Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Guaranteed Future or Confident Present? Millard J. Erickson's Commentary on Hebrews 6:4-6

Before I get started, I’d like to highly recommend Dr. F. Leroy Forlines’s new book, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation to all of my readership. It is a fine systematic theology for Classic Arminians, and I am so proud to know Dr. Matt Pinson personally (the editor of this work) and be reading through this book at this time in my life. I think it is important that every pastor, teacher, deacon, elder, etc., own a copy of this book. The reason? By reading through Dr. Forlines’s arguments, one will either walk away choosing to believe otherwise...or one will run smack-dab into the fallacy of their presuppositions and yield to the clear words of Scripture regarding theology and the Christian life. I am currently up reading through more of Dr. Forlines’s chapter on “The Perseverance of the Saints,” and, now having read his arguments for the second time, I can say that they are just as clear as the first time I read them in his work “The Quest for Truth.”

For those of you who have Calvinist friends who think Calvinism is all there is, recommend this book. I once had a friend who is a five-point, Classic Calvinist. He turned Classic Calvinist after coming out of a Wesleyan Arminian, Holiness/Pentecostal background. He once had an instructor who claimed he had not committed one sin in over 20 which my friend said he wanted to stand up and say, “Well, you just broke that record” (he lied about not sinning). In any case, this friend of mine had noticed for about a year or so that I had been reading Calvinist literature on soteriology pretty heavily. He finally decided to ask me, “Okay, so where do you stand on this whole thing?” I told him that I was still doing my research, but at the moment, I had come to see myself aligned with Classic (Reformed) Arminianism, to which he poked fun at me for a minute or two. Then, reflecting heavily upon my words, he said, “It is a very consistent system.” Did you read those words? They came from the mouth of a 5-point Calvinist! I say this to say that Classic Arminianism is a very consistent system that is taking even five-point Calvinists by storm. The reason Classic Arminianism is having this impact is because I believe it to be most biblical and most faithful to the text of Scripture than any other theological system out there.

Now, on to Dr. Forlines’s chapter. Today’s post will tackle Millard J. Erickson’s words regarding the apostasy discussion of Hebrews 6:4-6. Forlines quotes Erickson’s response, and I will post some of it here:

“The meaning in cases like this must be determined on the basis of the context. The key element in the present context is found in verse 9. ‘Though we speak thus, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things that belong to salvation...’ Verse 9, however, is a statement that they will not fall away. They could, but they will not! Their persistence to the end is evidence of that truth...” (Millard J. Erickson, quoted by F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation. Nashville: Randall House, 2011, page 327).

What Erickson does here is that he takes the warning, then looks for confidence that the Hebrews will persevere, and says that the warning is a “hypothetical possibility”: that is, while it “could” happen, it is certain to not materialize. However, there is a major blunder committed in Erickson’s statement. The blunder can be seen in that Erickson ends the context too soon. Erickson only goes to Hebrews 6:9, but he does not consider the verses that come after it, such as Hebrews 6:11-12---

“And we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, that you do not become sluggish, but imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:11-12, NKJV).

Notice that the writer of Hebrews desires that “each one of you,” referring to all of the recipients of his letter. This defeats the “fake believer” hypothesis posed by many believers and theologians alike. The Fake Believer Hypothesis (or FBH) simply states that the writer uses Hebrews 6:4-6 to refer to fake believers, those who are simply “masquerading as Christians.” If the writer desires that all have the full assurance of hope to the end, then he assumes that all the recipients of his letter are genuine believers, Christians, so the FBH would not apply.

Secondly, note that, as in Hebrews 6:4-6, there is a warning given here once more. The writer and his companion desire that “you do not become sluggish,” meaning that there is a genuine desire here that the Jewish believers not retreat from their faith and apostatize. The question we must ask ourselves is, “Why would the writer mention this warning twice within these few verses?” If something is mentioned more than once (as I was taught in my hermeneutics course in my Master of Divinity program), the emphatic purpose is to send a message, a hint, a “Hey, you need to really know this” clue. No one continues to mention things that are of no real significance; if this be true, then the writer warns them twice in a few verses to make it clear that apostasy is a real danger for these persecuted believers.

And yet, Erickson simply stops at verse 9. Why? Because he desires to emphasize the confidence that the writer and his companion have in them. I think it goes without question that both writer and companion have confidence in these believers to persevere: “we are confident of better things concerning you...” (Heb. 6:9) At the same time, I don’t think this confidence cancels out the real danger of apostasy.

