Saturday, September 11, 2010

Hermeneutical Honesty, Pt. II: Scripture's Teaching on the Possibility of Falling Away

“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).

In my last post, I stated that theologians and believers alike need to return to what I call “hermeneutical honesty,” where we admit that there are things in the text we struggle to understand. If Peter could tell us in the Word that there are things in Paul’s letters that are difficult to interpret (2 Peter 3:16), then surely there are things in the Word that believers (and theologians) today fail to understand!

Once we admit that there are difficult passages in the Bible (and hard-to-understand concepts), we can then begin to find the truths of Scripture. As I’ve always been told, the first step to finding a solution to a problem is to admit you have one.
James Arminius was not one to shy away from the truth. In the quote above, he willingly admits that he sees a “seeming contradiction” (or paradox) in Scripture:
“there are passages of Scripture which seem to me to wear this aspect (the possibility of falling away)...on the other hand, certain passages are produced for the contrary doctrine (of unconditional perseverance) which are worthy of much consideration.”

A contradiction is when two opposite things are juxtaposed to one another. The word itself, “contradiction,” means that something is “contra” (against) “diction” (that which is spoken). The proper term for this specific contradiction is “paradox.” Classical Apologist Robert Charles Sproul provides a fitting definition of “paradox”:

“Linguistically, the word ‘paradox’ comes from the Greek words ‘para’(that which is alongside something else) and ‘dokeo’(seem). The word ‘paradox’ simply describes a statement that, while true, has an APPEARANCE of contradiction” (Robert Charles Sproul, “Defending Your Faith: An Introduction to Apologetics.” Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003, page 42).

Why are these “seemingly contradictory” passages “paradoxical”? They are paradoxical because of the nature of Scripture. One of the four main principles by which we conduct everyday life is “The Law of Non-Contradiction.” What does the Law of Non-Contradiction tell us?

“In the philosopher Aristotle’s (c. 384-322 B.C.) own words, the law of noncontradiction states that it is ‘impossible that contrary attributes should belong at the same time to the same subject.’ This is equivalent to our own summary of the law above: ‘A cannot be A and non-A at the same time and in the same sense’” (R.C. Sproul, “Defending Your Faith,” page 36).

And here is the Article XIV of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy:

Article XIV.
WE AFFIRM the unity and internal consistency of Scripture.
WE DENY that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible. (see Link to the Chicago Statement on the right of the main page).

Do you see Arminius’s statement above? He notes that there are passages that affirm conditional perseverance and there are passages that seem to affirm “the contrary doctrine [of unconditional perseverance].” In other words, there are passages that affirm “A” (conditional perseverance) and passages that affirm “non-A” (unconditional perseverance). According to the Law of Non-Contradiction, there are no contradictions in Scripture. With this principle in mind (and the statement of the internal consistency of Scripture) we must find a way to resolve this paradox (seeming contradiction). How can we resolve it?

Is there a situation under which both can be true? Yes---but we must qualify what conditions must exist for both unconditional perseverance (eternal security) and conditional perseverance (conditional security) to be true. Here is how Arminius resolved the paradox:

“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” I:741-742).

What helped resolve the tension for Arminius? Faith. For him, faith was the key to resolving the tension between the passages of conditional and unconditional perseverance. Notice that he writes, “it being impossible...AS LONG AS THEY REMAIN BELIEVERS, to decline from salvation.” Why? Because “that power of God would be conquered which He has determined to employ in saving believers.” With these words, Arminius affirms 1 Peter 1:5 which states that believers are “kept by the power of God through faith.” Since God has decided to use faith as the means of preservation for the believer, as long as a person utilizes “the shield of faith” (Eph. 6:16), that person will remain a believer and possesses eternal security. If, however, a believer “falls away from the faith and becomes an unbeliever,” they will decline from salvation. Why? Because, if faith is their preservation, and they throw off their faith, then they have thrown off their preservation (and thus, their salvation)...for, by what ELSE can men be saved, except by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8)?

If man must be saved by grace through faith, then how can man be lost? He can be lost by giving up that grace and faith he first received. To conclude this post, let me provide a quote from someone that most people would be shocked to know actually advocated a loss of salvation (John Calvin). In his commentary on Hebrews 2:3, Calvin had this to say:

“If we neglect so great a salvation...not only the rejection of the Gospel, but also its neglect, deserves the heaviest punishment, and that on account of the greatness of the grace it offers; hence he says, ‘so great a salvation.’ God would indeed have HIS GIFTS valued by us according to their worth. Then the more precious they are, the baser is our ingratitude when we do not value them. In a word, in proportion to the greatness of Christ will be the severity of God’s vengeance on all the despisers of his Gospel. And observe that the word ‘salvation’ is transferred the doctrine of salvation; for AS THE LORD WOULD NOT HAVE MEN OTHERWISE SAVED THAN BY THE GOSPEL, SO WHEN THAT IS NEGLECTED THE WHOLE SALVATION OF GOD IS REJECTED; FOR IT IS GOD’S POWER UNTO SALVATION TO THOSE WHO BELIEVE (Rom. i.16)” (“Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. XXII: Hebrews, 1 Peter, 1 John, James, II Peter, Jude.” Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999, page 53).

No comments: