Thursday, November 1, 2012

Calvin vs. Arminius

Rather than blabbing on about how insanely long it's been since I've blogged, I'm just gonna say "hello again!" and introduce you to the paper I just wrote for class on the theology of Calvin and Arminius. I had fun writing it and I hope you all like reading it. Sorry if I left a footnote number or two behind...

As the church began to truly take shape after the reformation, an old question of the Christian faith began to come into dispute yet again. Many Christians are fully aware of the names of John Calvin and Jacob Arminius. The disagreements in their theologies have occupied the conversations and debates of seminary students for centuries. Not only students, but many lay Christians as well. Anyone who has chosen to apply their mind to the topic of freewill and the sovereignty of God in salvation has likely been forced to come to terms with the complexity of this issue.

Central to much of the theology of John Calvin was the foundation of God's comprehensive sovereignty. While this in some cases may have caused some controversy among theologians of Calvin's day, it was mainly his application of sovereignty to the human will in salvation that brought about eventual disagreement with Jacob Arminius after Calvin's death.

While a few things will be pointed out concerning the similarities between Arminius and Calvin on this issue, there are a few foundational differences that will be focused on. These issues relate to human depravity, the nature of freewill, the nature of God's election, and the certainty of Christian perseverance in saving faith.

Common Ground
While Calvin may have articulated it a bit differently than Arminius, the doctrine of the depravity of man between the two of them is no doubt very similar. Both of them state that the fall of Adam brought humanity into a condition in which they could not restore themselves to a place of saving relationship with God apart from grace. This is clear in Calvin's institutes. It is also clear in the writings of Arminius in response to the Calvinists.

While this starting point may be held in common between the two systems of thought, once God's gracious work is begun in the human heart, there is a great deal of disagreement that can be seen in the understanding of these two men as to how that grace takes its effect as well as what the sin nature requires of grace.

Defining Freewill
For many who debate this issue, the term “freewill” is frequently used, yet is seldom carefully defined. Because of this, the disagreements that are so strongly stated between these two positions can easily become grounded upon misunderstanding. The best way that one may define Calvin's view of the will is that it operates in unison with the nature of the human being both in the fallen state as well as throughout the course of the salvation of that nature. Ultimately, the affections and desires that flow from the nature of the human being were seen to be synonymous with what one might call the “will.” To desire something most strongly inevitably led to willful choice.

Arminius on the other hand held to a different view. While he may have agreed that the will was bound to the nature in the fallen state, it is clear that he saw the work of grace as a liberation of the will from the nature. Once the will was acted upon by prevenient grace, it was then free to choose to remain in sin or to embrace and cooperate with God's saving effort.

In summery, Calvin saw ultimate freedom as a liberation from sin. Arminius saw ultimate freedom as a grace birthed independence in one's choice between sin and salvation. While neither theologian may have articulated this distinction in opinion so simply or clearly, if it is true that such a distinction existed, it explains a great deal of the profound disagreement that flowed between those who debated these two systems of doctrine.

The Nature of Election
With these two definitions of the will in place, it is now possible to begin looking at the way they expressed themselves in specific doctrinal distinctions. For Calvin, the biblical idea of “election” was seen as an unconditional choice in which God selects from fallen humanity a people that he will convert and bring to a saving knowledge of Christ.

Those whom he did not choose for salvation were left in their sinful state and given their just punishment for sin. Some of their punishment is manifested in this life, and it is eternally manifested in the next. In this life, they may be hardened by demonic activity, or they may be denied a hearing of the gospel. While Calvin never discouraged a promiscuous and universal spread of the gospel, he used the inevitable falling short of this goal as an example of God's providential judgment. Election unto salvation was not based on any works, merit or distinction of any kind between sinners, but on the independent and free choice of God out of his merciful nature. Calvin defended such a limited view of election with passages such as Romans 9.

The process of sanctification that then flowed out of this act of electing grace was also seen by Calvin as a sovereign act of God. This is expressed most clearly by his followers in the Synod of Dort. If the first definition of the will described is accurate to Calvin, then it should be understandable why sanctification was seen this way. If choices of the human being are the summation of the strongest desires which flow from the nature, then there is no other fountain from which decisions can flow. Therefore the good choices of the human being are fully dependent on God's sovereign redemption of the nature.

