Sunday, May 2, 2010

Arminius: Orthodox or Heretic?

“I subjoin, that there is a vast difference between the enunciation of these two sentences: (1) ‘It is possible for believers to decline from the FAITH;’ and (2) ‘It is possible for believers to decline from SALVATION.’ For the latter, when rigidly and accurately examined, CAN SCARCELY BE ADMITTED;---It being impossible for believers, AS LONG AS THEY REMAIN BELIEVERS, to decline from salvation. Because, were this possible, THAT POWER OF GOD WOULD BE CONQUERED WHICH HE HAS DETERMINED TO EMPLOY IN SAVING BELIEVERS. On the other hand, IF BELIEVERS FALL AWAY FROM THE FAITH AND BECOME UNBELIEVERS, IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR THEM TO DO OTHERWISE THAN DECLINE FROM SALVATION,---that is, PROVIDED THEY STILL CONTINUE UNBELIEVERS” (James Arminius, Works 1:741-742).

I’ve spent quite a lot of time at the blog recently focusing on the Doctrine of Eternal Security and how it relates to hermeneutics. We’ve seen the hermeneutical problems raised by eternal security---how it cannot explain certain passages of Scripture (like Hebrews 6, for example) which seem to indicate that someone who is a “companion or partaker of the Holy Spirit” can “fall away.”

In this post, I want us to take a look at Arminius’s theology. Above are Arminius’s thoughts regarding losing faith and losing salvation. Notice that Arminius says that it is impossible for believers to fall “AS LONG AS THEY REMAIN BELIEVERS.” The condition for security in Christ is faith (Romans 11:20).

In this post, I wanna examine Arminius’ theology regarding losing faith and losing salvation. Is Arminius a heretic (as he was declared to be by the Synod of Dort, a council of Calvinists), or is he orthodox? I can boldly say to my readership that, if my exegesis below does not add up or does not make sense, then Classical Arminianism should be abandoned in favor of a better theology. However---IF my exegesis and interpretation make sense below, then I will have soundly defeated Calvinism (and subsequently, Molinism), will have killed two birds with one stone...

Arminius states in the quote above that, as long as a believer keeps faith, then he or she is secure in Christ. However, if a believer “loses faith” and becomes an unbeliever, then that person will fall away (for to become an unbeliever means to lose faith). This makes sense in light of Romans 11:20, quoted above, but also because of Paul’s own words in 2 Timothy 4:7.

Below, though, I will tackle one passage of Scripture, Hebrews 12. The text itself concerns Esau as an antithesis of what the Hebrew believers should become:

“Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord: looking carefully lest anyone fall short of the grace of God; lest any root of bitterness springing up cause trouble, and by this many become defiled; lest there be any fornicator or profane person like Esau, WHO FOR ONE MORSEL OF FOOD SOLD HIS BIRTHRIGHT. For you know that afterward, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, HE WAS REJECTED, FOR HE FOUND NO PLACE FOR REPENTANCE, though he sought it diligently with tears” (Hebrews 12:14-17, NKJV).

Esau is the example used for the Hebrew believers. Most commentators spend time arguing Esau’s heart and motives---but the writer doesn’t mention one word of this! Instead, his agenda seems to be focused on Esau’s ACTIONS instead of his heart. The writer is saying in short, “Don’t do what Esau did; for, if you do, there is no regaining what you gave up.”

What did Esau do? “who [Esau] for one morsel of food sold his birthright” (Heb. 12:16). What was the significance of the birthright? Thayer’s Dictionary states that the “birthright” (“prototokia”) refers to “the right or the advantages of the firstborn son." When it says that Esau “sold his birthright,” it means that Esau “gave away” that which served as the claim to the inheritance.

I wanna make a distinction here, though: THE BIRTHRIGHT IS NOT THE INHERITANCE! The birthright is the TOKEN to the inheritance, but is not the inheritance itself. So, applying this to Arminius’s theology, Arminius would be right in saying that there is a difference between FAITH and SALVATION: faith is not salvation, and salvation is not faith.

However (here’s where the fine nuances count), the birthright, while not being the inheritance, MUST BE POSSESSED IF THE INHERITANCE WILL BE CLAIMED! If the person does not possess the birthright at the time to inherit, then the son does not receive the inheritance. Esau, having given away his birthright, did not receive his father’s blessing.

Faith is like Esau’s birthright: it belongs to the one who possesses it, which, in Hebrews 12, refers to the scattered believers:

“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, TO THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY AND CHURCH OF THE FIRSTBORN WHO ARE REGISTERED IN HEAVEN...” (Heb. 12:22-23a)
Why does the writer mention Esau as the firstborn and then say, “but you have come to Mount Zion...and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven”?? What we see here is that the writer is not writing to unbelievers, but to believers. So the exegesis of Calvinists regarding this verse (their view that he is generally acknowledging a crowd has no Scriptural backing).

Next, let’s answer my question. Esau, a firstborn, serves as an example for these believers, who are “firstborn” sons of God, those who, like Esau, possess a birthright. But there is a difference: while Esau possessed a PHYSICAL birthright, the believers possess a SPIRITUAL birthright (“church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven”, Heb. 12:23). Notice that the writer also talks about “Mount Zion,” “an innumerable company of angels,” as well as “the heavenly Jerusalem” and “the city of the living God.” All these refer to the spiritual realm, Heaven itself.

Like Esau, the scattered believers possess a spiritual birthright, and are called “firstborn of God.” In the same way that Esau once owned the birthright, the believers in Hebrews are “firstborn who are registered in heaven.” At the moment of the letter, they are saved (names are in the Book of Life). However, like Esau, they can “sell their birthright” for something pathetic like food or the world, or the corruptions of the world (2 Peter 2:20-22).

Verse 17 says that, although Esau sold his birthright, he still wanted the inheritance. Nevertheless, when he wanted to get his father’s [Isaac], he didn’t. It doesn’t say that he didn’t want to repent: what it says is that “he found no place for repentance, THOUGH HE SOUGHT IT DILIGENTLY WITH TEARS” (Heb. 12:17). This verse sounds just like Hebrews 6:4-6:

“For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and HAVE BECOME PARTAKERS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT, and have tasted the good word of God and THE POWERS OF THE AGE TO COME, IF THEY FALL AWAY, TO RENEW THEM AGAIN TO REPENTANCE...” (Heb. 6:4-6, NKJV)

Let’s compare Heb. 6:4-6 and Heb. 12:17---first, both discuss those who possess something (Esau the physical birthright, the believers a spiritual birthright). The believers of Hebrews 6 possess a spiritual birthright because they are “enlightened” (a sign of salvation, Eph. 5:8); they “have become partakers of the Holy Spirit,” which means they are saved (Romans 8:9). And then, these people “fall away,” which means that they “neglect salvation” (Hebrews 2:3). Once they do, they are like Esau: they CANNOT come back.

The writer of Hebrews (in Hebrews 12) is trying to encourage the scattered believers to press forward in the faith. Since they have their spiritual birthright, their spiritual claim to the spiritual inheritance, they should not “sell” it in exchange for the world or anything in it: “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” (Luke 9:25)

Now someone could say, “Okay Deidre, you’ve told us that faith is the birthright. But how can faith be the birthright?” I will talk about this in a later post.

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