Friday, February 18, 2011

"To Provoke An Appropriate Dispositional Attitude": The Pluralistic Nature of Eternal Security

As of last week, I spent time tackling Neal Punt’s “A Theology of Inclusivism.” This week I read John Hick’s “An Interpretation of Religion” as part of my reading for my independent research class. It is a requirement in my Master of Divinity degree that I am so grateful to the Lord about. I have loved every moment reading and studying about the religions and the role they play in God’s plan of salvation.
I finished Hick’s work (a 380-page beast, to say the least) yesterday morning...and the ending was probably more shocking than all the other things Hick said in his book (although he is pluralist, those things shocked me as well). The ending finds John Hick writing and describing what he calls “The Mythological Character of Language”:
“We can approach this through a distinction between literal and mythological truth. The literal truth or falsity of a factual assertion (as distinguished from the truth or falsity of an analytic proposition) consists in its conformity or lack of conformity to fact: ‘it is raining here now’ is literally true if and only if it is raining here now. But in addition to literal truth there is also mythological truth. A statement or set of statements about X is mythologically true if it is not literally true but nevertheless tends to evoke an appropriate dispositional attitude to X. Thus mythological truth is practical or, in one sense of this much-abused word, existential. For the conformity of myth to reality does not consist in a literal conformity of what is said to the facts but in the appropriateness to the myth’s referent of the behavioural dispositions that it tends to evoke in the hearer” (John Hick, “An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, Second Edition.” New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004, page 348).
I grew up learning the inherent meaning of words. In my public school education, I was taught in English class that words have meanings. In each sentence, there is a subject, verb, and predicate (description statement or phrase about the subject). The subject is the topic of the sentence; the verb is what the subject (a noun) does; in some cases, the word “is” serves as the verb. The predicate gives more detail about the subject. For example, in the sentence, “The doctor is sick today,” we notice that “sick today” tells us that the doctor is ill (sick), and that the time of his illness is the present day (today). We cannot assess that the doctor was sick yesterday (unless we have further info) or that he will be sick tomorrow (we do not know the future). All that we know is that, given the present day and all of its successive moments, the doctor is ill. He is not feeling well.
To accept something like the above simple sentence and its analysis requires an inherent belief in the intrinsic meaning of words. For instance, the words “good” and “bad” do not mean the same thing. When I was growing up, I began to see intrinsic meaning in words decline. The word “bad,” which once meant “something horrible,” began to mean “cool” and was deemed to be “good.” The word “fat,” which used to mean “overweight,” began to mean “cool, prosperous,” and even became an acronym. “Fat” was now spelled as “PHAT” and meant “Pretty Hot And Tempting.” And now, to be “PHAT” (fat) was a good thing. It was no longer a means of joking on someone...and those like me who are overweight were given something by which to fire back at those who thought we had “a little too much meat on our bones.” Sadly enough, the word “overweight” doesn’t mean much of the same thing anymore. Now if someone is not a size 6 or less, they are characterized as overweight. What is wrong with our world when words have lost their meaning? What does this mean for all the sentences I have written already in this post, INCLUDING this one???
This, my friends, is what happens when words are stripped of inherent meaning. But language fads like those above have become the norm because, by so doing, society has torn down its commitment to truth. Modernity toyed with the idea of relativism, but still maintained a somewhat firm commitment to objective truth; today, that has been eliminated, and we live in a world committed to the postmodern mindset that says “Nothing has inherent meaning in and of itself; rather, we can provide our own meaning to life.”
This existentialist idea of creating meaning in life could not be more evident than in the life of John Hick. Hick himself is a self-professed pluralist, one who does not mind telling you that the Bible is nothing more than a human creation and that Jesus is just a more divine than Muhammad, Buddha, Confucius, or Brigham Young. In the above quote from Hick, we find that Hick distinguishes two types of truth: literal versus “mythological.” The idea of “myth” as bearing truth has also taken on a whole new view today, which is scary indeed. The word “myth” once meant false; today it means “true under certain conditions.” We have started to label something true as “false” and something false as “true” so much that eventually, we will not know the true from the false. And is this not the case now?
Let’s read again Hick’s definition of “mythological truth”:
“But in addition to literal truth there is also mythological truth. A statement or set of statements about X is mythologically true if it is not literally true but nevertheless tends to evoke an appropriate dispositional attitude to X. Thus mythological truth is practical or, in one sense of this much-abused word, existential. For the conformity of myth to reality does not consist in a literal conformity of what is said to the facts but in the appropriateness to the myth’s referent of the behavioural dispositions that it tends to evoke in the hearer.”
