Thursday, January 15, 2009

Contra Arminians?

As I said in a previous post, I've been thinking a lot lately about certain doubts I have about Arminianism. I embraced Arminian Christianity when I was in college, partially because I had grown up in a Methodist church and partially because it seemed a much more reasonable option to me than Calvinism at the time. Another point I want to make early is that many Christians don't think of themselves as Arminian or Calvinist and both of those views encompass many positions which one may believe in or not. When I refer to Arminianism and Calvinism I refer most specifically to the doctrine of Predestination and the question as to whether any sort of human "free will" plays a role in our salvation. Many Christians choose not to think too much about this and I think that's fine as this question can probably become a distraction from more basic things God calls us to be concerned about. But if a person does choose to think about this issue of "free will," predestination and salvation there aren't too many options in my view.

I entitled this post "Contra Arminians" and not "Contra Arminius" because when I consider the position of Dutch Theologian, Jacob Arminius, and my ministerial hero, John Wesley, they seem much less problematic than where much of modern Arminianism has gone. That is, my problem is not so much with classical Arminianism as with many modern expressions of "Arminianism." In the classical Arminianism of John Wesley, such doctrines as the total depravity of man were strongly affirmed. Arminius said, "In this [fallen] state, the free will of man towards the true good is not only wounded, infirm, bent, and weakened; but it is also imprisoned, destroyed and lost. And its powers are not only debilitated and useless unless they be assisted by grace, but it has no powers whatever except such as are excited by Divine grace." Arminius' statement is a strong affirmation of the total depravity of man and one which I most certainly assent to.

It's not that I've heard an outright rejection of our total depravity and helplessness from any Arminian I know, it's just that I've rarely, if ever, heard this doctrine strongly articulated even among my more conservative Arminian brethren at Asbury Theological Seminary. And what makes this de-emphasis so potentially damaging is not only that it's not true to Scripture but that it will also lead to a lessening of our estimation of the magnitude of our need for and the magnitude of the sacrifice of Christ in His crucifixion. A lessening of our estimation of our depravity can only lead to Pelagianism and the idea that we can in some way contribute to our own salvation. The strongest articulators of this fundamental doctrine are, as far as I know, all Calvinists like John Piper and Al Mohler.

The second doctrine that seems to be under attack in Arminian circles while being strongly affirmed in Calvinist circles is the omniscience of God. While I had no examples of Arminians rejecting total depravity, I have had experiences with Arminians who were flirting with Open Theism and I've heard that some professors at Nazarene Theological Seminary, which should be an Arminian bastion, have embraced this unfortunate heresy. I'm sure that if I talked to an Open Theist they would have some arguments for their belief which might make sense, perhaps even arguments from Scripture. But 2000 years of Scriptural interpretation with a belief in an all-knowing God who is above time is a stronger argument to me. I think it is extremely arrogant to think that we have somehow progressed in such a way that we have now finally discovered the real truth about God's relationship to time.

I'm still an Arminian. But I'm realizing that I may have overlooked some problems in the Arminian system and I may have oversimplified the Calvinist point of view to make it look worse than it really is. I know I can't reject Arminianism because certain Arminians are embracing heresy but it does make me wonder if Arminianism somehow predisposes people toward underestimating our sinful state or underestimating God's knowledge. I think some Calvinists would suggest such a thing and maybe they're right. But I don't think there's anything inherent in Arminian teaching that logically leads to those positions by any kind of necessity.

Well, if you read my ramblings and have any suggestions let me know. God bless you.


Josh Gelatt said...

Thank you for this honest and thought-provoking posts. My own reasons for walking away from Arminianism had much to do with its contemporary understanding (or lack thereof) of total depravity. Calvinism seems to take scripture much more seriously on this issue.

This is also why, as a Calvinist, I can look to men such as Wesley and Tozer as theological mentors. They understood the reality and depth of sin, and the urgent and critical need for Christ's atonement.

Pizza Man said...

