of God at work in us all.

I hope it is obvious from what I have said that Arminians do not adopt the view of Pelagius (the heretic) who taught that we are morally neutral, neither good nor bad.  Far from it!  We are sinful beings and only a cursory look at the newspapers reveal this.  However, our evil is tempered by the ever present prevenient grace of God.  And, as a result, we are not TOTALLY depraved (thanks be to Him).

I'm sure Oscar will correct me where I've misrepresented the Calvinist position.  I did not touch on the wonderful doctrine of "common grace" which John Calvin espoused.  And I'm curious to know now similar that understanding is to what I've just described. 

Your Brother,
Greg the Arminian