Friday, December 24, 2010

"Binding the Strong Man": How Interpretation Affects Theology

“Or how can one enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will plunder his house” (Matthew 12:29, NKJV).
“Unquestionably, Scripture makes statements concerning the death of Christ that use the language of universality, so it is understandable that many Christians, including many who are otherwise Calvinistic (or monergistic), have concluded that we must affirm that Christ died ‘for’ everyone. I suggest, however, that we should formulate our position on the basis of BIBLICAL TEACHING REGARDING THE ACTUAL EFFECT ACHIEVED BY CHRIST’S DEATH AND RESURRECTION...putting together the strong assertion that CHRIST SAVED THOSE FOR WHOM HE DIED and that not everyone will be saved, I have had to reexamine the texts that sound initially as though they are stating that CHRIST DIED WITH THE INTENTION OF SAVING EVERYONE” (Terrance L. Tiessen, “Who Can Be Saved? ReAssessing Salvation in Christ and World Religions.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004, page 95).
How do you rob a house? As Jesus says, you first must bind the man in the house! You cannot rob a house that is guarded by someone unless you overpower the owner of the house (or the guard) first. Fascinatingly enough, most action movies have the main characters fighting off police, palace guards, bodyguards, etc. The Bible, though the farthest thing from the minds of Hollywood producers, shows up in most films produced in the modern world.
Now, on to a question that is closer to home: how do you rob a passage of one meaning? You reinterpret the meaning in a different way. If you start with a different presupposition, you will end up in a different place. Take Molinism, for instance. Molinism assumes that there is “biblical tension” in the text (see “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach,” pages 126-129); however, what happens if someone assumes there is no tension (like five-point Calvinists and five-point Arminians)? Without tension, inconsistency goes out the window...and Molinism is forced to either conform to Classic Calvinism or Classic Arminianism.
In the case of Dr. Terrance Tiessen, however, his theological system moved him to rethink certain interpretations of Scripture. First he notes, “Scripture makes statements concerning the death of Christ that use the language of universality...” What this means is that the language refers to “all” or “everyone,” etc. There are statements about the death of Christ that refer to “all people,” thus giving the idea that Christ died for every person.
However, Tiessen goes on to say that such an interpretation (Christ died for every person) is a flawed one: “I suggest, however, that we should formulate our position on the basis of BIBLICAL TEACHING REGARDING THE ACTUAL EFFECT ACHIEVED BY CHRIST’S DEATH AND RESURRECTION.” Why is there such an emphasis on the effect of the death and resurrection of Christ? Why is it that salvation’s worth only comes from the results of salvation? By “stacking the deck” of his argument, Tiessen already assumes what he’s trying to prove.
And just what is that, exactly? His point is to focus on the “intent” of the atonement. Calvinists believe that God only intended to save a few, so reconciliation only occurs for those God picked to be saved before time as we know it. Arminians believe that the atonement is for every person, that Christ died for everyone and salvation is free to all who believe.
As one digs further into Tiessen’s rhetoric, it becomes clear that he believes the atonement
“saved people. God did not simply MAKE SINNERS SAVABLE, he redeemed them, reconciled them to himself, satisfied the demands of justice on their behalf, paid the penalty for their sin and overcame the powers of evil that bound them” (“Who Can Be Saved?,” page 95).
Tiessen states that when Jesus went to the cross at Calvary, He did not go to grant the opportunity for salvation; rather, He went to purchase it for select individuals, whoever they are. But if this be true, then Tiessen’s own words contradict simple passages like John 3 which clearly tell us that the world itself is savable (John 3:16-17). In verse 17, the Lord states, “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but THAT THE WORLD THROUGH HIM MIGHT BE SAVED.” The word here for “might be saved” is sothe, which is from the Greek word “sozo” (verb form “to save”). The Greek verb “sothe” is in the subjunctive mood, which indicates potentiality. A.T. Robertson writes:
“It [subjunctive mode] is the mood of doubt, of hesitation, of proposal, of prohibition, of ANTICIPATION, OF BROODING HOPE, of imperious will” (A.T. Robertson, “A Grammar of the Greek New Testament In Light of Historical Research,” Fourth Edition. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1923, page 928).
Subjunctive mood indicates possibility, which is why, in John 3:17, we see the phrase “might be saved.” The word “might” here is only one of many words expressed by the subjunctive mood, but the point here is that “might” acknowledges two options: the world can receive Christ and be saved, or the world can reject Christ and experience eternal damnation. The word “might” is neutral in that it does not cancel out either option. The point here is that the world is “savable.” If this is the case, then Tiessen’s words regarding specific individuals God intends to save cannot be correct. There are other verses of Scripture that provide subjunctive language. Tiessen uses two of them in his section titled “The atonement is effective”: 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Titus 2:14 (see Tiessen, page 93). The Greek verb for “might become” (2 Cor. 5:21) is “genometha.” The “o” is a long sounding “o” in this Greek word, which is the proper form of the subjunctive mood. The subjunctive mood itself lengthens the original sound of vowels, changing a short “e” into an “eta” (long “e” in Greek), a short “o” into an “omega” (long “o” in Greek).
In all of these subjunctive phrases (John 3:17, 2 Cor. 5:21, and Titus 2:14, etc.) the word “hina” precedes the subjunctive verb form. “Hina” introduces a purpose/goal clause, which signifies to the reader that there is a goal or purpose behind the action. So, looking at John 3:17, we can ask, “Why did God send His Son into the world?” He did so “in order that” or “for the purpose of” saving the world through Christ. Christ was the Savior sent to save the world. But the subjunctive implies that, while a goal or purpose is given, it MAY or MAY NOT be achieved. And this is where Dr. Tiessen fails in his argument. He overlooks such language in his interpretation of the Scriptures. Subjunctive mood implies possibility, not probability or actuality.
Dr. Tiessen, however, approaches his view of the text with Calvinist lenses, which explains why he quotes H. Ray Dunning’s statement that “the logical either universalism or a limited atonement” (Tiessen quotes H. Ray Dunning, page 94). Universalism implies a “necessity” that everyone will be saved, while limited atonement implies a “necessity” that only certain intended recipients of salvation will be saved. I contend that the Scriptures teach neither universalism nor limited atonement. Rather, through the use of subjunctive language, the Scriptures teach “possibility” of salvation: that is, that, while salvation is free for all, it will only be appropriated to those who believe. It is limited in extent, NOT in its intent. It is intended to save all, but will not save a person apart from faith in Christ alone. If the world is “savable,” as John 3:17 teaches, then Christ must intend for every person in the world to be saved.
Why then, does Terrance Tiessen hold to the idea that God only intends to save some? Tiessen holds to this idea because of his (Calvinist) notion of sovereignty. If God is strong, mighty, and all-powerful, and God “cannot” save all He intends to, then, in the mind of Tiessen, God has failed in His mission. He then becomes weak, impotent, and “less sovereign” in His nature and character. But is this necessarily the case? And could it be that Tiessen’s (and the Calvinist) notion of divine sovereignty sounds a bit “Pharisaical”?  Stay tuned: you won’t wanna miss my next post.

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