Hi Matt, I ran across your blog today from "Contemporary Calvinist". I'm from the Northwest too. Anyway, you might enjoy, they have a lot of articles from a Classical view. Much of what passes as Arminianism today is not, and would likely offend the likes of Wesley and Arminius. God bless!

Matt Perkins said...

Thanks guys for the comments.

Ed said...

Interesting how you appeal to tradition to offhandedly reject open theism, Matt. I would suggest exploring broader classical tradition (i.e. non-Augustinian - whose writings, btw, were not translated into Greek until c. 1300) with regards to the question of total depravity. As I understand it, total depravity is not affirmed by the Early Fathers (although it is also my belief that it is affirmed by Wesleyans in name only). Rather, what I have heard is that human souls are weakened and cut off from intimate communion with God in the fall. It is not that everything they do or everything they are has become evil: on the contrary, it has become spiritually dead (or at least spiritually dying). Thus, human beings can choose to perform good actions which are in line with their original form and the will of their creator or evil actions which are a departure from it. However, in line with what the Calvinists have to say, no person is capable of self-salvation through some sort of sinless living or the like, because after all, spiritual corruption/death are inherited and are non-negotiable aspects of human existence. If one is to be saved, it must be through petition to the Most High, for there is no other one who can bring up our lives from corruption.

Ed said...

Oh, and two clarifications on what I said above:

1) Augustine's writings were not known in the East because of the language barrier (and because, shockingly, apparently no one thought his writings worth translating). However, similarly, the writings of many of the great Eastern Fathers (especially the Cappidocians) were not translated into Latin or read in the West. (I am uncertain how much of Athanasius made it to Latin.)

2) With regards to "total depravity," the Wesleyan position seems to me to want to hold the term but reject its content. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the doctrine of total depravity asserts that an unregenerate human can do nothing which can be identified as morally good or pleasing to God. Even acts which might otherwise be good, such as taking care of one's children or giving to the poor are in fact products of sin and therefore are condemnable offenses in the day of judgment.

However, I see Wesleyans sidestepping this view with their model of prevenient grace. Basically, they quickly affirm that human beings are totally depraved. Then, they rush back in and say that they're not REALLY totally depraved, because God has used "preventing grace" to hold them back from the full consequences of their fall into sin. Thus some of their actions, even as sinners, might be worthy of divine approbation. (However, no specific action - save repentance and the cry for help - can warrent one salvation, and then it is only as an act of God.)

Ed said...

Oh, and one more thing... ;-)

I think the fundamental difference between the doctrine of total depravity (as I understand it) and the Wesleyan (or Orthodox) perspective, is in the choice itself. If human beings are totally depraved, so that even what they do that seems good is in fact evil, then they are probably incapable of crying out to God, "Lord have mercy on me, a sinner" in good conscience. Thus, they are incapable of actually consciously choosing to be saved.

The question then becomes one of anthropology. Do you believe that human beings are in fact utterly helpless and that God acts alone in bringing persons to salvation (predestination) or are human beings free enough to actually request mercy, thus making the venture of salvation a two-party affair.

Put another way: is salvation an act of monarchy or an act of synergy?

Matt Perkins said...

Ed, Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It's great to hear from you and we should talk on the phone sometime. You are are correct that I appealed to Tradition in rejecting Open Theism but I appealed more specifically to the broad tradition of Scriptural interpretation and not to Tradition alone. So tradition is extremely important to me when I'm trying to discern the truth which God has revealed to his Church but it is always tradition in service to Scripture and not tradition alone. If I believed in seeking truth through tradition alone I suppose I would have some beliefs about Mary that I don't have as Tradition very strongly argues for certain doctrinal positions on the nature and activity of Mary that aren't clearly presented in Scripture. When it comes to Total Depravity, it is a doctrine that I have always believed and what can I say, I'm an Evangelical Protestant. I'm sure you could find many reasons why I ended up believing this doctrine from a young age perhaps most important of which would be the influence of certain Baptistic Christians in my early Christian life. But now with that past in mind I have to say that I see total depravity as simply the most obvious understanding of Scripture. I could quote a bunch of verses and you could probably find some to quote back to me but what do you do with things like Christ saying in Mark 10:18 "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." He's not saying God is just better, he's saying God is the only one who is good. One last thing, I think people can do "good" things from the human point of view like care for their children or give money to this or that. But before God I don't think it counts for any real "goodness." I know that sounds harsh but it's what I think. Please continue to debate with me brother.

