Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Keeping up the exchange with Bnonn

Where does Romans mention anyone’s eternal destiny? Where? Even where individuals are mentioned (Jacob and Esau, and Pharoah) they are elected for historic roles, not for heaven or hell.

I’m not a deconstructionist. It’s just that I am more certain that it is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement than I am that the “world” in John 3: 16 refers to the elect and not to all persons. I’m a fallibilist, not a deconstructionist. I’m not even denying inerrancy by saying this, just affirming the fallibility of my understanding of what the Bible says.

Calvinism attributes to God actions which in any parallel human context would be considered wrong by anyone. Or, rather, I should say the omnipotent one. We are not entitled to use the term “God” unless the being in question is good in some sense that is continuous with the use of the term “good” as it is used in ordinary language. Otherwise, we’re just Humpty-dumptying our terms.

The supreme good, according to Calvinism, is God’s glory. I still don’t know what that means. It looks to me like this theory of the good is just a blank check to justify whatever you think God has done. If God had chosen to save everyone or damn everyone, we would say it was for His glory if we wanted to. So the theory doesn’t explain anything, since it could be used to explain everything.

There’s no uncertainty about predestination so long as you focus on certain passages. If you focus on others, you come out an Arminian or a universalist. In Romans is says whoever believes and confesses is saved, in Philippians it says that eventually every knee shall bow and every tongue confess. Put those two verses together and you get a case for universalism. Of course you can read these passages in the light of the doctrine of everlasting punishment, but can’t you equally read passages about hell in the light of the doctrine of universal salvation? Thus the “elect” who are converted can be perceived as “first fruits.” “Eternal” on this system of exegesis means age-long rather than absolutely eternal.

I would have to admit that I am not in the class of either D. A. Carson or Ben Witherington as exegetes. So far as I can tell, neither are you. Both of these guys know more than I do about Scripture. Carson, I take it, is a Calvinist, Witherington is an Arminian. As is, I believe, N. T. Wright. Or is Wright a universalist? I forget. There is expert opinion on the exegesis of the relevant passages, and it is far from unanimous. These guys are better than me at Scripture scholarship. What I am perhaps good at is the analysis of the meanings of terms, of asking whether a term is used consistently across contexts. If you use words in ways that do violence to their ordinary meanings, then I start objecting.

What does it mean to say that God is good? Is it just a way of saying “God is bigger than you are, and can beat you up forever if you don’t obey him?” If that’s what it means, then the term just doesn’t mean anything.

Are you a theological voluntarist? Your friends over at Triablogue, especially Paul, want to distance themselves from theological voluntarism. You seem closer to it yourself. Are things right just because the most powerful being in the universe has commanded it. I can imagine an Omnipotent Fiend. If theological voluntarism is true, there cannot, by definition, be an Omnipotent Fiend.

We can, and do, bend and grow our conception of goodness in the light of Scripture. But what do we do when we encounter a reading of Scripture that breaks our ordinary moral conceptions, rather than just bend it? As Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, “If I bend that far, I’ll break.” We can conclude that Scripture is wrong, that our conceptions are wrong, or that this interpretation of the text is wrong. If we have an expert consensus on these matters, then we could remove doubt about our interpretation and consider the other options.

What makes God God? Is it just His omnipotence? Or we might ask, what makes Scripture Scripture? Remember, there are lots of candidates out there. The Qu’ran, the Book of Mormon, the Hebrew Scriptures without the NT, the Bhagavad-Gita. A connections with my own conceptions of good what makes the Christian God and Scripture valid for me.

I won’t call God a liar. I will call God a provider of incomplete information. The theology that the comforters of Job was in accordance with the teachings of many Scriptures. It is the apparent teaching of passages in Deuteronomy and Proverbs that the righteous will prosper on earth and the wicked will suffer on earth. Are those passages lies?

Whatever infallibility God may have, whatever infallibility Scripture may have, cannot be transferred into the hands of fallible exegetes, however expert they may be. Our salvation may be in God’s firm hands, our understanding of that salvation, even with the assistance of Scripture, is in our hands.

12 comments:

mattghg said...

Wright's definitely not a universalist. I think he's actually a Calvinist, but people get confused about that because he doesn't read Romans 9 the way most Calvinists do. Although I might be wrong about that last part. Hey, I'm fallible :)

Josh Hickok said...

Wright is Calvinist in a sense, but he is so far from Reformed thought that it is a strange way to use the term.

I have a question Vic-

"There’s no uncertainty about predestination so long as you focus on certain passages."

