Monday, November 15, 2010

Resolving the Tension, Pt. I: Tension As A Philosophical Presupposition

“Against this background, PAUL APPEALS TO TIMOTHY TO HOLD FAST TO THE FAITH, IN THE SENSE OF PROCLAIMING AND TRANSMITTING IT FAITHFULLY, and especially of standing up to the corrupting influences within the church. AT THE SAME TIME, HE CAN BE TOLD TO ‘BE STRONG IN THE GRACE THAT IS IN CHRIST JESUS’ (2:1). THERE IS AN IRREDUCIBLE TENSION BETWEEN THE APPEALS TO HUMAN FAITHFULNESS AND THE PROMISES OF DIVINE EMPOWERMENT...there is a further appeal to the pattern of Paul in his suffering and commitment, so that God’s people may attain to salvation without falling away...those who are prepared to suffer with Christ will share in his resurrection and reign. This trustworthy statement also warns against the consequences of falling away and again insists that even if some of God’s people are faithless, he will continue faithfully to uphold them, since that is his very nature (2:11-13). Further reassurance is provided by the fact that, despite the activity of false teachers, the church has a firm foundation laid by God Himself. HERE AGAIN THE TENSION RECURS. GOD KNOWS HIS PEOPLE AND (IT IS IMPLIED) WATCHES OVER THEM; AT THE SAME TIME IT IS THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO TURN ASIDE FROM WICKEDNESS. Even if people do turn aside, nevertheless, the opportunity for repentance and escape from the shackles imposed by the devil remains, and the faithful pastor will continue to persuade them to repent” (I. Howard Marshall, “2 Timothy,” from “Theological Interpretation of the New Testament” by Kevin Vanhoozer, General Editor. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009, pages 171-172). 
Starting today I am gonna tackle a subject here at the Center for Theological Studies that is very near and dear to my heart: that is, the philosophical presupposition of “tension.” I have noticed this word (“tension”) is used in many theological-academic works today. As you all just read above, Arminian Greek scholar I. Howard Marshall holds to “an irreducible tension”--- one that can never be resolved; D.A. Carson calls the seeming conflict between divine preservation and human perseverance “a Gordian knot” that he claims can never be done away with (see D.A. Carson, “Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: Biblical Perspectives in Tension”). Thomas R. Schreiner of Southern Seminary believes the same. He writes in his “The Race Set Before Us” regarding election:
“Election is not conditioned upon perseverance, nor does election nullify the necessity of perseverance. Rather, Jesus fully intends for us to understand that God, who elected his own for salvation, secures them from apostasy and preserves them through afflictions by use of warnings that caution watchfulness, wariness and vigilant steadfastness” (Thomas R. Schreiner and Ardel B. Caneday, “The Race Set Before Us: A Theology of Perseverance and Assurance.” Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001, page 159).
The problem with Schreiner’s thought here is that he seems to entertain the idea of the necessity of perseverance, but forgets that perseverance is necessary only if it is a condition that one must meet in order to receive final salvation. What about Paul’s words to the Thessalonians when he wrote that “God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13, NKJV)? Those who are elected to final salvation must believe on the Son of God and persevere with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Both portions are necessary. God chose the Thessalonians “through” faith and sanctification. These are the conditions by which one’s election is secured. It is the same thing as saying that “by grace through faith you have been saved” (Eph. 2:8a). How does salvation come? On the conditions of “grace” (unmerited favor) and “faith” (in the merit of Christ’s atonement and resurrection). Both of these conditions are necessary in order for one to be saved. Without grace we could not be saved; and without faith we could not be saved. Both are required for initial salvation. This same thought can be applied to the issue of election for final salvation. Schreiner creates the idea of tension here (that election is unconditional but perseverance is necessary), but what this does is create a contradiction (how can one be elect without condition but must meet a condition to be saved?). If the elect are “unconditionally” elect then nothing (not even perseverance) is necessary. This poses problems for Schreiner’s view.
In this series to come, I intend to tackle the philosophical presupposition of tension in the Scriptures. For this post I will first tackle I. Howard Marshall’s passage of 2 Timothy 2; the other passages I desire to address will be analyzed in posts to come.
When Paul tells Timothy “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:1), this does not conflict with Paul’s words in verse 13. Let’s start with verse 1. To be strong in grace means to have confidence in the grace of our Lord and Savior. This means to have confidence in God and trust Him that He will provide the strength to withstand the persecution that Timothy is facing in the church at Ephesus. This is why Paul goes on to say, “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ” (2 Timothy 2:2, NKJV). Timothy needs to be strong in the grace of Christ because of the hardships he must face on a daily basis. If we must have grace in order to serve God in an acceptable fashion (Heb. 12:28), then we cannot serve God acceptably without grace. Timothy must have confidence in the grace of God because without God’s grace he cannot have any confidence in himself to endure as a good soldier of Jesus Christ (2 Tim. 2:3).
When we get to 2 Timothy 2:11-13 however, the question becomes “Do we, like Marshall, see a tension in the words of vv.11-13 and verse 1”? This is all based on what we think verses 11-13 say (for one cannot have tension if both verse 1 and 11-13 are saying the same thing or emphasizing different portions of the same thought). Verse 11 says that on the condition one “dies with Him,” meaning that we experience suffering as He did, we will live with Him (Romans 8:16-17). Verse 12 says that the condition of endurance is necessary if we are to reign with Him. Jesus endured His cross (Hebrews 12:2-3) and if we are to follow Christ we must endure our own crosses (Luke 9:23-24). Not only must we endure, but we must not deny Christ---or He will deny us in return. Jesus also says this same thing in Luke 9:26 and Luke 12:9 as well as Matthew 10:33. One will not be accepted by Christ who denies Him as Lord, Savior, and the Son of God (“Immanuel,” our “God With Us”). Verse 13 therefore, must affirm what verses 11 and 12 have affirmed: that is that suffering, endurance, and to not reject Christ are all required of the one who desires to be with Christ forever. When we get to verse 13 we find that the verse is not saying “no matter what you do God will preserve you until the end.” Rather, what Paul is doing is contrasting mankind with Christ in terms of character. Mankind can change from one day to the next---he can be loyal today, disloyal tomorrow, a friend one day, and an enemy the next. God, in contrast, is not like man; HE NEVER CHANGES! As Paul states in Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” His character is the same and we can always trust His Word. When He tells us that He will reward the one who endures to the end and deny the one that denies Him, we can be sure that God will do these things. No one has to “second-guess” the actions of God because in His justice, He will reward those who do what is right and punish those who do wickedness (Rom. 2:6-11).
Last but not least, when doing sound biblical theology we must always ask ourselves “How does this passage fit in with the rest of the passages of Scripture that are clear to understand?” If we compared 2 Timothy 2:11-13 with the rest of Scripture, 2 Timothy 2:13 cannot be saying what Marshall says it does; for, if it does, how do we place it side-by-side with passages like Hebrews 10:35-39? The Lord states in verse 38 that “if anyone draws back” from his faith “My soul has no pleasure in him.” What do we do with these words, if Marshall’s view of Scripture is correct? To be brief, we can’t do anything; rather, we have to wonder if God will punish individuals who give up their faith...and what does this do for the believer who is wavering in his or her faith? How does Scripture serve as a firm warning to encourage the believer to grow in their faith, if we can’t decide whether God will eternally condemn those who fall away?
The philosophical presupposition of tension sounds pious and humble on paper; but for all the humility and meekness it provides, it cannot be lived out. And one of the characteristics of truth is “liveability”--- that is, theory can be put into practice. The idea of tension is all theory with no practice. How then can we label tension as truth?

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