A fitting example of this would be the case of a child who is about to go for his first law firm interview. He has been preparing for this day a long time: LSAT preparation (Law School entrance test), interviews with school admissions, application process, signing up for classes, reading hundreds of books, working in law internships on summer breaks, etc. Finally, the day comes for his big interview (having passed the bar exam to boot) and he is nervous about the interview. “What if I don’t get the job?” he asks himself. “What happens if I’m talking and something is stuck in my teeth? What if I have a hair out of place? What if my shirt is too wrinkled, or I drink coffee for breakfast and have a coffee stain on my shirt? What if I don’t get to my interview on time because traffic is backed up?” And on and on the questions go. His parents look at him in the mirror, all dressed to kill, and dad says, “Go knock ‘em dead, son,” patting his son on the back. Mom looks at her son and says, “I have confidence in you; you can do it,” and hugs him tightly, so proud of his achievements and praying for job success. Does the confidence of his parents override the real possibility that he may not get the job? Of course not. What the parental confidence demonstrates is that the son has every reason in the world to think positive about his chances for getting it: he has taken his time, done his homework, studied well, worked hard, and made the most of all available resources. That inspires confidence in him, but it does not guarantee that he will get the job.

Job examples like the one above usually get me the critique, “You’re advocating works-salvation,” so I’ll go with another less “employment” example. Say that the same son has now arrived at his wedding day, and looks to marry the girl of his dreams. His parents are once again, so proud of their son, so proud of the commitment he’s making, the steps he’s taken to provide for the woman in his heart, so optimistic about the future as they ponder him giving them a couple of grandkids to rock in their arms. Dad hugs him and says, “Son, I’m proud of you. Go be the husband and future father I already see you to be.” Mom hugs her son, crying tears, saying, “Go be the amazing man your father and I have raised you to be.” They embrace their son affectionately, feeling good about the new marriage but saddened that their son is moving out of the house and into a place he’s bought for him and the new wife. In short, life brings good changes, but changes nonetheless.

In the wedding example, does the parental confidence in their son’s future marriage undermine the real possibility that the marriage could end in divorce? As a Classic Arminian, I would have to say that it does not. After all, what determines the confidence in the marriage is the confidence at the time of the marriage itself. Is there reason for the parents to feel confident in their son’s marriage? Yes. They know the kind of man their son is, the kind of woman their future daughter-in-law is, and they’ve seen the couple together and can testify that the two are in love and are committed to making the marriage work. Does one have to take into account the possibility of a future divorce in order to have confidence in the marriage on wedding day? Of course not.

My parents are such an example. My mom and dad married on December 15, 1979, my mom having graduated from Duke University a year earlier. Did the fact that their marriage ended in divorce cancel out the confidence they had in their marriage (and mom’s parents had in the marriage) at the time? No, not at all. When they married, they had every possibly foreseeable reason to be confident that the marriage would work out. When the marriage ended in divorce, did the divorce cancel out their genuine love for each other? Again, it’s obvious the divorce did not. My parents still told people that they loved each other. In fact, their love did not end with the divorce; rather, they loved each other enough to walk away because it could not work. Life’s circumstances happened, the army life for my dad happened, the struggles of mom being a married woman raising a set of twins on her own (while dad was away) happened, my father’s drug problem cultivated in the army happened, and so on. But none of that could ever change their initial confidence in the success of their marriage.

And the same goes for apostasy. Can it ever be said that those who fell away could have had any amount of confidence in their salvation before they abandoned faith in Christ? Yes, it can. Why? Because the initial confidence is independent of the final evaluation. That is, one does not have to have confidence in the end to prove that one had confidence in the beginning. Life presents all sorts of changes and transitions, and people often end up in a different place than where they started. This does not diminish the initial start...rather, it simply shows the transitions of life. And some of those transitions are good, while others are bad.

I say all this to say that for Calvinists (such as Millard Erickson), confidence in the beginning heavily depends upon what the end is; if someone fails to reach final salvation in the end, then, according to the Calvinist (and Molinist), that person never really had confidence to begin with. But this idea does not even cohere with real-life experiences. If life with Christ is not about real-life transitions, transformations, and growth, then why do the Scriptures seem to “assume” transition? And why does God “deceive” us with real life? I desire that Calvinists answer these questions. Until they provide adequate answers, I’ll stick to my own convictions.

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