Friday, September 10, 2010

Hermeneutical Honesty, Pt. I

“My sentiments respecting the Perseverance of the Saints are, That those persons who have been grafted into Christ by true faith, and have thus been made partakers of his life-giving Spirit, possess sufficient powers [or strength] to fight against Satan, sin, the world and their own flesh, and to gain the victory over these enemies,---yet not without the assistance of the grace of the same Holy Spirit.---Jesus Christ also by his Spirit assists them in all their temptations, and affords them the ready aid of his hand; and, provided they stand prepared for the battle, implore his help, and be not wanting to themselves, Christ preserves them from falling: So that it is not possible for them, by any of the cunning craftiness or power of Satan, to be either seduced or dragged out of the hands of Christ. But I THINK IT IS USEFUL AND WILL BE QUITE NECESSARY IN OUR FIRST CONVENTION, [OR SYNOD] TO INSTITUTE A DILIGENT ENQUIRY FROM THE SCRIPTURES, Whether it is not possible for some individuals through negligence to desert the commencement of their existence in Christ, to cleave again to the present evil world, to decline from the sound doctrine which was once delivered to them, to lose a good conscience, and to cause Divine grace to be ineffectual” (James Arminius, “Works” I: 664-666).

Writing my last post on necessary perseverance as emphasized in Matthew (and how it poses problems for eternal security) got me to thinking about the need for honesty. I don’t know about you, but being in the academic realm for a record nine years now, I have had so much time to see ethical issues in academia. There are some well-known, respected individuals all over the globe who just fall short of godliness in their research. Somehow, making the other side look completely horrific seems to get people to believe the other side. This has become the plan of some corrupt writers and thinkers.

In this post, I want the body of Christ to get back to honesty. After all, is not God’s Word itself truth (John 17:17)? If the Lord’s words are truth, and His Word itself is truth, then we should be like Christ (and therefore, we should be honest and truthful in all our endeavors).

Specifically, though, our honesty should go beyond telling the truth in various situations (like, whether or not I agree with something or when one is correcting a brother or sister in the faith...or even giving wise counsel). We should also be truthful in our attempts to understand the whole counsel of God, the entirety of God’s Word. I cannot understand the counsel of God rightly until I first understand that I am the creature and God is the Creator. Then, I must understand that, due to my creatureliness, and the noetic effects of sin (how sin has corrupted my thinking), even my very mind is corrupted and will struggle with understanding the Scriptures. Next, I have to be willing to admit that there are passages I grapple with that I don’t understand. I have to come to terms with various doctrines that seem to conflict with what I think the Bible says. I might even have to come to terms with the fact that I disagree with what many accept as biblical truth. I think these principles must first be laid out before proper interpretation (hermeneutics) of the Scriptures can begin.

Make no mistake: despite various passages of Scripture that can seem to be hard to understand, I must come to some sort of hermeneutical honesty in my study of the Scriptures. When I come to two passages that seem to contradict, I must first embrace the idea that these two passages “appear” on the surface to be contradictory (not that they really are). Then, I must accept that the Scriptures themselves do not contradict and that there is some solution within Scripture itself to help me reconcile the seeming tension. Once I do that, then I can begin to find what the solution to the “seeming contradiction” may be. While I may not find the solution, at least I’ve come to embrace the possibility of reconciliation in the issue itself.

But the first problem, among all those just spoken about, concerns the issue of hermeneutical honesty: how willing are we to admit that there are two sets of passages that seem to contradict each other? Do we even believe that the notions of conditional perseverance (necessary perseverance) and unconditional perseverance (eternal security) could possibly exist in Scripture (either could)? I ask this question because most theologians I know are willing to affirm that Scripture teaches eternal security, but are not willing to affirm that Scripture could “possibly” (key word!) teach conditional security (conditional perseverance). Most respond by saying, “You can’t lose your salvation.” They seem to imply that it is impossible to even find passages which affirm that someone could fall away from the faith. For example, Edwin Palmer writes regarding those who “fall away”:

“Thus these actual historical examples of people backsliding do not militate against the Biblical teaching of the preservation of the saints. For these people are either Christians who are temporarily backsliding, but who will be restored fully to the faith, or they are pretenders, who never were real, born-again Christians. FOR THE BIBLICAL EVIDENCE IS TOO OVERWHELMINGLY ON THE SIDE OF ‘ONCE SAVED, ALWAYS SAVED’” (Edwin Palmer, “The Five Points of Calvinism: A Study Guide, Enlarged Edition.” Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1980, page 78).

In Palmer’s section on perseverance of the saints, Palmer never once mentions the “controversial” passages such as Hebrews 6:4-6, 2 Peter 2:20-22, or passages like 2 Timothy 2, where persons like Hymenaeus and Philetus claimed that the resurrection had already happened and “overthrow the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:18, NKJV). None of these passages were ever mentioned in Palmer’s work; but he managed to mention passages such as John 10 (a classic Calvinist passage on eternal life).
Calvinist theologian Loraine Boettner implicitly argues for human perseverance while still arguing for divine perseverance:

“...the Christian shall continue in grace, the reason being that the Lord takes it upon Himself to preserve him in that state...not only will God not depart from them, but HE WILL SO PUT HIS FEAR INTO THEIR HEARTS THAT THEY SHALL NOT DEPART FROM HIM” (Loraine Boettner, “The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.” Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1932, page 201).

I checked over Boettner’s chapter on Perseverance, and he doesn’t use any of the so-called “Arminian” passages either; he simply quotes his Calvinist proof-texts and leaves it at that.

Arminius’s words above are very fitting for the issue at hand. The Dutch Reformed theologian seemed to desire great study regarding the Doctrine of Perseverance of the church in his day, and told the Synod that it was necessary “to institute a diligent enquiry from the Scriptures” regarding the doctrine. He was not so quick to say, “The Bible doesn’t argue for conditional perseverance,” and then only use his proof-texts to argue that unconditional perseverance is true; or, he didn’t argue that conditional perseverance was true, and then use proof-texts to argue against the idea of eternal security. Arminius first admitted that great study of the Scriptures was needed...that every verse of every chapter of every book of Scripture needed close scrutiny to see what it could tell the believer about perseverance.

Then, Arminius demonstrated hermeneutical honesty about the doctrine of perseverance:

“Though I here openly and ingenuously affirm, I never taught that A TRUE BELIEVER CAN EITHER TOTALLY OR FINALLY FALL AWAY FROM THE FAITH, AND PERISH; YET I WILL NOT CONCEAL, THAT THERE ARE PASSAGES OF SCRIPTURE WHICH SEEM TO ME TO WEAR THIS ASPECT; and those answers to them which I have been permitted to see, are not of such a kind as to approve themselves on all points to my understanding. On the other hand, CERTAIN PASSAGES ARE PRODUCED FOR THE CONTRARY DOCTRINE [OF UNCONDITIONAL PERSEVERANCE] WHICH ARE WORTHY OF MUCH CONSIDERATION” (James Arminius, “Works” I: 667).

I pray that all of us will gain hermeneutical honesty about the text in regards to the Doctrine of Perseverance. I will cover Arminius’s last quote in this post in my next one.

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