What makes a statement “mythologically true”? Whether or not it brings about “an appropriate dispositional attitude,” a right response to the statement made. The statement can be an exaggerated one, as long as it achieves the right goal. It is situational in nature and goal-oriented in intent. The statement does not have to be “true” as truth is basically defined...rather, it only has to achieve a desired purpose. If an employer wants to motivate his employees to work harder, he can promise them a raise even if he will never make good on his promise. Rather, the purpose of his deceit was to bring about the response of greater effort. In other words, “The end justifies the means.”
Hick is a pluralist. To him, words can be given their own meaning apart from an intrinsic inherent meaning. But the most depressing part of all of this is that a mythological view of language (pluralistic) has made its way into the church. Thomas R. Schreiner will qualify as my first example:
Warnings and admonitions, however, express what is capable of being conceived with the mind. They speak of things conceivable or imaginable, not of things likely to happen...they appeal to the mind to conceive how actions have consequences. Warnings and exhortations project a supposition that calls us to imagine that a particular course of action has an unequivocal and inviolable consequence. Because they are suppositional, warnings and admonitions appeal to our imaginations (Thomas R. Schreiner, “The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001, page 207).
It is all about conception and imagination to Schreiner, not reality. When he says that the warnings are “not of things likely to happen,” he is expressing a pluralist tendency to count words as nothing more than mere ideas. There is no intrinsic meaning to the words “Now the just shall live by faith; but if anyone draws back, My soul has no pleasure in him” (Hebrews 10: 38, NKJV). There might be intrinsic meaning into the first sentence...but there is no meaning to the second. In the doctrine of eternal security, no believer can fail to obtain salvation. It is just “an appeal to imagination,” as Schreiner says. The warnings are not important because of inherent meaning; they are only important because they make us “conceive” of God’s seriousness and turn around and persevere in the faith.
Molinist support is given to Schreiner’s view in the following:
“Our authors [Schreiner and Caneday] acknowledge that the failure of such people to persevere indicates they were never truly saved. So what the warning passages describe happens to false professors but not to the elect, and the Means-of-Salvation position seems to collapse into the standard Evidence-of-Genuineness view held by most Calvinist evangelicals” (Ken Keathley, “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach.” Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010, page 184).
Molinism itself holds to the Evidence-of-Genuineness view (“Salvation and Sovereignty,” pages 187ff), so Molinists also agree with these individuals.
Molinism gives is own espousal of eternal security in its Evidence-of-Genuineness Proposal:
“The Evidence-of-Genuineness proponents base their doctrine of perseverance on God’s promises in Scripture that He will complete His work of salvation in the individual believer. Even though a believer may fall miserably and sin terribly, he cannot remain in that condition. A Christian may fall totally, but his fall will not be final. The true believer will persevere. The warning passages serve as litmus tests...those who are not genuinely converted will eventually show their true colors. Therefore, the judgments threatened in those passages are not directed toward believers but are intended for false disciples, who for one reason or another are masquerading as real Christians” (“Salvation and Sovereignty,” pages 177-178).
What about Paul’s warning to the Ephesians that “For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph. 5:5, NKJV)? What about Paul’s words in the next verses, “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience...therefore do not be partakers with them” (Eph. 5:6, 7)? These words have no meaning for the genuine believer, we are told. They only refer to fake believers. So now, we have a great deal of warning texts in the Bible that do not apply to genuine believers. But did God not write the Scriptures to His own? Did God concern Himself more with unbelievers in Scripture than believers? Did Paul concern his writing more with unbelievers than believers? This is where the pluralistic notion of eternal security breaks down. It presupposes that the confidence passages are all that exist. The warnings are not “literally true,” but true “mythologically”: that is, they bring about an intended response for the fake Christian (that is, to be saved and turn from his sin). They have no intrinsic meaning, do nothing for the real Christian.
When warnings become meant only for the non-Christian in the infallible, inerrant, inspired Word of God, there is a major problem. It’s easy to attack John Hick and call him a “pluralist”; but how many believers check themselves so as to not wear this charge? Eternal Security has made evangelicalism pluralistic in its biblical hermeneutic, Christian Theology, and godly living...and yet, how many of us ever take time to notice?

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