Predestination is not a problem for Arminians. I think it is quite clear from scripture that individuals and corporate entities are elected in some way; Israel, Noah, David, Abraham, John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, Believers. The question, I think, is "What KIND of election is it"? David was chosen because he was a man after God's own heart. Israel was elected unonditionally. Noah was righteous before God. When we see talk in the NT about individual believers being elected (if there is such talk at all) we ought not throw up the dukes. As far as I can tell, the Bible never tells us that we are unconditionally elected for salvation.

Jason Pratt said...

{{Wright's definitely not a universalist.}}

Agreed. Or not yet anyway. {g}

Matt & Josh: {{I think he's actually a Calvinist, but people get confused about that because he doesn't read Romans 9 the way most Calvinists do. [...] Wright is Calvinist in a sense, but he is so far from Reformed thought that it is a strange way to use the term.}}

He's an Arminian Calvinist. {g} Sort of. Okay, he's an Anglican Calvinist. He's an Anglican Arminian Calvinist. Sort of.

... ... ... Okay, he's a bishop. I'm pretty sure he's a bishop. That seems safe enough. {lol!}

I've been staying out of the recent Calv/Arm/Kath debate, even though I'm one of the resident orthodox Kaths, mainly because I don't want to distract from the main events. (Also I'm pooped from finishing up a huge analysis project elsewhere, earlier this month. Various comments of mine in previous years can be found liberally sprinkled through Victor's recently redated posts.) But I could sympathize with Matt and Josh's comments about NTW.

For what it's worth, election/predestination of the type mentioned by Josh is not a problem for Kaths (i.e. orthodox universalists) either. It's interesting that in the case of Esau, and even moreso in the case of Joseph's brothers, there's actually a happy ending and reconciliation--indeed Joseph goes so far as to reassure his brothers that they were not to blame for what they did to him, but that God led them to do it so that all the family might later be saved.

Pharoah's case may seem different, but what isn't widely known is what rabbis were teaching about the Mosaic Pharoah in Paul's day: that he survived the chariot debacle, gave glory to God, and then went on to become the dynast of Ninevah, thus--for the rabbis--explaining why that king was so willing to repent at the ludicrously inept preaching of a prophet who didn't want the Ninevites to repent so that they might be saved. Notably Jonah had run from that task when first assigned it--and ended up in an analogue for Jewish hell until he repented! Thus, it ultimately depends not on he who wills or he who runs, but on God Who has mercy.

It's very excusable for people nowadays not to know the pharoah's contexts in Rom 9, but for goodness sake Esau's story (and the story of Joseph's brothers) is still there on the page to be read!

{{As far as I can tell, the Bible never tells us that we are unconditionally elected for salvation.}}

Even if it does (and I wouldn't bet against that myself--salvation by grace basically equals unconditional election for salvation, which is a tenet of all three sides of the Calv/Arm/Kath debate), that wouldn't necessarily be evidence of a monolithic purpose for the action of God's election.

JRP

Robert said...

Victor wrote:

“Where does Romans [chapter 9 I assume] mention anyone’s eternal destiny? Where? Even where individuals are mentioned (Jacob and Esau, and Pharaoh) they are elected for historic roles, not for heaven or hell.”

This is a good observation. In discussing God’s sovereignty (which means that He does as He pleases) Paul gives a Jewish history lesson showing how God chose one and not another for His purposes throughout Israel’s history (the persons names and the events discussed are **all** within history). There is no discussion of God’s decisions in eternity (i.e., “decrees”) or about predetermining any individual person’s salvation or damnation in Romans 9.

What the calvinist does is to attempt to proof text from Romans 9. So for example they will cite Paul’s statement in Romans 9 that God has mercy on whom he has mercy and hardens whom he hardens as if this is a statement about God predetermining an individual person’s eternal destiny (mercy = you are saved; hardening = you are reprobated). But the statement is about God’s actions in history, not his decisions or decrees in eternity.

We also have to keep in mind that Romans 9-11 functions as a unit and in 11:32 Paul says: “For God has shut up ALL in disobedience that [Greek = purpose clause, in order that] He might show mercy to ALL.” So how can God be having mercy on only SOME in Romans 9 and then talking about having mercy on ALL in Romans 11? Romans 9 is talking about historical instances of having mercy or hardening people. Romans 11 is talking about how God desires to have mercy on all by making salvation available or possible for all.

Romans 11 goes well with John 3:16 that God so loved the WORLD (which is a group that includes both those who eventually become Christians as well as those who never become believers) that He gave Jesus for that WORLD. Why was Jesus given for the WORLD? So that anyone who responds in faith to the gospel message can be saved. Is this universalism? NO, because not all accept the gift of salvation. Is it calvinism? No, because in calvinism God only desires to save the predetermined elect, so God only has mercy on some (in contradiction of God’s stated desire in Romans 11:26).