With Arminius' definition of freedom in mind, the way he inevitably disagreed with Calvin should now be clear. If God's work of prevenient grace did not bring about an inevitable choice of salvation, but only a potential one, then Arminius was able to look at the gracious work of God's drawing as universal in scope, though more limited in effect. This allowed him to explain how the universal effects of God's gracious call still resulted in both salvation and damnation. He defended the wide scope of God's gracious work with passages such as John 3:16. God's potential invitation to salvation through evangelism was not merely external to all people, but was seen as equally internal in all that heard and did not bring about an inevitable saving result. The final choice for salvation rested in the heart of the human being. Therefore, God's work of election as stated in scripture was understood by Arminius to be based on God's foreknowledge of who would make good use of his gracious offer of salvation.

With Calvin's view of election in mind, his view of persevering faith along with that of his followers should not be surprising. If indeed God is sovereign over the transformation of the nature, then that which flows from it, both faith and its ultimate perseverance, should be inevitable. While God's work was certainly seen as progressive, this did not give license for reveling in the failures God permits. Repentance, return to holy living, and increasing sanctification were seen as necessary as well as inevitable. With this mindset, it is then understandable that Calvinist thought saw the warning passages such as Mark 13:13 as necessary
means by which God continues his work in the heart of His people. It should then follow that they saw passages of promised perseverance such as Jude 24 as those that should be embraced as support for the Calvinistic view.

While many Arminians today fully reject the idea of inevitable perseverance, Arminius and his followers were not so dogmatic. In the end it was clear that Arminius decided to remain non-committal on this issue. He saw scripture as having possible support for both perseverance as well as the apostasy of truly regenerate Christians. Therefore he and his followers chose not to make a final stand.

Observations and Conclusion
In the end, there are gaps left in the theology of both of these great thinkers as well as their followers. While Calvin seemed to be fully aware of the inevitable difficulty of his system of thought, one might say the difficulties in the theology of Arminius were not clearly acknowledged by him or his followers. The difficulty in the theology of Calvin ultimately rests in the fall of Adam. Because Calvin's theology placed the decisions of the will in alignment with the desires of the nature, the means by which Adam's fall sprung from a good nature were not easily articulated by Calvin. In many ways, Calvin is willing to intentionally allow mystery to have its place in God's work of election and reprobation.

In the case of Arminius on the other hand, he seemed, at best, very discontent with such a mystery and, at worst, very confused by the way Calvin articulated it. While reasons for articulating a universal and equally distributed work of grace are certainly understandable, Arminius did not do much work in articulating just how God applies this work to the human will. Indeed, he didn't do a great deal of work in articulating the nature of the will in general. While he made it clear that he saw it as capable of choosing good or evil once liberated by grace, he didn't give any reason for which the will might go one way or another—other than that it was

While Arminius may not have acknowledged it, this understanding of the will, at best, also leads to great mystery and, at worst, it places the potential for good choices in the hands of sinful men independent of grace. Indeed, if God is not to be blamed for the rejection of grace, then how can the will not take credit for the embrace of God's gracious work? It would seem that the choice to continue in the grace by which all good choices flow cannot come from grace itself.

As one attempts to form an opinion on this deep and difficult issue, one must acknowledge that both sides of the problem must be content with mystery in one form or another. The question that must always be asked is, which side takes the most full and honest look at scripture? Which view is more willing to sacrifice intuitive thinking for submission to divine revelation? Which view is willing to be shaped in mind and heart by God's word, no matter how painful that journey may be?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Though HE slay me Pt. 2

Me: You know what I want God, I ask again that you give it to me. Please don't continue to slay me.

Him: I want you to love me completely.

Her: Eric, I want you to love me completely.

Me: ...ah

Him: You see?

Me: I see...

Him: Repent

Me: I repent... but there remain remnants of pain... They flair up with one glimpse... Help me God, remove every chain. Untie every bond.

Him: I am faithful and just to forgive you and cleanse you from all unrighteousness.

Me: ...Questions remain... Is there room for what I desire? is division of heart the only path?

Him: There is only one escape. That which you dedicate your life to that is beneath me must also be a servant to me. That which I give you must bring you to look to me. Your joy in it must expand your joy in me. If it does not, I will destroy it down to the very root. Those parts of you that remain tied to it will be scarred as by fire. You will limp... and you will know that I am God. This is how I have slain you thus far, and this is how I will continue to slay you.

Me: I'm afraid father... I feel remnants of these chains pull every day. There are bonds yet to be cut.

Him: I who began a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Christ. Those whom I love, I discipline.

Me: Help me father. Let your Holy Spirit preserve my sanity. I pray that my request would one day be granted... nevertheless, let my joy in you enslave all other joys. Let all the gifts you give me last because they are subject to your eternal kingdom.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Though HE slay me

Sovereign God... yeah, that's right, sovereign. You see me. You see everything. Here I am, laying here. You saw me jump. You watched me fall. Or did you push me? What's the difference, I'm down and you see it. The righteous fall seven times and get up again... but I don't feel like getting up tonight. It's comfy down here. Moping feels kinda good.

