Friday, August 6, 2010

Getting the Story Straight, Pt. I

“J.I. Packer, in analyzing the system of thought embodied in the Remonstrance, observes:

‘The theology which it contained (known to history as Arminianism) stemmed from two philosophical principles: first, that divine sovereignty is not compatible with human freedom, nor therefore with human responsibility; second, that ability limits obligation...from these principles, the Arminians drew two deductions: first, that since the Bible regards faith as a free and responsible act, IT CANNOT BE CAUSED BY GOD, BUT IS EXERCISED INDEPENDENTLY OF HIM; second, that since the Bible regards faith as obligatory on the part of all who hear the gospel, ABILITY TO BELIEVE MUST BE UNIVERSAL. Hence, they maintained, Scripture must be interpreted as teaching the following positions: (1.) Man is never so completely corrupted by sin that he cannot savingly believe the gospel when it is put before him, nor (2.) is he ever so completely controlled by God that he cannot reject it. (3.) God’s election of those who shall be saved is prompted by His foreseeing that they will of their own accord believe. (4.) Christ’s death did not ensure the salvation of anyone, for it did not secure the gift of faith to anyone (THERE IS NO SUCH GIFT); what it did was rather to create a possibility of salvation for everyone if they believe. (5.) It rests with believers to keep themselves in a state of grace by keeping up their faith; those who fail here fall away and are lost. Thus, Arminianism made man’s salvation depend ultimately on man himself, saving faith being viewed throughout as man’s own work and, because his own, not God’s in him” (J.I. Packer, “Introductory Essay,” from “The Death of Death in the Death of Christ” by John Owen. London: Banner of Truth, 1959, pp. 3-4. Quoted by David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn in “The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, and Documented, Second Edition.” Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2004, pp. 2-3).

I know people who, on a daily basis, can never recount events as they happen. Usually, they always have an interpretation of the events that seems to “embellish” the truth, just a bit (we call it “lying”). I don’t know why they choose to lie instead of being honest and telling the truth; but I do know that “truth will win out in the end.” No matter how seemingly perfect the lie, the truth will always come out---whether for better or worse.

My disgust with dishonesty spills over into theology whenever I sit down and read the work of a theologian (usually someone who holds to a dogmatic theology) who cannot accurately espouse the other views. Take Molinism, for example: I attended Dr. Ken Keathley’s class this summer, plus read Molina’s “Concordia,” “Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach” (Ken Keathley’s book), William Lane Craig’s “The Only Wise God,” Kirk R. MacGregor’s “A Molinist-Anabaptist Systematic Theology,” and Thomas Flint’s “Divine Providence: A Molinist Account.” I did these things not to tell you what I’ve read and brag about it; I attended Dr. Keathley’s class and read the five Molinist works because I desire to espouse Molinist theology correctly here at the Center for Theological Studies. No one is making me agree that Molinism (or even Calvinism) is right. I think both theologies have irreconcilable problems...but my beliefs about the two theological systems will not keep me from espousing them correctly. I may disagree, but I will disagree because of the truth of the systems and not because of a misinterpretation regarding them.

J.I. Packer doesn’t get the story straight here in his quote above regarding Arminianism. First, let’s make it clear that Classical Arminians see divine sovereignty and human responsibility as reconcilable concepts. We do not approach these two theological concepts in Scripture and argue that there is no way to make sense of their working together. We hold to a firm view of Romans 9 when we argue that God, in His Sovereignty, established faith as the condition for salvation; and for all who believe, in that very moment, they have become heirs of eternal life. We believe that God’s sovereignty is the foundation for human responsibility. Regarding Packer’s next claim, that we believe that “ability limits obligation,” I think he meant to say that Arminians believe “INABILITY limits obligation.” I’m simply espousing Packer’s beliefs regarding Classical Arminianism.

Regarding his claim though, Packer is right on this one. Classical Arminians believe that if God does not enable every person to believe in Him, then God is the one responsible. We hold firmly to John 3:18 when it says that “he that believes not is condemned already” because he has not believed on the name of the Son of God. If God will condemn a sinner for unbelief, then he or she must be enabled by God to believe. Contra Packer, our view of salvation can be found in the Scriptures.

Packer then goes into what he calls “two Arminian deductions.” The first is that we believe faith, to be genuine, cannot be caused by God “but is exercised independently of Him.” Unfortunately, Packer is wrong once more. Faith itself, as the Scriptures tell us, is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-9). As such, faith cannot be exercised “independent” of God. Now, if Packer means that God does not “cause” some to believe and leaves others to their damnation, we answer in the affirmative. We do not believe that God picks certain individuals to be saved and damns others. We believe that faith is dispensed by the Spirit to every individual whenever the Word of God is preached. Paul states this when he tells the Romans, “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the message about Christ” (Rom. 10:17, HCSB). And the importance of the Word in bringing someone to faith is emphasized when Paul asks, “But how can they call on Him in whom they have not heard? And HOW CAN THEY BELIEVE WITHOUT HEARING ABOUT HIM?” (Rom. 10:14) Whenever someone hears the message of Christ, the Spirit of grace dispenses the grace and faith needed to believe. Yes, we too, like the Calvinist, believe that God must draw someone in order to bring about confession and belief (John 6:44). Where we differ from J.I. Packer and other Calvinists is that, unlike them, we believe that the Spirit influences the unbeliever to profess Christ, not “drag” him up the aisle to force a confession out of him. As a result, the ability to believe is given by the Spirit via special revelation, not general revelation.

I will tackle the five conclusions that Packer lists in upcoming posts.

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