“I’m not a deconstructionist. It’s just that I am more certain that it is wrong to inflict pain on little children for your own amusement than I am that the “world” in John 3: 16 refers to the elect and not to all persons.”

“World” never refers exclusively to the elect in the New Testament. The meaning of the word is broader and includes both people who eventually become the elect and those who never do.

“Calvinism attributes to God actions which in any parallel human context would be considered wrong by anyone.”

This has been a key point through many of the differing threads: ordinary moral intuitions held by both believers and unbelievers (the vast majority of people whether believers or not) go against the actions of God as conceived by calvinism. Most Christians believe the calvinist doctrine of reprobation (that God predetermines that most human persons will be nonbelievers, will commit certain sins, then be eternally punished for the sins they were predetermined to commit) to be gruesome and sadistic based upon ordinary moral intuitions.

“We are not entitled to use the term “God” unless the being in question is good in some sense that is continuous with the use of the term “good” as it is used in ordinary language. Otherwise, we’re just Humpty-dumptying our terms.”

So according to you God is a **good** person. And our ordinary moral intuitions tell us that a good person would not reprobate human persons as calvinists claim that they believe God does, correct?

Regarding “Humpty-dumptying our terms” the calvinists engage in this kind of semantic game playing quite a bit. Some calvinists in speaking of reprobation will say that God positively elects the believers, but He merely “passes over” the reprobates (this disguises the reality that if God predetermines everything then the reprobate and their every action are just as predetermined as the elect are; this distinction between actively electing and passively passing over is mere “Humpty-dumptying of our terms”).

Another great example is their discussion of how we act according to our desires. The calvinist will claim that we are free to do what we want to do, but that the reprobates only desire to do evil. So the reprobates are solely to blame for their own evil actions. But this is “Humpty-dumptying of our terms” again. If God predetermines everything, then that includes our thoughts, intentions, bodily movements, desires, EVERYTHING. So the so-called reprobate who is following his evil desires is simply acting according to the desires that God predetermined for him to have.

Skeptics of calvinism see this and argue that this then makes God the author of sin. And calvinists will then come back claiming that the reprobates are acting on their own as secondary causes, so God is not the author of sin. But if God predetermines EVERTHING, then like an author of his own play (or your illustration, as the one who made up the CD and is now playing it out) the appeal to secondary causes is more “Humpty-dumptying” of terms. The calvinist wants to believe that God directly controls and predetermines everything that occurs, but then they do not accept the implications of this belief (implications that noncalvinists see clearly, implications that go against our moral intuitions and go against what we see the bible to be teaching when properly interpreted).

“The supreme good, according to Calvinism, is God’s glory. I still don’t know what that means. It looks to me like this theory of the good is just a blank check to justify whatever you think God has done. If God had chosen to save everyone or damn everyone, we would say it was for His glory if we wanted to. So the theory doesn’t explain anything, since it could be used to explain everything.”

The calvinist wants to claim that God does everything for His own glory. So everything that occurs must forced into this grid, this assumption. Why are there nonbelievers who will remain unbelievers and have no chance to be saved? Well as Jonathan Edwards argued, it is done for God’s glory (He manifests his wrath towards the reprobates and so glorifies himself). Recall that it was Edwards who characterized the nonbeliever as like a spider that God holds above the flames whom he may drop into the flames at any moment. People tend to become like the God they worship: so if you have no problem with this harsh and unloving God who takes pleasure in reprobating most of mankind for his glory. Then you become harsh yourself and seek to justify the actions of your cruel and sadistic and reprobating God. You will end up even arguing against the biblical command to love your neighbor (hey, God hates the reprobates so why should we love them? The calvinist loves to cite Romans 9 that God hated Esau as proof of reprobation). It is significant that Jesus himself said that the world would know **his disciples** by their love for one another (John 13:35). Read the calvinist blogs you won’t see love for others they disagree with and nonbelievers, you will not find others characterizing them by their love. On the other hand, I know lots of believers who are Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, who **are** loving people and manifest the character of the God they love. In the old Wendy’s hamburger commercial the old lady demanded: “where’s the beef?” We could equally ask of the calvinists who profess to be Christians: “where’s the love?”

Robert

Darek Barefoot said...

I am not a Calvinist and I have a low opinion of John Calvin himself. But I have a high opinion of friends of mine who are Calvinists and also compassionate and devoted believers.