Ed said...

Mark 10:18? Hah, that's a great verse! An example I believe of divine flippancy. It would seem that the young man attempts to give Jesus a complement (an ancient and modern way of inviting responsive praise for oneself) and it is thrown back in his face in a relatively rude way. (Apparently there is a place for rudeness occasionally in the divine economy. This makes me happy.)

Anyway, down to business: I think the issue at hand is what is meant by "good" in this context. I think the man is calling Jesus "good" as a means (as I said above) of ingratiation, and that he means no more by it than that Jesus is a good man in comparison to other men, much as I would call Blake Brodien or Ben Douglass a "good man." Thus, Jesus is actually deliberately misinterpreting what the young fellow is saying (as I suggested above) as a means of insulting his attempt at flattery.

Personally, I would imagine that Jesus' statement is similar to a hyperbole (though it is not directly a hyperbole). It is like saying that God is the "only holy one." The Bible in other places calls people "good" or "righteous" or "holy" (cf. Jesus' assertion in Matthew 5:45 that God causes the sun to rise on "the good"). And I think to take Jesus' statement that only God is good in the manner you seem to be suggesting would be to highly impune the characters of the angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, and numerous other sentients of which we mortal men are unaware.

What I mean to say is, to say that no one is good save God is to express the radical otherness of his goodness: he is "the good of goods," "the holy one of holy ones." In comparison with his goodness, none is good. Just as in comparison with his power, none is powerful. The power of an angel and the power of God are on two completely different planes of existence: they are essentially incomparable. Likewise, the goodness of God and the goodness of Adam or even of the saint perfected are two fundamentally different things.

Certainly, to use that verse alone to try to prove the assertion that unregenerate human beings are incapable of willing and doing actions which are good in the sight of God seems to me to be a stretch. I imagine your Calvinist debaters would find some of the writings of St. Paul a more fertile field for their rather active theological imaginations.


Ed said...

Please forgive the sarcasm at the end of my last post, I must have spent too much time with Greg whilst we were at seminary. ;-)

One other interesting caveat to that passage is the fact that on the surface of it, Jesus seems to be disassociating himself with God. (I do not believe this to be the case, but I think one can put forward that assertion very strongly if not guided by holy tradition.) Again, I would say that this points to the flippancy of the response. Jesus is not responding here primarily to give theological instruction: he is responding in a manner which will reject the young man's attempt at a social power play. God (and hence Christ) cannot be manipulated, and does not accept the construct of salvation-by-obligation.

Hope all that helps a little.

(P.S. As another interesting caveat, I am becoming Orthodox in large part because of my work as a biblical scholar. I find that, while Orthodoxy has presented me with no scheme quite so succinct and logical as those of Dort, Westminster, or even Trent, applying an Orthodox hermeneutic to the Holy Writ produces results that are quite a bit more congenial to my sensibilities as a historian. In other words, Orthodox Tradition "fits" the Holy Scriptures, interacting with them, illumining them, and being in turn at the same time illuminated by them more easily and naturally than any other system I have studied.)

(P.P.S. Oh, and for a little bit more on my above-expressed idea of God's goodness beyond goodness, I would recommend that you take a look at Vladimir Lossky's "Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church." It is an OBSCENELY difficult to read book, but it might be worth your while.)

Love and Blessings,

Matt Perkins said...

