Thursday, June 9, 2011

What is Theology?: Tulips and Daisies Pt. 1

In my last post, I gave my best defense of my Pentecostal view of the gifts. I'm sure that my fellow Pentecostals were happy to see me do it. Well, now it's time to stir the pot a little but. For anyone who has ever been around theology students, or is one for that matter, the topic of the doctrines of salvation, or "soteriology," is bound to come up. Well, I seem to say this often, but buckle up! There's no way this post will be short! In fact, it's looking like it will be the longest post I've ever written. Because of this, I've decided to split it into two parts. I've written it all at once, but I'll be posting two entries so you can split your reading of it if you like. Well, here we go!

Whenever someone like me brings up the Calvinist/Arminian debate, there are one out of a few responses I could expect. Either people will roll their eyes and say something like, "I don't care, I'm so sick of this debate!" Or maybe they'll look confused and be like, "What are you saying about Calvin and Hobbes?" Or maybe they'll get all excited and be ready to state their position and debate it for hours. One never can tell which response to hope for.

While I don't think we should divide over this debate, I still believe it is a debate well worth having. It forces a Christian to dig into the scriptures like no other set of ideas. It forces you to question and strengthen what you believe.

I don't want to get too caught up in disclaimers or classifications, but I will simply say that I am well aware that there are differing opinions even within the two main positions and I don't wish to stereotype too much. However, I will for the the most part be looking at the two theological systems in their purest form.

So how will I go about this discussion? It's been tough to figure out, so let me give an idea of where I stand so you can understand how I'll lay the ideas out. As I said before, I hope to stir the pot a bit today, especially among my Pentecostal brothers and sisters. As some of you may know, Pentecostalism has a reputation for being far more Armenian than Calvinistic. Because of this, I have tended to be Arminian for most of my life as well. At least that's the way it used to be, up until I headed off to Nyack. My first group of friends there were very Reformed in their persuasion, and it finally forced me to look honestly at what they call "the doctrines of grace."

By the end of my time there, I knew the arguments from both sides pretty fluently, and I had gained much more respect for Calvinism. To make matters worse for my Pentecostalism, I spent two months in Bosnia after graduation, and one of my only friends was our dear friend and Reformed Calvinist, John Piper. I listened to many of his sermons, not the least of which was his series defending the five points of Calvinism. To sum up, let me just say, I have been on the brink of embracing Calvinism all year long, and I doubt I will back off from it anytime soon. I can't say for sure that I will ever be a five point Calvinist, but I doubt I will ever scoff at it again.

So here's what I'm going to do. Since my leaning is now more Reformed on this issue, I will present each point as a true follower of Calvinism would. I will defend it, while at the same time giving an idea of the Arminian response. I will then talk about why the Arminian response has weakness, or perhaps at times why it is worth thinking about. I have not fully settled on this issue, so my goal is to take some of you who think you are in fact settled, and unsettle you a bit! I'll try to give scriptural support where I can without overloading the blog, but I find that when the points are explained, the scriptural backing becomes obvious. I'll save the majority of the supporting verses for the most controversial points. The first three points will take up the greatest amount of space. The last two tend to be obvious deductions from the first three so I will briefly explain them but they will not be expounded upon nearly as much. I'll then close with some personal thoughts on how we should apply this argument to our Christian lives.

Well, after more than enough intro, let's get started. The five points of Calvinism usually are summed up in the acronym TULIP. So, Number one:

Total Depravity. Another way that it might be said, is Total Inability. Calvinism begins by making clear that humanity is completely lost in their sin. They begin by pointing out that Adam fell and we have been slaves of sin as a result to this day. The main conclusion that they want to draw from this is that without the intervention of God, we are completely incapable of seeking after Him ourselves. He is the one that changes our hearts. He is the deciding factor. They don't necessarily say that we do the worst possible amount of evil that we possibly could. The main point of the word "total" is that it applies to all of humanity. Also, they explain that the depravity is not necessarily an issue of the amount, or type of evil works we commit but an issue of the heart. Paul states in one of his letters that "Everything that is not of Faith is sin." Our entire life is immersed in sin because our hearts, no matter what "good" or "evil" works they carry out, are opposed to God.

Point one in the Armenian system which opposes this one is "Free Will." They don't disagree that we are sinful, in fact many say they also believe in total depravity. The difference is that Armenians believe God draws us to himself, but not in a decisive way. The final decision of salvation rests with us. More on this as we continue through the points. Point two:

Unconditional Election. I already began to explain this in the last point, but let me summarize it more fully. It is in this point where the issue of predestination in salvation comes up most clearly, and so this point as well as the next will probably take up the most space. Some Christians mistakenly believe that Calvinism defends predestination of who will be a Christian while Arminianism does not. This is not the case. Responsible theologians on both sides are familiar with the famous passage from Romans: For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.

The debate is not over predestination, but rather, what is the basis of God's predestination? Calvinists say they the basis is very simply and beautifully God's good pleasure in showing mercy and saving the lost that determines someones salvation. Arminians believe that it is, when all is said and done, the decision of the individual that determines salvation. Arminians defend this position by looking at the word "foreknew" in the previous passage. They state that this word clearly must mean that God "foreknows" that they will choose Him and therefore he elects them. Therefore the opposing second Arminian point is called "conditional election." It is conditional because it is determined by what you will choose.

This sounds very reasonable, but a few things must be clarified and asked. First of all, there is strong reason to doubt that this is the kind of "foreknowing" that this verse is talking about. The kind of knowing being spoken of is the kind where God speaks of "knowing" his people in a relational sense. Another good translation of the word might be "to acknowledge." Some might even say "love," much like in the marriage context. One example would be Adam "knowing" his wife. The sexual connotations do not necessarily apply, but the "relational" emphasis is important to recognize.

There are many instances of this in the Old Testament, many of which apply to the people of God. The fact that Paul is writing this in the context of the people of God makes a strong case that this is what he is talking about. And finally, one question: According to the Arminian stance, what is it that God is foreseeing, and what is he responding to this foresight with? Ultimately, according to the Arminian, he is foreseeing that we are choosing to begin conforming to the image of Christ. Yet, out of response to this, God is conforming us to the image of Christ? So is the foundation of our conforming to his image his election or is it our choice? This passage clearly seems to state that God is the one who predetermines conformity out of his good pleasure, and to say that we are the basis of that would be circular reasoning.

Not only is this a problem because of its logic, but it seems to contradict the clear teaching that none seek after God. Jesus says that none will come unless the Father draws them. Paul states that none seek after Him. Some try to solve this problem by removing God from time. If he is outside of time than free will and predetermination go together. I don't find this helpful, however. The question is in no way a matter of "timing." It is a matter of basis. It is a matter of "why," not "when." Why did God choose to save? Was it his free will or ours? If our inability and depravity is in fact "total," then God's assistance must also be total. He must be the deciding factor and not us.

If you feel compelled to say that it is a "cooperation" between you and God, or that we are not "totally" incapable, then you must give some reason why we shouldn't boast in our salvation. A Christian could always say "Well, at least I did my part!" Paul makes it clear: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." Do you see the way this is worded? "That not of yourselves..." Think about that. Even our Faith comes from God. The belief that is the means of salvation is a gift!

Many reading this may be following so far, but there is a nagging question in the back of your mind. If God decides to save Christians on his own apart from their choices and merit, then isn't he also the one who chooses who won't be saved? This is where the third and usually most controversial point comes in where there is the most scoffing:

To be Continued...

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