You know all the things I want, God. I keep asking. You keep withholding. There's a purpose to all of it. In my blindness, I can't see it... the blindness you permitted. Or did you strike me blind? What's the difference? Blind I remain, and so I suffer. I feel like a child throwing a temper tantrum, but without any tears. It's a silently ferocious rage. I'm just sitting here, no one would notice. You can see it though. I know you can. But you don't act like you can. So what's the difference? Your permitting this suffering... or did you strike me with this suffering? What's the difference? I keep suffering, and you aren't stopping it.

I'm a sinner, I don't deserve a single thing you've given me. I don't deserve a single thing you plan to give me. Nevertheless, you told me to ask... so I've asked... over and over. I've asked for much smaller things with far less passion and have received them quickly. Why not this thing? Why not now? You want perseverance? You want character? I don't think I have it tonight. Tonight, all I have is heaviness. Can you do something with that? Or did you cause it yourself? You see it, and that's all that matters. I don't doubt your hand in every detail of this pain for a split second. Others might, but I never have and I never will. I know you're in control. I know it so deeply that I can't help but cut the crap and talk to you like it.

God, you know what I want. I ask that you give it to me... Now. Not later, but sooner. If you don't, you know I'll praise you anyway, but then I'll ask again. If you still don't give it to me, it will hurt, but then I'll praise you again. What else would I do? Fighting with you is like trying to jump to the moon. You're in control, I'm not. Right now, it's costing me my comfort left right and center. It's making me rage. But then, you already knew that. I might as well say it. You're ultimately the one hurting me right now, and I wish you would stop. You're the God of everlasting comfort, yet it does not always seem ever present. Though you slay me, I will hope in you. Like Job, I'll take comfort in you, no matter the evil you bring upon me.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Pray with Me

Good day to you all! As usual, it has been a while since my last post. I hope everyone is doing well. Since I tend to have such large gaps between posts, perhaps I will allow them to be there, but have them be more set in stone. Maybe a post every two weeks? We'll see what happens.

Tonight I've been thinking a lot about the nature of prayer... the need for prayer... the effect of prayer. I've had a very interesting week. Without going into details, I've found myself in a situation that is disappointing, hopeful, painful, sometimes encouraging, awkward, interesting, and completely out of my immediate control. Curious? Well, that's all you're getting.

As many of you know, the past year has been a real journey for me. My view of God and his sovereignty have shifted dramatically. I've gone from a rather flimsy view of the way he runs the universe to what you might call a... "robust" view of his sovereignty? I now say with Augustine, the will of God is the necessity of all things. If you're interested in what that means, take a look at some of my previous posts. I touch on it a bit there. Perhaps I'll cover it more thoroughly in the future.

The question that often arises in these discussions is, if God is in complete control of all that comes to pass, what is the point of prayer? If God's mind is made up about what is to come about, why ask him or think I can influence his mind? Doesn't Jesus say, "You have not because you ask not"?

As briefly as I can, I will simply say that I still believe in the necessity of prayer. I find the absolute sovereignty of God and the need for prayer absolutely pervasive in scripture, as opposed to each other these ideas seem to be. God ordains and foreknows all that comes to pass, but he also ordains the means by which they come to pass. Prayer is one of those means. Perhaps not all of you would look at it this way.. if not... we'll talk later, and perhaps I'll write more on the details of this in a later post.

All that being said, I would like to get back to just what this week has been doing in my heart. When everything began to unfold the way it did, I was tempted to sit back and cut my losses. I've had to do this before, and I believe I'll have to do it again. There's a time and a place where this must be done. However, something in me didn't quite want to take that rout. Something rose up in me that wouldn't let me sit and mope. What should I call it... faith? Hope? Discontent? I don't know for sure. All I know is that it was as if God was saying "Get on your knees. Ask me for help. Ask me to intervene!"

As a result, this has been a week of prayer... to say the least. Just when I think I've prayed enough, it's as if God keeps beckoning me back. Why does he work this way? Hasn't he made up his mind about what's going to happen? Why does he want my input? I have no idea, yet he wants it nonetheless. Not only that... but he's been getting it. That's the strange thing. I've heard people talk about times of prayer like this before. I thought they were self righteous... like they were bragging about how much they pray. That's not what it is at all, I haven't had to force it. I haven't been mustering faith, God seems to be compelling me to stay on my knees... it feels good. Weird.