Before we gang up too gleefully on Calvinists, it is worth noting the common ground between both sides. There has been a tremendous amount of suffering in human history and God takes responsibility for it--not culpability, but responsibility. If intense but temporary suffering was the inevitable price of a glorious and free creation, it was God who made the decision to pay that price and set the world in motion. In my view, the conferral of choice is the mysterious way in which God can "cause" evil (special sense of "cause," obviously) without tainting his perfect holiness.

But more than that, God took upon himself the full measure of suffering that wrongful choice brought to his creation.

I have little doubt there are those whose attitude is, "Why did God give me the power of choice if he knew I would make bad choices?," i.e., "Why did he make me this way?" That is God's sovereign right. We can choose to see the whole scheme of things as compatible with God's boundless love, or reject compatiblity and become God's accusers.

I think the Calvinists make compatibility a whole lot harder, but plenty of people will insist on incompatibility either way.

Paul Manata said...

Hi Dr. Reppert,

Even though I'm not Bnonn, I said something anyway:

http://triablogue.blogspot.com/2008/04/repperts-ruminations-on-reformed.html

Robert said...

Hello Darek,

You wrote:
“I am not a Calvinist and I have a low opinion of John Calvin himself. But I have a high opinion of friends of mine who are Calvinists and also compassionate and devoted believers.”
I know some calvinists who are compassionate and devoted believers. But that is true not because of their calvinism but because they are inconsistent with their own theology. They believe that Jesus died for the world, so they are so-called “four point calvinists”.

“Before we gang up too gleefully on Calvinists, it is worth noting the common ground between both sides.”
Well you see that is another problem with many of the calvinists, they ignore the “common ground” that exists between genuine Christians and act as if those in other groups, especially Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox folks are defective and inferior Christians. Many of the hard core “five pointers” have more of a “my way or the highway” mentality rather than an inclusive mentality that respects Christians of differing traditions and beliefs, as fellow brothers and sisters.
“There has been a tremendous amount of suffering in human history and God takes responsibility for it--not culpability, but responsibility. If intense but temporary suffering was the inevitable price of a glorious and free creation, it was God who made the decision to pay that price and set the world in motion. In my view, the conferral of choice is the mysterious way in which God can "cause" evil (special sense of "cause," obviously) without tainting his perfect holiness.”
I would not say that God is responsible for what people do with this “glorious and free creation” including the ability to do their own actions. God created everything and in its original form He himself declared it to be good. But when we freely make sinful choices God is not responsible for these choices, we are. Regarding the “risk” of creating persons with genuine free will, God desired genuine persons who could freely worship and enjoy Him forever. As Plantinga brings out clearly in his writings, the risk of genuine persons entails the cost of evil choices as well as good choices.

“But more than that, God took upon himself the full measure of suffering that wrongful choice brought to his creation.”
Right, that happened in the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross. And the biblical teaching, denied by calvinists, is that he did so for the sake of all people, even those who will never choose to be in a loving relationship with Him.

“I have little doubt there are those whose attitude is, "Why did God give me the power of choice if he knew I would make bad choices?," i.e., "Why did he make me this way?" That is God's sovereign right. We can choose to see the whole scheme of things as compatible with God's boundless love, or reject compatiblity and become God's accusers.”
First, God is sovereign meaning that He does as He pleases. Second, it pleased God to create genuinely free creatures. He wanted neither robots or puppets, but persons capable of freely choosing to love both Him and other persons.

“I think the Calvinists make compatibility a whole lot harder, but plenty of people will insist on incompatibility either way.”

I would say that they not only make it harder, but make it morally impossible. By this I mean their beliefs about God, make God out to be someone very different from the God revealed in the bible. And this calvinistic **conception** becomes a “turn off” for both other Christians (whose moral intuitions and knowledge of the bible lead them to reject this conception of God) and sadly for nonbelievers who equate this mistaken conception of God with Christianity.

Regarding those who insist on incompatibility between a loving God and evil choices, that is also a choice. I believe it was C. S. Lewis who said of people that there are some, believers, who will say to God “thy will be done”, while others who freely reject God, will have God say to them “thy will be done”.

Robert

Jason Pratt said...