Hey bro..
Blake? I don't know about that.. Just kidding, Brodien and Douglass are both certainly "good men." I don't think that verse gives the strongest Scriptural argument for total depravity either and like I said, we could both quote verses at each other. I think the kind of goodness we lack as expressed in the idea of total depravity is the kind of goodness that in any way justifies us before God or could ever make us desire Him. I think that is the most important part of total depravity. I hate to throw random verses out but what about Genesis 6:5 - "every intention of the thoughts of his [man's] heart was only evil continually," and Ephesians 2:8-9, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing . . . so that no one may boast." Now if I receive the same prevenient grace as the guy down the street and I choose Jesus but he doesn't, doesn't that give me something to boast about? So I guess what I'm saying is when it comes to salvation, I'm not a synergist. I think it has to be all God. If that means I can't be an Arminian then maybe I'm in trouble.

Ed said...

Time for biblical tit for tat:

I don't believe that the first verse you mention could possibly prove your point. After all, only four verses later, the biblical author writes, "Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation." If it was in fact literally true that every thought of every man was always evil, then how could Noah be called "blameless?" Moreover, if this "every intention" was itself the direct and immediate consequence of the fall, why is it not said in the garden of Adam and Eve. And how does one arrive at an Enoch in the intermediate years, so holy and loved by God that God does not allow his body to taste death?

I will grant you that human beings are inclined toward evil, perhaps more strongly than we are inclined toward good, for the pull of death against the original goodness of the nature is strong, but I don't believe that God has withdrawn his grace and life from unregenerate humanity to such an extent that one can really say that they never will anything which is good.

As regards the second verse you quote, I see two very real possibilities there: that the readers "being saved" is not of themselves, or that their faith is itself not of themselves. (Of course, if the latter interpretation is correct, it does not necessarily immediately prove your assertion. However, I consider it more likely that the former interpretation is correct, and it is "salvation" which is not "from yourselves" (And also "not by works," mentioned almost immediately after... I wonder why it is that we tend to take the first negative as applying to faith but not the second? Perhaps there is something that seems innately illogical to us in saying that faith is "not by works.") In my opinion, the passage should all be read as modifying the statement "you are having been saved ones:"

(1) by grace - fronted to express importance (much like "of God" is set before "the gift" to highlight the giver)

(2) through faith

(3) not of yourselves

(4) the gift of God

(5) not by works

And at the end of all this, the boasting comment refers either to stick 5 above alone, or to the whole shebang of it.

Anyway, it's freezing cold in this room, so I'll stop writing there. If you'd like to press the Ephesians issue further, I have a great many other reasons for rejecting the Calvinist assertions.

I would caution you strongly against the propositionalizing and absolutizing tendencies of the so-called "Reformers." It is easy to grab at the letter of a thing and miss the Spirit. The Bible was not written as a set of philosophical theses for debate, approval, or refutation. Uncomfortably (to our Western eyes), it is full of poetry, nuance, hyperbole, and mystery. In itself, it is only a book. A book of books, to be sure, but it will itself testify that it is not the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15). That honor is reserved for an entity much higher.

Much love, my brother, and I look forward to our next round.

God's blessings,

Matt Perkins said...

Edly... not going to let me off the hook, eh?

You said:

"I will grant you that human beings are inclined toward evil, perhaps more strongly than we are inclined toward good" ... seriously? perhaps? You must be a much better man than I am because I know I am not more strongly inclined toward good than toward evil. I am a self-centered wretch. And I do believe that the only good that ever comes from me is by God's grace alone reviving this will towards good which is in itself, "imprisoned, destroyed and lost," as Arminius would say.

And what made a men like Enoch and Noah different from those around them? Was it simple chance? Was it the end result of a lifetime of decisions of obedience to God which ended up shaping their will? And if that is so then how did they end up making the first good decision? I can't help but think that it was nothing inherently better about Enoch or Noah when compared to say Cain other than the fact that God by his grace enabled them to do their righteous acts in accordance with God's plan of salvation.

When it comes to Ephesians... I'll be honest, I don't know if you said anything that I think refutes my point. I'm studying pharmacology right now... can't think too much about theology.

God bless you Ed.

Rev. said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post. It's good that neither side of the house, whether leaning towards the Augustinian point of view or away from it, characterizes the other in such a way as to detract from what is actually believed. God calls all His children to act in a manner consistent with His love and grace.

Your "Calvinist" brother,