So is everything going to turn out the way I feel compelled to pray it will? I would never want to presume on God's ultimate plan... but there's some way he's involving me in all this. We'll see what it is. But then, I find that's not the only purpose of prayer is it... getting what you want? I believe God loves to bless us and prayer is a means of doing it. But I've found there's so much more going on.

Here's just a few things that God is using this season of prayer to do in me:

1. Increasing faith in his goodness
2. Showing me how to enjoy his presence
3. Distancing me from the desire for sin
4. Making me feel my emotions at a much deeper level
5. Making me a more joyful person
6. Making me lean on him rather than my circumstances

I could name more, but you kinda get the idea. So, will everything go the way I'm praying it will? I'll keep you posted. But God is good... he keeps showing me that. He likes to be asked, no matter what the request. So ask it up! Whether or not he gives you exactly what you ask for, he always gives you himself... that trumps anything you could ever ask for.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Year with John Piper

Happy super belated New Year everyone! Wow, this time it's really been a while! For my first post in a while, I'd like to reflect a bit on the recently ended year. I'd like to talk a bit about ways my life has changed over the course of it as well as do a bit of a shout out to my favorite preacher. About this time last year, I had just finished my undergraduate degree at Nyack. It was at about that time that I was getting ready to head to Bosnia to take a semester off from school before seminary and help my dad out with a few things. Things started off well. I got to preach in the East church in Mostar. I was reunited with some old friends.

After a while, however, the workload began to slow down. Much of my time started to be spent alone. That didn't bother me too much, though. I've always been able to occupy myself. So began a time when I could finally start thinking about some theological topics I had only begun to dig into at Nyack. It was at Nyack that my call to study theology that I had discovered at Elim was really confirmed.

I was raised, as many of you know, primarily as a pentecostal. I've always believed in the operation of the gifts of the spirit being valid today and I don't ever think this will change. However, something I slowly began to discover was that a calling to intellectual discipline when it comes to scripture has a reputation for leading to “dry religion” in many of the circles I grew up in. This hit home very hard as I began to interact with some pentecostal missionaries while overseas. I realized that the ability I have to talk about a controversial biblical topic for hours on end without getting upset was not common. I found that techniques in lovingly ending a conversation when one doesn't want their mind changed were becoming very popular.

All of this to say, I eventually felt very isolated. Eventually I turned to the internet to look for some resources on some of the topics I was pondering. It didn't take long for this to lead me to John Piper's ministry. I had heard of him before, and I knew what he believed, but I had never dedicated any serious time to study his ministry. So, I decided to give his nine part series on Calvinism a look since this was one topic that had been on my mind since I left my reformed circle of friends at Nyack.

Time was not lacking, so I finished it very quickly. I wasn't convinced by his arguments on this particular topic quite yet, but he did something for me that no one else had. He showed a true and undeniable reconciliation between the heart and the mind a Christian is meant to have. There is such a thing as deep thinking met with deep experiences with the Holy Spirit. There were nights when I would stay up listening to his sermons and I began to feel the weight of God's glory as well as His calling on my life. It was as if God's hand was pressing down on my chest as I laid in my room at night. The mind is meant to be a pathway to the heart. The Holy Spirit doesn't simply give you a buzz. He reveals knowledge of who Christ is and then illuminates that knowledge through experience.

After returning home, I decided to look into some of the writings of John Piper's role model, Jonathan Edwards. It was during this time that some of the issues of the sovereignty of God and the balance of mind and spirit were truly settled in my heart. I at last gave into my discontent with the box I had been putting God in intellectually. I wanted more. I have no problem giving 95% of the credit for this to John Piper's ministry. Some of you reading this might be rolling your eyes... you already know I bring Piper up a lot these days, I can't say it's not true. I'm not ashamed to admit that he has become for me what Jonathan Edwards was for him. The only reason I can give for this is that when I dig into his teaching, I don't get permission to dwell on a personality. He always points his listeners back to God.

So here I am, an unashamedly Reformed, Charismatic, Calvinistic, Amillenialist. I refuse to choose between deep thinking and deep experience. I refuse to think that congregations can't handle pure biblical teaching anymore. I hate when Christians refuse to stand on the shoulders of great thinkers who brought them to where they are today. When we can't stomach the sovereign, glory seeking, sin hating, righteousness loving, substitutionary atoning, sinner justifying, son crucifying God of the Bible anymore, then we can't build a church that will last through the ages. We can experience him. We can taste him. But we must let him be himself in our minds before he penetrates our hearts.