Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Pouring on the Rhetoric: R.C. Sproul and the False Dilemma

Most people think that after some time has been invested in studying a certain topic or debate, the surprises die down. After a year or so submerged in research, what one reads is not surprising. But this belief, for me at least, is trumped by what I read daily. Even after all the time I’ve spent in the Calvinism-Arminianism debate, I’m still getting surprised by what I read and the things I see.

For me, the current “surprise” comes from a book titled “Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will” by Robert Charles (R.C.) Sproul. Let me just say from the outset that I’ve never read a more degrading and humiliating introduction such as Sproul’s study of theology in all of my near twenty-six years of existence. Let me quote just a few lines from Sproul so that you can understand what I mean.

First, Sproul describes the modern-day church as living in what he calls a “Babylonian Captivity”:

“The cultural ‘Babylon’ of our day is often described by evangelical Christians as the worldview espoused by so-called secular humanism” (R.C. Sproul, “Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will,” fifth edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007, page 16).

I would agree: secular humanism is a problem in the thinking of many in our world who simply believe that human nature is inherently good. I agree wholeheartedly. How does this secular humanism work out, though? Sproul writes:

“What would Luther [Martin] think of the modern heirs of the Reformation? My guess is that he would write on THE MODERN CHURCH’S CAPTIVITY TO PELAGIANISM. I think he would see an unholy alliance between Christianity and humanism that reflects MORE OF A PELAGIAN VIEW OF MAN THAN THE BIBLICAL VIEW” (Sproul, 21).

So now we we see the words “Pelagian” and “the biblical view” in contrast to each other. For the evangelical Christians I know (me included), we would also wholeheartedly agree with Sproul: that the Bible presents man as fallen and in need of God’s grace if he is to ever come to faith. Pelagianism simply describes man as ignorant; but he is more than ignorant---his entire being has been stained in sin.

But “Pelagianism” is not the only thing discussed in Sproul’s introduction. Sproul zooms in even more on his target audience with this quote from J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston’s introduction to Martin Luther’s “The Bondage of the Will”:

“What is the modern reader to make of ‘The Bondage of the Will’? That it is a brilliant and exhilarating performance, a masterpiece of the controversialist’s difficult art, he will no doubt readily admit; but now comes the question, IS LUTHER’S CASE ANY PART OF GOD’S TRUTH? And, if so, has it a message for Christians to-day? No doubt the reader will find the way by which Luther leads him to be a strange new road, an approach which in all probability he has never considered, A LINE OF THOUGHT WHICH HE WOULD NORMALLY LABEL ‘CALVINISTIC’ AND HASTILY PASS BY...and the present-day Evangelical Christian (WHO HAS SEMI-PELAGIANISM IN HIS BLOOD) will be inclined to do the same, BUT BOTH HISTORY AND SCRIPTURE, IF ALLOWED TO SPEAK, COUNSEL OTHERWISE” (quoted by R.C. Sproul, page 22).

Here is where J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston (and R.C. Sproul, the one providing the quotation) take a turn for the worse. Notice that up until this point, we’ve seen the words “secular humanism” and “Pelagianism” as something bad, something that we should avoid, something against the Scriptures. But here in this quote we now read that “the present-day evangelical Christian will be inclined” to pass by “a line of thought which he would normally label CALVINISTIC.” The last word, “Calvinistic,” brings a new label into the picture. Now, we can only choose between “Pelagianism” and “Calvinistic” theology. There are no others (at least in Sproul’s eyes).

If that isn’t an attention-grabber, we also have Sproul’s words above that “the present-day evangelical Christian...who has SEMI-PELAGIANISM in his blood.” Do you see what’s happening here? If one is considering a theology, Sproul would say, “There are three types of theology: Calvinistic, Pelagian, and semi-Pelagian.” Even a possible middle ground is shunned by Sproul as “semi-Pelagian,” that is, as being an offshoot of Pelagianism and Pelagian theology. No one wants to be labeled Pelagian; after all, Pelagianism espouses that man does not need God’s grace and can will himself to salvation. The only thing that man lost in the fall was knowledge of the truth. In Pelagius’s eyes, man is only ignorant of his true potential (not unable to be what he should). To argue human inability is to argue against Pelagian theology. But what about “semi-Pelagianism”? The fact that Sproul labels the middle ground as connected to Pelagianism (“semi” means “kind of” or “similar to”), demonstrates his disdain for any middle ground of any sort. One must either be Calvinistic or Pelagian.

See the last sentence in the above quote by Packer and Johnston? The “Calvinistic” theology that the modern-day evangelical Christian would disdain is what “both history and the Scriptures” testify to. In other words, Sproul is making it known here that in his mind, as well as the minds of Packer and Johnston, Calvinism is what history and the Scriptures attest. Calvinism, in other words, is being made the biblical view here: the Bible teaches (according to Sproul, Packer, and Johnston) that Calvinism “is the way, the truth, and the life”!

Sproul then goes on to quote Packer and Johnston again:

“To the Reformers, the crucial question was not simply, whether God justifies believers without works of law. It was the broader question, whether sinners are wholly helpless in their sin, and whether GOD IS TO BE THOUGHT OF AS SAVING THEM BY FREE, UNCONDITIONAL, INVINCIBLE GRACE, not only justifying them for Christ’s sake when they come to faith, but also raising them from the death of sin by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith...whether, in the last analysis, Christianity is a religion of utter reliance on God for salvation and all things necessary to it, OR OF SELF-RELIANCE AND SELF-EFFORT” (quoted by R.C. Sproul, page 23).

The last statement Sproul makes testifies to his false dilemma in theology: that one must either affirm “utter reliance on God for salvation,” which Sproul has already labeled Calvinism, or “self-reliance and self-effort,” which is termed “semi-Pelagianism” and “Pelagianism.” To Sproul, there are only two theologies (“semi-Pelagianism” and “Pelagianism” are one and the same in Sproul’s mind); what’s so disappointing about such writing is that Sproul writes an entire book on theologians such as Pelagius all the way up to Augustine, Arminius, John Cassian, etc. Now, I can admit that there is a semi-Pelagian view out there; but Sproul even lumps Arminianism into the camp of “semi-Pelagianism.”

For those who wanna see Sproul’s labeling of Classical’ll have to wait until tomorrow.

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