Darek: {{There has been a tremendous amount of suffering in human history and God takes responsibility for it--not culpability, but responsibility.}}

An excellent point Darek. (Nice to see you again, btw. {s!})

Robert is, however, correct about hard five-point Calvs being inclined to be unloving toward other Christians. That doesn't mean they're (in their own theology) going against the commandment of Jesus for the disciples to love one another, though Robert. As you well know, they don't consider us to be disciples of Jesus, if we aren't 5-point-Calvs. {g}

What they _are_ going against, is the warning from Jesus to His disciples, to leave alone the one who is claiming to follow Him and is doing good in His name. (But then, to be fair, that includes a warning to us not to be too harsh on the Calvs--and so we're back to Darek's caution. Hey, does this count as a chiasm!? {g})


Subtle but important technical point: {{Is this universalism? NO, because not all accept the gift of salvation.}}

But orthodox universalism isn't a doctrine about people being trustworthy to accept the gift of salvation. It's a doctrine about the Triune God being trustworthy to keep acting toward the salvation of sinners from sin.

Calvs actually agree with Kaths on this; the difference between us (on this topic) is that they also believe that God never intended to save some people in the first place. But they agree with Kaths that God can be trusted to keep persisting toward the salvation of the people He intends to save. Arms, meanwhile, agree with Kaths that this means everyone. {s}

And as a Kath theologian, I would appeal to the orthodox triune characteristics of God as my ground for believing both that God can be expected and trusted to persist in the action of salvation from sin; and that He acts in this fashion toward all sinners.

JRP

Ilíon said...

What is "Kath?"

Jason Pratt said...

Just a short nickname. 'Katholic' means universal, but Roman Catholics certainly aren't universalists (except as a speculative option sometimes), and Eastern Orthodox aren't all universalists. We don't really have a cool sounding faction name like Calvinism or Arminianism, much less one that can be abbreviated in equally nifty sounding ways (Calv/Arm).

I had to come up with something a couple of years ago, and Kath seemed the best at the time. I thought it had a good link both to ancient beliefs (though I think all three variants have been around a while); and to the topic of universalism (duh), without being necessarily equivalent to Catholicism (the word form looks different) much less to the Unitarian-Universalists (who are explicitly against the whole notion of orthodoxy.)

I'm open to suggestion of anything better, though. {shrug}{g} I wish there was a definite orthodox universalism denomination, but we end up scattered here and there among everyone else I guess. {s}

JRP

normajean said...

Victor said: Where does Romans mention anyone’s eternal destiny? Where?

Bnonn says Romans 8. Rom 8:7 “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so.” The mind of the flesh does not submit to God’s torah, indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God; this is a summary, clearly, of what has been said in ch. 7, and shows that the assent of the mind to the torah, and even the delight in it remains disobedient. And so I too agree that it’s impossible to do “torah” in the flesh, that’s quite right! But this in no way implies man is unable to respond to God in a fallen state. Spiritual conversion is not the task of this section. Think Jewish for a moment.

Chapter 8 follows 7 perfectly! 7 is about sanctification and the material in ch. 8 has to do with the life of the Christian, and it is also clear that the stress is on the believers relationship to the Holy Spirit and the effect the Spirit has on the believer. The word pneuma, “spirit” occurs only 5 times in ch. 1-7 and 8 times in ch. 9-11, but some twenty times in ch. 8. Paul speaks of what is true for those who are in Christ. In the letter he compares one who is guided by the spirit and one guided by the flesh.

In ch.7 Paul is addressing the (“brethren” v.1) in Rome who are attached to the law and as a result cannot find victory from sin.

Paul understood that as long as believing Jews (or any believer for that matter) focused on the law they would NOT find strength or victory in their battles with sin. That’s because the law’s purpose is not to strengthen the believer but to lead the unbeliever to Christ.

Paul knows the law since he was once a slave to it. - Starting at v.2, he uses an analogy of marriage to illustrate a point concerning the law - “a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage” – v. 4 “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” ESV

His point is that women are released from their husbands once their husbands die, we too (believers) are released from the law because of Christ’ death.

The message is about Sanctification – But how so? Well, because it’s impossible to find victory living under the law – You don’t have to be a Jew to know that. Gentile Christians are legalists too and continually find themselves trapped in sin because their minds are set on the flesh. They are governed by flesh bent desires, forgetting the fact that they are a new creation in Christ. Paul’s message is we ought-not pretend to find victory in our own strength (in the flesh) – Victory for the believer comes when we recognize who we are in Christ Jesus and when we rely on the Holy Spirit for help (Romans 8:12-14).

8 reinforces these thoughts!

It’s not a passage about God’s decree or eternal destinations

Ilíon said...

NormaJean: "His point is that women are released from their husbands once their husbands die, we too (believers) are released from the law because of Christ’ death."

I think that part of the point derives from the (unstated here) claim that Christ *IS* Torah ... the Word of God made flesh.

That is, it wasn't only sin which Christ took into the grave, but also the Law.